Today in London’s anti-war history: women’s rally against the Boer War, 1900

Although she was a British citizen, Emily Hobhouse was later awarded an honorary South African citizenship because of her courageous and sacrificial actions, which exposed the cruelty of the concentration camps during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902).

Emily was born 9 April 1860, and raised in St. Ive, in East Cornwall. Her father was a Church of England pastor for 51 years. Her mother was the daughter of Sir. William Trelawney, a Member of Parliament for East Cornwall. After her mother’s death, Emily cared for her father until his death in 1895.

Then she travelled to the United States to undertake welfare work amongst miners in Minnesota. Her engagement to John Carr Jackson was broken off in 1898, and she returned to England. Emily was involved in social actions and was a member of the Women’s Industrial Committee. As the Anglo Boer War broke out October 1899, she joined the South African Conciliation Committee. As Secretary, she organised protest meetings against the war.

During the Second Boer War (October 1899- May 1902) Great Britain attempted to impose its control over South Africa by invading the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, inhabited mainly by the descendants of Dutch settlers, known as ‘Boers (meaning farmers). Britain already controlled the Cape Colony, and the Colony of Natal.

Although the British forces with their superior military might overran the ‘Boers’ (after some initial reverses), the latter reverted to guerrilla warfare, merging into the civilian Boer population. The British government responded by setting up complex nets of block houses, strong points, and barbed wire fences, partitioning off the entire conquered territory. The civilian farmers were relocated into concentration camps, where very large proportions died of disease, especially the children, who mostly lacked immunities. This allowed the British mounted infantry units to systematically track down the Boer guerrilla units.

Public opinion in many countries was largely hostile to Britain, and in Britain and its Empire the Boer War aroused significant opposition, especially outrage at the concentration camp policy.

In April 1900 Emily and her friend Kate Courtney organized a women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, under whose auspices they then called a women’s protest meeting at Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, London, for 13 June 1900. On the platform appeared a pantheon of Liberal and radical figures – Lady Mary Hobhouse, the Countess of Carlisle (president of the Women’s Liberal Federation and the North of England Temperance League), Mrs SA Barnett, Mrs Bryce (chair of the Women’s National Liberal Association), and Mrs Frederic Harrison. Emily herself had previously been excluded from a Liberal conference in Manchester which discussed the wrongs of the Boer War which enraged her. “We [female Liberals] longed to protest… it occurred to me that women, at least, might make a public protest without rousing undue criticism.”

Opponents of the Boer war were being fiercely denounced by ‘patriots’ as traitors, anti-British, and public events such as rallies being held against the war were often attacked by jingoistic crowds.

In organising the Queens Hall protest Emily Hobhouse was attempting to both counter and take advantage of women’s formal exclusion from political life. It is generally held that the rally, and Hobhouse’s subsequent campaign against the British concentration camps in South Africa, had a significant impact on the development of the women’s suffrage movement. For instance, in 1902, the Women’s Liberal Federation, who had played a part in the Boer war protest movement, moved towards support for women’s suffrage.

Emily Hobhouse went on to spend much of the next two years campaigning against the British concentration camp policy, and organising aid for the Boers, especially interned women and children. Learning in the Summer of 1900, that hundreds of Boer women that had become impoverished and driven from their homes, she launched the South African Women’s and Children’s Distress Fund and travelled to South Africa to deliver aid to the Boer women and children, who were suffering because of the war.

Arriving in Cape Town, in late December 1900, she began to learn of concentration camps in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom, Norvalspont, Kroonstad, Irene and elsewhere. As Martial law had been declared over large parts of the Cape Colony, she needed the permission not only of Lord Milner, but of General Kitchener, to visit these camps. Because of her persistence and perseverance, she finally received permission to proceed only as far as Bloemfontein.

Emily described arriving at the concentration camp outside Bloemfontein on 24 January 1901: Two thousand people had been dumped on the slope of a kopje with inadequate accommodation, massive overcrowding of ten to twelve people in a tent, no soap, inadequate water, no beds, or mattresses, scarce fuel, extremely meagre rations, and (the actual quantity dispensed, fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.) all kinds of sicknesses festered in the camp, including: measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid. Almost every tent housed one or more sick persons. When she requested soap for the inmates, she was told by the authorities that soap was “a luxury!”

Emily went beyond Bloemfontein to investigate other concentration camps. When informed by the Administrator of the Orange River Colony that she showed “too much personal sympathy”, Emily replied: “That was the precise reason why I came out to show personal sympathy and to render assistance in cases of personal afflictions.”

Emily published a “Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies”, relating the result of the policy: Children were dying at a rate of 50 a day in these overcrowded and unhygienic camps. As Emily wrote: “I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty to keep these camps going is murder to the children the women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety, seems to lift them beyond tears the nurse, underfed and overworked coping with some 30 typhoid and other patients a six month baby gasping its life out on its mother’s knee A girl of 21 lay dying on a stretcher The mother watching a child of 6, also dying. already this couple had lost 3 children in the hospital. like faded flowers thrown away a splendid child dwindled to skin and bone a baby so weak it was past recovery it was only three months, but such a sweet little thing it was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon, they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out.
“To me it seemed a murdered innocent. In an hour or two after, another child died. At Springfontein a young lady had to be buried in a sack it is a curious position, hollow and rotten to the heart’s core, to have made all over the state, large uncomfortable communities of people, whom you call refugees, and say you are protecting, but who call themselves Prisoners Of War, compulsorily detained and detesting your protection. Those who are suffering most keenly and who have lost most, either of their children by death, or their possessions by fire and sword, such as those re-concentrated women in the camps, have the most conspicuous patience and never express a wish that their men should be the one’s to give way. It must be fought out now, to the bitter end.

“It is a very costly business upon which England has embarked, and even at such a cost, hardly the barest necessities can be provided, and no comforts. The Mafeking camp folk were very surprised to hear that English women cared about them and their suffering. It has done them a lot of good to hear that real sympathy is felt for them at home, and so I am glad I have fought my way here, if only for that reason.”

Emily Hobhouse campaigned tirelessly against the concentration camp system, the war carried out against Boer women and children, the scorched earth campaigns, burning of farm houses, poisoning of wells, slaughtering of herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, and destruction of food supplies. Her reports helped to spread news of British military policy and contributed to an outpouring of revulsion in England, which did lead to pressure on the government to improve conditions in the camps. One of the first successes of Emily Hobhouse’s campaign was that soap began to be issued amongst the meagre rations and conditions began to improve in the camps.

She received scathing criticism and hostility from the British government and many in the media upon her return to Britain. However, the opposition leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, denounced the methods of barbarism and forced the government to set up the Fawcett Commission to investigate her claims.

However, Emily Hobhouse was not allowed to be part of the commission, and upon her return to Cape Town in October 1901, was not permitted to land and was deported. But her reports continued to circulate. She moved to France to write the book: The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell, which mobilised even more outrage and action. The Fawcett Commission confirmed Emily Hobhouse’s reports.

In spite of fierce opposition from the British newspapers supporting the government’s war, Emily continued to address public meetings about the plight of women and children in South Africa. There is no doubt that the initiatives and energetic actions of Emily Hobhouse shortened the war and saved countless lives. She also gave hope to mothers who had lost all hope.

Emily Hobhouse’s courageous campaign to speak up for the forgotten Boer women and children, who had been brutally treated, played a major role in undermining popular British support for the war. It also forced the government to offer massive concessions to the Boer forces.

She returned to South Africa in 1903 to set up Boer home industries, teaching young women spinning and weaving. Through her efforts, 27 schools were established in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. She travelled to South Africa again in 1913 for the Inauguration of the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, but had to stop at Beaufort West, due to ill health.

Emily was also an avid opponent of the First World War and vigorously protested against it. Through her efforts thousands of women and children starving in Germany and Austria, because of the British naval blockades, were fed by the support she was able to channel to them.

Emily Hobhouse’s remains are buried in a niche in the National Women’s Monument at Bloemfontein.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London radical history: a mutiny halts royal army’s move against Kentish rebels, 1450.

England, 1450. A hundred years of war against France was grinding to a halt through lack of funds and a succession of defeats at the hands of the French. Parliament refused to raise any more money for a government it distrusted. The cloth trade from City of London guilds was prevented from exporting to Flanders for fear of the French ships invading. The loss of trade and tax revenues crippled chances of recovery. (Any resemblance to possible Brexit scenarios is purely coincidental.)

Throughout 1450-1, a number of revolts broke out, mostly in the south of England, against king Henry VI’s regime. Henry being a somewhat daft religious twat with a tendency to go mad, his government was generally run by a clique of aristos, often bossed by whoever could get the favour of his French wife, Margaret of Anjou, who made up for her husband’s bewildered wandering through life by being ruthless and single-mindedly dynastic. But the ruling class elite was split by vicious rivalries and enmities, and Richard Duke of York, the king’s cousin and effective heir to the throne, was often popularly held up as an honest geezer who would sort out problems in the kingdom and give the French a good hiding if only he was in charge. Trouble was the queen and her mates thought he was on the make, and distrusted him, and he was elbowed out of the centres of power. (For more, read your Shakespeare).

But Richard of York had a lot of support, especially among the lower orders. The most significant revolt in 1450, Jack Cade’s Kentish rebellion, combined a demand that York be included in the government, with a number of other economic complaints. As with many medieval revolts, the removal of ‘the king’s evil counsellors’ was a central plank: as in 1381, the naivety of many of the lower orders enshrined in a belief that the king was good, ordained by God, but the nobles, churchmen and advisors surrounding him were corrupt and were robbing the poor, mismanaging affairs, and ballsing up the ever-popular war effort.

Kent (as usual in the middle ages) was a particular centre of unrest – not only were they plagued by French raiders, but in 1450 the county sherriff was notoriously crooked. Private armies loyal to aristocrats were roaming the country doing as they liked. Huge parts of the county were also being fenced off for private hunting grounds for the king and his mates…

To some extent Cade’s rebellion was a sort of prelude to the Wars of the Roses; the rebels’ support for the Duke of York mishmashed in with anger about austerity and a patriotic fury…

In June 1450 the commons of Kent gathered on Calehill Heath, north of Ashford, and hailed Jack Cade as their leader. 1000s marched on Canterbury, and then on London. They camped on Blackheath, echoing the much larger Peasants Revolt nearly 70 years earlier, but initially withdrew south into the Wealden Forest as a royal army approached.

Jack Cade and his army retreated into the impenetrable forests of the Weald, and possibly unwisely, the Royal army followed, only to be lured into an ambush, on June 11th, and beaten by the rebels in a minor skirmish; the royal army commanders and a few of their soldiers were killed. Cade marched his forces back to to his camp at Blackheath.

This defeat was initially most significant because it prompted mutiny in the royal army. A number of the soldiers apparently voiced approval of Jack Cade’s demands, and a rowdy meeting demanded the heads of Lord Say, the former Treasurer, Lord Dudley, and other royal commanders. Lord Say, was well known and extremely unpopular in Kent, as was his son-in-law, William Crowmer, the Under-sheriff of the county. The mutinous soldiers then marched back to London, and began rioting and looting when they got there. The mutiny scuppered the attempt to repress the revolt and in effect opened the way for Cade’s rebels to march on the city…

In July Cade’s men entered Southwark looting houses and burning, and the rebels spent several days in the City, managing to capture Lord Say and William Crowmer and beheading them, but eventually pissing off the initially sympathetic Londoners by their random violence. The revolt fizzled out after a fierce battle on London Bridge, and a general pardon was issued, cleverly including most but not Jack Cade, who in the end was caught and killed.

It’s unclear whether the royal army mutineers suffered any comeback for refusing to fight against the rebels.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s festive past: impromptu street party after ‘Stokefest’ event, Clissold Park, 2007

In the 1990s, Church street, Stoke Newington, used to host a midsummer fair, every year in early June. The whole street was closed to traffic, there were bands, stalls, food, stages, sound systems and all sorts of other entertainment. “Some of the finest musicians around performed on the street, particular flowing out from the vortex jazz bar, now just a gap in the street. and if you got too hot or needed a rest from the crowds, there was the picturesque overgrown Abney Park cemetery in which to find shade and rest.”

However, although Stokey then still had a sizeable working class population many west Indian, south American and numberless other communities, as well as lots of squatters, housing co-op residents and other down at heel types, gentrification was at work in the area. London N16 was slowly being taken over by the middle class in a big way, so that these days it’s impossible to walk down Church Street for pop-up artisan cakeries and shops selling artistically labelled sticks for £17 or baby clothes that’ll set you back the best part of a week’s wages.

While the middle class like a street fest as much as the next socio-economic strata, Hackney Council decided that shutting the street and allowing people to hang out and enjoy themselves was making the place look messy and risking disorder riotry and other unruly pleasures. Which had gone on a little bit to be fair but no more than your average night out in any town centre. After much muttering and risk assessment shuffling, in 2003 the Festival was moved into neighbouring Clissold Park and renamed ‘Stokefest’. As a concession to its origins the day usually started with a parade along Church Street, ending in the park. Sound systems, several stages, playgrounds and story-telling etc still made it a fun day out. Clissold Park itself then had a good recent history of grassroots self-organised festivals like the Hackney Homeless Festivals and an alternative Lesbian & Gay Fest in the mid-90s…

Although moving the party to the park did change the spirit somewhat, (the narrow lane that is Church Street made it more fun and felt weirdly less confined than in a large open space), Stokefest did continue for a few years, but you always felt that the power-that-be had their eye on closing the fun down. Much as the long-mooted idea of moving the Notting Hill Carnival into Hyde Park is widely derided, not only because people see it as a first step to total abolition.

In 2006, Hackney Council ‘forgot’ to apply for the licence necessary to stage the festival at its usual time in June, and it had to be postponed till September. This was put down to bureaucratic bungling, and Hackney was its least competent at this point, but you got wonder if they hoped the festival would just die naturally.

But in 2007, the festival went head, and even ended with an impromptu street party (admittedly a small one…):
“Those of us who are nostalgic for the street parties of the 1990s – long ago pronounced dead – were pleasantly surprised when a street party broke out in North London’s Highbury New Park last Sunday (10th June 2007) at the end of the Stokefest festival. 

Around 8pm the festival in Clissold Park started to wind down, and the police closed the exit on Green Lanes opposite the White House pub. This could possibly have been to stop the Rythmns of Resistance samba band getting in, so they did a set on the green in front of the housing estate at the corner of Highbury New Park, with much dancing and football kick-abouts. When they finished, the large truck with posters advertising the forthcoming Secret Garden Festival fired up their soundsystem, and with a bit of ineffectual arm-waving from some yellow-jacket community cops, started off down Highbury New Park, squeezing through the traffic calming features and roadworks, with a couple of hundred party people bouncing after them, some on bikes.

To the tune of Blue Monday and Underworld’s Born Slippery, they partied down Highbury New Park, with some punters dancing on top of garden walls. Some punters, wineglasses in hand, appeared to have come out of parties in local back gardens, and the lady who asked me where they were going seemed quite good natured about the giant sound system having woken her baby up.

About half way down the long Highbury New Park road, the truck attempted to turn, gave up, and then punters lay down in front of the truck in the road and demanded “More music!” as the sound system crew pleaded, “We’ve got to be back in Brighton tonight!” Some very efficient crowd control was carried out by a man with a megaphone wearing a tall black top hat with a peacock feather in it, who somehow talked the crowd into getting out of the way and letting them drive off at speed (without the sound system on) in the Brighton direction after about half an hour or partying. An improvised on-street percussion workshop followed as darkness fell.

Apart from the opening minutes, there was not a cop in sight. Street parties like this are the sort of thing we’re not supposed to be allowed to get away with anymore in our modern 21st century surveillance world with lots and lots of public order police. But it happened.” (Matt Salusbury)

This wildcat shindig may have narked cops and council into determining to take Stokefest by the scruff and shake it like a cheeky kitten. The council had already laid down that 15,000 people was the maximum number allowed in a park event; now they ruled that any event over 300 people had to be fenced in. The organisers already kept publicity to a minimum so as to not attract too many over the 15,000 arbitrary limit.

So in 2008, Stokefest was again confined to the park, but cops and council fenced off a small area designated for the festival, (leaving most of the park outside this cordon) and to tightly control those entering; police corralling everyone through a tiny entrance/exit, and aggressively searching any group of young black youth… This created a claustrophobic and aggravated atmosphere, with a fair amount of angry exchanges and some shoving. To be fair as usual with such approaches, funneling people through narrow gates and penning them in, many of us are not going to feel especially sunny. The day ended with some minor skirmishing and recriminations.

With the fence on the cards again for 2009, the Stokefest organisers decided that they couldn’t carry on, issuing this statement:

“Clissold Park has a premises license permitting events with a maximum capacity of 15,000 people in one portion of the park. For years we’ve had to stick to extremely limited print marketing runs and media-feature blackouts in order to get permission from Hackney Council to run the event; this has made it extremely difficult for our producing partners to solicit sponsorship to pay for their areas. Additionally, Hackney Council’s Parks and Licensing Departments, alongside Hackney Police Licensing Department, has developed an outdoor events policy stating that any event over 3,000 capacity must be completely fenced in. This is not an altogether unreasonable policy in itself, and is only there in principle to negate any potential risks of having lots of us all having a great laugh in one place at the same time. Unfortunately we, as the organisers of Stokefest, cannot bring ourselves to organise a free community festival inside a great big steel box! It just doesn’t feel right. We feel sure that the atmosphere will change, the essence of what we all collectively had would be diluted, and our memories of the fun we had would be tainted by the security systems, ridiculous entry conditions and a general lack of freedom. “

So Stokefest was no more. Other free festivals in London (and wider afield) had already gone the way of the dodo; meanwhile large-scale commercial events, also involving fencing off large parts of parks, but charging huge amounts to get in, have increased dramatically. Not 2 miles away from Stoke Newington, Finsbury Park has hosted as many as eight such dos, with big chunks of the space shut off for several days of the year. Councils are skint, and are attempting to recoup some of the money lopped off their budgets by national government with any lucrative scheme going… Bit annoying for those of us with little cash who like parks to be free and open. Stokefest was TOO free, clearly, not enough money flowing into Town Hall coffers.

As was pointed out at the time of Stokefest’s demise: “There’s also a wiff of conspiracy around Hackney council’s sabotage: one of the alternative events that Stokefest’s organisers recommend, tongue perhaps in cheek, is the new Free Range festival, which takes place in, would you believe it, Clissold Park, this September. The catch? A £25 ticket.”

Nowadays Stoke Newington Church Street is very genteel, and Clissold Park has been re-worked to cater more for the bourgy elite edging out the less wealthy of the area. Some of us grumpy disreputable types still hang out there and annoy them; but you do feel a bit like an uninvited guest at a garden party sometimes.

Thanks to Matt Salusbury, Peter Marshall and Johnny Void who I shamelessly nicked some of the above from nicked without even asking…


Postscript: A tiny intro to Stoke Newington’s radical history:

For many centuries an area populated by religious non-conformists (like Newington Green, see later on), due to its being outside City parishes and jurisdiction, Stokey developed a dissident ethos. The area was a hotbed of defeated republicans and rebels after the English Civil War; when the monarchy was restored they took to assassination plots and abortive uprisings.

Colonel Henry Danvers lived in Stokey; a parliamentary officer in the Civil War, by 1661, a fifth monarchist and republican, who plotted with Clement Ireton and other republicans in 1665, planning to kill the king, seize the Tower, establish a republic and redistribute property. Danvers had been captured April 1665, but rescued by a mob!

In 1685 Danvers led 5th monarchists, who planned to riot in support of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion. Had 500 men promised, but they failed to appear, Danvers fled abroad. Others fled to Monmouth, whose army contained many former Levellers, and other radicals; they were beaten at the battle of Sedgemoor.

The religious dissidence that characterized this are lasted into the nineteenth century. Hence the dominance of Abney park cemetery, where large numbers of non-Anglicans were buried; some of the most interesting being chartist socialist Bronterre O’Brien… On the other hand the repulsive William Booth and his family, founders of the supreme vultures on the vulnerable, the Salvation. For all their charitable work, these god-bothering music-manglers were widely hated by the homeless and poor for their pressing of the bible; in the 19th century there was even a ‘Skeleton Army’ founded to oppose them (although some mystorians have suggested this was a plot by the publicans to get back at the Starvation Army for their message of avoiding the demon drink). The Booth graves are just by the entrance on Church Street, on a sunny Sunday it’s traditional to go and dance wildly on their graves, singing blasphemous songs, like the anti- Sally Army IWW song, ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, or ‘Banging in the Nails’ by the Tiger Lilies…

From the 1960s, Stoke Newington was home to a growing afro-Caribbean community, which like most black communities in the inner cities faced battles with racism, from organized rightwing groups and institutions, especially from the police. Stoke Newington police became notorious for racially motivated arrests, beatings, and killings, and later for fitting people up en masse for drug-dealing, either planting substances, or dealing themselves through protected sources. The local community resisted in many ways – there were riots here in 1981, numerous campaigns and protests, and the organized resistance against racist murders, police harassment, most notably through the brilliant Hackney Community Defence Campaign. Some cops did get sacked in the end, but others were just moved elsewhere, and wholesale assault was tweaked around and made to look nicer.

In parallel with this, run-down houses and council near-collapse in housing, led to mass squatting in the area from the 70s onward. Thousands of houses were occupied to live in, and various larger buildings used as social centres, punk venues, artspaces, and much more. Squatting not only offered people cheap places to live when times were hard, but lots of the local culture, music, creation was built on squatting. Too many places to list; but in July and August 2013 two radical history walks explored some of this amazing recent past in the area; we are hoping to provoke the authors to set these walks out for some form of publication… keep in touch.

Local poverty, police attacks and resistance, hand in hand with an alternative and counter-cultural vibe, persisted into the 1990s, though a gradual gentrifying of the area since the 70s has infested the area with media types and green petty-bourgeois social workers with pinched, locally-sourced eating-disorder faces. If a freak earthquake swallowed the area, the Guardian, BBC and Channel Four News/Dispatches would grind to a halt, so many journos and media b-list celebs now cluster here. Mind you, the rest of Hackney, which until recently had remained largely working class and poor, is now facing an invasion of the bistro snatchers; hipsters, artists and rising rents are spreading like piss in a pool, while older communities face gradual eviction and dispersal under new benefit rules.

There’s lots more on Stokey past at the excellent The Radical History of Hackney blog, which makes past tense look like shamateurs…


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s penal history: Gordon Rioters burn down the Kings Bench Prison, 1780.

“The Kings Bench Prison burnt, with the houses adjoining, after being previously evacuated by the prisoners, who were allowed to remove their effects..”
(A plain … narrative of the late riots in … London, Thomas Holcroft)

“I asked him what could induce him to do all this? He said the cause. I said, do you mean a religious cause? He said no; for he was of no religion. He said, there should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”  Report of the words of Thomas Haycock, a tavern-waiter in St James, 1780.

The Gordon Riots of June 1780 began initially as a rabid protestant demonstration against the prospect of catholics being given a few civil rights. Although rioting at first targeted catholics, within hours this overflowed into a general insurrection of London’s poor against parliament, the rich, the prisons, and all authority. Six days and nights of disorder paralysed the city, driving the wealthy into flight, while their houses were looted. Crowds roamed the city; rather than one ‘mob’, there were many, some expressing bigotry and racism in their targets, others pure class hatred. Judges, ministers, MPs, Lords were made examples of, but also catholic chapels, irish and Italian communities… A rowdy potlach of festival and uprising, pogrom and party… Which fascinates and repels, as it did at the time.

Among the most positive aspects of the Riots was the wholesale sacking of pretty much every prison in London, Westminster and Southwark. Prisons were hated like almost no other institution by the London poor and labouring classes, who recognised what prison was – the big stick and holding cell, designed to keep them in fear, discipline them, direct them towards death or transportation…

Among the Southwark prisons attacked and trashed by the crowd during the first week of June was the Kings Bench,

Dates back to the early 14th century, this prison was originally intended to hold prisoners facing trials in the King’s Bench Court.  At first sited on the east side of todays Borough High Street, overcrowding and maltreatment led to a new prison being built in the 1750s, on the edge of St George’s Fields (on the west side of Borough High Street).

By this time the vast majority of its inmates were incarcerated for debt. In England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10,000 people were imprisoned for debt each year. A creditor could have someone who owed them money jailed, and an inmate was typically required to repay the creditor in-full before being released. People often languished for years in a debtors prison – since they had to pay for the costs of their ‘stay’ first, then the debt second, they might never be released… Debtors prisons were feared and hated by many Londoners, and not only the very poor…

The new Kings Bench prison consisted of 224 rooms with eight large state-rooms and a chapel. Since prisoners who were solvent could pay a sum of money to the keeper, in exchange being allowed their liberty anywhere within the area the prison “rules” operated (even to take up a separate residence), the Kings Bench included amenities for the enjoyment of the better off.  Those with less money were able to purchase a “day pass”.  In 1776 one Mr Smith observed that “Many prisoners … occupy rooms, keep shops, enjoy places of profit, or live on the rent of their rooms a life of idleness, and being indulged with the use of a key go out where they please, and thereby convert a prison into an alms-house for their support.” A coffee-house, two pubs, shops selling meat and vegetables formed part of the grounds. 120 gallons of gin and eight butts of beer were said to be drunk in the Kings Bench per week.

For inmates with money, it was “the most desirable place of incarceration for debtors in England.”  But only a third of prisoners lived “in the rules”, the remaining two thirds lived within the prison walls.  By the early nineteenth century, the keeper received £3590 per year:  £872 from the sale of beer and £2,823 from income derived from “the rules”.

The old Kings Bench had been attacked & burned by the revolting peasants in 1381 & during Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450. In 1649, after a bill for the relief of prisoners committed for debt (an important demand of Levellers & other reformers of the time) was rumoured to have been defeated, a number of prisoners rioted & tried to break out. And only a few years before the Gordon Riots, radical darling John Wilkes had been held here after ‘libelling’ the king; his supporters attacked and set fire to the new Kings Bench in an attempt to rescue him. Daily riots took place around the jail for weeks till he was released; most seriously, the ‘massacre of St Georges Fields’ saw soldiers fire on pro-Wilkes rioters in May 176, killing several.


On 7 June 1780, at the height of the Gordon Riots, the Kings Bench was stormed and burned out by a huge crowd. It seems they announced their intentions in advance; as with several of the attacks on prisons in this week, this was partly to give warning to allow inmates time to ready themselves and any possessions to escape once the attack started.

“It is impossible to give any adequate description of the events of Wednesday. Notice was sent round to the public prisons of the Kings Bench, Fleet, &c. by the mob, at what time they would come and burn them down… As soon as the day was drawing towards a close, one of the most dreadful spectacles this country ever beheld was exhibited. Let those, who were not spectators of it, judge what the inhabitants felt when they beheld at the same instant the flames ascending and rolling in clouds from the Kings Bench and Fleet Prisons…”

The attack became as much a rollicking, desperate, defiant party:

“5 persons smoking and drinking on top of the prison, while the lower part was alight, perforce jumped for their lives; they were all received on blankets held out by people below. The furniture of the prison offices was burnt before the doors.”

Southwark’s other penal institutions also fell to the mob that week: “Borough Clink was burnt to the ground and never rebuilt; the Southwark New Prison was emptied of prisoners, the Marshalsea attacked but saved by the military, the roundhouses in Borough High Street and Kent Street pulled down and fired. And on the last night of the riots, 8-9 June, it was said that twenty spunging houses, private prisons for debtors, were destroyed in Southwark.”

Thousands of prisoners legged it as the London prison system fell before the anger of those who mostly felt the touch of its withered hand… Though large numbers would be retaken over the following months; many easy to capture because they stayed in London, unwilling or unable to flee further.

In the days following the riots, recaptured prisoners and rioters were held in sheds in the Kings Bench grounds. All the London gaols still standing were filled, rammed with arrested rioters and recaptured escapees. All were heavily guarded by soldiers, as were the sheriffs’ offices in the City and those police offices that had escaped destruction.

The Kings Bench was swiftly rebuilt, and remained open for another 90 years, closing in 1869 when the imprisonment of debtors was mostly ended.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Central London Squatting History Walk

Thursday 15th June

back by unpopular demand – Come see a slice of Central London squatting history;
• See the square where squatters and tenants half succeeded in fighting off the encroachment of office blocks,
• See the hotel which ex-soldiers and others occupied in 1946,
• See one of the Really Free School buildings from the recent struggles against cuts and the privatization of education and knowledge,
• See places that were homes to hundreds, alternative bookshops, women’s centres, the starting places for wholefood empires ……

meet Tolmers Square,  London, NW1 6 for 6.30, Thursday 15 June 2017.

Yesterday… and 2004… in Holloway Prison history: from Pauline Campbell, to Sisters Uncut

Some actions are just a stroke of genius. In a brilliant action, at 2:30 yesterday, Saturday 27th May, activists from the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut occupied the former Holloway Prison building in protest at cuts to women’s services and proposals for the site to be used for luxury flats.

Around 100 women entered the visitors’ centre of the North London prison. They have called for a women’s centre and affordable housing to be built on the 10-acre site, which is currently earmarked for a potential £2 billion housing development. The activists, who entered the red-brick building through an open window, set off flares of coloured smoke on the roof and unfurled a white banner saying: “This is public land, our land.” 

Police surrounded the prison Saturday night and blocked people from getting food into the occupiers… Sister Uncut are organising a week long program of events in the occupied part of the old jail. Get down and support them!

The occupiers have erected a large blue and green sign reading: “This is a huge piece of public land and there are lots of powerful local campaigns and discussions in place to demand the land is used to benefit the community.” 

The group is critical of prison overcrowding and the nine multi-million pound “super-prisons” the conservative government plans to build. Its members intend to occupy the visitor’s centre for a week, in advance of the general election.

Aisha Streetson, a Sisters Uncut activist said: “We are reclaiming the former prison, a site of violence, to demand that public land is used for public good. Prisons are an inhumane response to social problems faced by vulnerable women – the government should provide a better answer.” “46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors.” A local domestic violence support worker, Lauren Massing said: “If the government have money for mega prisons, they have money for domestic violence support services. 46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors – if they had the support they needed, it’s likely they wouldn’t end up in prison.” 

Holloway prison, which once housed 600 inmates, was one of the largest women’s prisons in Western Europe until it closed suddenly last year. The inmates were moved to Bronzefield and Downsview prisons in Surrey and the site has remained empty. There has been a strong local campaign opposing the planned luxury housing development, and calling for social housing instead.

More on the occupation here

Email them:

Or Phone: 07947 115541

Today, the second day of the occupation, also marks a campaigning anniversary connected to Holloway Prison.

On 28th May 2004, Pauline Campbell, a former civil servant and college lecturer, was arrested outside the jail while protesting the inhuman treatment of women inmates.

She had been a vociferous critic of the prison system since the death of her 18-year-old daughter, Sarah, at Styal prison in 2003. Sarah, an only child, was the third of six women to die at the Cheshire jail in a 12-month period.

Pauline had pledged to picket every women’s prison in the UK immediately after the death of a prisoner there. She was repeatedly arrested trying to block prison gates to call attention to the terrible record of suicide and sudden deaths among female inmates. She was arrested for this on 15 occasions though the authorities nearly always backed down from charging her.

The arrest outside Holloway was her third in this sequence; she was lifted after attempting to prevent a prison van from bringing inmates to the north London jail.

The protest was her sixth in as many weeks, and followed the death of 28-year-old Heather Wait, who was the second woman to die in Holloway in the course of a few weeks.

Pauline’s aim in trying to stop vans entering jails where a woman had died was to “demonstrate that they were unsafe places which constantly failed to uphold the duty of care that the Prison Service has to all prisoners.”

She was painfully aware of the effect of a premature death on the children and parents left behind.

“One of the worst imaginable things that can happen to a child is for its mother to die. Two-thirds of women prisoners are mothers. When a woman prisoner dies, not only does it remind me of the loss of my daughter, but, if she was a mother, there is the added pain of knowing that the motherless children will suffer. I speak from experience: my mother died when I was three.”

Pauline’s daughter Sarah was a troubled teenager who had problems with addiction and a history of self-harm.

Despite her mental health problems, a catalogue of errors meant Sarah was put in a segregation unit at the prison. She took an overdose of prescription drugs in a bid to get transferred to the hospital wing.

Her cry for help was ignored – 40 minutes elapsed before an ambulance was called. Paramedics were further delayed at the prison gates.

By the time they reached her it was too late. She died, aged 18, after less than 24 hours in Styal prison. The police notified Pauline of this tragedy by phone. Sarah was the youngest of six women to die in Styal that year.

This statistic, along with the many other hidden facts about the scandalous treatment of vulnerable incarcerated women, triggered a breathtaking campaign that Pauline would lead to the end.

Along with her regular pickets, Pauline was “a prolific letter writer, hardly a week would go by without her eloquent words launching a stinging attack on the prison service in the local and national papers.

As a public speaker she was both articulate and informative, having educated herself about every aspect of the criminal justice system and its failings.

In 2005 she won the Emma Humphries memorial prize for “highlighting the distressing realities of women’s lives and deaths in prison”.

She was also a trustee of the Howard League for Penal Reform and an active member of the campaigning organisation Inquest.”

Tragically, Pauline Campbell was found dead on 15 May 2008, not far from the grave of her daughter Sarah.

She would have been glad to see Holloway closed down last year, but even happier to see the Sisters Uncut occupation this weekend: a wonderful continuation, if in a different form, of Pauline’s inspiring spirit…

Check out a blog dedicated to campaigning in her memory.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s anti-racist history: resistance to a fascist march in Thamesmead, 1991

The Southeast London ‘suburb’ of Thamesmead was built on land once forming about 1,000 acres of the old Royal Arsenal site that extended over Plumstead Marshes and Erith Marshes. Thamesmead was born in the 1960s, when the then Greater London Council developed plans for a new town to be built, to relieve London’s housing shortage and create a ‘Town of the 21st Century’. The name Thamesmead was chosen by a Bexley resident in a ‘Name Our New Town’ competition. The first residents moved to Thamesmead in 1968.

Thamesmead was designed around futuristic ideas, and indeed, looked impressive at first from a distance. Efforts were made to solve the social problems that had already started to affect earlier estates. These were believed to be the result of people being uprooted from close-knit working-class communities and sent to estates many miles away, where they knew nobody. The design of the estates meant that people would see their neighbours more rarely than they would have done in the terraced housing that had been typical in working-class areas. The solution proposed was that once the initial residents had moved in, their families would be given priority for new housing when it became available.

Another ‘radical’ idea of the GLC division architect Robert Rigg thought sounded funky was drawn from housing complexes in Sweden, where it was believed that lakes and canals reduced vandalism and other crime, mainly among the young. Rigg designed various water features, including a lake and pre-existing canal to impose a calming influence on the residents. Well done, there, worked out well…?!?

The area had been inundated in the North Sea Flood of 1953, so the original design placed living accommodation at first floor level or above, used overhead walkways and left the ground level of buildings as garage space.

The first flats were occupied in 1968, but problems developed rapidly. Early on flats suffered from rain penetration problems. Walkways stretched between its blocks of housing and later between sections in North Thamesmead. But the walkways quickly became littered and abused, and became considered safe places to walk. Pathways set out for people to walk on were laid with little regard to how people would really move about, so some were ignored in favour of more direct routes over grassed areas.

When the GLC was abolished in 1986, its housing assets and the remaining undeveloped land were vested in a non-profit organisation, Thamesmead Town Limited (TTL). TTL was a private company, though its nine executive directors were local residents; they periodically submitted themselves to re-election.

Split between two boroughs, Bexley and Greenwich, Thamesmead became somewhat frozen, under-resourced and bleak: “The Town Centre, clearly marked on sign-posts, is cynically named. Actually it’s just a few acres of Safeway on the very edge of town, a skerry incapable of supporting human life, torn from the nearest flats by a main road, and more than two miles from Thamesmead’s middle. In the late Eighties a gabled clock tower was added so that, from the river, it looks like an old market town. The clock stopped at twenty past two some time ago.”

The most significant design failure was the almost complete lack of shopping facilities and banks: only a few “corner shops” were initially built at Tavy Bridge. From the start Thamesmead was cut off from Abbey Wood, the nearest town with shopping facilities, by a railway line; however a four lane road bridge was built over the railway in the early 1970s. The area was then cut in two by the A2016, a new four lane dual carriageway by-pass of the Woolwich to Erith section of the A206 (although this road only got as far as the industrial part of lower Belvedere: the extension to Erith was opened in 1999). Still, residential building continued, this time on the other side of the A2016, which cut this part of Thamesmead off from rail travel to central London. The planned underground station never arrived.

Over time more facilities developed, with a Morrisons supermarket and retail park near Gallions Reach. Bus services were improved and residents can now easily reach Abbey Wood railway station.

The conditions on the estate bred many problems… some ongoing.

London like other uk cities had a number of similar areas, sometimes out on the edges, often, as with Thamesmead, older white residents or those living in adjacent areas had been white flighters a few years earlier, leaving inner city neighbourhoods for new towns, partly because there were ‘too many foreigners moving in’.

The estate’s population was always overwhelmingly working class, initially mainly white, drawn from older areas across South London, but increasingly afro-caribbean and later African communities. Many of the industries in surrounding areas which had employed Thamesmead residents closed down, went out of business or moved in the 1970s and 80s, and unemployment rocketed. The estate became to some extent a dumping ground where families were rehoused, without resources or much chance of leaving. “Thamesmead was abandoned, half-finished. The people who live there, imprisoned by the ring-roads and the roundabouts with exits that lead nowhere, can’t easily escape. They say they live on Thamesmead, not in it, as if it’s an island, a penal colony.”

The area was riven in the 1990s by racial tension – mainly harassment of black residents by a number of their white neighbours, but complicated by a youth gang culture which to a limited extent crossed ‘race’ lines but also mingled with racists at the other end. Racism among some white Thamesmead inhabitants was supported and aggravated by the influence of organised fascists, centred on, but not limited to, the British National Party, then a small neo-nazi grouping, who then ran an infamous bookshop in nearby Welling, set up in 1987. This shop was linked to the spread of violent nazi ideas, and an upsurge in racist attacks, in large areas of South East London and North Kent, and wider afield; but the organised right was also able to meet and operate from a number of other places, such as the Abbey Mead Social Club, a haunt of BNP and the British National Socialist Movement. BNP ‘faces’ drank in the Horse and Groom Pub in Charlton, attempting to whip up racism among Charlton Athletic fans. In Thamesmead itself, racism centred on the Wildfowler pub, where a number of local racist residents and friends hung out. Black people were effectively barred from the pub. Harassment of black residents, beatings knife attacks, were a regular occurrence around the area.

But the influence of the BNP and other overt fascists was a matter of debate at the time – not only because racism among many white residents was more ingrained, but also because the climate of national policy, media and government approaches had played a significant part in creating both a climate of hostility to minorities, and a sense of abandonment and despair which turned into anger, resentment, and fuelled gang violence as well as the blaming of ‘foreigners’ for taking our jobs and houses blah blah. Failures of state and left responses to these developments generally only compounded the situation.

In early 1991 things came to a head in Thamesmead. On February 21st 15-year old Rolan Adams and his younger brother were walking home to Abbey Wood across the estate from a local youth club, when they were attacked by a gang of young white racists, from a Thamesmead gang calling themselves the NTOs – standing according to them for Nutty Turnouts, though others claimed it really meant ‘Nazi Turn Outs’, (they were also known as the Goldfish Gang, or later just the Firm). Rolan was stabbed in the neck and died.

A few weeks later, on May 11th, Orville Blair was stabbed to death outside his home in Thamesmead; some claimed this was a gang murder, not racist at all, as Orville Blair may have been at some point associated with the NTO. Some of the NTO were interviewed at this time, claiming they were racist and had black members, and were at war with rival gangs, notably the ‘Woolwich Mafia’, a predominantly black but multi-racial gang from neighbouring Woolwich, which had allegedly not only been trespassing on their turf, but also winning allegiance from Thamesmead black kids (very likely out of fear?)

But the second murder ratcheted up an already fierce tension on the estate. Around100 racist attacks were reported in the area in the first few months of 1991. Several black families, including some who had vocally opposed racism or confronted the NTOs, asked to be rehoused off the estate and were moved. The Hawksmore Youth Club, which had attempted to organise anti-racist events, was firebombed – and then helpfully closed down by the council, giving the arsonists a pat on the back.

A campaign had arisen in the area, following the murder of Rolan Adams. A packed public meeting was held (police representatives were angrily ejected from this meeting, as people had little confidence in the figleaf of police protection). A militant and angry demonstration was held on 27th April, which saw some 1000-1500 people march round the estate, and then marched on to the BNP bookshop: “When we reached Welling, the anger erupted, and hundreds brought the march to a halt… The Nazis kept wisely out of sight, and it looked for a moment that we we’d all go home with a brick out of their wall as a memento, but the police and others came to the rescue…”

It was among local black youth that the initial angry response had developed, but increasingly a plethora of organisations got involved, with the stated aim of supporting anti-racism in Thamesmead and opposing both BNP influence and the wider culture of racism. Anti-racism and anti-fascism were growing in support generally, but these diverse movements were riven by many factions and splits; some organisations wanting to rely on police and state solutions (flying in the face of the these institutions ‘ involvement in creating the problems and encouraging racial violence), others fronts for left groups, opportunistic at the very least and inconsistent cynical much of the time; there were others who labelled all white people as the problem, and ignored the anti-racist feelings or actions of any white working class people in Thamesmead and elsewhere, which did tend to add to the widespread alienation and increasing division. Meetings tended to end up as dogmatic rows between different factions, and campaigns quickly could become paralysed by this. Actions proposed by some would always be denounced by others, sometimes on sectarian grounds, sometimes simply to be seen to be saying something; though there were genuine political differences and some useful critiques, but amidst all this, much energy that should have been directed at defeating fascists and opposing racism was spent in backbiting. Anyone who spent time involved in opposing fascists around this era is likely to recognise these dynamics.

In Thamesmead specifically at this point the angry campaign meetings organised initially by local black youth had become a debating ground for various groups, including The Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Attacks (Gacara for short  – a local group monitoring and campaigning around racist attacks borough-wide), trotskyite left group the Socialist Workers Party, Anti Fascist Action, (an alliance of socialists and anarchists who advocated physical  resistance to fascism – beating them off the streets – well as politically winning white working people away from racist ideas), as well as the National Black Caucus, a black political grouping. Arguments had begun to prevent action. Anti Fascist Action noted: “One local pub in particular, the Wildfowler, was identified as a meeting place for the racists and the fascists who inspire them. Immediately after [the first campaign meeting on the estate] a posse went down to the pub to let the landlord know the score and to challenge what was described in the meeting as an unofficial colour bar. It was a successful first step in a campaign aimed to either get the fascists out of the pub or to close it down… the pub should be a facility for everyone in Thamesmead, or it should be a facility for no-one…
However, before any of this could happen, some of the people from the meeting, including some of the people from the Socialist Workers Party who had made rousing speeches about fighting racism ‘by any means necessary’ set themselves the task of talking everyone out of the idea of going to the pub at all… They lost the argument… It showed that they could be very good in meetings but not so handy when it comes to putting words into action… some of these characters will even go to the lengths of actively dissuading others from taking action…”

The pub drink also illustrated which side the police were keen to take: “despite the fact that there was no question of violence or disruption – it was a peaceful drink, the first time in a long while that blacks could have a peaceful drink in the pub – the police very soon appeared and emptied the pub of anti-racists. Then, out on the street, they set out to provoke incidents with the local youth – they were itching to wade in and make arrests.” All too often the cops were happy to let racists carry on as you were but batter and nick anyone who attempted to resist this, whether ‘violently’ defending themselves against racist attack or peacefully occupying a pub.

Others involved in the campaign at the time grew aggravated at the diversion of anger into tokenism: “The campaign meeting in the week after the march brought out many of the problems. The Socialist Workers Party’s only contributions were to propose an anti-racist concert in June and a pocket of the Tory-controlled Bexley Council… They tried to rubbish any talk of self-defence as terrorism.” However, Anti- Fascist Action’s stance also took some flak: “AFA talked about defence purely adventurist and elitist (‘we will protect you’ terms – which leaves the local community dependent on their mobilisations…” This critique, from a small, black-led trotsykist splinter called the RIL, does caricature AFA’s position, but had an element of truth, in that AFA tended to concentrate on physical intervention in specific arenas, but this didn’t always help with building a longer term more grounded resistance. Which all would admit is more complex than shouting slogans and running away. However, AFA criticised most of the other groups as posturing without any sense of how to draw white working people, the fodder for BNP propaganda, away from racist ideas. Which was always true and has remained so – catastrophically so in some parts of Britain. Gacara were braod based, but had links to the labour Council in Greenwich, who many though bore some responsibility for the shite conditions on the estate which fuelled much of the violence there. Almost everyone involved in the Thamesmead campaign noted that the people mostly ignored were the local black youth who had started the fightback, who (as elsewhere) found themselves marginalised by the squabbling lefties. In response some set up the Thamesmead Youth Organisation, which gathered some of the most active local youth and tried to combat racism while demanding that the local councils improve facilities…

While some in the NTO Thamesmead gang denied that they were inspired by the BNP, the BNP did want to get involved… The growth of the BNP from nazi fringe loons to the bigger racist populist organisation they would become was only really just beginning then; and they were still less concerned with public relations and concentrated on legitimising racist violence and playing on fear to build up hatred. They saw the two deaths and the wider attacks as evidence for their campaign that ‘multi-culturalism doesn’t work’ – black and white people couldn’t live together. Their nasty rhetoric may or may not have always directly inspired racist attacks, and they were not directly involved in all cases of racial violence (though they were in some), since racism was widespread throughout local white working class populations, and violent expressions of it didn’t necessarily need the BNP’s hand… But the BNP seized joyfully on the situation, beginning to spread their nazi propaganda around, and announcing a ‘Rights for Whites’ march through Thamesmead for May 25th, claiming they had been ‘asked by white residents’ to defend them against ‘black muggers’. The ‘Rights for Whites’ theme was a big BNP push, as their propaganda made a big thing that ‘white British people’ were being oppressed in their own country and had no rights while ‘blacks, gyppos, pakis and other darkies’ were getting special treatment in terms of housing, jobs, human rights etc. This was blatant nonsense, since white racism still allowed discrimination on all levels of society, and official equalities policies masked hatred of minorities in the police, local government, national policy. However it had an appeal to a disgruntled strata of working class whites, wondering where the jobs had gone and left adrift by social change – as well as to the empire-nostalging and eugenically-inclined, of various classes…

The BNP Demo on May 25th was opposed by a strong contingent of anti-racists and anti-fascists. Even top cops in the Met pointed out that allowing the march to go ahead was deliberate provocation; this didn’t prevent them from using a fair bit of trunch on the day to protect 150 or so BNP members (around its realistic away crowd then) from a much larger angry crowd of anti-racists. A number of fascists who turned up late were caught and battered by anti-fascists. But despite a decision taken in the campaign meetings to physically attempt to confront the BNP march, on the day the main campaign organisers (by now backed by the SWP and National Black Caucus) backed off from this and led people in the opposite direction, just as the BNP march was entering the area, and ignored protests that this was against what had been decided.

“This decision was not supported by all present – on addition to AFA and a substantial number of local youth, Searchlight supporters and even some individual members of the SWP refuse to go along with the last minute about face.”

Thamesmead being designed like it was, there are a hundred back ways, alleys, bridges, paths, which could have been used to bypass the police and confront the fash; in the end only part of the crowd attempted to do so. Bar a bit of running after stray Nazis and some provocative kids, the day came to a frustrating end.

Anti Fascist Action’s position was that this was a wasted opportunity and had strengthened the hand of the BNP: “The issue facing anti-fascists in Thamesmead is a clear one: do we want a token campaign which expresses our opposition to the BNP and racism, but does not actually confront the fascists, or do we insist on concrete action against specific targets?” This question had come up before and would come up again. The BNP in South/Southeast London certainly felt stronger, and would try to build on this through the summer of 1991, standing in a council by-election in Camberwell in July, and stepping up a regular presence in Bermondsey.

Their bookshop/HQ in Welling would remain, despite regular demonstrations demanding its removal – the fash were helped by tory Bexley Council, who steadfastly opposed racism by, er, refusing to do anything at all about the shop. Although there were constant arguments among anti-racists and wider about how much racist violence in Southeast London was caused by its presence, or whether the BNP were a symptom of a wider racist culture there, there is little doubt that the flood of fascist propaganda the BNP had put out continued to have an effect, encouraging serious racial attacks. In any case, racist attacks and racist murders increased. 16-year old Asian Rohit Duggal was murdered by a gang of ten white men in July 1992; In July 1992, Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death by a white youth outside a kebab shop. The killer, Peter Thompson, was found guilty of murder. He was said to have links to a racist gang around Neil Acourt, who carried out a number of attacks on black youths in 1992-3. The attack came a year after the stabbing of another man outside the same shops. Police said there was ‘no evidence of a racial motive’, which was bollocks, but then Neil Acourt’s crim dad had several dirty cops in his pocket, so…

Kevin London, a black teenager, claimed he was confronted in November 1992 by a gang of white youths, including Acourt’s mate Gary Dobson, who was armed with a large knife. The claim came to light only after the killing of Stephen Lawrence. No charges were laid.

In one week in March 1993, two men were stabbed in Eltham High Street, with witnesses describing members of the Acourt gang. The following week, a white man, Stacey Benefield, was stabbed in the chest. He identified David Norris as the attacker and Neil Acourt as being with him. Norris was the only man tried. He was acquitted.

Acourt and Dobson would of course become notorious, as in April 1993, they together with several other white men, murdered Stephen Lawrence in Eltham. This killing did focus a national spotlight on southeast London and would lead to the Lawrence Inquiry and far-reaching public relations changes to how the police allow themselves to appear.

The campaign against the BNP bookshop would reach a peak with a massive demonstration to Welling in October 1993 which would end in a police ambush and serious fighting, between police and demonstrators. 31 demonstrators were arrested and several jailed. Eventually overwhelming pressure led to Bexley Council being force to set up a planning inquiry and the shop closed down.

The Socialist Workers party, after years of telling AFA and other anti-fascists that Nazis were a tiny irrelevant fringe, shortly after Thamesmead began to change their position, and re-founded the Anti-Nazi League, which they had also been movers in back in the 1970s. The ANL made a big splash, carried lots of lollipop placards, and ran around a lot.

Anti Fascist Action deserves a more considered epitaph, but this isn’t the place. Another time.

Racism and fascism seems to be alive and well.

A postscript

Only one man was convicted of murder for the attack on Rolan and his younger brother Nathan, who escaped with his life. Mark Thornburrow was jailed for a minimum of 10 years. Four others were given community service for violent disorder. Mr Adams said there was unwillingness by police and prosecutors to go after anyone else for the killing.

In 2014 it was reported that the Metropolitan Police had admitted to Rolan’s father Richard that its now disbanded Special Demonstration Squad had spied on him and other members of the family and campaign, as they did on other black justice campaigns.

It’s unknown if any of the information collected on Rolan Adams’ family was harvested by any of the three spycops described by Peter Francis, an undercover cop working for the SDS who infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), an anti-racist front for the trotskyite Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party) which, along with the Socialist Workers’ Party-run Anti-Nazi League, had largely organised the Welling demonstration in October 1993, there were police spies operating that day – on both sides.

Seven of the ten police spies then (admitted to be) active from the SDS were “sufficiently embedded in the right political groups to supply intelligence in advance of the demonstration.”

As well as Peter Francis (spying on YRE as Pete Black), another SDS police officer was involved at a high-level with the SWP-controlled Anti-Nazi League. Interviewed for Rob Evans and Paul Lewis’s book, ‘Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police’, Francis observed the actions of his colleague as the riot developed: “There was a moment when I am a SDS officer going forward with my group, and there’s another SDS officer in the Anti-Nazi League running backwards, calling on the crowds to go with him away, trying to get people to follow him.”

The book also claims, in the same chapter, that an undercover cop was involved with Combat 18, a so-called ‘neo-nazi’ group, later widely regarded as a Special Branch honey trap for unsuspecting right-wing activists, and claims: “A fourth spy was actually inside the BNP bookshop. For some time, he had been a trusted member of the party. He and others were expected to defend their headquarters in the event the crowd broke through the police lines and started attacking the building. ‘He was bricking it,’ Black says. ‘We had to protect the bookshop that day as Condon (the Met’s commissioner) knew that there was an undercover police officer in there.'”

Nice to know Special Branch were on both sides… how much the four respective SDS operatives manipulated the struggle around racism and anti-racism, remains unclear, but SDS spies rarely limited themselves to collecting intelligence. Certainly there was speculation at the time of the march that the Met had desired a violent confrontation to allow them some extra leeway for breaking heads. The October 1993 Welling ‘riot’ was suspected by some of us suspicious types at the time to be set up to play into police hands – though conspiracy theories are always to be avoided if possible, you can’t help wondering now whether the SDS were serving a wider police agenda in having the demo walk into a police riot. SDS head Bob Lambert certainly helped the Met out with info from the undercovers concerned when the Stephen Lawrence enquiry into police and other institutional racism was threatening to make them look very bad indeed. Perhaps all the details will come out in the Undercover Policing Inquiry – though given the current police obstruction tactics preventing anything on the Inquiry front from moving forward at all, probably not.

There is more interesting background to the racist gangs, links to crime families, and corrupt relations with the police, here

The above was written partly from personal recollections, though some bits of ailing memory were refreshed from Wikipedia, Anti Fascist Action’s magazine Fighting Talk, CARF magazine, Gacara Report 1992-3, and Revolutionary Internationalist. On May 25th 1991 your writer was a spotter on a bike riding round the estate to keep tabs on the movements of fash and police and report back to anti-fascists. Other memories and views would be welcomed.

Rolan Adams’s grandmother, Clara Buckley, was also the mother of Orville Blackwood, killed in Broadmoor High Security Hospital in August 1991. A powerful woman who never gave up fighting for justice. 


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London suffrage history: Dora Montefiore barricades her home against bailiffs, 1906.

On 23rd May 1906, Mrs Dora Montefiore barricaded her home, at no 32 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, against the threat of bailiffs entering her house to seize goods. A leading campaigner for women’s suffrage, Dora had refused to pay income tax, so long as women did not have the vote, and a court had ruled that her possessions should be taken to pay the amount owed.

As Dora later wrote, in a chapter in her 1927 autobiography, From a Victorian to a Modern, devoted to her tax resistance and the “Siege of Montefiore”, this wasn’t the first time her goods had been ‘distrained’ for non-payment of income tax:

“I had already, during the Boer War, refused willingly to pay income tax, because payment of such tax went towards financing a war in the making of which I had had no voice. In 1904 and 1905 a bailiff had been put in my house, a levy of my goods had been made, and they had been sold at public auction in Hammersmith. The result as far as publicity was concerned was half a dozen lines in the corner of some daily newspapers, stating the fact that Mrs. Montefiore’s goods had been distrained and sold for payment of income tax; and there the matter ended.

When talking this over in 1906 with Theresa Billington and Annie Kenney, I told them that now we had the organisation of the W.S.P.U. to back me up I would, if it were thought advisable, not only refuse to pay income tax, but would shut and bar my doors and keep out the bailiff, so as to give the demonstration more publicity and thus help to educate public opinion about the fight for the political emancipation of women which was going on. They agreed that if I would do my share of passive resistance they would hold daily demonstrations outside the house as long as the bailiff was excluded and do all in their power outside to make the sacrifice I was making of value to the cause. In May of 1906, therefore, when the authorities sent for the third time to distrain on my goods in order to take what was required for income tax, I, aided by my maid, who was a keen suffragist, closed and barred my doors and gates on the bailiff who had appeared outside the gate of my house in Upper Mall, Hammersmith, and what was known as the “siege” of my house began.

As is well known, bailiffs are only allowed to enter through the ordinary doors. They may not climb in at a window and at certain hours they may not even attempt an entrance. These hours are from sunset to sunrise, and from sunset on Saturday evening till sunrise on Monday morning. During these hours the besieged resister to income tax can rest in peace. From the day of this simple act of closing my door against the bailiff, an extraordinary change came over the publicity department of daily and weekly journalism towards this demonstration of passive resistance on my part. The tradespeople of the neighbourhood were absolutely loyal to us besieged women, delivering their milk and bread, etc., over the rather high garden wall which divided the small front gardens of Upper Mall from the terraced roadway fronting the river. The weekly wash arrived in the same way and the postman day by day delivered very encouraging budgets of correspondence, so that practically we suffered very little inconvenience, and as we had a small garden at the back we were able to obtain fresh air.

On the morning following the inauguration of the siege, Annie Kenney and Theresa Billington, with other members of the W.S.P.U., came round to see how we were getting on and to encourage our resistance. They were still chatting from the pavement outside, while I stood on the steps of No. 32 Upper Mall, when there crept round from all sides men with notebooks and men with cameras, and the publicity stunt began. These men had been watching furtively the coming and going of postmen and tradesmen. Now they posted themselves in front, questioning the suffragists outside and asking for news of us inside. They had come to make a “story” and they did not intend to leave until they had got their “story.” One of them returned soon with a loaf of bread and asked Annie Kenney to hand it up over the wall to my housekeeper, whilst the army of men with cameras “snapped” the incident. Some of them wanted to climb over the wall so as to be able to boast in their descriptions that they had been inside what they pleased to call “The Fort”; but the policeman outside (there was a policeman on duty outside during all the six weeks of a siege) warned them that they must not do this so we were relieved, in this respect, from the too close attention of eager pressmen. But all through the morning notebooks and cameras came and went, and at one time my housekeeper and I counted no less than twenty-two pressmen outside the house. A woman sympathiser in the neighbourhood brought during the course of the morning, a pot of home-made marmalade, as the story had got abroad that we had no provisions and had difficulty in obtaining food. This was never the case as I am a good housekeeper and have always kept a store cupboard, but we accepted with thanks the pot of marmalade because the intentions of the giver were so excellent; but this incident was also watched and reported by the Press.

Annie Kenney and Theresa Billington had really come round to make arrangements for a demonstration on the part of militant women that afternoon and evening in front of the house, so at an opportune moment, when the Press were lunching, the front gate was unbarred and they slipped in. The feeling in the neighbourhood towards my act of passive resistance was so excellent and the publicity being given by the Press in the evening papers was so valuable that we decided to make the Hammersmith “Fort” for the time being the centre of the W.S.P.U. activities, and daily demonstrations were arranged for and eventually carried out. The road in front of the house was not a thoroughfare, as a few doors further down past the late Mr. William Morris’s home of “Kelmscott,” at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson, there occurred one of those quaint alley-ways guarded by iron posts, which one finds constantly on the borders of the Thames and in old seaside villages. The roadway was, therefore, ideal for the holding of a meeting, as no blocking of traffic could take place, and day in, day out the principles for which suffragists were standing we expounded to many who before had never even heard of the words Woman Suffrage. At the evening demonstrations rows of lamps were hung along the top of the wall and against the house, the members of the W.S.P.U.speaking from the steps of the house, while I spoke from one of the upstairs windows. On the little terrace of the front garden hung during the whole time of the siege a red banner with the letters painted in white:

“Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay.”

This banner appeared later on during our fight, so it has a little history quite of its own.

The members of the I.L.P., of which there was a good branch in Hammersmith, were very helpful, both as speakers and organisers during these meetings, but the Members of the Social Democratic Federation, of which I was a member, were very scornful because they said we should have been asking at that moment for Adult Suffrage and not Votes for Women; but although I have always been a staunch adult suffragist, I felt that at that moment the question of the enfranchisement of women was paramount, as we had to educate the public in our demands and in the reasons for our demands, and as we found that with many people the words “Adult Suffrage” connoted only manhood suffrage, our urgent duty was at that moment to gain Press publicity up and down the country and to popularise the idea of the political enfranchisement of women.

So the siege wore on; Press notices describing it being sent to me not only from the United Kingdom, but from Continental and American newspapers, and though the garbled accounts of what I was doing and what our organisation stood for often made us laugh when we read them, still there was plenty of earnest and useful understanding in many articles, while shoals of letters came to me, a few sadly vulgar and revolting, but the majority helpful and encouraging. Some Lancashire lads who had heard me speaking in the Midlands wrote and said that if I wanted help they would come with their clogs but that was never the sort of support I needed, and though I thanked them, I declined the help as nicely as I could. Many Members of Parliament wrote and told me in effect that mine was the most logical demonstration that had so far been made; and it was logical I know as far as income tax paying women were concerned; and I explained in all my speeches and writings that though it looked as if I were only asking for Suffrage for Women on a property qualification, I was doing this because the mass of non-qualified women could not demonstrate in the same way, and I was to that extent their spokeswoman. It was the crude fact of women’s political disability that had to be forced on an ignorant and indifferent public, and it was not for any particular Bill or Measure or restriction that I was putting myself to this loss and inconvenience by refusing year after year to pay income tax, until forced to do so by the powers behind the Law. The working women from the East End came, time and again, to demonstrate in front of my barricaded house and understood this point and never swerved in their allegiance to our organisation; in fact, it was during these periods and succeeding years of work among the people that I realised more and more the splendid character and “stuff” that is to be found among the British working class. They are close to the realities of life, they are in daily danger of the serious hurts of life, unemployment, homelessness, poverty in its grimmest form, and constant misunderstanding by the privileged classes, yet they are mostly light-hearted and happy in small and cheap pleasures, always ready to help one another with lending money or apparel, great lovers of children, great lovers when they have an opportunity, of real beauty. Yet they are absolutely “unprivileged,” being herded in the “Ghetto” of the East End, and working and living under conditions of which most women in the West End have no idea; and I feel bound to put it on record that though I have never regretted, in fact, I have looked back on the years spent in the work of Woman Suffrage as privileged years, yet I feel very deeply that as far as those East End women are concerned, their housing and living conditions are no better now than when we began our work. The Parliamentary representation we struggled for has not been able to solve the Social Question, and until that is solved the still “unprivileged” voters can have no redress for the shameful conditions under which they are compelled to work and live.

I also have to record with sorrow that though some amelioration in the position of the married mother towards her child or children has been granted by law, the husband is still the only parent in law, and he can use that position if he chooses, to tyrannise over the wife. He must, however, appoint her as one of the guardians of his children after his death.

Towards the end of June, the time was approaching when, according to information brought in from outside the Crown had the power to break open my front door and seize my goods for distraint. I consulted with friends and we agreed that as this was a case of passive resistance, nothing could be done when that crisis came but allow the goods to be distrained without using violence on our part. When, therefore, at the end of those weeks the bailiff carried out his duties, he again moved what he considered sufficient goods to cover the debt and the sale was once again carried out at auction rooms in Hammersmith. A large number of sympathisers were present, but the force of twenty-two police which the Government considered necessary to protect the auctioneer during the proceedings was never required, because again we agreed that it was useless to resist force majeure when it came to technical violence on the part of, the authorities.

Some extracts from interviews and Press cuttings of the period will illustrate what was the general feeling of the public towards the protest I was making under the auspices of the W.S.P.U.

The representative of the Kensington News, who interviewed me during the course of the siege, wrote thus:—

Independent alike in principles and politics, it is the policy of the Kensington News to extend to both sides of current questions a fair consideration. Accordingly our representative on Tuesday last attended at the residence of Mrs. Montefiore, who is resisting the siege of the tax collector, as a protest against taxation without representation.

On Hammersmith Mall, within a stone’s throw of the house wherein Thomson wrote “The Seasons”; of Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris, and within the shadow of those glorious elms planted by Henrietta Maria, the consort of Charles Ⅰ, a bright red banner floats in front of a dull red house, inscribed: “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay”….

Certainly as mild a mannered a demonstrator as ever displayed a red banner, refined of voice and manner, Mrs. Montefiore, who is a widow, would be recognised at once as a gentlewoman. We were received with charming courtesy, and seated in the dining-room proceeded with our work of catechising.

Primarily we elicited that Mrs. Montefiore resented the term suffragette. “It emanated, I believe from the Daily Mail, but is entirely meaningless. The term ‘suffragist’ is English and understandable. What I object to most strenuously is the attempt of certain sections of the Press to turn to ridicule what is an honest protest against what we regard as a serious wrong.”

“So far, what has happened?”

“The tax collector has been, with the sheriff, and I have refused them admittance, barred my doors, and hung up the banner you saw outside.” Then questioned as to the reason for her action, Mrs. Montefiore explained:

“I am resisting payment of, not rates, but the Imperial taxes. I pay my rates willingly and cheerfully, because I possess my municipal vote. I can vote for the Borough and County Councils, and on the election of Guardians. I want you to understand this; my income is derived mainly from property in Australia, where for many years I resided. It is taxed over there, and again in this country. I never objected to paying taxes in Australia, because there women have votes both for the State Parliament and for the Commonwealth. There women are not disqualified from sitting in the Commonwealth Parliament. One lady at the last election, although unsuccessful, polled over 20,000 votes.”

“You were not one of the ladies who created a disturbance behind the House of Commons grille?”

“No. I was, however, one of the deputation to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and I listened to his very unsatisfactory answers. This action of mine is the rejoinder to Sir Henry’s reply. He said we must educate Parliament — so we thought we would, in my active resistance, give Parliament an object lesson. Remember, it was the first Reform Bill that definitely excluded women from the franchise. Prior to that Bill they possessed votes as burgesses and owners of property. We only seek restitution. After the Reform Bill certain women in Manchester actually tested their right to be registered as voters, and the judges decided against them. Mr. Keir Hardie, who is our champion, deals with this in his pamphlet.”

“You are selecting certain candidates to further your cause in Parliament,” we suggested.

“Certainly,” was the reply. “The women employed in the textile factories at Wigan ran a candidate of their own at the last election, and I addressed vast meetings at every street corner at Wigan. I have received many messages of sympathy and encouragement from the women and the men in Wigan.”

“Have you taken Counsel’s opinion on your resisting action?”

“No, I am relying on the justice of my cause.”

“What is the next step you anticipate?”

“I believe their next weapon is a break warrant. I have had my furniture distrained on and sold twice already in this cause. Of course, I am only a woman. I know the law, as it stands, is stronger than I, and I suppose in the long run I shall have to yield to force majeure, but I shall fight as long as I am able. Only,” the lady added with a plaintiveness that might have appealed to the most implacable anti-Woman Suffragist, “one would have thought that men would have been more chivalrous, and would not force us to fight in this way to the bitter end for the removal of the sex disability.”

“Do you look for assistance from any, and which, political party?” we asked. Mrs. Montefiore shook her head.

“Our only policy is to play off one, against the other. I am a humble disciple of Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy, who, now 73 years of age, has for 41 years been a worker in the woman’s cause. She has witnessed fourteen Parliaments, but has never seen a Cabinet so inimical to Woman’s Suffrage as the present. Every time the franchise is extended the women’s cause goes back; her hopes are far less now with seven millions on the register than they were with half a million. Gladstone was the worst enemy woman’s suffrage ever had.”

In conclusion Mrs. Montefiore said: “We claim that the word ‘person’ in Acts of Parliament connected with voting should include women. We believe that action goes further than words. I am taking this action to bring our cause before the public.”

Without committing ourselves on the question of the cause itself, we could not resist expressing the hope that the lady’s devotion to it had not entailed hardship or suffering. She smiled bravely, and said: “I have received much sympathy and encouragement, and many kindnesses.” We ventured one more question: “Are you downhearted?” The answer was a smiling “No!” and we left Mrs. Montefiore’s residence impressed at any rate with the sincerity of her belief in, and her devotion to, the cause she has espoused.

The Labour Leader of June, 1906, had the following:—

“No taxation without representation” is one of the cardinal doctrines of the British Constitution. But like many other ideas of British liberty it exists more on paper than in reality.

It has been left for the modern generation of suffragettes to point out that one whole sex subject to all the taxes which are imposed, has yet absolutely no representation on the body which determines and passes those taxes.

The siege of “Fort Montefiore” is the tangible expression of this protest.

On two previous occasions Mrs. Montefiore has had her goods seized for refusing to pay income tax.

This year she determined upon more militant tactics. Some eight or nine weeks ago she was called upon for the income tax. As she persisted in her refusal to pay, a bailiff was summoned. Mrs. Montefiore’s reply was to bolt and bar her house against the intruder, and to display a red flag over her summerhouse, with the inscription: “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay.”

Fort Suffragette, as Mrs. Montefiore’s house may be called, is an ideal place, in which to defy an income-tax collector; and a few determined women could hold it against an army from the Inland Revenue Department. It is a substantial three-storeyed villa in a narrow road (Upper Mall, Hammersmith).

A few feet from the front the Thames flows by; and the house is guarded by a high wall, the only access being through a stoutly built arched doorway. The “siege” began on 24th May, and up to the present the bailiff has not succeeded in forcing an entry. Meanwhile, important demonstrations have taken place outside, and the crowd has been addressed by various speakers, including Mrs. Montefiore, who has spoken from an upper window of her house.

On one of these occasions Mrs. Montefiore alluded to the Prime Minister’s reply to the recent deputation on Women’s Suffrage, in which he advised them “to educate Parliament.” She was giving Parliament an object lesson. “They had had enough abstract teaching,” she said, “now a little concrete teaching may do them good, and they will see that there are women in England who feel their disability so keenly that they will stop at nothing, and put themselves to every inconvenience and trouble in order to show the world and the Men of England what their position is, and how keenly they feel it”… A resolution was carried declaring that taxation without representation was tyranny, thanking Mrs. Montefiore for her stand, and calling upon the Government to enfranchise women this session.

Susan B. Anthony was one of my dear and valued friends in the suffrage movement, and I received from New York the following interesting communication with cordial wishes for the success of my protest:—

Appeal made yearly by Susan. B. Anthony to the City Treasurer, Rochester, New York, When paying her property tax.


Enclosed please find cheque for tax on my property for year ending May, 1902, with a protest in the name of ten thousand other tax-paying women in the City of Rochester, who are deemed fully capable, intellectually, morally and physically of earning money, and contributing their full share towards the expenses of the Government, but totally incapable of deciding as to the proper expenditure of such money. Please let the record show as “paid under protest.”

Yours for justice to each and every person of this Republic.


Enclosed find County tax for 1904. A minor may live to become of age, the illiterate to be educated, the lunatic to regain his reason, the idiot to become intelligent — when each and all can decide what shall be the laws, and who shall enforce them; but the woman, never. I protest against paying taxes to a Government which allows its women to be thus treated. Please so record it.



Dora’s house on the Thames the tow path remained ‘under siege’ for some six weeks during the summer of 1906, and became the centre of widely-reported daily demonstrations and speeches of solidarity from suffrage groups converging from all over London. Newspapers at the time labelled this as ‘The Siege of Hammersmith’, (though Dora’s house was also known among suffragists as ‘Fort Montefiore’!) The house, surrounded by a wall, could be reached only through an arched doorway, which Montefiore and her maid barred against the bailiffs. For six weeks, Montefiore resisted payment of her taxes, addressing the frequent crowds through the upper windows of the house.

The ‘siege’, in reality mostly a stand-off without much in the way of actual attempts to distrain her goods, ended on 3 July 1906 when bailiffs broke in using a crowbar, while Dora was out, (in fact supporting suffragettes on trial at Marylebone police court). The bailiffs confiscated silver cutlery and other household items to the value of the income tax owed, some £18. Dora had already deciced not to resist: “Towards the end of June, the time was approaching when, according to information brought in from outside the Crown had the power to break open my front door and seize my goods for distraint. I consulted with friends and we agreed that as this was a case of passive resistance, nothing could be done when that crisis came but allow the goods to be distrained without using violence on our part.

Dora’s maid, also a suffrage campaigner, was in the house, though decided not to resist the incursion… A few days later Mrs Montefiore bought back everything that had been taken, at the auction in Goldhawk Road, paying around £20… while a suffragette demonstration outside protested.


Born Dora Fuller, the eighth child of Francis and Mary Fuller, in 1851, Dora’s father was a wealthy land surveyor and railway entrepreneur. She was educated at home at Kenley Manor, near Coulsdon, and then at a private school in Brighton.

In 1874 she went to Australia, where she met and married George Barrow Montefiore, a wealthy businessman in 1881. Her husband’s death in 1889, projected her into the feminist movement: she discovered that she had no rights of guardianship over her own children unless her husband had willed them to her. Angered by this, she became an advocate of women’s rights and in March 1891 she founded the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. This would be the first step in a lifetime of political activism.

Returning to England in 1892 she worked under Millicent Fawcett at the National Union of Suffrage Societies, and joined the Social Democratic Federation and eventually served on its executive. She also contributed to its journal, Justice. Dora had originated the idea of the Women’s Tax Resistance League in 1897, which encouraged women to refuse to pay tax until they got the corresponding civil rights they felt taxation should confer…

While living at Upper Mall, she also became attracted to the ideas of William Morris, who lived just a few minutes walk down the river at Kelmscott House.

Shortly after the ‘Siege’, in October 1906, Dora was jailed in Holloway Prison, for demonstrating illegally in the lobby of the House of Commons. She was accompanied to the Prison by a group of supporters: ‘My brothers and sisters were mostly apathetic about or hostile to my militant work, so I determined to send for no-one of my own relatives, but I was surrounded by many good friends and fellow-workers who had come to give us a word of cheer’.

Shortly after this, she broke with the Pankhursts. Montefiore disagreed with the authoritarian and centralised way Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst ran the WSPU, making decisions without consulting members, and objecting to the small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence who she felt were having too much influence over the organisation. However, she remained close to Sylvia Pankhurst, who shared her belief in socialism, which Emmeline and Christable Pankhurst had moved away from. Montefiore was not alone in her opinions of the leadership of the WSPU. In the autumn of 1907, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Margaret Nevinson and Charlotte Despard and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). Dora Montefiore also joined the WFL.

Montefiore was first and foremost a journalist and pamphleteer, penning a women’s column in The New Age (1902–6) and in the Social Democratic Federation journal Justice (1909–10). She later wrote for the Daily Herald and the New York Call. Most of her pamphlets were on women and socialism, for example, Some words to Socialist women (1907). Montefiore was also interested in an international approach to women’s suffrage and socialism and travelled a great number of congresses and conferences in Europe, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.

In 1907 Montefiore joined the Adult Suffrage Society and was elected its honorary secretary in 1909. She also remained in the Social Democratic Federation. Montefiore’s biographer, Karen Hunt, has pointed out: “Within the SDF she developed a woman-focused socialism and helped set up the party’s women’s organization in 1904. An energetic although often dissident worker for the SDF until the end of 1912, Montefiore resigned from what had become the British Socialist Party as an anti-militarist.”

In 1913 she was briefly imprisoned in Dublin for leading a campaign to transfer the children of poor Irish workers to foster homes in England during the Dublin lockout of striking workers. In 1915 and 1916 she worked with Voluntary Aid Detachments and French cooks in the Pas de Calais running ‘Cantines des Dames Anglaises’ for French soldiers resting from the trenches. After the war she was one of the co-founders of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

After the death of her son in 1921 (from the affects of the mustard gassing he had suffered while serving on the Western Front during the First World War), she joined his widow and children in Australia. In the summer of 1924 she attended the Moscow International Congress as a delegate of the Australian Communist Party. In 1927 she published her autobiography, From a Victorian to a Modern.

Towards the end of her life Dora moved to Crowborough and then Bexhill and Hastings for her health. She died in 1933 at the age of 83, and was cremated at Golders Green, Middlesex.

Thanks to,, and David Broad’s account of his grandmother’s ‘Siege’…


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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London radical history: the Hebrew Socialist Union founded, Spitalfields, 1876

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to introduced a new era in Jewish migration. A significant wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and parts of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish area. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s.

Anti-semitism has a long history, but large-scale Jewish migration into the area sparked a new and specific campaign against it. There was fierce anti-immigrant agitation; and not just from right-wingers. Central figures in this campaign included people like Major Evans-Gordon, the MP for Stepney, (whose speeches and writings are remarkably similar to those of Enoch Powell later), the Reverend Billing of Spitalfields, the local vicar; and rightwing anti-semitic journalist Arnold White… but also from East End trade unions. An early rally against Jewish immigration produced a resolution to Parliament calling for bans on migrants, signed by 43 unions including the Dockers Union; pioneer socialist and much revered dockers leader Ben Tillett was notably outspokenly very anti-immigrant, but in fairness, many of the dockers he represented shared xenophobic views.

Much of the writing and speechmaking described them as being of inferior race of humanity, and tried to establish a causal link between the Jews and poverty, and the creation of social evils in the areas they inhabited. Arnold White’s symposium The Destitute Alien in Great Britain was published in 1892. Books like WH Wilkins’ ‘The Alien Invasion’ described them as being of inferior class, questioned whether they in fact brought Russian persecution upon themselves, and campaigned for strict immigration laws.

Facing such a hostile reaction, the migrant Jews tended to respond in one of three ways: religious isolationism, a turn to more orthodox judaism; working hard and attempting to assimilate; thirdly, to radicalism, trade unionism and ideas of class solidarity, usually across ‘religious’ lines.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the baker. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

But a core Jewish community was already living in the East End, having begun to coalesce in the 1870s, even before these forced migrations, and socialism was already leavening within it…

In May 1876, the Hebrew Socialist Union was founded here, at no 40 Gun Street, Spitalfields. (The current building at no 40 replaced the building they met in, which was demolished in 1976). The HSU’s founders included Aaron Lieberman, who had emigrated to London the year before, having been involved in populist and socialist politics in Russia, and Isaac Stone. The Union aimed to organise among the Jewish working class, spread socialism among Jews and non-Jews,and to support workers’ organisation and struggles; they held educational classes on philosophy, history, revolution, socialism. Although they organised Jewish workers separately from ‘native’ workers they were not separatist, and they did make a noble but ill-fated attempt to approach Irish workers locally, who were often very anti semitic. The Hebrew Socialist Union also promoted the formation of a tailors union in August 1876.

But the group was paralysed by constant doctrinal disputes; for instance, over whether small masters and peddlers were workers and should be allowed in to the HSU; mostly, though, over religion, assimilation and observance. Aaron Liebermann was very anti-religious, but many of the members combined some radical views with religious belief.

As well as internal division, the Hebrew Socialist Union also faced hostility from the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Many Jews in established communities, which had more or less made themselves acceptable and respectable to British society, were worried or even opposed to the influx of poor Eastern Jews, especially with so many being of the radical persuasion; would the latent anti-semitism always present here be provoked, and would they, the older more assimilated communities, also become targets? The great and good among the more accepted Jews adopted a dual approach: charity towards the new migrants, but accompanied by pressure to settle down, work hard, integrate into ‘normal’ British life, and not make trouble. On the other hand they attacked the HSU in print, trying to discredit them by suggesting they weren’t Jewish, but gentile inflitrators, and they often found support for this among local East End bosses. Workers found to be HSU members were sacked. Rabbis denounced them, and the Jewish Chronicle accused them of being secret Christian missionaries. Union meetings were infiltrated by religious jews incited by this propaganda, and degenerated into rowdy argument.

Partly as a result, and partly due to dissensions between the more intellectual Lithuanian socialists, and practical-minded workers (mainly from Galicia), both the HSU and its offshoot tailors’ union were shortlived. The HSU collapsed in September 1876, the tailors union split from its socialist founders but collapsed when the treasurer ran off with its funds.

Aaron Lieberman left for America, where he was sadly to kill himself in 1880; but he had in fact proved an important influence on the growing Jewish socialist movement in Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe through his writings in the journal Vperyod, which helped form Jewish socialist movements in those countries.

And brief as its life had been, the Hebrew Socialist Union had laid some foundations for the movements of Jewish radicals, socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists, which continued for decades. Jews formed the basis of East End tailors unions, the movements against sweating in the clothing trades, the groups around the papers Poilishe Yidel and Arbeter Fraint, and thus of the strong East End anarchist movement before World War 1, and later of the Jewish membership, a vital strand in the Communist Party long into the 20th Century. 

Tis always worth reading: William Fishman’s classic East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914… and  Anne J. Kershen‘s Uniting the Tailors: Trade Unionism Amongst the Tailoring Workers of London and Leeds, 1870-1939 is also worth checking out.

For a righteous modern Jewish radical organisation get on down to Jewdas


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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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