Today in London’s festive history, 1832: National Union of the Working Classes mock government-sponsored day of fasting and prayer

Cholera first arrived in England at a time of significant political change that affected the way it was understood by various groups within Britain.  The poor, the ill-defined middle-classes (comprising diverse groups of people from small business owners and clerks to owners of large factories and many professionals like lawyers and doctors), and the traditional land-owning elite were all in the process of redefining their access to political power through the gradual extension of the right to vote.  The cholera epidemics, poorly understood by medical experts of the time, were understood by these groups in different ways as government and the medical profession experimented with responses.  Cholera provides a useful lens to see how an externally generated stressor like an epidemic intersects with other cultural and historical forces, giving insight not only into medical but also political and cultural history.

Between 1832 and 1866, four cholera epidemics struck Great Britain, as part of pandemic outbreaks that affected the entire globe. In 1817, before the first British epidemic, there had been a smaller epidemic that spread in Europe but did not cross the channel. The 1832 epidemic was the first one to enter Britain—and also spread to the Americas and Australia—and wreaked panic as well as high death rates where it struck.  The 1848 second epidemic was global and caused high death rates in Britain.  By the mid-1850s, Britain was more ready when cholera again entered the islands but still suffered considerable mortality.  The last and least, but still murderous, British epidemic was in 1866.  After that, in the 1870s and 90s, cholera did sweep across the European continent again but did not cross the channel in epidemic force.” (Pamela K. Gilbert, “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England”)

In the spring of 1832, London was experiencing a serious outbreak of cholera, the waterborne disease that at that time killed 1000s. The second great cholera pandemic of 1827-35 was raging across Europe.

“In the 1830s, the disease was still unfamiliar in most of the world beyond parts of the Indian subcontinent.  Terrified patients had never seen such symptoms before, and doctors were helpless to do anything but try remedies that they thought had worked for other diseases.  These remedies, from the relatively merciful giving of opiates to more aggressive approaches such as bleeding or burning the skin, were largely worthless, as were most theories of how the disease was transmitted (including, but not limited to, bad weather, foul smells, electro-magnetism and divine vengeance). We now believe cholera to be a waterborne disease caused by a comma-shaped bacillus called vibrio cholerae, which is transmitted between humans via the fecal-oral route. It usually enters the body through contaminated water or food and then multiplies in the intestines.  Although easily treatable today in developed areas with abundant clean water and medical care, cholera remains an important epidemic disease in parts of Africa, India, and Latin America and it has recently taken thousands of lives in Haiti. Untreated, it can kill within a few days through rapid dehydration, caused by copious, uncontrollable diarrhoea.  As the disease progressed, the diarrhoea becomes a clear, straw colored fluid, described in the period as resembling “rice water.”  It is hard to see and can quickly soak bedding and floor coverings.  As people in the 1830s did not understand what caused the disease nor, indeed, know about germs (which were not understood until much later in the late-nineteenth century), caregivers did not even know to wash their hands after tending the sick.  In an era without running water in most homes, and with many people living in small spaces, it was easy for contamination to spread.  And in industrial early nineteenth-century cities with rapidly growing populations and no sewer systems, most people disposed of their waste in cesspits or in the streets. From there, it eventually ended up in rivers that provided drinking water, spreading it far beyond its origin.  Because dehydration was so rapid, apparently healthy people became weak very quickly.  Their appearance was frightening: skin shrivelled, eye sockets collapsed, and complexion blue from oxygen deficiency.  Patients first screamed and thrashed as their muscles spasmed, then lay exhausted and unresponsive, and soon died—sometimes within the first 24 hours.  Mortality for cases who reached the stage of weakness and “collapse” was around fifty percent.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)
Scientific investigation into the causes of cholera was still in its infancy; it would be another 17 years before John Snow suggested that cholera had a microbial origin, and that drinking contaminated water caused the spread of the disease.

But in 1832, the church of England and the government had a solution. “Seeking to conciliate knaves and fanatics on the one hand as well as to feed the gullibility of the ignorant on the other”, they solemnly called for a mass fast, a day of refraining from eating, to show God (from whom all plagues come) that the population were worthy of being spared. They set 21st of March for the National day of prayer and fasting, as  “the disease … was proof of the judgement of God among us”.

The Fast was announced in Parliament after the Strangers’ Gallery had been cleared; a speech deplored the sins and state of the nation, the ‘houses of the nobles and gentry entered and robbed’.

“When cholera was first discussed by the British public, as it marched across the continent in 1831 and 32, Britons were already preoccupied with a big political topic: Parliamentary and voting Reform.  Reform had been a perennial focus over the last several years, but in the form that finally became law it had been hotly debated from June 1830, when dissolute King George IV died.  After long discussion, it was passed in Commons and then defeated in the House of Lords in 1831. Rioting ensued, and a revised Bill was brought forward subsequently that year.  Through the spring of 1832, the Lords dithered and the mood of the country grew increasingly tense.  When it finally passed, on 7 June 1832, it gave more representation to large cities that had gained population as a result of the Industrial Revolution and eliminated representation for areas where the population had diminished to the point that a Member of Parliament was often elected by only a handful of landowners.  Most importantly, although it didn’t increase the size of the electorate that much—it is estimated to have raised it from about 400,000 to 650,000, allowing one out of six adult males to vote—it began to redistribute some power from landowners to the mercantile and manufacturing class, as it allowed those who did not own, but merely rented valuable property (as was common in towns, for example), to vote.  The full title of the Reform Bill was An Act to amend the representation of the people in England and Wales. (Separate reform bills were passed in the same year for Scotland and Ireland).

As authorities argued over cholera’s causes, treatment, and prevention, various publics formed their own opinions of what was going on.  Middle-class and working people who hoped that Reform would bring them representation in Parliament suspected that the talk of cholera was being used to distract the populace from Reform in the interests of the elite retaining control of political power.  Many people were not sure the cholera was even real; perhaps it was a bugbear invented to let the powerful take control of the poor’s few belongings, or even their bodies. After all, scandal was rife about medical schools paying grave robbers for bodies to use for dissection.  In Scotland, William Burke and William Hare had been convicted in Edinburgh in 1829, not only of grave robbing to sell to anatomists, but of providing themselves with merchandise through several actual murders in 1827 and 1828.  Outrage against graverobbing spurred Parliament to deliberate on a “Dead Body Bill” or Anatomy Act, passed in 1832 (See Richardson).  The Act, which provided that bodies of paupers not claimed within 48 hours by family members able to pay for interment would be available for dissection, was designed to prevent grave robbing by providing a steady source of bodies, but it also had the effect of making the poor particularly vulnerable to the seizure of their bodies after death.  People diagnosed with cholera were often forcibly removed in the name of public safety to specially designated “cholera hospitals,” where, of course, many died, outraging the feelings of families and fueling suspicions that they were actually being killed. In response, many families hid their sick from inspectors or resisted their removal.  In the minutes of a meeting of the St. Olave’s District Board of Works, it is recorded that, “The bodies of those who have died have been removed as speedily as possible, but in the case of the young woman who died in Vine Street, about 200 and [sic] 300 persons collected to prevent the removal of the body.  It was, therefore, not persisted in” (“St. Olave’s District Board of Works” 4).  Although violence against doctors and government officials was not as prevalent as it was on the continent, there was still some rioting and vandalism of cholera hospitals.  Meanwhile, property owners compelled to spend money to clean up “nuisances” or merchants whose businesses were hurt by cholera panic were also suspicious of the motives of government.

So the first epidemic was immediately understood in a context of class struggle.  The clergy was the traditional source of local authority at times like these, but the Church of England was also under considerable stress from a religious reform movement, which had in the late 1820s sought to grant other Protestant denominations and even Catholics more political representation (historically, Catholics, for example, could not be Members of Parliament, whereas Bishops of the Church of England sat ex officio in the House of Lords). These religious disputes had a class component: although not always true, in general, Church of England members tended to be wealthier, upper class, and from Southern England, where power was historically seated.  Lower middle-class industrial and manufacturing districts to the North and West tended to include more dissenters, and Catholicism was associated with the Irish, both those in Ireland and the many poor Irish in England.  So, the same class hostility that was linked to political Reform was closely connected to religious conflict, and this undermined the authority of the established Church to speak for the larger community in this crisis.  When the Church of England, backed by Parliament, declared a day of fasting and prayer to ward off the cholera, which they attributed to divine punishment, labor organizations satirically declared a feast day for their readers, arguing that the poor had already fasted enough. Meanwhile, political Reformers observed, sometimes mockingly and sometimes in earnest, that if God was angry, it was probably because Reform was being stalled.  Radical press and labor organizations emphasized the absurdity of the solutions proposed by the upper classes for an audience in very different circumstances.  Henry Hetherington of The Poor Man’s Guardian—who himself died of cholera in 1849 (Durey 195)—ridiculed the notion of the general fast-day through several issues, beginning on 11 Feb. 1832: “a general fast is all very fair; for God knows that as yet the fasting has been partial enough . . . . if not merely fasting but if the most abject want be any propitiation for the evil, never would CHOLERA MORBUS have made its appearance among us!” (Hetherington 1).

Such gestures dramatised the opposing physical circumstances in which rich and poor lived.  Ballads that were printed on single sheets, and given away or sold for pennies on the street, promoted the views of Reformers: one example warns: “They tell such tales our hearts to fear/ Of Cholera raging here and there,/ But bread, pudding, and good cheer,/Will drive the Cholera Morbus . . . //But Reformers will not be deceived,/ For by them it is all agreed/ That one and all we shall be freed,/ In spite of the Cholera Morbus” (“A New Song”).  Meanwhile, by both the poor and merchants, the doctors and clergy might be seen as allies of the elite.  In one small town, for example, notices saying “No cholera at Ely/ The Parsons Liars/And Doctors Pickpockets” were pasted over cholera warning handbills distributed by the Board of Health (Holmes 32-33).  Thus, the middle-classes were often agnostic or actively skeptical on the issue of cholera’s threat and were inclined to be more concerned with gaining political representation and avoiding disruptions to trade.

Although most popular responses to the cholera were political and religious, public policy focused on two initial responses: quarantine to keep the cholera out of Britain and, subsequently, cleaning up “nuisances”: that is, things that were perceived as smelly and dirty.  Since disease was largely believed to be caused by atmospheric problems, and by bad smells, cleaning up open cesspits, garbage piles and so forth was thought to be a way to avoid the spread of disease.  This was viewed as more of an engineering problem (how do you get rid of this stuff?) and a legal problem (how do you make property owners clean up their property?) than a medical problem, per se.  After all, one didn’t need a trained professional to tell if something smelled bad.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)

The organised working class of London, many of who knew what it was like to refrain from eating (for economic reasons), felt that ‘causes that matured and extended the disease were greatly within the power of the government to remove’. The Poor Man’s Guardian replied ‘No, no; to tell the poor to fast would indeed be superfluous’, as they were lucky to eat meat once a week, let alone be able to forgo it’; they labelled the fast day a ‘farce’ day.

No sooner did the members of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) “hear of this farce, than they were actively engaged in asertaining [sic] how they could best show their contempt for this knavery or hypocrisy. They first thought of a public meeting on the occasion, but after consulting several eminent lawyers on the subject, they found that no exhibition of numbers could so effectually evade the laws, as by their walking peacibly through the streets of this Metropolis. They therefore resolved that a procession of the union should be held on this occasion after which they should adjourn to their classes or places of meeting and that the most able to afford it should help their poorer bretheren [sic] to feast and not fast on that day.” (See P. M. Guardian March 24 1832.)

Over 100,000 people were said to have joined the NUWC procession, from Finsbury Square, up Fleet Street and Chancery Lane, (the police barred the way up the Strand), to Holborn and Tottenham Court Road, where according to William Lovett “the police, coming down Howland Street, threw themselves across our procession.”

In a sly act of political theatre, the NUWC organised a number of feasts across the city, and the demonstration broke into parties that determinedly ate drank and feasted, to express their contempt of the government’s attempt to “father their own iniquitous neglect upon the Almighty”.

The same day, a crowd reported to be about 500 threatened to demolish the Bethnal Green Workhouse, but desisted, although only 25 police were present.
Soon after the procession, NUWC leaders, William Benbow, William Lovett and James Watson were arrested as the leaders of the procession and being bailed out, their trial took place at the sessions house Clerkenwell Green on Wednesday the 16th of May 1832.

Read some interesting accounts of the 1832 cholera epidemic as it hit in East London

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Today in London’s criminal history: renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver hung, 1741.

On this date in 1741, at Tyburn‘s largest mass-execution of the mid-18th century, renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver was hanged along with 19 others.

Born Mary Young in Ireland around 1700, the girl was abandoned as a child but deserted a benefactor’s household to take passage to London where she meant to work as a seamstress.

Like countless others, Jenny found making a living in the metropolis through honest labour less profitable than relieving others of their possessions… Unable to live on her stitching, Jenny found more lucrative employment for her manual dexterity in a sizable gang of thieves — of which her uncovered criminal puissance gave her mastery.

The Newgate Chronicle lists some of the achievements of her agile fingers;

[S]he procured a pair of false hands and arms to be made, and concealing her real ones under her clothes she repaired on a Sunday evening to the place of worship above mentioned in a sedan-chair, one of the gang going before to procure a seat among the more genteel part of the congregation, and another attending in the character of a footman.

Jenny being seated between two elderly ladies, each of whom had a gold watch by her side, she conducted herself with seeming great devotion; but when the service was nearly concluded she seized the opportunity, when the ladies were standing up, of stealing their watches, which she delivered to an accomplice in an adjoining pew.

She also engaged in scammery of the credulous:

Jenny dressed herself in an elegant manner, and went to the theatre one evening when the king was to be present; and during the performance she attracted the particular attention of a young gentleman of fortune from Yorkshire, who declared, in the most passionate terms, that she had made an absolute conquest of his heart, and earnestly solicited the favour of attending her home. She at first declined a compliance, saying she was newly married, and that the appearance of a stranger might alarm her husband. At length she yielded to his entreaty, and they went together in a hackney-coach, which set the young gentleman down in the neighbourhood where Jenny lodged, after he had obtained an appointment to visit her in a few days, when she said her husband would be out of town…

The day of appointment being arrived, two of the gang appeared equipped in elegant liveries, and Anne Murphy [another thief] appeared as waiting-maid. The gentleman came in the evening, having a gold-headed cane in his hand, a sword with a gold hilt by his side, and wearing a gold watch in his pocket, and a diamond ring on his finger.

Being introduced to her bed-chamber, she contrived to steal her lover’s ring; and he had not been many minutes undressed before Anne Murphy rapped at the door, which being opened, she said, with an appearance of the utmost consternation, that her master was returned from the country. Jenny, affecting to be under a violent agitation of spirits, desired the gentleman to cover himself entirely with the bed-clothes, saying she would convey his apparel into another room, so that if her husband came there, nothing would appear to awaken his suspicion: adding that, under pretence of indisposition, she would prevail upon her husband to sleep in another bed, and then return to the arms of her lover.

The clothes being removed, a consultation was held, when it was agreed by the gang that they should immediately pack up all their moveables, and decamp with their booty, which, exclusive of the cane, watch, sword, and ring, amounted to an hundred guineas.

The amorous youth waited in a state of the utmost impatience till the morning, when he rang the bell, and brought the people of the house to the chamber-door, but they could not gain admittance, as the fair fugitive had turned the lock, and taken away the key; when the door was forced open the gentleman represented in what manner he had been treated; but the people of the house were deaf to his expostulations, and threatened to circulate the adventure throughout the town, unless he would indemnify them for the loss they had sustained. Rather than hazard the exposure of his character, he agreed to discharge the debt Jenny had contracted; and dispatched a messenger for clothes and money, that he might take leave of a house of which he had sufficient reason to regret having been an inhabitant.

Jenny was caught a couple of times, dodging the noose in 1733 and 1738, sentenced on both occasions to transportation to the American colonies. But life in Virginia being miserable she returned illegally from both sentences at the risk of her life (she only survived her second arrest by passing herself off under an alias). The third time broke the charm, sadly, in her last adventure she was nabbed like a tyro trying to pick a younger woman’s pocket of a few shillings. The victim snatched Jenny’s wrist in the act.

Jenny Diver’s hands, in their time, had profited her far more than needlework could have; they had given her a life of some comfort to compensate its perils; and at the end, they afforded their owner the last indulgence of a “mourning coach,” an enclosed carriage separate from the carts that hauled this day’s other 19 victims.

It was a rowdy hanging day with an unusual guard detail of soldiery: one of the prisoners had reported a pending rescue attempt, and for her resources and gang affiliations, Jenny was thought to be its intended beneficiary. (If the stool pigeon was hoping his own tattling would reprieve him, he was disappointed.) For reasons related or not, the crowd was in an ugly mood, as reported by the Newgate Ordinary:

In this Manner were they convey’d through a vast Multitude of People to Tyburn, some of whom, notwithstanding the Guard of Soldiers, were very rude and noisy, hallooing, throwing Brickbats, Mud, &c. at the unhappy Prisoners, as they passed.

Her notoriety would live on in cheap publications hawked by itinerant peddlers — 18th century precursors of the penny dreadful — that in Jenny’s case helpfully doled out tips on foiling pickpockets.

“Diver” as street slang for a pickpocket dated back 150 years before Jenny’s time.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s racist history, 1973: Black Panther Unity bookshop destroyed by arson attack, Brixton .

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids. The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…”_ Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.”_ In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

Brixton, with its large west indian population and a strong street culture that police saw as threatening, was a major target for police operations, which often turned into sieges of the area, mass arrests and beatings.

To this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, in Brixton, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In response, younger black activists, increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA, began to organise resistance to police violence. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, the Campaign Against Race Discrimination and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. It only lasted a few short years, but from it emerged the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met I think in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the UCPA.)

The UK Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, Brixton, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

The Panthers set up education classes for local kids, running Saturday schools and Black Studies groups, and had a library as well as organising anti-racist demos, producing both propaganda and informational material about black struggles around the world. They also ran social and cultural events: Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups…

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into groups like the Panthers.

The groups opposed everyday police racism and violence. And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In March 1970 (in fact 48 years ago tomorrow, the 16th) four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by the notorious Sgt. Ridgewell, at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested. Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment. However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House, Kennington, turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Unity Bookshop

In 1973 the Black Panthers squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, and their paper, Freedom News. Farrukh Dhondy, then a leading Panther member, takes up the story [a warning: it’s a shocking tale of a narrow escape from fire.]

“We used to run a newspaper called Freedom News and we had a lot of books for sale which we used to sell outside Brixton from another handcart, and Ridley Market in Dalston. So we had all these sorts of bookshop and we thought we should have a proper bookshop and so we squatted a place called 74 Railton Road on what was then playfully known as the frontline because people used to hang about there all the time and other activities. So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building, but a friend of mine called Keith, Keith Carling, he was an architect, he’d just finished architecture school, so he knew how to build and plaster and stuff. So, he put in toilets and showers and we made it decent. So we had two flats and we had a basement room in which a fellow who I can only remember as Afrika, because he called himself Afrika with a K, and he moved in there and he played the bongo drums most of the night and disturbed everybody, but the bookshop ground floor, me first floor… Keith first floor, me second floor, and on the 15th of March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking, I didn’t have a bed, I had a mattress on the floor, or a couple of mattresses on the floor, and I woke up choking wondering whether I’d left the fire on or what, what was choking me. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick, so I got up and stumbled towards the fire, but of course the fire was off, and then I saw the smoke coming through the shut door of the first floor. I opened that door door and the fire was raging on the staircase and I couldn’t get the door shut because of the draught, it was… it banged then and I went to the window, all this time not breathing now, so a minute/two minutes without breathing, you know what it’s like when you duck under water, and I opened the window and took one deep breath of fresh air or whatever there was. Nobody about and the glass of the front, the glass front of the bookshop was breaking outwards with booming noises, you know, which fire does, I believe, it heats up the glass, and blasts it outward, and I heard all these blasts and then I heard the neighbours shouting, ‘Oh god. Oh god’, you know all this, and I just shouted, you know, ‘Don’t call god, call the fire engine, yes?’ I was only in my underwear, so I didn’t know what to do, whether to grab my clothes, go back into the smoke-filled room, I was just gasping for air. I jumped from the thing, I had to get out because the fire was coming up, so I jumped and I landed in the burning glass, you know, red hot glass and cut my feet and broke my ankles and that, but I struggled up and by that time some neighbours had gone and called the people at Shakespeare Road, which was one of our bases, and Ira [ ]and I think Neil [Kenlock], people came out, they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he got a coat and he put a coat around me and sat me down on the steps and I waited until the fire engines and police and so on came. The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass. I didn’t hear a crash. So, I hung about, they phones friends for me and a couple of mates came. They said ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I just want to go to school’, right, where I was teaching, even though I had broken ankles. They took me to the thing and they bandaged it up, there was nothing they could do, that was it, so I sat on the steps until school opened, this was kind of 6.30, 7.00, and I sat there until the headmaster and people turned up and said, ‘Why are you in a coat and underwear?’ ‘Because I’ve got nothing else [laughs], this is a borrowed coat, the underwear is mine,’ and so that it was it. The newspapers said that evening, the morning papers didn’t have it, the Evening Standard, or whatever it was then, the Evening News, had five places had been bombed that night, and this bookshop was one of them, some Asian shops and some black project somewhere and all in the same day… the police never did anything. One neighbour said that it was a motorcyclist who chucked the bomb and moved on, so nothing ever happened, no prosecutions took place and the place was a shell, it was burnt out, that was the story…”

Police apathy towards the attack was hardly surprising – the frontline was widely despised by the cops, enemy territory they policed only in numbers and violently. The Panthers were vocal opponents of the cops; and police racism was notorious. In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

And bizarrely, even in Brixton, the then growing National Front did attempt to show its ugly face publicly. Several times in the decade, and at least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Southborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewis ham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

The arson attack on the Unity Bookshop, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another, was not a unique event. Racist fire-bombings in the 1970s were not even uncommon, often against Black and Asian people in their own homes, but also against black and anti-racist spaces, cultural venues or leftwing centres. Other high-profile targets of arson that was suspected to be fash-inspired at the very least, included the Albany Centre in Deptford, the nearby Moonshot youth Club in New Cross, the Commission for Racial Equality HQ, the SWP’s offices… to name but a few.

The most high profile fire believed to be the result of racist arson was the New Cross Fire in 1981, where 13 black teenagers died (another died of injuries later), which was ignored and played down by police, who did nothing to investigate. This horrific event sparked the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981, a huge angry march through London… And the climate of racist policing and blatant refusal to do anything about these kind of attacks contributed to the rage and hatred of the cops that gave birth to the 1981 riots…

But rightwing arson attacks didn’t end in the 70s or 80s… in our own time attempts were made to twice burn the 121 anarchist centre, just down Railton Road from the Black Panthers’ shop, in the early 1990s… (Their friendly neighbour chased off the crap arsonists in 1993)… and in 2013, the anarchist Freedom bookshop in Whitechapel was badly damaged by arson, again, probably by Nazis. The police stirred themselves again on that one… And its not only political targets: in recent years, tens of mosques have been targeted for arson, as have eastern European homes both before and since the Brexit referendum. Whether its active fascists, common or garden racists, little englanders – rightwingers love nothing so much as burning out foreigners and people who won’t put up with their swivel-eyed bollocks.

Postscript: The terrace that the Unity Bookshop was part of has, I think since been at least partly demolished. Many shopfronts were run down and empty at that time, and were regularly squatted for various projects. A couple of doors down from the short-lived Unity shop, a year later, no 78-80 Railton Rd, (in front of the also squatted St George’s Residences), included a squatted Claimants Union office, a women’s space, and the famous South London Gay Community Centre, around 1974-6.

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A brief introduction to the UK Black Panthers in Brixton and the racism and police violence they were resisting, can be read in past tense’s pamphlet ‘In the Shadow of the SPG’, which can be bought here

The interview with Farrukh Dhondy (who went from the Panthers, to seminal Black magazine Race Today, to writing and Channel Four), was lifted from the excellent ‘The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement’, interviews with and photos of the UK Panthers, published by Organised Youth.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

1968-2018: A Celebration of 50 years of Resistance and Campaigning – despite 50 years of police spying

Past Tense are taking part with many others groups and individuals, in planning the following program of events for July 2018, celebrating 50 years of resistance since 1968, but specifically focussing on groups spied on by undercover police from units like the Special demonstration
Squad, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit and others…

There will be many ’50 years since 1968′ events this year – but one element we and others targetted by spycops are hoping to push high on the agenda is that it was the demos against the Vietnam War in March and October 1968, the size and combativity of which which caught the
Metropolitan Police on the hop, that led directly to the creation of the Special Demonstration Squad. The SDS and its successor units targetted thousands of activists in hundreds of groups, from peace campaigners to trade unionists, from anarchists to MPs, from the families of people
murdered by racists to environmentalists; they abused women, acted as agent provocateurs and passed information to blacklisters.

We hope people will support this event among the many others going on; but although this is initially called to take place in London, we would encourage everyone out there to also take part and hope people will be inspired to create your own spycop-related events; to include links to
the repressive measures used against those of us fighting for social change in the debates, commemorations and discussions taking place in this important anniversary.

In particular, we encourage radical history groups and networks to get involved, either supporting the COPS event, or creating your own to coincide…

Spread the word!

Get in touch with past tense or the event email contact point below if you are interested.

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1968-2018: A Celebration of 50 years of Resistance, Campaigning and
Alternatives for A Better World 
despite 50 years of police opposition, spying and repression
Sat 7th / Sun 8th July 2018  

Sat 7th: Anniversary Roll Call / Commemoration / Celebration in
Grosvenor Square, London W1 @ 1pm – 3pm

Sun 8th: London Gathering and Exhibition

1st to 8th July  –  week of local events and activities around the UK

Download Info/poster

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MOVEMENTS FOR A BETTER WORLD GROW –
POLICE REACT WITH REPRESSIVE TACTICS

In 1968, following demonstrations against the Vietnam War in London’s Grosvenor Square, the police set up a Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). Since that time, 50 years ago, over 1,000 groups campaigning in the UK for a better world have been spied on, infiltrated and targeted by
political policing. Their protests and demonstrations are also subjected to ongoing police opposition and control to try to limit their effectiveness.

This targeting has included groups campaigning for equality, justice, the environment and international solidarity, for rights for women, LGBTQ, workers and for animals, for community empowerment, and those campaigning against war, racism, sexism, corporate power, legal
repression and police oppression and brutality. Such groups have represented many millions of people throughout the UK who want to make the world a better, fairer and more sustainable place for everyone.

Yet almost any group of any kind that stood up to make a positive difference has been or could have potentially been a target for secret political policing. We now know this because of campaigners’ recent efforts to expose and challenge the SDS and other similar secret units,
and their shocking and unacceptable tactics. Individuals within those campaign groups have been spied on, subjected to intrusions in their personal lives, been victims of miscarriages of justice, and many deceived into intimate and abusive relationships with secret police, ie people that who were not who they said they were. In July 2015 we succeeded in forcing Theresa May (now Prime Minister) to set up the current Undercover Policing Public Inquiry, which was tasked with
getting to the truth by July 2018, and insisting on action to prevent police wrong-doing in future. Now, 3 years on, the public inquiry has achieved very little due to police obstruction.
When the SDS was formed they stated that they would ‘shut down’ the movements they were spying on. But despite disgusting police tactics, movements for positive change are still here and growing, and have had many successes on the way.

CELEBRATE 50 YEARS OF CAMPAIGNS AND STRUGGLES, RESILIENCE AND SUCCESSES

This planned two-day event in London, backed up by a call for a week of actions all around the UK, is in support of those campaigning for full exposure and effective action at the Undercover Policing Inquiry, and against police attempts to delay and undermine it. We aim to encourage
more groups to find out about the Inquiry and how they can get involved and support each other, and to unite the many different groups and organisations who have been victims of our police state because of their efforts to improve society.

Backed by the Campaign to Oppose Police Surveillance [C.O.P.S.] –

Full info:
http://campaignopposingpolicesurveillance.com/2018/02/13/50-years-resistance-celebration/

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Affiliate to the C.O.P.S campaign:

Donate to the C.O.P.S campaign yourself here (you can add a note
specifying its for 50 yrs events if you wish):

Subscribe to the C.O.P.S. campaign newsletter here

Solidarity and thanks from the 50yrs events planning group!

50yrsevents@gmail.com

Today in London rebel history: ranter Jacob Bothumley has his tongue bored through, for blasphemy, 1650.

The Ranters formed the extreme left wing of the sects which came into prominence during the English Revolution, both theologically and politically. Theologically these sects lay between the poles of orthodox Calvinism, with its emphasis on the power and justice of God as illustrated in the grand scheme of election and reprobation, with its insistence upon the reality of Hell in all its most literal horrors and upon the most verbal and dogmatic acceptance of the Scriptures, and of antinomianism with its emphasis upon God’s mercy and universality, its rejection of the moral law, and with it, of Hell in any but the most figurative sense, and its replacement of the authority of the Scriptures by that of the inner light. The Ranters pushed all these beliefs to, and sometimes even a little beyond, their furthest logical conclusions, which, when acted upon, soon brought them into conflict with law and authority. The conviction that God existed in, and only in, material objects and men led them at once to a pantheistic mysticism and a crudely plebeian materialism, often incongruously combined in the same person. Their rejection of scripture literalism led sometimes to an entirely symbolic interpretation of the Bible and at others to a blunt and contemptuous rejection. Their belief that the moral law no longer had authority for the people of a new age enjoying the liberty of the sons of God led to a conviction that for them no act was sinful, a conviction that some hastened to put into practice.

The political views of the Ranters were the outcome of this theology. God existed in all things.

But man alone could be conscious of his Godhead and this gave to all a new and equal dignity. The poorest beggars, even “rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses” are “every whit as good” as the great ones of the earth. The Ranters, and they alone at this date, spoke for and to the most wretched and submerged elements of the population, slum dwellers of London and other cities, though to what extent their message reached these depths it is now hardly possible to say. In Coppe and Clarkson, in Foster and Coppin there is, in different degrees and forms, a deep concern for the poor, a denunciation of the rich and a primitive biblical communism that is more menacing and urban than that of Winstanley and the Diggers. Like the Diggers, and unlike Lilburne and his followers, they were ready to accept the name of Leveller in its most radical implications, but with the difference that for them God himself was the great Leveller, who was to come shortly “to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, to lay the Mountaines low”.  It is hardly accidental that the Ranters began to come into prominence soon after the Leveller defeat at Burford and would seem to have attracted a number of embittered and disappointed former Levellers. Where Levelling by sword and by spade had both failed what seemed called for was a Levelling by miracle, in which God himself would confound the mighty by means of the poorest, lowest and most despised of the earth.

The ideas of the Ranters were not new. They may be traced across Europe and across the centuries from the time, to go back no further, of Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century, with his doctrine of the three ages, in the last of which, shortly to be expected, the sons of God would enjoy perfect spiritual liberty. To trace the course of these ideas in any detail would take me far beyond my present scope – a few salient points only may be noted. A generation or so after Joachim, the Amurians in France added to his doctrine of the three ages a neo-platonic pantheism which declared that “all things are one because whatever is, is God”. Later, in Germany, the loosely connected groups which are known under the general name of the Brethren of the Free Spirit turned this idea into a way of living. While Joachim had expected the age of the spirit in the near future, the Brethren claimed that it was already here and exercised themselves the promised liberty of the sons of God. Sharing the perfection of God all that they did must of necessity be good: sin for them ceased to have a meaning. In the sixteenth century these beliefs received a new social dimension from Thomas Munzer, the leader of the great peasant insurrection of 1525, and among the Anabaptists of Munster. Through various channels they began to reach England, especially the artisans of London and East Anglia. As early as 1646 Thomas Edwards was denouncing those who declared,
That by Christs death, all the sins of all men in the world, Turks, Pagans, as well as Christians committed against the moral Law and the first covenant, are actually pardoned and forgiven, and this is the everlasting gospel; and thatthere is a salvation that shall be revealed in the last time which was not known to the Apostles themselves.

But it was among the Ranters above all that such beliefs and others related to them are found in the fullest and most uncompromising forms. What made them different in kind from their medieval predecessors was the fact that they were the heirs of a successful revolution which they still hoped to see carried to a victorious end. This is why Laurence Clarkson wrote on the title-page of A Single Eye that it was printed “in the Year that the Powers of Heaven and Earth Was, Is and Shall be, Shaken, yea Damned, till they be no more for Ever” and Abiezer Coppe that his Fiery Flying Roll was a “word from the Lord to, all the Great Ones of the Earth” printed “in the beginning of that notable day when the secrets of all hearts are laid open”. Many Ranters and their hearers had been in the forefront of the revolution and their sense of participation gave their message a force and universal applicability previously absent.

The central Ranter doctrine, from which all else logically flows, concerns the nature of God and man and their relationship. John Holland, whose book, The Smoke of the Bottomlesse Pit, though hostile, contains perhaps the clearest and most objective account of Ranter doctrine, writes:
They maintain that God is essentially in every creature, and that there is as much of God in one creature, as in another, though he doth not manifest himself so much in one as in another: I saw this expression in a Book of theirs, that the essence of God was as much in the Ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel. . . . They say there is no other God but what is in them, and also in the whole Creation, and that men ought to pray and seek to no other God but what was in them.
The titles they give God are these: They call him The Being, the Fulnesse, the Great Motion, Reason, the Immensity.

But the groups and individuals labelled ranters were quickly and heavily repressed by Cromwell’s more orthodox, if puritan regime.

As an example: On Monday, 11 March 1650 Jacob Bothumley, a Leicester shoemaker who had risen to the rank of Quartermaster in the parliamentary army, was tried by a court martial at Whitehall upon several articles of blasphemy contained in his book The Light and Dark sides of God (printed for the pro-Leveller printer William Larner at the Black-more in Bishopsgate-street, 1650).

Bothumley was reported to have taken part in possibly heretical services in Leicester earlier in the deacde, along with his family: At one Bury’s house 2 ministers Mr. Higginson and Mr. Burdin stood by while Bottomley the shoemaker of Leicester prayed.” Bury may be the same person as Jeremiah Burroughs’ who was a noted puritan preacher, an opponent of the civl war presbyterian parliament; Bothumley’s family were said to have been ostracised for hosting Burroughs’ preaching in their house. He was also in trouble for causing a disturbance in All Saints Church. Like many civil war radicals, he served in the Army, which is where he wrote his book. Bothumley is generally lumped in the doctrines of the group called ‘ranters’ by their detractors of the time, and he was treated by the authorities as many other ‘ranters’ were – his books condemned and burned, and he physically punished.

The town authorities of Leicester were sufficiently alarmed by The Dark and Light Sides of God to send it to London for advice, since it seemed to them to be “of a very dangerous consequence and lets open a very wide dore to Atheisme and profanes”.

If there was a central Ranter doctrine, it concerned the nature of God and man and their relationship. As Bothumley wrote:
I see that God is in all Creatures, Man and Beast, Fish and Fowle, and every green thing, from the highest Cedar to the Ivey on the wall; and that God is the life and being of them all, and that God doth really dwell, and if you will personally; if he may admit so low an expression in them all, and hath his Being no where else out of the Creatures.

Bothumley’s book hints at a spiritual struggle, a process which features in many ranter literature of the time; though he describes it in in much less detail than Salmon or Coppe:

I was continually suffering the torment of Hell, and tossed up and down, being condemned of my self … And this is that I found til God appeared spiritually, and shewed me that he was all glory and happiness himself and that flesh was nothing … God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the

Sons of God, whereas I was before in bondage to sin, law, an accusing Conscience which is Hell.

As a result of Leicester alerting the government, Bothumley was tried in London, and condemned to have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron and his sword broken over his head, to be cashiered from the army and to have his book burned before his face in the Palace Yard, Westminster and at the Exchange, London. Sentence was executed on Thursday, 14 March 1650. Copies of his book were also sent to Leicester and Hertford – where he had probably preached – to be burned. This attempt by military authorities to prevent Bothumley from spreading his opinions through the spoken and written word was partially successful, but he continued as an active Ranter in Leicester, to which he returned after his Army service, and Quaker George Fox met him at nearby Swannington in 1655:

“And the next day Jacob Bottomley came from Leicester, a great Ranter, but the Lord’s power stopped him and came over them all….
And we sent to the Ranters to come forth and try their God, and there came abundance who were rude, as aforesaid, and sung and whistled and danced, but the Lord’s power so confounded them that many of them came to be convinced.”

By about 1660, however, he appears to have become sufficiently respectable to be appointed library keeper and sergeant-at-mace in Leicester. He did dispute with Quakers at some point, but his only other publication apart from The Light and Dark Sides of God, his only other publication was A brief Historical Relation of the most Material Passages and Persecutions of the Church of Christ (printed for William Redmayne at the Crown upon Addle Hill, 1676). Dedicated to the Mayor and Aldermen of Leicester, this ‘little Treatise’ compiled from the first, second and third books of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments was intended to show the sufferings of those in former ages ‘whom God hath called out and made eminent, in the witnessing of his truth’.

Read The Dark and Light Sides of God

More on the ideas and fate of the ranters can be read here

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in radical herstory, 1918: NUWSS celebrate (some) women winning the vote.

On the 13th of March 1918, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies held a victory celebration, at Queens Hall, Great Portland Street, in London’s West End, after women over 30 won the right to vote. The 1918 Representation of the People Act, passed in 1917, given royal assent in February 1918, extended the franchise to all men over 21 years old, but only women over 30 who held £5 of property, or had husbands who did. This meant an additional 5.6 million men and 8.4 million women, were now entitled to vote.

Over fifty years of campaigning, through many different organisations, a wide variety of tactics, had brought women to this point. For some of the women activists of the NUWSS, they had literally devoted their lives to the struggle.

At the time the 1918 Representation of the People Act seemed a major victory for the suffragist movements. Millicent Fawcett called the enactment of the act the greatest moment in her life. A victory party was held by suffragist societies at the Queen’s Hall in March 1918. Having witnessed in one act a jump from 0 to 8.4 million in terms of the number of women who could vote, many did see the act as a victory. However, there were women who still saw the act as a betrayal as it still classed them as second class citizens to men. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave all men over the age of 21 the right to vote (and aged 19 if the men had been on active service in the armed forces). Therefore, politically women were still not the equal to men in Britain even after the 1918 act.

While some continued to agitate for the extension of the vote to women on the same terms as men (which would take another ten years of campaigning), others were worn out and became disillusioned…

The Queens Hall celebration took the form of a concert; interestingly this featured a performance of the song ‘Jerusalem’, a William Blake poem set to music by composer Hubert Parry, who had happily accepted NUWSS guru Millicent Garret Fawcett’s request to use the song at the party – suffragists had been singing it for a year or so to Parry’s tune. Parry had been a supporter of suffrage and even assigned copyright of Jerusalem to the NUWSS. Jerusalem has come so far since Blake’s day, and is now considered almost an alternative national anthem – though this was clearly far from Blake’s intent (or even Parry’s, possibly).
The celebration also featured a large display of suffragist banners, speakers from the movement, most notably the NUWSS’s president and most illustrious activist Millicent Garret Fawcett…

“The Queens Hall celebration on March 13th, differed from all the thousands of Suffrage meetings that have gone before it not in degree, but in kind. We have. Most of us, very chequered recollections of the meetings of the past. We have all enjoyed some of them; it seems doubtful whether even the most cheerful member of the NUWSS can have enjoyed all. Even if some happy soul can look back with pleasure to all the gatherings in all the halls, and all the drawing rooms, and at al the street corners, which they have organized or at which they have spoke or listened in the past, they will admit that the enjoyment on the most delightful of those occasions was different and inferior in kind to what we felt on Wednesday night. Then we were striving for out freedom; now in great measure we have gained it. It was a wonderful meeting of numbers of those who have struggled side by side…”

Groups that took part included the Actresses Franchise League, the British Dominions Women’s Suffrage union, Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, Free church League for Women’s Suffrage, Hastings and St Leonards Women’s Suffrage Propaganda League, Irishwomens’ Suffrage Federation, Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage, Marchers Qui Vive Corps, Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, National Council for Adult Suffrage, National Industrial and Professional Women’s Suffrage Society, New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage, Scottish Churches League for Women’s Suffrage, Scottish University Women’s Suffrage Union, the United Suffragists, and the Women’s Freedom League…

Theres images on flickr of reports from the meeting here and here

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And here’s some musings… on the vote, campaigns for the vote, movements for social change, and the passing of time.

… on the hundredth anniversary of some women, and most of the remaining men) in the UK being ‘given’ the vote, in 1918.

Past Tense publishes ‘historically’ oriented texts, not because we want to live in the past, or as some sort of academic archeology, but because we desire a different present and hope to be part of building a future free from class divisions, hierarchy, and social relations based on property, wealth, and wage labour. We’re not historians; our interest in history is partly for inspiration and a link to people like us in the past, partly for a search for the origins of the world we inhabit, and partly to keep the story of struggles for a better existence alive. Exploration of ideas, shared experiences, ways of working and living freely together, are vital parts of this struggle, and discussion of ideas and movements of the past are central to why we study history, as is the geography of the areas we live work and play in, and understanding how they evolve, and are altered by social change. While we have used the term ‘radical history’ in the past to describe projects we have been involved in, some of us at are dissatisfied with it, both because the word ‘radical’ is broad and open to many interpretations, and because focussing on ‘history’ blinkers us a bit when what we’re interested inhabits many other fields as well: urban geography, philosophy, economics and much more.

Remembering events, personalities, and battles of days gone by is hollow and meaningless if not linked to social change in our own lives, and just as our contributions to present theoretical and practical debate should be critical of ideas we disagree with, we extend this to our delves into the past. While some historians believe in objectivity, refusing to comment critically on the ideas of past times (and while its true that you can’t impose the ideas and values of today on people living through times when those ideas and values hadn’t developed), its also fair to say that movements of the past were not monolithic, and a wide variety of ideas emerged, changed, evolved and conflicted. We don’t hold with shying away from being critical of ideas we disagree with; but we also see that its important to remember that a broad array of social movements in past centuries, with widely diverse ideas and tactics, contributed to improvements in people’s lives, to freeing up of ways of living.

As a result we feel it’s worth both celebrating the achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, AND being critical of her slide into nationalist chauvinism.

The current flood of stories celebrating the extension of the voting franchise to women over 30 in 1918 has speaked much discussion, both around how far women’s liberation has come and how much is yet to achieve, and around the militant tactics of many of the women’s suffrage campaigners of a century ago.

There is little attention paid to the very real split in the movement campaigning for women’s suffrage – the ‘Militant’ versus ‘Constitutional’ suffragette division… Or why it arose; or even whether one was more effective than the other; or whether both contributed to the 1918 victory.

And amidst all the lauding of suffrage movements, it is never explicitly stated – but terror tactics that the militant suffragettes employed would get you jailed today, no question, and also spied on by the police, as the militant suffragettes were, and campaigners have been more recently by the  Special Demonstration Squad, NPIOU, etc… Time, and the fact of having ‘won’, distances the ‘terrorist’ label… No tory today could get away with labelling Nelson Mandela or Emmeline Pankhurst a terrorist, though they did at the time and merrily do so to anyone carrying out similar direct action tactics now.

The other elephant in the room is the huge comeback of chauvinism and male sexism, and the equally huge undercurrent of feminism still necessary to combat it.

Some of the history of divisions, diversity of tactics, and contradictions of the women’s suffrage movement ought to be aired more widely, in the midst of the self-congratulations of politicians.

In 1888, a majority of members of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first nationwide coalition of groups advocating women’s right to vote, voted to allow affiliation from organisations linked to political parties. This cause the NSWS to split into a number of factions. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Franchise League, whose inaugural meeting was held at her Bloomsbury home in July 1889. The League was seen as a radical suffrage group, because it also advocated equality in inheritance and divorce law, and campaigned on wider social issues; more traditional suffrage activists denounced them as the “extreme left” of the women’s movement. The group was short-lived however, divisions arose when, in 1892, Emmeline disrupted a public meeting by pioneer suffragist Lydia Becker (who had come down on the other side in the NSWS split); in 1893 the League fell apart. In the same year the Pankhursts moved back up north. 
Emmeline and other suffragists later founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; they believed the existing pressure groups had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed… The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became the dominant issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support. When the first World War broke out, though, both the ‘militant’ and ‘constitutional’ suffrage organisations ended their campaign (now’s not the time, stand by our country, blah blah) and threw their considerable organising ability into mass support for the war effort: or whipping up nationalistic hysteria to help push thousands of men to march off to slaughter and be slaughtered, as it’s known in the trade. Emmeline and other leading suffragists pushed for compulsory conscription, denounced pacifists, strikers and other war resisters as betraying the national interest; on at least one occasion Emmeline grassed up leaders of a strike and got them drafted and sent to the trenches. A small minority in the WSPU (including Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, who had already been expelled from the WSPU for her left-leaning ideas), and a large minority in the NUWSS, plus some of the Women’s Freedom League, whose members had left the WSPU protesting the autocratic control of the Pankhursts) opposed the War and continued to fight for reform. Some, like Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard, for instance, moved further left during the war, coming to communist and in some cases anti-parliamentary positions; an interesting trajectory from campaigning for the vote, though not without its logic at the time.

But the large-scale involvement of women doing the jobs of men off dying in the trenches was quoted as an influential factor in the introduction of suffrage reform in 1918, when women over 30 won the vote.

It wouldn’t be to denigrate their sincerity or militancy, or the viciousness of the repression they faced, to say their class backgrounds to a large extent coloured the ideas of some leading suffrage campaigners. For instance, Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband hired a servant to help with the children, so that “she should not be “a household machine” and could spend time fighting for Women’s Suffrage. Presumably then, the servant became the ‘household machine’. More than reflecting itself in their social relations, did their social position help to push the Pankhursts to assume autocratic control within the WSPU? To capitulation to class snobbery, as with Christabel Pankhurst’s later moral improvement campaigns against working class men’s ‘inherent disgustingness’, and to nationalism and war mongering when World War 1 came? Its hard to say with the latter case, as most contemporary socialists and radicals of both sexes and all classes, it has to be said, joined in the war effort supporting the slaughter of millions.
Emmeline’s early enthusiasm for socialism is often contrasted to her later Tory politics, but it would be interesting to know how much her increasing dislike of socialist groups and trade unions was influenced by the widespread hostility of many male trade unionists, and members of organisations like the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation, to the women’s struggle to assert themselves politically, especially around the 1890s/1900. (For example, when her husband Richard, a long-standing ILP member and worker for womens’ rights, died, a radical newspaper launched an appeal to support the Pankhurst family since their debts partly resulted from their political activity. Emmeline, however, refused to accept the money to pay for her children’s education, asking that the money should be used to build a socialist meeting hall in Richard’s memory. However when the hall was completed in 1903, she discovered that the Independent Labour Party branch that used it would not allow women to join. this and many similar examples of blatant inequality in the supposedly progressive movement gradually helped to push her out of it.) Traditional attitudes towards a woman’s role in society prevailed among men who in other ways were reasonably ‘progressive’, such that women’s suffrage groups had to on occasion fight physical battles to use ‘radical’ meeting places, and women workers were excluded from many trade unions and jobs… There were large numbers of exceptions to this, but the viciousness of the disapproval from what they may have at one time thought of as natural allies contributed to some of Emmeline and other WSPUers’ growing distance from the ‘labour movement’. (The WSPU has generally been characterised as a middle class organisation, but the majority of membership were working class women, especially in northern England, though also in London in areas like the East End, Lewisham and Woolwich; and there were several women of working class origins in the national leadership.While it’s also true that with no formal constitution, the WSPU could sometimes operate top-down, some historians have found evidence of greater democracy in many branches; others assert a democratic approach would not have been practical in its illegal militant activities… The last being an organisational question that rumbles on today…)

I hope it is not taken as ‘whataboutery’ to mention that this year is not only the 100th anniversary of women first being included, but also the 170th anniversary of the last great upsurge in the Chartist movement, possibly the largest political movement of working class people in this country of the last 200 years. A movement that had climaxed ten years before in mass rallies, an abortive general strike and then attempts at insurrection and revolutionary plotting, but had been heavily hampered by government repression, mass arrests and jailings, and drifted into infighting, dilution by alliances with middle class organisations. It’s worth noting that although the movement as a whole was bent on winning the vote for all adult men, Chartism contained a sizable female contingent (including the Female Democratic Associations), with some working to win men the vote and some even, heretically, suggesting that women too should be included… In 1848 the movement revived, focused on the 3rd petition for the Charter, with the famous rally and march from Kennington Common and attempt to reach parliament. The march did not achieve its aim, nor did a summer of riots or the plotting of the ‘Ulterior Committee’ that failed, again, to launch a radical uprising (like the suffragettes, the Chartists were under heavy police observation, penetrated by spies). The Chartist movement went into permanent decline after this… It took another 19 years before some working class men won the vote (again by mass campaigning), in 1867, then this franchise was again extended in 1884, but it was only in 1918 that anything resembling universal MALE suffrage was achieved.

Chartism was always divided (as the radical and reform movements had been for the fifty years before it) over the question of ‘physical force’ – whether violent action would be needed to push through the social change they demanded. Though the government feared Chartism’s revolutionary potential, in reality, revolution was always unlikely – mostly because the movement was kept in bounds by some cautious leaders and a largely cautious membership. The Newport uprising, the unrealised Sacred month of 1839, the Sheffield and Bradford plots of 1840, the 1848 plans to revolt aside, the rhetoric was often more violent than the reality. This is not to denigrate Chartism, which was a huge cultural and social force, as much as political and the legacies of its penetration into every aspect of daily life for millions did help produce the pressure in the 1860s and 1880s that did achieve part of the Chartist program.Why did chartists not go for individual acts of violence, while later movements did? By 1907, when the WSPU began their militant campaign for the women’s vote, time had very much changed. ‘Terror’ tactics had been common currency in many parts of the world for several decades, particularly individual acts of violence, which had proved effective shockers to the authorities when employed by nationalist or socialist/anarchist/etc circles (though their actual effect on social change remains open to debate). However, does class background, and the type/origin of your political movement, have an impact on the kind of direct action and violence you see as legit/effective? Are Middle class activists more likely to plump for individual acts of violence? Are class conscious proles more in favour of collective anonymous riot-style shindigs? Discuss…

The WSPU – NUWSS split shows that division over violence was still as fierce it had been 60 years before, and (despite the historically greater celebration of the actions WSPU) the ‘constitutional’ wing membership was always larger. But the question of the relation of mass movements to their smaller more ‘militant’ wings remains active, and the question of which achieved the results –  radical or moderate- is as hotly debated in present day activism as much as dusty historical exchanges. Did the poll tax see off Thatcher? If so was it mass non-payment wit dun it? Or the riots? Or both? The history of resistance to enclosure of common land and open spaces almost always shows up respectable campaigners and a direct action element – the list is as long as your arm.

The vote – for many chartists it wasn’t just about equality. Many saw even just getting the vote as a chance for working class to reshape society more in their own interests, redress economic power of the aristos and capitalists. A minority went further and articulated the need for working class power – to seize control of society completely. Many female suffrage activists 50-60 years later saw things in not dissimilar terms – that while equality was vital, the vote was a means towards a share in power, in the ability to decide policy and shape the way lives were organised, and in whose interests. Anarchists, and some anti-parliamentary socialists, of course, to some extent, decried the question of the vote, both as a distraction from where power really lies in capitalist society, and on the grounds that direct participation and control at a grassroots level trump representative democracy. Anarchist activists and writers also questioned whether the most immediate fight for many women was over the vote, or against the power the men in their own households had over them. Intelligent ruling class strategists worked out that ‘granting’ the vote could defuse more serious pressures… This was especially an issue at the end of World War 1 when revolution was seizing much of Europe and army mutinies and mass strikes seemed to threaten something similar here, at least to scared posh folk.

Press, politicians and all sorts of trite liberal commentators this month have been busy congratulating themselves that ‘we’ have reached the position of equality we have – decoded, meaning that further extensions in power to control our own lives on a day to day level are unnecessary, but that lip service can be paid to social movements that fought to bring us to where we are today. Actions celebrated when its historical would get you ten years in prison now, and the same voices lauding the suffragettes would jail anyone using similar direct action to

Neither the Chartist and suffrage movements were remotely homogeneous and both reflected wide class and other contradictions. Which were evident and open at the time, and should be discussed now, not brushed under a happy clappy carpet of ‘we’re all fine now ‘. Women fighting make violence, rape, systematic power imbalance, pay discrimination, unwaged reproductive labour, not to mention the intersection of race, class and gender relations, beg to differ. But I’ve also seen it recently expressed that ‘second wave feminism’ (meaning the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s-80s, broadly) achieved little and was only ever a movement of white middle class women interested in their own advancement. This huge historical slur is similar in some ways to some of the criticisms if the suffragettes (and not a million miles from over-simplifications levelled at Chartists). Yes, these movements had limits she seen from both our times and even according to the arguments of the time. But they all helped create the world we have, helped win gains we have enjoyed – limited as they be.

Their struggles also helped create the spaces our own movements operate in… People sometimes want to re-invent the wheel as if previous generations had never ridden, or pretend the wheel was square until they got hold of it and shaved off the corners. Young people eh? Read some fucking history.

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Today in London’s anti-war history, 1900: meeting against Boer War attacked by police.

For socialists the Boer War of 1899-1902 was a prefiguration of their experiences in the First World War, and in many ways the similarities are quite marked. Jingoism had been growing for years, imperialism was at its height, the ‘rush for Africa’ – of which the Boer War was the culmination – all had contributed to a climate of the most extreme chauvinism.

War finally came on October 9th, 1899.

On October 22nd, the socialist movement around Islington, North London, a vocal and growing prescence on the streets, had its first test, when an anti-War meeting at Newington Green Road was broken up by a mob singing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘We are Soldiers of the Queen’. The only arrest was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) speaker Percy Kebell, a 21-year- old clerk.

But the meetings, and the attacks, continued. On March 5th, 1900, a ‘pro-Boer’ meeting at Highbury Corner was attacked by a mob which had gathered in response to leaflets calling on ‘all loyal Englishmen’ to turn up and oppose it. On March 11th and 19th there were further socialist meetings at the same venue, both of which were broken up by the police after there had been serious fighting. It was probably one of these meetings which is described in W. S. Cluse’s entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

Will Cluse with other socialists was on one occasion holding a meeting at Highbury Corner, and the crowd were becoming hostile. The socialists decided it was time to go, if they wanted to escape manhandling. Making a sudden rush, they boarded a horse-bus at the junction of Holloway Road and Upper Street, with the crowd at their heels. They climbed the steep ladder to the top deck, and kept their opponents at bay by stamping on their fingers as they reached the top rung. Finally they were able to put themselves into protective custody at the police station in Upper Street.

T.A. Jackson, in his autobiography Solo Trumpet, described another of this series of Highbury Corner meetings which had a rather different outcome:

The Tories resolved to smash the meeting up; the radicals took the precaution of mobilising the gymnasium class of the Mildmay Radical Club [Newington Green] to act as ‘stewards’. Quite a pretty battle was in progress when the issue was decided by the local SDF, who when the fight started were pitched nearby. Abandoning their own meeting the socialists, led by their Chairman, a useful middle-weight of local fame, fell upon the Tories and routed them with ‘great slaughter’. 

The active participation of the Mildmay Radical Club on Newington Green (still there, btw!!) in the agitation against the Boer War was no accident. The Club was one of the few remaining working mens’ political clubs which retained some remnants of the spirit they had embodied in the 1870s and 1880s. In particular these working-class radicals had a formidable record of anti-imperialism.; The regular and systematic attacks on ‘pro-Boer’ meetings were an ominous foretaste of the World War, as was the fact that it appears there was not a single arrest of those who attacked the anti-War meetings in North London. Another parallel with future events was the split in the ‘socialist’ movement. Both the Fabians and the Clarion newspaper supported the War. Robert Blatchford, the editor of the latter, which had by far the largest circulation of any of the socialist movement’s journals, wrote in its October 1899 issue:

I cannot go with those socialists whose sympathies are with the enemy. My whole heart is with the British Troops. . . until the war is over I am for the Government.

After the Boer War the socialist movement underwent a whole series of convulsions which reflected widely different approaches as to what socialism was and how it would be achieved. These divisions had deep roots, going back to and even beyond the formal emergence of the Social Democratic Federation in 1884. The Fabians, the Social Democratic Federation/British Socialist Party and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) all shared – although there were countervailing forces within all of them – a vision of socialism in which the main emphasis was on taking over the commanding heights of the economy by the state or municipal authorities.

(This post is a slightly edited excerpt from Ken Weller’s Don’t Be a Soldier).

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Yesterday in publishing history: scandalous and seditious pamphlets banned, 1643.

“Oh printing! How has thou disturb’d the Peace of Mankind!”
(Andrew Marvell)

The spread of printing, the beginnings of regular challenge to the social, religious, political status quo, is intimately bound up with the early life of the pamphlet.

The printed pamphlet appears almost from the earliest beginnings of printing, though there were handwritten pamphlets before that (certainly there are reports of heretical tracts circulated among the Lollards in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, which must have been handwritten); it is with the spread of the printing press that the political pamphlet was really born.

The very form of the pamphlet – short, cheap, to the point – lent itself to spread of ideas among wider sections of society. Partly this arises from their practicality, convenience: a pamphlet can be easily concealed, stuffed in a pocket or passed secretly- useful if your ideas are illegal, suspect, samizdat. More than this, there’s always been an immediacy, accessibility, a sense of openness and egalitarianism about them… as well as disposability. You have to contrast printed pamphlets and broadsheets, mass produced, cheap, with the laboriously beautiful (mainly religious) works, hand copied by monks, seen by the few, all written in Latin or other rarefied languages… The pamphlet by definition, was like a shock to the system… Crucially early pamphlets were often 8 pages, printed on quarto size paper – meaning they were cheap, and could be printed, folded, cut and shifted quickly…

This egalitarian influence was reflected in the way pamphlets (and broadsheets, ballads etc) were sold: by balladsellers, hawkers, so called mercury women, selling them in the streets.

They were also passed around, hand to hand, one copy might be shared, or read aloud even by one literate person to others who couldn’t read (much the same as newspapers were later). This culture, in the street and pub, slum and garret, was the ever-widening venue for a growing democratisation of ideas: the street hawkers of broadsheets and pamphlets were generally politically radical, associated with popular groups like the Levellers…

Pamphlets were also clandestinely distributed in times of repression: they could be scattered about the streets and nailed to doors, thrown around in crowds… Edward Sexby’s Killing No Murder (1657), justifying the right to assassinate Oliver Cromwell, was distributed in this way; smuggled in from Holland, bundles passed out to sympathisers in the radical Baptist and fifth monarchist underground and disillusioned republicans, then scattered in the streets, at night, including at Charing Cross and other important public meeting points… (This aroused fierce repression, leading to Sexby’s arrest and death in prison).

Particular areas of cities, particular streets, were associated with printing, bookselling, publishing…. eg in the early modern City of London, St Paul’s Churchyard, Cripplegate Ward; parts of Seven Dials in Covent Garden… some of these were also well known for radical ideas, religious dissent, debates, the coffee house culture of discussion…. Publishing didn’t really get going as a capitalist industry till the 18th century: small publishers and booksellers, were the main producers for centuries. Non-conformists in religion and politics were always strongly represented in this culture. The radicals who wrote some of the classic pamphlets and books that defined the English Civil War, or marked the period of the French Revolution in England – Lilburne, Winstanley, Paine, Godwin, Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, among others – moved, met, discussed, in this environment, for example.

Pamphlets were by some, mainly among the learned, looked down on, sneered at, considered of little value. Thomas Bodley (founder of Oxford university’s famous Bodleian Library) was against preserving pamphlets in libraries: they were “not worth the custody in suche a librarie.” There was a kind of snobbery, an association of the form with déclassé ideas, disreputable subjects. But also because in early decades of printing, the size of a book signified prestige: pamphlets almost by definition came from those without money to print bigger works.

They were dismissed as poor quality, shabby, ephemeral, and associated with slander, scurrilous attacks, unrespectable and vulgar opinions; with unreliable, unruly or heretical and subversive overtones.

Just a couple of typical sneers at pamphlets, which also reflect the shock to the system that this kind of publishing represented; Samuel Daniel called them:

”These Pamphlets, Libels and Rhymes
These strange confused tumults of the minde…”

While Gabriel Harvey referred to “such luxurious, and rioutous Pamphlets… O straunge fancies, o monstrous newfanglednesse…” (1592).

The very words used for these publications had disreputable associations: at one point in the 16th century the word pamphelet also meant prostitute, suggesting these publications were kind of dirty, immoral, promiscuous, available to all, but for sale, to any bidder…

… and another word for a short stitched publication was libel, from French libelle, originally simply meaning ‘small book’, but its use as political and religious weapon in french wars of religion, often through satire, lead gradually to the modern meaning of libel as we use it: something slanderous, dangerous and possibly seditious.

But though pamphlets were deliberately labeled as unrespectable, a kind of sleazy cousin of the more upstanding book, their appeal rapidly became so broad that the authorities and respected authors stooped to use the form, (sometimes with the air of a banker forced to clean a toilet) From Henry VIII on, Tudor and Stuart administrations used pamphlets, backed by the state or often more at arms length, by proxy, through sympathisers, to mobilise public opinion in face of rival royal claimants, religious schisms, foreign invasion threats and catholic sedition… as well as reply to popular heretical tracts.

All forms of printing were subject to controls and censorship from the earliest. In 1559 queen Elizabeth instructed the Court of High Commission (the supreme church court) that part of their duties included the licensing and monitoring of pamphlets, plays and ballets, to make sure that “nothing therein should be either heretical, seditious or unseemly for Christian ears”. Every legally published title required prior approval, a licence to publish, from an appointed censor (generally an episcopalian cleric), who inevitably exercised an ‘uneven hand’, since that approval was withheld from texts challenging political or ecclesiastical authority.

Printers and booksellers were forced to submit to licensing and thus censorship by the crown, church authorities or the Stationers Company for a century and a half or more.

Illicit printers were often had up for their activities; in the 1640s printers could be tried in Parliament itself… Offending, heretical, subversive pamphlets were often ordered to be burned publicly, as sometimes were their authors…

But the rules were widely flouted (especially for heretical or politically subversive causes, but also in the production of dubious texts and images produced for profit) and underground presses proliferated, printing not only religious works outside accepted church teaching, but also early porn, dodgy poetry, sensationalist news and fantastic tales, news of monstrous births, outlaws, final speeches of the hanged, etc. Groups like the Levellers ran underground printing presses, which were often raided at the height of their struggle with Cromwell in the late 1640s, but as one was closed down, another would open up…

The 16th century wars of religion were instrumental in galvanizing the rise of the pamphlet. In France in the 1580s-1590s, real civil war between catholics and protestants was mirrored in a war of words; in England, similarly, pamphlets appeared replying, arguing to others – the orthodox protestant church was attacked not only by catholics backed from abroad, but by more radical puritans pushing for more extreme forms.

Which is why the term ‘pamphlet war’ appeared in the 1590s. As did the word ‘pamphleteer’, someone who made a living or was well known for writing pamphlets… From 1580s pamphlets began to replace the broadsheet ballad as the leading way of spreading news in print.

And as they became more popular and read more widely, innovators began to develop new forms and styles, and methods of production. Pamphleteers began to play with the look of pamphlets, experimenting with typography, adopting satirical pseudonyms and publication addresses, (taking the piss out of the strict rules of the licensing system, which required a publishers name and address) or deliberately plain language, as opposed to the complex wordiness used in orthodox theological debate. Some of these developments were partly by necessity of the form – eg you have to express yourself shortly and sharply if you have restricted space, heretical writers (under sentence of death if caught) have to disguise their name and address… But necessity was turned to sharp advantage. The form of the pamphlet resulted from AND influenced its content.

The rapid increase of pamphlets appearing in different languages across Europe, was also very important. Latin, language of the church and universities, used in most books (even by the reforming Humanists) excluded the unlearned (ie almost everyone). Publishing in English in England, for example, involved a real opening up of ideas, knowledge, opinion to whole new classes, and pamphleteering played a leading part in that process.

Pamphlets came into their own in 17th century, most particularly during the English Revolution. Through the early half of the 17th century, a previously relatively narrow social/economic order was threatened by a welling up of radical religious, political and social ideas.

Among those sections of society concerned to keep to, or return things to, the traditional path, to more closed forms of social relations, many (of those expressing these views in print) laid part of the blame for the breakdown of traditional mores on the pamphlet, and more specifically on the loosening of controls on printing, from the royal patronage of the early Tudors to a more commercial and ideological free for all. The tone was pretty much summed up as, look, you let the plebs write too much, read too much, express themselves, and look what happened – civil war etc. Within the parliamentary side itself, the moderates and those in power trod a double path of trying to loosen king Charles/episcopate control and censorship over their views, while trying to keep a lid on the more radical opinions bursting out among their own ‘supporters’/allies… so you get leading Puritan Minister Richard Baxter denouncing the explosion of cheap print, books, pamphlets: “Every ignorant, empty braine… hath the liberty of the Presse… whereby the number of bookes is grown so great that they begin with many to grow contemptible” (1648); he later (1653) he identified “the… Licentiousness of the Press of late… a design of the Enemy to bury and overwhelm… Judicious, Pious, Excellent Writings.”

Marvell also weighed in: “Oh printing! How has thou disturb’d the Peace of Mankind! That Lead, when moulded into bullets, is not so mortal as when founded into Letters.”

Both Milton and Marvell likened the output of the press to the dragon’s teeth sown by Cadmus in the Greek myth, that ‘sprang up armed men’. Words were dangerous seeds… that can bring forth subversive actions.

Repression and censorship and the struggle to find ways around it was actually a constant process through the years of the English civil war. In the years immediately before the war actually broke out, acute political and religious battles produced a ferment of ‘libelles’, which the government and church leaders viciously cracked down on. For printed matter, regulations originating in the sixteenth century required every prospective publication to be licensed by a censor and then recorded in the register in the Stationer’s Office. After 1637, the rules got tighter: printed materials had to include the name of the person who authorized the publication. The Star Chamber, a “royal prerogative court”, administered these rules – it could punish offenders with fines, imprisonment, or various kinds of corporal mutilation. In the seventeenth century the Star Chamber ordered ever more vicious punishments, climaxing in the mutilation of Puritans Henry Burton, John Bastwick and William Prynne in 1637 for publishing puritan rhetoric. Their merciless punishment scandalised many.

The challenge to the king, his circle and the high church establishment, which began in Scotland in 1637 and culminated in the outbreak of civil war, led to the crumbling of government enforcement of censorship in early 1641, as Parliament dissolved Charles I’s prerogative courts, including the Star Chamber, removing the mechanisms by which censorship and licensing laws had been enforced.

This unleashed a flood of publishing, an unrivalled broadening of written democracy, “the most effusive public participation in national politics to date. In the Freedom of the Press in England, 1476-1776, Frederick Siebert shares some helpful statistics on the quantity of printed output: “An analysis preserved in the Thomason collection in the British Museum shows that although only twenty-two pamphlets were published in 1640, more than 1,000 were issued in each of the succeeding four years. The record number of 1,966 appeared in 1642”

However, the vast majority of MPs, having whipped popular participation in the movement against the king, particularly using the press, once they gained control, decreed that the press must be controlled in the interests of the state and of religion. The Parliament which had challenged the king over its own authority and asserted the economic, political and social power of the rising classes it was coming to represent, was in no way prepared to see unfettered freedom of expression for the lower orders and every radical tom, puritan dick or freethinking harry. They could be enlisted to fight the king, but should not expect to determine their own destiny, or even to be able to express their own views in print.

“As it turned out, neither the Independents nor the Presbyterians, the Royalists nor the Roundheads, Parliament nor the Army, the Council of State nor Cromwell, had any real solution for the problem of printed news. Each cried out for a measure of freedom while rising to power; each sought to buttress acquired authority through some measure of control. To what extent and in what directions this control should be exercised was the immediate question presented to each.

When free speech was favourable to Parliament’s agenda to overthrow the Crown, the Roundheads encouraged it. When it threatened their own stability, they snuffed it out with oppressive censorship laws. Power had shifted away from the monarch but, according to the demands of print culture — linear, rational, hierarchical by the vary nature of the dominant medium — a tyrannical central government under the Parliamentary forces, and ultimately King Charles II remained inexorable.”

Censorship was in fact re-established by Parliament in 1643, after the fighting war had started against king Charles. Successive orders issued from Parliament to try and control printing and publishing; the one empowering the Committee for examinations to appoint people to search, seize and imprison those engaged in producing ‘Scandalous and lying’ pamphlets, on 9 March 1643, was merely one in a long series. The fact that they had to keep making such orders illustrates the truth: their censors were failing to keep a lid on the radical ferment bubbling up from below.

Tens of thousands of pamphlets, maybe as many as a hundred thousand different titles, were issued during the civil war/commonwealth period, reflecting both sides of the civil war, royalist and parliamentarian, but also the fracturing political positions on the parliamentarian side, and the radical religious and social views that flowered in the 1640s and 50s. There was an extraordinary increase in productivity in the 1640s: an annual output of 625 titles in 1639 jumped to 850 in 1640, to over 2000 in 1641 and over 3,666 in 1642. Some evidence of this bountiful crop is borne out by George Thomason’s collection of pamphlets gathered from 1640/1 to 1660: he recognised that the war of ideas being waged through pamphlets was of historical significance, amassing 20,000 different titles himself, (so actual production must have been huge… ).

It is, though, worth remembering, that literacy was still very narrow in modern terms… 30 percent of adult males in 1640s England were considered literate, this rose to 60% by the mid-18th century; though this is unreliable, as it may have only meant they could sign their names, not that they could necessarily read at all, let alone at length.

The groundbreaking political ideas thrown up in the civil war – Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, fifth monarchism, and all the varied dissenting religious views – found expression through pamphlets, tracts, circulated very widely, often finding echoes among large sections of the population; partly because of the upheaval caused by economic and social crises… Civil war pamphleteering also began to open up the voices of women, not for the first time, (there had already been a small but vital culture of women producing pamphlets in the 16th and 17th centuries), but on an unprecedented scale. Mass petitioning of Parliament through the early years of the civil war, organised by women, was an important development: the women’s petitions were printed up and circulated as pamphlets. Pamphlets as a form allowed women to express themselves in a public sphere in a way that they were otherwise denied, being excluded from universities, the church, the writing of books etc: it formed a vital part of part of an expansion of opportunities for women, of the laying of a direct claim to political expression, to the idea that they had an interest and a voice in the political sphere.

In many ways, some of these pamphlets were collective representations as well as individual works… Some of them had mass circulation, and were being used at the forefront of the exchange of ideas; as one way of developing social policy, though debate, counterblast, agitation…

The civil war years saw a constant battle between censor and subversive printer, with underground presses running the gauntlet of informers, puritan busybodies, to produce the radical ideas that emerged in the pamphlets now grouped under the banner of the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters…

Even as the struggle against the king passed into the hands of Cromwell and the puritan bourgeoisie, they were alternately allying with the radical elements, particularly in the army, when they needed their support, and suppressing their presses…

In September, 1649, Parliament under Cromwell reinstituted censorship laws with the Printing Act, thereby suffocating the free expression of the pamphleteers. The new act presented the most detailed list of regulations for the press of the entire seventeenth century: all printing was limited to London, all books and pamphlets had to be licensed( in other words, neutered), and all “scandalous” and “seditious” material was prohibited, and all printed material sent by carrier or post was scrutinised.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: more disturbances in Trafalgar Square, after riot the day before, 1848

Trafalgar Square was built in the 1830s, after the previous mass of royal mews, stables and other buildings, which had grown up over several centuries, was cleared after 1826. The aim was to have a great plaza with outstanding views of the new buildings on it edge, most notably the new National Gallery. The whole square, its monuments and surroundings was touted as a celebration of Britain’s military might, empire, royalty and culture. Us unruly plebs being who we are, the Square was almost from the first a venue for political and social struggles against these institutions and the power they hold over us. Despite the best intent of the authorities, we still gather there and ever now and again we kick off…

The first use of Trafalgar Square, then recently completed, as a rallying point for a demonstration came on 6th March 1848, when protesters gathered to hear speakers denouncing the increase of income tax from 3 to 5 per cent. A planned protest against the then relatively novel idea of income tax had been called by Charles Cochrane for Monday 6 March. Under pressure from the police, however, he reluctantly withdrew and made efforts to cancel the open air meeting.

The plinth of Nelson’s Column was still covered by hoardings as building work slowly progressed.

Scared by police threats of prosecution, Cochrane tried to cancel the rally, and declined to speak for fear of arrest, leaving the platform to G. W. M. Reynolds, then a young Chartist and a republican (later to found the famous Reynolds’ News magazine). The Times lamented, ‘8,000 to 10,000 persons assembled in the Square, belonging entirely to the working classes [some estimates say as few as 1,500], and the great mass of them apparently out of employment … judging from appearances, not a dozen probably were subject to tax.Speaking of the events in France which had toppled Louis Philippe and proclaiming, ‘A Republic for France – The Charter for England’, Reynolds was catcalled by someone in the crowd (an agent provocateur it seems) asking what he would do if he had Philippe in his grasp – would he kill him? Cleverly avoiding a charge of treasonable sedition, Reynolds answered that he would put him in the zoo as an exhibit!

According to the admittedly partisan Northern Star, just as the crowd began to dissolve “some sleek well-fed man asserted that the people assembled were lazy and would not work”. In the uproar which followed, the police moved in with truncheons flying and a riot ensued. The police now had to contend with a pelting of stones from the Column’s base, after which the hoardings were torn down and thrown. Builder’s sheds were also set alight as a section of the crowd made its way to St James’ Park with the cry of ‘To the Palace! Bread and Revolution!’, smashing windows and lampposts on the way.

By 4pm that afternoon, the police were in control of the square. But as they withdrew two hours later, the crowd flocked back in, pulling down the wooden hoardings around Nelson’s Column and arming themselves with granite blocks from the new roads. The fighting continued until late into the evening, with parts of the crowd heading off to smash the windows of the gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall , breaking into bread shops to seize loaves and – shortly after midnight – moving into Grosvenor Square .

It was 1am before peace was restored, and by 9am the following morning (March 7th) the crowd was back, erecting a barricade in Charing Cross next to the statue of Charles I.

All that day and into Wednesday 8 March the fighting continued. The authorities built up their forces over these days. On the Monday, there had been just 1,189 police on duty or reserve in London ; two days later, there were 2,460.

Despite the continuing excitement, the police regained control during the course of the Wednesday and the rioting began to subside. This, however, did little to prevent 700 rioters heading for the City by way of Temple Bar and Fleet Street. After a Chartist meeting on Stepney Green that evening, the crowd once again broke windows in the City and along Regent Street . This, however, was to be the end of the tumult for now.

By Friday, The Times was able to report that “scarcely any traces” of the week’s excitement now remained. In all, 127 rioters were arrested between Monday to Wednesday. The names of those arrested, taken from police records now in the National Archives (Ref: MEPO 2 64) are set out in the table below. The leaders of the riot were named as John White (“an eighteen-year old wearing epaulettes, smashing windows.. and shattering and extinguishing the gas lamps…”), and Charles Tothill (“a clerk, aged twenty”).

The arrested, by name, age, result of court hearing:

John Jones 20 Committee for trial (felony)
Morris Paton 18 Committee for trial (felony)
James Marchant 23 Fined 20s or 8 days
John Melvill 27 Committed 14 days
James Durkin 17 Fined 20s or 8 days
William Westwood 18 Fined 20s or 9 days
Thomas Leggett 24 Fined 20s or 9 days
Edward Andrews 42 Fined 20s or 9 days
Benjamin Pemberton 24 Fined 20s or 9 days
John Rees 21 Fined 30s or 14 days
Alexander Reeves 20 Committed 21 days
Frederick Cox 21 Fined 30s or 14 days
Jim Meehan 21 Committed 21 days
Charles Tothill 20 To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John White 18 To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John Read 36 To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John Feigle 26 Committed for 21 days
William Hack 21 Committed for 10 days
William Harrison 35 To find bail himself in £40 and two sureties in £20 each to keep the peace 2 months
John Varley 48 Committed for 14 days
William Sudbury 19 Fined 10s or 10 days
Michael Foy 28 Fined 10s or 10 days
Francis Holroyd 26 Discharged
Charles Haskin 22 Fined 10s or 7 days
George Robertson 17 Discharged
Charles Allen 17 Fined 10s or 7 days
Frederick Hinde 16 Discharged
Henry Calcutt 19 To find surety in £10 to keep the peace 1 month
John Head 12 Committed 3 days and once whipped
Thomas Condon 16 Committed 6 weeks
Arthur Fanley 16 Discharged
Charles Carey 21 Discharged
William Bute 29 To find bail himself £50 and 2 sureties each £25 to keep the peace 2 months
William Riddle 16 Discharged
William Mullins 24 To find surety in £10 to keep the peace 2 months
William Davis 17 Discharged
Thomas Read 40 Discharged
George Phillips 59 Fined 10s or 7 days
James E Duncan 26 To find sureties in £10 to keepthe peace 2 months
Charles Godwin 36 Fined 10s or 10 days
Robert Davis 17 Committed 10 days
Nathan Parry 26 Fined 20s or 14 days
William Sims 18 Discharged
Frederick Evans 21 Committed 10 days
Thomas Jones 19 1 month
William Carter 17 1 month
Richard Nicholls 22 Committed 14 days
John Gunthorp 25 Fined 20s or 14 days
Henry Hunt 18 Discharged
Charles Banks 23 Discharged
Robert Holmes 18 Discharged
James Simbilcock?? 42 Discharged
Charles Davis 19 Fined 10s or 10 days
George Peck 21 Fined 10s or 10 days
William Lucas 22 Fined 10s or 10 days
John Sage 19 Fined 20s or 21 days
Thomas Bedford 17 Fined 10s or 10 days
Abraham Ruff 30 Discharged
William Bayden 18 Discharged
Robert Rudland 23 Committed 21 days
James Haggar 18 Discharged
Morris Reasding 24 Fined 10s or 10 days
William Scarborough 17 Discharged
John Harbridge 19 Fined 10s or 10 days
George Allsop 20 Father recognisance £10 for 3 months
William Gifford 22 Committed 14 days
Alfred Wilson 23 Discharged
Stephen Callaghan 21 Discharged
Edward Macfarline 18 Discharged
William Dodd 16 Discharged
Michael Sullivan 15 Discharged
Eugene Sullivan 18 10s or 10 days
John Milton 25 Discharged
Thomas Wallis 24 10s or 10 days
Henry Oxbury 26 14 days
Michael Fitzgerald 17 To find surety in £40 to keep the peace 3 months
Peter Fitzstephen 22 21 days
Henry Stamper 19 Fined 20s or 14 days
John David 16 10s or 10 days
William Merry 19 Discharged
Charles Foster 23 Discharged
William Thompson 21 Discharged
John Moloney 20 1 month
Robert Frisby 17 Fined 10s or 10 days
William Woollams 15 10s or 7 days
James Kew 16 Discharged
William Salter 12 Discharged
James Turner 19 30s or 14 days
William Alias 18 30s or 14 days
James Abbott 30 £3 or 1 month
John St Leger 20 30s or 3 weeks
Mitchell Moore 25 20s or 14 days
George Ryan 21 30s or 3 weeks
Frederick Dorrell 20 £3 or 1 month
William Smith 34 1 month
Charles Keen 16 20s or 14 days
Miles Phillips 18 Discharged
John Hopkins 19 30s or 3 weeks
Henry Roach 18 Fined 20s or 14 days
John Johnston 25 Discharged
Henry Davy 17 30s or 3 weeks
Walter Ford 18 40s or 1 month
John Lewis 28 £3 or 21 days

Following these events, a ban on political rallies was put into effect, and remained in force until the 1880s.

Trafalgar Square would go on to become one of the central pillars of both London and national ‘free speech fights’ and come to hold an iconic place in the pantheon of public gathering points, especially for political demonstrations and rallies. From the 1880s, when the emerging socialist movement, eg the Social Democratic Federation, began holding protests. On 8 February 1886 (also known as “Black Monday”), protesters rallied against unemployment leading to a riot in Pall Mall. A larger ‘riot’ (“Bloody Sunday”) occurred in the square on 13 November 1887, when police battered gathered radicals and socialists, leading to 3 deaths.

Through post-war anti-fascist demos, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demos (eg the Aldermaston Marches protesting against the Atomic Weapons Establishment), the Committee of 100 rallies from the early 1960s, the March 1968, anti-Vietnam War demos beginning here… The list is endless.

Just a few things I can remember from my own time… my first demo in London (CND, 1983); gathering to join the non-stop picket of S Africa House after the annual Anti-Fascist Action get-together to block fascists from November 11th cenotaph ceremony (1988); rioting against the poll tax in March 1990 with a building on fire behind me; the illegal Anti-Election Alliance march and rally we put on in the Square in 1992; a huge NHS march in 1993, where we tried to encourage people to go from there to the occupation of a ward at threatened University College Hospital; the Reclaim the Streets carnival to support the striking Liverpool dockers in April 1997, which ended in a huge police assault, driving us over Waterloo bridge; demos against the Afghan and Iraq Wars (both 1991 and 2003)… the occupation of the square by the Camp for Climate Action in 2009… running from the Square up to Piccadilly in the student protests in 2010…

Not to discount the numberless mundane demos with turgid speakers, us milling round muttering ‘which pub we off to then – the Chandos?’

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in anti-war history, 1917: spycops’ fit-up! Alice Wheeldon & her daughters go on trial for ‘plot to murder’ Prime Minister Lloyd George.

“Alice Wheeldon and her family were commie scum
Denounced World War 1, sheltered deserters on the run
Fitted up by MI5, died from the prison damp –
You won’t see Alice’s head on a stamp!”
(‘Spycop Song’, Dr Feelshite)

If you thought that revelations of the last few years about undercover police officers infiltrating campaigning and political groups, trade unions, families of people killed by racist and the police (just a few examples), and in some cases acting as agent provocateurs, had been going on for just 50 years, since the founding of the Special Demonstration Squad, and was some kind of aberration from our democratic traditions – think again. In one form or another, this practice has been an integral part of policing dissent and controlling or disrupting movements for social change – for hundreds of years. It is literally the norm, not a deviation.

101 years ago today, Derby socialists and war resisters Alice Wheeldon, her daughters Hettie, Winnie and Winnie’s husband, Alfred Mason, went on trial at the Old Bailey, all charged with conspiracy to murder the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and Labour Party cabinet minister Arthur Henderson.

In fact the supposed ‘plot’ was a fit up, set up by a spy working for the intelligence unit of the Ministry of Munitions.

Alice Wheeldon lived in Derby, with her four children Nell, Winnie, Hettie and Will; the family were all active campaigners for many social issues of the time, notably women’s rights, pacifism and opposition to conscription. Alice and Hettie were activists for women’s suffrage, members of the Women’s Social & Political Union before World War 1, as well being involved in socialist propaganda. To make a living she sold second hand clothes in the market and later from a shop.

If enthusiastic support for the pointless carnage of the First World War was still by far the view of the majority of the population, opposition had grown over the previous two and a half years. The mass deaths, privations, hunger and hardships at home, forced conscription into the armed forces, as well as mass government repression, had sparked hatred and demoralisation, resentment, and resistance. Soldiers were passively and actively avoiding combat and would soon by mutinying; strikes were multiplying, organised by grassroots shop stewards movements, (as the trade union leaders mostly supported the ban on workplace struggles during wartime); food riots and rent strikes had broken out in 1915 and 1916. And refusal to be conscripted, resistance and draft-dodging, had given birth to underground networks of war resisters, mostly young men on the run from the authorities, often sheltered by sympathetic pacifists, socialists and anarchists. A plethora of organisations – the No Conscription Fellowship, the Socialist Labour Party, British Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, parts of the Union of Democratic Control, the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Women’s Socialist Federation in East London; parts of the Independent Labour Party, the Women’s Freedom League, the shop stewards networks, anarchist groups and christian pacifists… and so many more…  

The government feared all these movements were linked, and to some extent there were rebel networks, with loose origins in the workers’ movements that had erupted before the war, the militant suffragettes who had rejected jingoism when war broke out, and the leftwing political groups who denounced the war on internationalist grounds. From the outside it could also appear that this opposition could link up to wider discontent among the ‘general population’, and that a serious rebellious threat could arise to the war effort and even to the state and the vast capitalist interests that had needed the war.

The government was determined to disrupt and discredit the growing opponents of the war, and pretty much allowed the secret state to operate freely, with carte blanche to use whatever methods seemed necessary. The press was already happy to trumpet that strikers, pacifists, etc were passively doing ‘the Kaiser’s work’, if not actually being paid by Germany; the more evidence could be drummed up that honest and peaceful opposition to the conflict was in fact a cover for more sinister, treasonous and violent intent, the more potential support for opposition they thought could be warded off.

The Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit, a branch of an organisation that was to partly evolve into MI5, faced with an immediate threat of being dismantled, conceived a strategy of discovering a treasonable plot in Derby, which with its munitions factories, was a heartland of Britain’s war effort. 

The Wheeldons were on the one hand a typical anti-war family with William Wheeldon and Alf Mason (Winnie’s husband) both facing conscription, (William was an anarchist ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector), and all of the family including Alice’s sons-in-law were heavily involved in both overt and underground resistance: in the above ground activities of the No Conscription Fellowship, but also in hiding men on the run, helping them escape the country in some cases. They sat also in the middle of the networks the authorities and military intelligence an Special Branch had in their sights: Arthur MacManus, (then ‘courting’ Alice’s daughter Hettie, and a friend of her son William), was heavily involved in the shop stewards meetings and planning class struggle in the factories, particularly in nearby Sheffield, the stronghold of the shop stewards committees since the pioneering Glasgow stewards had been largely broken up by arrest and repression in 1916. Their friends and comrades spread across the midlands and the north of England. 

An MI5 agent, using the name Alex Gordon, and posing as a conscientious objector on the run from the authorities. He had turned up in Sheffield, just as 10-12,000 skilled engineers and other workers came out on strike against the conscription of a fitter, Leonard Hargreaves, at Vickers plant there, in what appeared to be a case of the employers breaking agreements with the unions to not force certain grades into the army. the strike terrified the government, who backed down and released Hargreaves. (It’s worth noting that bitter divisions were opening up in the working class, as unions representing skilled workers were prepared to strike over such actions, but less skilled workers were often not supported.) ‘Gordon’ was not the only spy around – several other ministry of munitions agents were reporting on the strike, the socialists and other workers opposing the war in Sheffield and nearby towns. The reports of the spies tended to focus on prominent individuals like the Sheffield shop stewards activist and later communist theorist, J. T. Murphy, Arthur MacManus, and others, as being largely responsible for anti-war and workers agitation – missing the point that both movements were made up of grassroots networks based on daily grievances and built horizontally, not hierarchically. But the spies fed into their handlers view that taking out some of the prominent faces would crush the movements entirely. 

Alex Gordon was really Francis Vivian, who had been involved in the British Socialist Party before the war, so may have been known (if only by repute) to some of his targets, building trust. He moved across to Derby, in late 1916, supervised by another spy, known as Herbert Booth, who reported to Major Melville Lee at the Ministry of Munitions. Booth and Gordon seem to have played on the Wheeldon family’s angry desire to strike back at the warmongering government they hated, and a plot was hatched, according to the Wheeldons later, to poison dogs guarding prison camps where arrested ‘conchies’ and war resisters were being held, so they could be helped to escape. However, Gordon and Booth presented the poison, which was ordered, as evidence of a plot to poison the new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. They reported a succession of conversations, a mix of invented and real talk, no doubt, of threats and plans to off the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleague, Labour’s Arthur Henderson, who was widely vilified by anti-war socialists; as well as unnamed others.

Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, her daughter Win Mason and Win’s husband Alf Mason were all arrested at the end of January 1917. William Wheeldon was picked up but managed to escape and disappeared. 

The four were tried at the Old Bailey with the Attorney General, the trial beginning on March 6th 1017; future Lord Chancellor, the rightwing politician F.E. Smith leading the prosecution. The legal profession was apparently leant on heavily not to defend them, and the lawyers who did were not very effective. The accused were brow-beaten and their case was not really presented; the dice were loaded against them. The government were determined to use them as a example. Whether or not the spies’ superiors believed the plot was real, or their political bosses really feared for their lives, the trial was a useful weapon to beat the anti-war movement with, at least to split moderate critics of the war from the more radical elements.

Gordon was not present to testify in the trial so the defence could not cross-examine him on his evidence.  The court proceedings show that the evidence was flimsy and that the intention of the prosecution was to publicly destroy the reputations of the accused and then to convict them on that basis.

Hettie Wheeldon was acquitted but the others were sentenced to varying prison terms and their application to appeal was refused. Alice received ten years imprisonment, Alf Mason seven years, Winnie five years. 

Alice went on hunger strikes in Aylesbury Prison, which severely affected her health. Conditions inside were harsh and she was over fifty. Given her failing health and officialdom’s fear that she might die in prison, which could rebound badly on them, she served less than one year of her 10-year sentence. Doubts had also started to arise about the trial and the authorities may have thought they would settle if she was quietly released. From Holloway Prison she was released on licence at the instigation of the Prime Minister – the same Prime Minister she was accused of conspiracy to murder. Her daughters Nellie and Hettie accompanied her back to Derby but her life was made impossibly hard. She was ostracised by many neighbours, and her clothes business was ruined. She and Hettie (who had lost her job as a teacher despite her acquittal) tried to grow and sell veg to survive. They tried to pick up their political activism, re-establishing links with some of the comrades. But both Hettie and Alice caught the flu in the terrible 1918-19 epidemic that struck at a weakened Europe after the war, and for Alice, worn out by prison, it was fatal. She died in February 1919. 

Win and Alf Mason were released unexpectedly at the end of the war, having also gone on hunger strike. After their release, in 1919, Winnie and Alf moved to London where they lived for a number of years with Winnie’s other siblings. Eventually they moved to Hampshire where Winnie was noted for raising awareness of the rise of Fascism. In 1949, shifted to Welwyn Garden City where Alf had built a modern house in the new town. Win was diagnosed with lung cancer and died there in 1953; Alf died in 1963.

Hettie married Arthur MacManus, in 1920 and they had a stillborn child, but she died from peritonitis following on from appendicitis the same year. Arthur became a leading member of the new Communist Party of Great Britain (Alice’s other daughter Nellie also became a CPGB activist). William Wheeldon’s story is perhaps the most poignant in the story of the anti-war movement, in Britain and internationally, and where it ended; he became a communist, moved to the Soviet Union and made there, believing in and working for the Soviet project for many years, Until Stalin had him arrested and shot in the purges in 1937, where he was forced to confess to being a longtime British spy.

A hundred years after the frame-up of Alice and her family, after the profit-ridden carcass-fest of World War I, there is a campaign growing to remember the Wheeldons and the Masons. Derby people and the family have long been convinced that the impact of these outrageous charges has reverberated down the generations. Now Deirdre and Chloë Mason, great grand-daughters of Alice Wheeldon and the grand-daughters of Alf and Win Mason, are seeking to clear their ancestors names so history will record that this was a miscarriage of justice… 

Check out the website of this campaign

A plaque was placed on Alice’s shop in Derby a couple of years ago to mark the plot.

Sheila Bowbotham’s excellent history/drama crossover, ‘Friends of Alice Wheeldon’ is a great book, and worth reading if you can get hold of it.

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The machinations of the secret state that backed the fit-up of the Wheeldon family is complex and we would like to write about it, especially given the relevance of spies infiltrating movements for social change to our own time. This will have to wait for another time; but sufficient to say, spies sponsored by both Special Branch and the Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit were both operating against socialists, strikers, anti-war activists. But they were also competing against each other for influence, and reported to rival power centres in government. The spies themselves were part fantasists, part telling their handler what they wanted to hear, and part freelance self-interested opportunists. Some of them experienced half-regret for their actions: ‘Alex Gordon aka Francis Vivian attempted in some bizarre way to re-ingratiate himself with socialists after the trial, part-justifying and part apologising for his part in it. This dynamic is familiar to those of us targetted by modern spycops, some of who have publicly blown the whistle on their former bosses, some of who have returned to friends and lovers after their deployment ended, torn between their ‘job’ and the attraction of the life of rebellion and love that our movements at their best are capable of… But many more hide behind the walls built by the police and secret state, fearing exposure, claiming they are afraid of our revenge, or more honestly, the embarrassment of people they now finding out the glorious war they fought against environmentalists and families of racist murder victims, while deceiving women into sex.

As a heavily restrictive Inquiry into Undercover Policing attempts to cover up most of the history of political spying of the last half century, under the guise of pretending to uncover it, some of those spied on are attempting to push for as much information on those who spied on us and those who controlled them as we can get. Results so far are not encouraging; most of the names revealed so far have been brought into the open by us.

For more information about current campaigning vs undercover policing, check out:

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Undercover Research Group

Police Spies Out of Lives

The Network for Police Monitoring

http://spycops.info/

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The massive potential of the rising anti-war movement, the rebel networks of which Alice and all her family and friends were part of, was in the end broken, partly by the repression of the state, both open and secret, But also by the divisions of he movements themselves. The shop stewards movement launched strikes in 1917, but they were crippled by the splits between skilled and unskilled workers. The coagulating brilliant links that the conchies, suffragists, socialists and the class-conscious workers were forging did produce the Leeds Convention in June 1917, influenced and cheered by the Russian Revolution, attempting to unite trade unions and protest against the war. But it allowed itself to be dominated by the Labour Party and union leaders, who helped to derail its revolutionary potential. The powerful links developing through the war did continue to grow, and produced massive strikes in 1919, which in parallel with mutinies in the army could have led to a more fundamental social change – but was sold out by unions leaders, and hamstrung by people’s own doubts and lack of desire to push forward.

This post could have covered much more of this interesting period and the fascinating people and groups evolving at this time, and resisting the capitalist war machine with heroic but grounded love for each other, as well as clear-sighted hatred for the classes that profited from the slaughter.

Across the years we salute Alice, William and Hettie Wheeldon, Win and Alf Mason, their friends and comrades, and the movements they played a part in. If the world they hoped to build has not yet come about – tremble on your thrones, powers of the earth! Just you wait, you bankers!

 

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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