Today in London’s radical history, 1848: Armed Chartists arrested as they prepare for revolution

Traditional histories of the Chartist movement mostly end with the mass meeting and demonstration on April 10th 1848, when the third great Chartist petition was to be delivered to Parliament. The vast majority of historical accounts agree that the movement declined from this point, and rate it no further, except on some cases to mention, almost as an aside, the arrest of small groups of Chartist in London three months later for plotting to achieve their ends by violent insurrection.

But as David Goodway remarked in his study of London Chartism: “If, after the reverses of the Kennington Common rally and the off-hand rejection of the third great petition by the House of Commons, Chartism stood defeated in the summer of 1848, then the Chartists were yet to find out about it.” Revolutions were sweeping Europe, and many Chartists felt it would take little for radical change to also be achieved in Britain too.

Agitation and campaigning for political reform continued throughout the country, and in London itself, May and June 1848 saw several large demonstrations and a couple of attempts to organise another monster rally or march along the lines of April 10th. Many of the demonstrations were dispersed or prevented by force or banned.

Behind the scenes, some Chartists, frustrated by the repeated failure of peaceful and legal campaigning and petitioning, began planning to bring about the movement’s objectives by more direct means. Arrests of leading Chartists all over the country and of Irish radicals and nationalists with whom much of the Chartist movement was in sympathy and close contact, added an extra spur – the feeling was that not only would asking politely not win working men the vote, but many would be jailed for campaigning.

The atmosphere was electric, and the inspiration of the wave of revolutions and uprisings surging through Europe helped create a buzz of anticipation, ad a sense that maybe change could be won if people would fight for it. At a meeting of Chartist delegates from Lancashire and Yorkshire, held on 28 May, resolutions were passed in favour of forming a National Guard, a term with strong overtones of the French Revolution. Chartists began drilling in military formation in Bradford, Leeds and several other towns in Yorkshire. Chartists in Manchester and Oldham also paraded with weapons. Mass meetings were held all over the country and ‘strong expressions’ were used – which got a number of speakers arrested.

Shortly after a somewhat disappointing turnout for a national demonstration on June 4th, groups of Chartist began meeting clandestinely in the capital to plan an uprising.

Chartism as a movement had always been caught in a tension between its ‘moral force’ and ‘physical force’ camps – those who insisted on sticking to legal, peaceful methods of winning their aims, and those who believed the ruling elites would never grant them more than contempt if they went cap in hand, and that working class political representation could only be achieved by an armed revolution.

Sentiment within Chartism as a broad movement tended to see-saw between these poles, (a bit like the eternal struggle we see between left and right within the Labour Party…!). However, the physical force wing of Chartism was always a minority in the movement – though what size minority varied. In the lifetime of the movement, insurrectionary feeling ebbed and flowed. Another problem was that some Chartist leaders were quite prepared to bluster and sound all physical-force, but in practice were not ready to ever act or support action that backed up their words.

Chartism was part of an almost continuous thread of 60 years of campaigning for political reform – but the movements, organisations and political culture that reached a peak in Chartism drew on several traditions, one of which was a strong Jacobin insurrectionary impulse. Attempts to organise uprisings had capped several of the reform movements in the past half-century, most notably ending with the ‘Despard’ conspiracy of 1802 and the ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’ in 1820.

There had been a period before when concerted efforts to launch Chartist uprisings had been planned – in the winter of 1839 to 1840, which saw one actual revolt, in Newport, South Wales, and a number of botched plots, mainly in Yorkshire, which got no further than the planning stage. Some discussions were also had in London in 1840 and there were some arrests; but there is little evidence that much was even planned there. Much like the attempt to impose acceptance of the Charter by general strike in 1839, support had just not been there for a Chartist Revolution.

1848 would prove no different. Like most of the radical plots for insurrection since the 1790s, from Despard through Pentrich to Cato Street, the 1848 blueprints for revolution were known to the authorities from the start. Spies reporting to the home Office were deeply embedded in the Chartist movement and exposed the plot step by step as it was drawn up.

George Davis, a member of the Wat Tyler Brigade of Greenwich Chartists, attended meetings throughout the summer as a delegate, and Thomas Riordain Reading, the Northern Star‘s London Irish correspondent also reported to the Home office.

On 12 June 1848, Peter M’Douall (or McDouall), who had been a delegate at the first Chartist convention and had fled abroad with a price on his head after the general strike of 1842, chaired at a meeting in the Albion beershop on the Bethnal Green Road. Plans for an insurrection set in motion. A Secret Committee was set up, consisting of four appointed delegates (Henshaw, for East London; Pitt, for West London; Honeybold, North London; and Percy, South London), plus three from Chartist executive, two confederates (Irishmen) and two trade unionists, to decide time of uprising. The spies George Davis and Thomas Reading reported this meeting to the police.

In his report to the police, George Davis claimed that the committee used a map of London to draw up a series of possible plans of attack. In one scenario, barricades would have been constructed on the Strand, Ludgate Hill, Cheapside and other City streets from Clerkenwell to the Barbican and Hatton Garden Theatres and other buildings were to be set on fire, and pawnbrokers’ and gunsmiths’ shops raided to obtain arms. In South London, the police station at Kent Road was to be attacked.

Initially, it seems arrangements were being made for an uprising on the weekend of 16-18 June 1848. However, just two days after the meeting in Bethnal Green, on 14 June, the Chartist Executive ordered the disbanding of the Secret Committee. The executive had been well aware of the plans for insurrection, but had either realised or suspected there were police spies in the midst of the conspiracy. Peter McDouall himself named Mander, May and Plume as possible suspects (interestingly, their involvement in the plot seems to end from this point). McDouall himself was arrested in July.

The initial phase of the conspiracy then appears to have folded until early July. However, an uprising in Ireland was reported to be imminent, and habeas corpus there was suspended. Meanwhile, the police began arresting Chartist leaders in London. In early July, meetings of the would-be insurrectionaries resumed.

Plans made by the conspirators included rescuing arrested Chartist leaders (including Ernest Jones) from police custody as they were being moved from Newgate to Coldbath Fields Prison. This second conspiracy was probably unknown to the Chartist Executive – however, George Davis, and Thomas Powell (alias Johnson) of Cripplegate, were both keeping the authorities fully informed.

Between 20 July and 16 August, the conspirators held 16 meetings in one form or another, mainly in coffee houses (though occasionally in pubs).

Dates and locations of the delegate meetings of the 1848 conspiracies, with those in attendance as known (taken from London Chartism 1838-48, by David Goodway)
Tuesday 6 June. Windsor Castle, Holborn
H Mander May (?), Plume (?).
Monday afternoon, 12 June. Albion, Bethnal Green Road.
25 present. M’Douall (chair), Henshaw, Honeybold, Percy, Pitt, George Davis.
Tuesday 13 June. Windsor Castle, Holborn
James Bassett (chair), Henshaw, Honeybold, William Lacey, Percy, Pitt, George Shell, George Davis.
Wednesday morning, 14 June. Literary Institute, John Street
14 present. M’Douall (chair), James Bassett (vice-chair), Child, William Lacey, George Bridge Mullins, Pitt, George Shell, George Davis.
Wednesday evening, 14 June. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street, Blackfriars Road
8 present. James Blight, George Davis.
Monday 10 July. George, Old Bailey.
13 or 20 present. Brewster, Lacey, Mullins, Payne, John Rose, Smith, George Davis.
Thursday 13 July. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street.
Brewerton, Morgan.
Thursday 20 July. Black Jack, Portsmouth Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
14 present. William Allnutt, Bassett, Battice, Brewster, William Dowling, Mullins, Payne, John Rose, Davis, Thomas Powell (alias Johnson) (1st time).
Sunday morning, 23 July. Denny’s Coffee House, Great St Andrew’s Street, Seven Dials
10 present. Allnutt, Brewster, Dowling, Gurney, Mullins, Payne, Pedley, Rose, Smith, Stephens (?), Thompson, Davis, Powell.
Sunday evening, 23 July. Cartwright’s Coffee House, Redcross Street, Cripplegate
Brewster, Mullins, Payne, Rose, Powell.
Wednesday 26 July. Hopkinson’s Coffee House, Saffron Hill
18 present. Allnutt, Brewster, Dowling, Ferdinando, Flanagan, Mullins, Payne, Pedley, Rose, Smith, Stephens (?), Thompson, Davis, Powell.
Friday 28 July. Hopkinson’s Coffee House, Saffron Hill.
14 present. Brewster, Fay, Ferdinando, Flanagan, Hopkinson, Horn, Mullins, Page, Payne, Powell.
Sunday afternoon 30 July. Cartwright’s Coffee House, Redcross Street
28 present. Bassett, Brewster, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Ferdinando, Hayman, Kirby, Lindsay, Mullins, Nash, Nowlan, Payne, Rose, Stephenson (or Stevenson), Davis, Powell.
Tuesday 1 August, Dispatch Coffee House, Bride Lane, Fleet Street.
34 or 29 present. Allnutt, Bezer, Brewster, Collins, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Ferdinando, Fuzzen, Hayman, Lynch, Mullins, Payne, Raymond, Rose, Thompson, Warry, Davis, Powell
Friday 4 August. Cartwright’s Coffee House, Redcross Street
32 present. Bassett, Bligh, Brewster, Cuffay, Donovan, Dowling, Gurney, Lynch, Mullins, Payne, Rose, Thompson, Davis, Powell.
Sunday morning 6 August. Denny’s Coffee House, Great St Andrew’s Street
Brewster, Fay (?), Lynch (?), Mullins, Payne, Rose, Thompson, Davis.
Sunday afternoon 6 August. Dispatch Coffee House, Bride Lane
24 to 30 present. Allnutt, Bligh, Brewster, Cuffay, Fay, the two brothers Granshaw, Hammond (= Hayman?), Mullins, Page, Payne, Rose, Warry, Davis, Powell.
Monday 7 August. Denny’s Coffee House, Great St Andrew’s Street
About 30 present. Allnutt, Bassett, Brewster, Cuffay, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Lynch, Mullins, Payne, Ritchie, Rose, Thompson, Warry, Davis, Powell.
Wednesday 9 August. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street, Blackfriars Road
28 present. Allnutt, Bassett, Bligh, Brewster, Cuffay, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Flanagan, Fuzzen, the two Granshaws, Gurney, Horn, Lynch, Mullins, Nash, Payne, Pedley, Ritchie, Rose, Davis, Powell.
Friday 11 August. Perry’s Coffee House, Church Street, Shoreditch
Cancelled
Sunday morning 13 August. Hopkinson’s Coffee House, Saffron Hill
Allnutt, Bligh, Brewster, Fuzzen, Mullins, Payne, Ritchie, Salmon, Davis.
Sunday afternoon 13 August. Breedon’s Beershop, Shouldham Street, Crawford Street, Marylebone
26 or 30 present. Bligh, Cuffay, the two Granshaws, Hayman, Mullins, Nash, Payne, Ritchie, Warry, Davis.
Monday 14 August. Orange Tree, Orange Street, Red Lion Square
25 or 30 present. Allnutt, Bligh, Brewster, Cruikshank, Cuffay, Fay, Fleming, Ford, the two Granshaws, Gurney, Hayman, Mullins, Nash, Payne, Pearce, Ritchie, Scurrey (or Scurry), Simmonds, Warry, Davis, Powell.
Tuesday 15 August. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street.
30 or 40 present. Allnutt, Brewster, Cruikshank, Cuffay, Donaldson, Dowling, Fay, Ferdinando, Fleming, the two Granshaws, Gurney, Lacey, Mullins, Page, Payne, Pedley, Ritchie, Simmonds, Davis, Powell.

The plotters were well aware that surveillance by the authorities was likely, and were suspicious and fearful of being followed, and of infiltration. At one point around early August, two of the group, Mullins and Rose, were accused of being spies, which led to some resignations from the Committee. However, the real spies continued to be deeply embedded in their plans. Powell (aka Johnson) was said by some of the defendants to have accused some of the plotters of being all talk, and to have also hired some men to make bullets and gunpowder in readiness. As with previous insurrectionary plans, provocation by spies cannot be ruled out.

The Committee made contact with physical force Chartists in Manchester, Liverpool, Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham and possibly Bradford. Finally it was agreed that the rising would take place on Wednesday 16 August. The local Chartist branches were to meet at 8pm and to be ready to go into action at 9.20pm.

Thomas Powell, who spied on the Committee using the name Johnson, later gave evidence at the trial of William Dowling. His account is a fascinating insight into the discussion, though, as with all evidence offered by such infiltrators, may not be entirely accurate about individuals’s roles in the plan:

“Early in the present year I became a member of the Chartist Association. I believe it was between April and May; after 10th April—I continued to attend the meetings of the Association from time to time down to June, July, and Aug. last—I have always understood there are district associations of the Chartists—I was a member of the Cripplegate locality—there was a council of management consisting of five persons—it was appointed after I joined them—it consisted of Mr. Battice, Mr. Fowler, Mr. Carter, Mr. Owen Jones, and myself—I entered by the name of Johnson, and was known in the Chartist Association by that name—the council had. the general superintendence of the business of the Association—they usually net in the front long-room up stairs, at Cartwright’s Coffee-house, in Red Cross-street—about 20th July a committee was formed to meet at the Black Jack public-house, in Portugal-street, Lincoln’s-inn-fields—it was called the. Secret Committee—I was elected by the Council as a delegate—I attended a meeting of that committee on Thursday, 20th July, at the Black Jack—there were about fourteen persons present at that meeting—I have notes which I made, not the same day, but the next—the notes were made by myself—referring to them)—Mr. Payne, Mr. Brewster, Mr. Rose, Mr. Mullins, Mr. Bowling, a delegate from Greenwich, myself, Mr. Battice, and another Confederate delegate, a Mr. Allnutt, of another locality, and two strangers, whose names I do not remember—each of those fourteen attended, like myself, as delegates from different districts—Mr. Dowling attended as one of the Irish Confederates; I was informed so that evening—there was also another person, a stranger, who represented himself as a delegate from the Confederates—I have no note of the transactions of that meeting, but I can remember them—verbal reports were given in of the state of feeling of the members of their respective localities with regard to the physical force movement, and each delegate returned the number of men he could depend on, and were willing to fight—a committee was appointed for the purpose of drawing up five plans of action—Payne, Brewster, Rose, Mullins, and the prisoner Dowling were appointed on that committee—the meeting commenced at nine o’clock, or a little alter, and lasted till about ten minutes after twelve—Battice was present the whole time—he had been requested by the Council to accompany me to witness the proceedings—we were to meet again at Dennis’s Coffee-house, Great St. Andrew-street, Seven Dials, on the next Sunday morning, 23rd—when I went to the Black Jack, on the Thursday, I was asked to produce my credentials, and I produced a paper which I had procured from a Mr. Bezer on my way to the meeting—Battice was with me at the time received it, and Bezer said in his presence they were going to get up a bloody revolution-—on Sunday morning, 23rd, at ten o’clock, I attendee at Dennis’s Coffee-house’—I found the prisoner and Rose, Mullins, Brewster and Payne accompanied me—we were together about an hour before any one else joined us—during that hour Mullins laid a pocket-book on the table with a map of London unfolded, and the whole of the persons present had papers in their hands—there was also a pen-and-ink sketch of various pars of London, belonging to Mullins, and a portion of it marked Seven Dials—I did not see either of the other four plans—the prisoner told Mullins that he thought it was difficult for him (Dowling) to undertake the management of the Seven Dials—in the course of the evening Payne, who occupied the chairs said, “Gentlemen, our object is to destroy the power of the Queen, and if possible, to establish a republic,” and there was a general acquiescence; in that—I do not remember the words they used—there was some conversation about vitriol, and assassinating the police—I can’t exactly remember the purport of it—Rose said, “We must first assassinate the police, burn down the station-houses, and build barricades”—that appeared to be generally receive:—at the end of the hour Allnutt, a member from Greenwich, and another Confederate leader, came: there were ten persons present—I do not know anything of this paper (looking at a plan)—I can almost swear this paper (marked A) is the one I saw in Mullins’s possession—I saw him put it into his pocket-book, and put the pocket-book into his pocket—I never saw anything of these others (looking at others), but 1 believe I my safely swear to this, I was so impressed with the first sketch of it—the; is no particular mark on it, but I will explain how I am so positive of it—I had a view of it, and I observed this drawing and also these pencil-marks for barricades—there was some conversation by Brewster about the barricades being half-way down some street in Oxford-street, leading to some square—after the others came in, Mullins said he was sorry they had not quite matured the plans for their inspection—Payne left about half-past eleven, and the meeting soon after adjourned, and it was arranged they should meet at Cartwright’s on the same evening—we met there—Payne, Mullins, Brewster, and Rose, were there—Dowling was not—they went into a back room- I did not accompany them—I next met the same parties on Wednesday, 26th July, at Hopkinson’s Coffee-house, Saffron-hill—that had been arrange: on the Sunday morning—there were eighteen present, Dowling, Rose, Mullins, myself, a delegate from Greenwich, Brewster, Ferdinando (this was his first appearance), a delegate from the Green Gate, Hackney-road whose name I do not know, Flanagan, Allnutt, and others—I sometimes made my notes when I got home the same night, and sometimes the next day—as regards this particular meeting, I must have made the note soon after I got home at night, or early in the morning—a return was given of the number of new delegates—there was nothing at all in writing, it was all done as matter of confidence one with the other—reports were given of the feelings of the members of each locality, and the number of men they could depend—on as fighting men—there was a motion made respecting an advertisement to be put in the Northern Star, calling on every Chartist and Confederate locality to send two delegates to meet on the following Tuesday, at the Dispatch coffee house, Bride-lane, Fleet-street—that was adopted—there was nothing further of any consequence transacted that evening—they adjourned to the same place on the Friday, the 28th—there were fourteen persons-present then—there were two new delegates—there were reports made of the feeling of their localities, and the number of fighting men—each new delegate made a similar report with respect to his own locality—a resolution was passed that the sum of 10s. should be sent by the delegates of each locality, for the purpose of carrying out the object of the committee—we adjourned, to meet at Cartwright’s on the 30th—I attended there—there were twenty-eight persons present—they were Payne, Dowling, Brewster, Rose, Mullins, Bassett (his first appearance) Stevenson, a new delegate, myself, Ferdinando, Fay, and others—there was a return made from the new delegates of the feeling of the members of their localities, and also the number of fighting men that they could depend on—I believe that afternoon there was a resignation of the committee that met at the Black Jack, on account of the charges brought against Rose and Mullins, as being spies—a new committee, called the Ulterior Committee, was then appointed, composed of Payne, Rose, Mullins, Bassett, and the prisoner—that was the same Rose as it had been suggested was a spy—there was a talk about his election—the person who charged him as being a spy was not left out (I judged it was Brewster)—he was elected, after discussion and an explanation—it was not stated what the Ulterior Committee were to take into their consideration—it was generally understood what they were appointed for—a resolution was passed that the delegates should meet, if necessary, at Cartwright’s, on the following Monday evening—there was no meeting that evening—the next meeting was on Tuesday, 1st Aug.—that was the meeting which I alluded to, that was to take place at the Dispatch coffee-house, Bride-lane—there were thirty-four persons present, all delegates, or representing themselves as such, Payne, Rose,. Mullins, Brewster, Dowling, Bezer, myself, Fay, Thompson, Donovan, Lynch, Fuzzon, Warry, Allnutt, Ferdinando, Raymond, and others—a report was given in by the new delegates the same as before—(there had tan a resolution passed at Cartwright’s, on July 30th, that four more should be added to the Ulterior Committee, to make it nine)—I do not think I saw this paper there—I might have done so—Bezer gave in his return of fighting men as fifty—he came from our district, Cartwright’s—I cannot say what number the others returned—it was taken down either in pencil or ink—the Irish Felon Society was held in our locality, and the Star Society—there was also a club called the Davis’ Club, the Emmett Brigade, and the Tom Paine’s locality, and various others—there were delegates from each of those localities at the meetings I have mentioned—there was a jealousy that there were not enough Irish on the Ulterior Committee, and four more were added—they were Thompson, Lynch, Fay, and Donovan—there was a discussion on the propriety of sending a person to some part of Limerick or Cork, to ascertain how they were getting on—I do not know who proposed it it was not adopted—the reason stated was because it was not likely they could get any true intelligence of the state of the country—a proposition was made by the prisoner that there should be a demonstration on Sunday, 6th Aug., at two o’clock, of Chartists and Confederates, on Primrose-hill, to ascertain the strength and numbers of the people—it was lost by a majority of five—a resolution was carried to the effect that every delegate should return to his locality, and ascertain how the members were for regularity of preparation, and ready to be called out at an hour’s notice—I do not know that that was a substitute for the Primrose-hill meeting—it was after that had been disposed of—a resolution was passed that they should meet at Cartwright’s on Friday, Aug. 4th, at eight o’clock—Mullins stated he had seen Mr. Kydd that day, 1st Aug., and that Mr. Kydd had said, if the people came out for physical force, he would not be backward in heading them; but that he, Kydd, had entered on the executive as a moral-force man, and had taken the office only on that ground—that was what Mullins remarked on Kydd’s statement to him—that was received with a degree of belief—Kycid was one of the executive of the council of the Chartists, of the convention that sat in John-street—I know out Cripplcgate-street district was in communication with the executive in John-street—we next met at Cartwright’s on Friday evening, 4th Aug—there were thirty-two present—Mr. Payne was in the chair—Rose, Brewster, Gurney, (his first appearance,) Mullins, Bassett, (his second appearance’ Cuffey, Donovan, Lynch, Dowling, myself, Thompson, and others—the committee had met previously at three, before the whole body—the prisoner was present in the evening, but I will not say he was present at the committee—the committee sat half an hour or an hour, before the rest of the body joined them, and there was a discussion about what scarfs were to be worn as a sign of officership—a red scarf was mentioned; and it was determined that they should have red scarfs—I was present, and Brewster also a report was given in that evening by the new delegates of the number of men, the same as before—I should tell you that the committee who were sitting, Payne, Rose, Brewster, Mullins, and Bassett, had some conversation about a circular that Mr. Kydd had received, stating that they were desirous of knowing how far the committee of delegates then sitting in London were disposed to send a delegate to Manchester—it was decided to do so—Mr. Lacey’s name was mentioned, and Bassett was deputed to want upon him, and Rose gave Bassett money that Lacey might go on the following morning (Saturday)—a resolution was passed that evening, to the effect that the delegates should submit to the determination of the ulterior committee, whatever it was—the thirty-two were then present—a resolution was passed that the delegates should call on the members in their localities to meet at half-past two on the following Sunday, the 6th, at their localities, and to prevent if possible the members attending the meeting on Kennington’ common; to wait there till their delegates returned from Kennington-common—there was a meeting advertised to take place at Kennington-common that day, called by Mr. Dwaine—to the best of my belief it was to be at three o’clock—each delegate, in his particular district, was to have his members—their place of meeting, to keep them from going, till the delegates retuned from the Dispatch Coffee-house—it being an unlawful meeting, many of the members would be brought in contact with the police, and they were desirous I of preventing it—there was a resolution passed that we should meet on the following Sunday at the Dispatch Coffee-house—there was also another resolution passed for every delegate to select four men, to appoint then as telegraphs on the Sunday, and to station them from Fleet-street to Kennington-common—the delegates were to be at the Dispatch Coffee-house, and thus communicate with the persons at Kennington-common—I attended the meeting on the Sunday—there were from twenty-five to thirty persons present—I do not recollect that the prisoner was present—the arrangement was carried out of having men placed between the Despatch Coffee-house and the Common—I was appointed as one of the lookers-on, to see that!” the telegraphs should be stationed—a resolution was passed that they should meet at Dennis’s Coffee-house on the Monday evening—I attended it-there were about thirty present—it began at eight—the prisoner was there—Ritchie and Cuffey, and the whole nine of the ulterior committee were there and others, amounting to thirty—that night the ulterior committee resigned—on account of the reports in the papers of the arrest of Smith O’Brien in Ireland, and Mullins explained that he had no confidence in the others who were selected on the committee, that he had not seen their plans—he alluded to the four new Irishmen that had been added—one or two of the other made the same statement—there—was a fresh election—Messrs. Rose, Mullins, Brewster, Payne, and Bassett were elected, and were called the ulterior committee—a resolution was passed that there should be a president, and that the one who had the lowest post on the committee was to retire when the president came in—this was a visionary president—he was not named—there was some remark made by persons present that he was somebody and nobody—he was somebody to be talked about, and nothing more—a resolution was then passed that the sum of three-farthings should be levied on every member of every locality for the purpose of paying this president, to supply him with a salary—no time was specified for the payment—every delegate was to make the statement to the members in his locality—a letter was read by Mr. Payne, which I can only explain in this way, as he read it, that trade, was very good, and we should soon have a good order—he stated that the letter came from Mr. Lacey, who had been sent to Manchester—there was some degree of satisfaction expressed by many of the delegates present—they were glad to hear Lacey was going on well—a resolution was passed that they should meet on Wednesday, Aug. 9th, at the Lord Denman beer-shop, in Suffolk-street, Blackfriar’s-road—Messrs. Payne, Brewster, Rose, Mullins, Dowling, myself, Gurrney, Donovan, Bassett, and others, twenty-eight in all, were present—reports were given in by the new delegates of the feeling of their localities, and the number of fighting men, and the state of preparation they were in—I do not think anything was said about ball-cartridges, or anything of that sort; merely about preparation—Payne was in the chair, but Mullins acted as chief speaker—he was vice-chairman, and sat at the other end of the table—he called on all the delegates to declare their allegiance and determination to abide by the decision of the committee for the good of the people—they did not swear, but some declared solemnly, and some said they were determined to risk their lives, and abide by the deci-sion of the committee—Payne read another letter from Lacey, stating that all was going on well, that he was still at Manchester or some other part of the country, and there was a question asked how long he was to continue there, and Payne said he was to remain there as long as necessary—a resolution was passed that they should meet at Perry’s coffee-house, Church-street, Bethnal-green, or Shoreditch, on the following Friday, 11th, at eight o’clock—I went, but found no meeting—I was informed that the police had been to Rose’s house, and had seized his papers, and that all was up—I then went home—I heard on the following Sunday that there was to be a meeting on the following Monday night, 14th, at the Orange Tree beer-shop, Orange-street, Red Lion-square—I attended it, and I was asked why I was not at the other two meetings that bad taken place since Wednesday—I found, I should say, twenty-five there—I have not got their names, but I think I can tell them—there was Cuffey, Brewster, Payne, Mullins, Gurney, Fay, Ritchie, Scurry, myself and others—Dowling was not there, at least I did not see him there—Gurney asked me how it was I did not go to the meeting at Perry’s coffee house—I said I did go, and there was none held—he said there was, and then he told me where it was held—Payne was in the chair at the Orange Tree, but Mullins was the spokesman, and he was chief spokesman on all occasions—he called on us to give a return of the number of ball-cartridges that each delegate and his members had prepared—each delegate gave in his return of half-cartridges that he had prepared, and also what the members of his particular district had prepared—I did not take any note of the number—I think it was somewhere about 500 or 600—there was a return given in of the number of fighting men—Mullins stated that there were nearly 5000 fighting men of the Chartists alone—a return was also given in from the Confederates—I can not remember the number of them for a certainty, but I think it was something bordering upon the same number—it was a considerable number—he said the time was near at hand—he said, “Gentlemen, the next business is that I want every delegate to select four or six men, or more, as many as the can select iron; his locality”—there was a question asked what they were for- I do not know by whom—Cuffy answered, “To fire houses, railway premises trains, or anything”—I did not put anything down at the meeting—I was obliged to be cautious not to put any thing down—Mullins looked up at the gas which goes along the ceiling, and said “If I look up at the gas, you will at know what I mean”—I was asked how many men I thought I could select and I said two, and the other delegates right round gave in a return also—it was said they were to be men who could be depended on, who would do any-thing and everything—in the course of the evening there was a proposition made and carried, to send a deputation of two persons to have an interview with some of the North-Western Railway engineers, and ascertain what then feelings were, and whether they were willing to come over and assist the Chartists—Ritchie and Scurry were proposed and unanimously carried the purpose—I was not aware till that evening that there had been a conference between the engineers and the company—it was mentioned then because it was requested to know what they were going for—1s. 6d. was voted to defray their expenses for refreshment—they left forthwith on lie: mission—they were not present when the other resolutions were passed-! did not see any more of them that evening—there was a resolution passed that we should meet at half-past seven at the Lord Denman on the following Tuesday evening—I went—Payne, Brewster, Mullins, Cuffey, Dowling, Allnutt, Fey Gurney, Lacey, Ritchie, Ferdinando, and others, in all about forty, were there-Lacey was there when I got there—he entered into conversation with several of us, and told us that the men of Birmingham and Manchester, and I think he said Liverpool, but am not certain, were up and were doing, or would be doing that night, and he had been watched all day by the police, and as he was coming out of his street-door, a boy came up and told him that he was watched by the police—I had never seen Lacey before, I had only heard of him—he said he had been to Birmingham and Manchester, and other places, but I do not re-member for a certainty what those places were, and he had also been watched for two hours, and he gave the police the double, and had reached the place safety—about three quarters of an hour after that, there was a distributed colours by Brewster—they were twisted plaited ribbons, and were gives a the delegates so that they might be recognised as the leaders of the people—Brewster stated so—they were to be put on the left arm—they were three colours, red, white, and some other—I received one—Mullins was present as their distribution, and after that some of the committee came in—they were not-all present, at least I did not see them, but one or two of them spoke, are told Lacey they had better retire and consult—the room up-stairs was ✗ pied by a sing-song, and we had the lower room—Lacey said, “If yes will wait a while I will go and see at a neighbour’s coffee-house, whether we cannot have a room”—he went out, returned, and said “All right, or some such word-, and the committee went out with him—I did not go—they were gone about three quarters of an hour, or it might have been an hour—the delegates remained till they returned—they went away, to consult to gather-when they retired, Cuffey said, “Now, Mr. Chairman, you has better give the; instructions as quick as possible”—Mullins was acting-as chairman—Laccy went with them when they went out—I did not see him return with them, and was surprised at it—Cuffey was secretary; I was informed he was chosen secretary by the committee—Mullins said, “Gentle-men, as you are aware, the committee have retired, and come to certain resolutions and decisions; they have directed me to give you the following instructions; and as our friend, Mr. Lacey, has informed us that the men of Birmingham and Manchester are up, and will be doing to-night, and we have no reason to doubt the correctness of his statement, therefore, gentlemen, to-morrow night you must come out to fight and strike the blow; and it is necessary, gentlemen, that you should speak out honestly and boldly, for there must be no flinching in the matter”—Cuffey stood by the fireplace, and said, “You had better put it round, Mr. Chairman, to every one present; let them answer, ‘Yes’ or ‘No'”—Mullins on that appealed to a delegate sitting by me, and said, “Will you come out to fight?”—he said, “Yes”—he said to me,” Will you?” and I said, “Yes”—then he said, “Will you?” addressing each in turn, one by one, round the room, till he came to Mr. Ferdenando, who made a bit of a speech, and explained his reasons that he could not conscientiously say “Yes” to coming out—he objected, he was not agreeable; in fact, he said, “No”—he gave his reason, and then said, “No,” and sat down—there was one more of the same opinion—I do not know his name—he was companion delegate, I understood, to Allnutt, who sat by his side—with the exception of those two, the answer from the rest was, “Yes”—after that Mullins said, “Gentlemen, you must understand we shall take up four positions: Clerkenwell-green will be taken by Mr. Brewster; the Tower Hamlets will be taken by Mr. Payne;” and the Seven Dials, and the Broadway, Westminster, were the other two positions—Basset and Mullins were to take those two—I do not know which was to take each—Mullins said, after giving the instructions in that manner, “Gentlemen,” every delegate must assemble the members of his locality, for them to communicate to their locality at eight o’clock precisely”—it was to be the next night—there was a question asked by a delegate, I do not know who, how they were to get there with their pikes and poles?—Mullins said, “I can only say they must get them there the best way they can,” (some of the poles were ten feet long), “and at twenty minutes past nine, to a second, every delegate must be with his men at their respective positions”—the delegates were to come armed—Mullins proposed, and it was carried unanimously, that Ritchie was to superintend and direct those men that were to be selected for the purpose of firing houses, railway premises, trains, or anything—Ritchie undertook it—the Orange Tree was to be the place of meeting—a question was asked, how Ritchie was to know these men, and some person said, “I propose the password to be, ‘Frost and Mitchell'”—Allnutt proposed the word “Justice”—it was put, and carried unanimously; so that when these men entered the room Ritchie might ask them, “What do you want? who do you want?” and they would make reply, “Justice;” and then he would know them—Mullins said to Payne, “Just take a list of the number of men;” and he put them down; but he made a mistake, and there was some little confusion with the delegates—he went round the room again, and the number was reckoned forty-six—he applied to the person who sat next to me first, and then to me, and I said, “Two,” but I could only depend on one—he went round to every delegate, and in that way forty-six was made up—Gurney was there at the time, and when—I said I could select two, he said, “Oh, nonsense, you can select more than that, half a dozen, I know” I Was rather put out at his taking on himself to judge upon it; in fact, there Was but one man that I could depend on for the purpose—Gurney was one of the wardens before I was elected on the council—each warden has 100 men under him, according to the rules of the Society—after the number of men was taken, the last words Mullins uttered were, “May the bitterest curse of God hang on the soul of that man that shall betray any one of us”—it was such a colour as this (produced) that was to be tied round the arm—nothing more took place that I remember—I came away—the prisoner was there that night, and sat nearly opposite me—I attended a meeting on the following day, 15th—it had been arranged on the Tuesday evening at the Lord Denman, that our locality, the Finsbury, City, and Clerkenwell localities, were to meet Brewster at twelve o’clock, at the Crispin, in Milton-street, Cripplegate, to receive the delegates from each locality—I went, but did not arrive till a quarter to one—I found Brewster, Gill, Gurney, and I believe Fay, and others, eight or nine altogether—I have not made a note—Brewster said it was his intention to attack the Artillery-ground, and, if possible, to take it, and he should have to fight b——y hard, and that we should know by four o’clock in the afternoon whether the Government had received any intimation of what was going on—there was another person with him at the time; in fact, it was the man who told me at Perry’s coffee-shop that there was no meeting there, and that it was all up with Rose—Brewster pointed to this person, and said, “Wait on me at Clerkenwell-green when you are all there”—Brewster said, “Don’t be afraid because you do not see the signals for a little while; you might not see the signals for half an hour, but wait a bit”—it had been arranged at the Orange Tree that there were to be bonfires—the men who were selected, were spoken to on that same evening, for I spoke to my men—Brewster also said, “Ritchie swears, so help his God, he will shoot the first person dead that flinches from his duty.”

Groups were assigned gathering places for the start of the action. Charles Baldwinson, a tailor, of Webber-street, Blackfriars, was told to lead his Chartist branch to the Broadway, Westminster, and was told other groups would be mustering at Clerkenwell-green, in the East End, and at Seven Dials. Other evidence at the later trials suggests that groups were also to gather at “the Peacock, Westminster-road; another, at the Crispin, in Milton-street, Cripplegate; another, at Breadon’s beer-shop, Shouldham-street; and the fourth, I think, at the Buck’s Head, somewhere about Bethnal-green-road, or Hackney-road”. According to testimony given by the police spy George Davis: “plans… [were] produced…. to erect barricades from Clerkenwell down to Seven Dials, and from Seven Dials down Drury-lane to St. Mary’s Church, in the Strand, by Somerset-house, and right along the Strand to Temple-bar; that would form a good barricade, and from Temple-bar down Fleet-street, and by the water-side, and they were to make sure of Chaplin and Home’s premises… they were to make a circle round from Holborn till they got to St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and down there till they got to Clerkenwell-green and Aldersgate-street, and they were to take possession of St. Paul’s Church.”

Davis also testified as to expected numbers: “Mullins remarked that it was not those they depended on; they did not depend on the organised Chartists, but they reckoned there were about 30000 thieves and vagabonds about London who would co-operate with and assist them.” Though this last may have been embroidery by Davis to increase the frisson of respectable fear…

Groups of Chartists in other towns and cities had certainly been sounded out, and some were seemingly ready to join in with the proposed uprising. In Ashton, Lancashire, a clash took place between Chartists and police on August 14th, which led to some arrests: whether this was linked to the plans in London is unknown.

Powell asserts that conspirators reckoned on 5000 supporters in London being ready to take part in revolt. What stage plans for a rising on 16th August had really reached, and what kind of numbers would have joined in, is unclear. In any case, the authorities were completely forewarned, and moved pro-actively to round up the groups readying themselves for revolution.

At 6pm on the night of 16 August, 11 men were arrested at the Orange Tree public house Orange Street, off Red Lion Square in Holborn. Later, at 9pm, 13 more were held at the Angel in Southwark, and within 20 minutes more a large crowd that had  gathered at Seven Dials, Covent Garden, were dispersed. Arrests continued for several days across London, and some caches of stashed weapons were discovered and seized.

Orange Street, off Red Lion Square, location of the Orange Tree pub.


“ARREST OF ARMED CHARTISTS IN LONDON

On Wednesday night a scene of the utmost confusion took place in Webber Street , Blackfriars which, for two or three hours, created considerable sensation in the neighbourhood.

It appears that, from private information received by the Government, about half-past nine, Superintendent Rutt, with nearly 300 men, marched to the Angel Tavern in Webber Street kept by Mr Smith. Mr Rutt, with a pair of loaded pistols and a cutlass at his side, entered the house, accompanied by a strong body of constables, and, at the same time, upwards of a hundred officers were drawn up in front of the premises under arms. The moment the police entered the tap-room or parlour, a general movement took place on the part of the persons assembled there, and Mr Rutt cried out, “If any man offers the least resistance I will run him through,” at the same time showing his drawn cutlass. This had the desired effect, and little or no resistance was attempted. The police then in a body seized fourteen men who were in the room, and conveyed them, under a strong guard, to Tower Street , where, upon being searched, pistils loaded to the muzzle, pikes, three-corner daggers, spearheads and swords were found upon their persons, and others were found secreted under the seats on which they had been sitting. Some of them wore iron breast-plates, and others had gun-powder, shot and tow balls. Under one man no less than 75 rounds of ball cartridge were discovered. The prisoners having been duly charged, their names and addresses were taken, and scarcely a man was brought forward who was not well known to the police as being a prominent Chartist. The whole of the prisoners were locked up at Tower Street under a strong escort of police. Soon after, Superintendent Rutt and Inspector Russell, from private information which they received, proceeded to Blue Anchor-yard, York Street , Westminster , where, it was stated, a gant of armed Chartists were waiting to march out and join the other portions in the event of a procession being formed. On entering the house of a well known leader, the man and a large pike were found.

Upon the police proceeding to the house of Samual Morgan, one of the men taken in the Angel Tavern, the police found the leg of a chair loaded with lead, and a number of nails driven in at the extremity. It was about the length of a policeman’s truncheon, and so heavily laden that a blow on the head with it must have caused instantaneous death. Swords and weapons of various kinds have been found at then residences of the other prisoners.

The whole of the military quartered at Buckingham palace, the Tower, Mint, Bank of England and the various barracks were under arms.

From what has already transpired, it is supposed that the Chartist and Confederate clubs intended to march out well armed, as they did some weeks back, and attack such buildings as may be pointed out to them.

Shortly after the capture was made in Webber Street , a meeting was attempted to be held at the South London Chartist Hall, in the same street, when one of the leaders rushed into the building, and advised them, for God’s sake, to disperse as their lives were in danger. In an instance a general rush took place for the street, and one man, in leaping from a side window, severely injured himself, and, it is rumoured, broke one of his legs.

In consequence of information received at the Home-office that a Chartist demonstration on a large scale was intended to be held at a house in Moor Street, Seven Dials, orders were issued to the superintendents of the various divisions of police at the wet end of the metropolis, to muster all their men and keep them in reserve till further orders. At four o’clock in the afternoon, a strong body of police, under the direction of Superintendents Pearce and Grimwood, went to the Orange Tree public-house in Orange Street , and having satisfied themselves that a number of armed Chartists were in the house, proceeded with several constables into the place, and arrested about eighteen men, armed with pistols, pikes, and blunderbusses. The landlord was also arrested, and several cabs having been procured, the whole of the prisoners were handcuffed and conveyed to the police station in Bow Street . The public house in question is now closed. About eleven o’clock an alarm was given that upwards of 500 Irish Confederates armed with pikes were about marching from Moor Street to meet the Confederates in Webber Street, and in consequence of the alarm manifested by the inhabitants, the whole of the C division, fully armed, under the orders of Superintendent Beresford, proceeded to the spot, and found that a number of Irish had assembled at a public house in the street under the pretence of having a raffle, in order to raise funds to defend the Confederate leaders on their forthcoming trial. This, however, turned out a mere subterfuge, for one the house being entered, the whole of the persons assembled there were found with arms in their hands. A violent resistance was offered on the part of the Confederates; but on the police drawing their cutlasses, they speedily threw down their arms and ran out of the house. Four fellows who were more violent than the rest were taken into custody. Quiet was not restored to the neighbourhood till a late hour.”
(The Scotsman, 19 August)

Thomas Barrett’s later testimony in court gives some sense of the atmosphere in the run up the 16th August:
BARRETT: “I am a shoemaker, of 17, Charles-street, Lisson-grove. On Whit-Sunday I became a member of the Emmett Brigade, which held its meetings at Morgan’s beer-shop, in Praed-street,. and one branch in Shouldham-street, kept by Broaden—I know a man named Mullins—I have heard him address meetings of Chartists and Confederates, at Breaden’s, on several Sundays, and on Sunday, 13th Aug. I heard him say it was necessary for each man to prepare himself for the crests that was coming, and it was necessary for each man to make a small sacrifice to aid the Committee of Progress in their undertakings, and they would judge by the exertions they made whether they were prepared or not—at a meeting there on Tuesday, 15th Aug., between thirty and forty Chartists and Confederates were present—at one time there were forty—it was staled that they were waiting for delegates from the Committee of Progress—on Wednesday, 16th Aug., about eight o’clock, I went to the Chartist meeting-house in Praed-street—about twenty of the Emmet Brigade were assembled—it was said that they were waiting for orders; they did not say for what, but it was generally understood for an outbreak—I went from thence to Breaden’s, I got there about half-past eight or a quarters to nine, and found thirty or forty persons of the same class—Mullins came in and a man named Smith clapped him on the shoulder, and said, “My boy, I was afraid you were taken”—he said, “No, they only take me with my life’—he retired, and a man named Cruickshank came in and placed a musket on the table—I had seen him there once or twice before—I do not know what branch he was a member of—there were two pistols, and several pikes and pike—heads, in the room—I heard the question put whether they were prepared, and whether they had got their toothpicks, which was the name they gave them—Mullins and others retired into another room—when they came back I was sitting in the angle of the room, and saw Mullins look into the room, and withdraw out of my sight—Smith said to me, but I cannot swear whether it was in Mullins’ presence, that they were to be in readiness to meet their leader at Crown-street Soho-square, and the Seven Dials, at ten o’clock—the leader’s name was not mentioned—a cab, which I was informed—had brought Mullins, drove up to the door, and he went away in it—I believe there was a question asked how they were to take their arms—the answers in the best way they could—I went to Crown-street, Soho, walked down to the bottom, and recognised about thirty persons whom I had seen in the room.

Cross-examined. Q. “What is Mullins? A. I believe he is a surgess—he seems to be a man of education—I think he said crisis, and not cress—was, not in communication with the police when I heard Mullins speak—I am a moral-force Chartist—I think it is not physical means that will carry out moral force.”

Searches of the homes of some Chartists produced evidence of plans and numbers expected to ‘turn out’: Constable Joseph Thompson testified that “On 11th Aug. I searched Rose’s premises—he was with us, and showed us the place—I found this plan, marked “A;” this map of the City-road, “B;” a map or sketch of Seven Dials, “C;” blank forms for plans to be filled up; one of Seven Dials; and the other, beaded “Clerkenwell;” three recipes for gun-cotton, and these two lists of numbers—I found this cipher…”

William Chubb gave evidence: “I believe this (No. 11) to be the prisoner’s writing—(This being read, contained various marks and figures, with names and words attached to them, among which were “Pikes,” “Rifles,” “Killed,” “Shot,” “Barricades,” “Victory,” “O’Brien,” “Doheny,” “Tipperary.” “Poison,” “Fire,” “English,” &c. The papers found at Rose’s being read, contained a variety of names contracted, with numbers placed against them, signifying the various localities, their number, and names of the leaders, among which were the following: “Wall. 80; Bass, and Nas.—Lamb, lo 150 Ped.—Ber. 50; Dean. 250; Cuff. Thom.—Star. 50; Pear.-War—Irish, 50; Ritch.—St. Gils. 100;—Carts. 50; Fel. 100; Mitch 30; W. Ty. 20;—Fuzz. Fa., &c.””

A search of 2, Cross Court, off Russell Court, Drury Lane, the home of Joseph Ritchie, turned up “a hundred and seventeen ball cartridges, four bullet-moulds, four bullets, three constable balls, one powder-horn three-parts full of powder, a three half-pint bottle three-parts full of gunpowder, a bayonet, a ladle for melting lead, a piece of lead, several percussion caps, some shot, a quantity of tow, and the tricoloured band”.

Other Chartist meeting places were also raided. According to police inspector John Haynes, “On Wednesday, 16th Aug., between nine and ten o’clock, I went to the Charter coffee-house, kept by Lacey, in Strutton-ground, Westminster—I went over the house, and into the club-room, with Lacey—the Wallace brigade branch of the National Chartist Association met there—I found a list of members, the treasurer’s-books, the Victim Fund-book, and a contribution-book—I found Thomas Jones in a room down-stairs—he was searched in my presence, and two old pistols were found in his pockets, a bayonet in his breast, a one-pound canister of gunpowder in his hat, and a box of gunpowder in his pocket (produced)—here are some ball-cartridges for pistols, and another box of ball-cartridges.”

The most prominent Chartist arrested in this frenetic week was William Cuffay, a Black tailor, the son of Caribbean slaves. Cuffay had been delegated by the London Chartists to represent them at the Chartist Convention, and he had been one of the most noted speakers at the April 10th rally on Kennington Common. A fierce critic of the empty bluster of Chartists leaders like Feargus O’Connor, Cuffay would have seemed not generally in favour of taking such steps as small groups plotting insurrection; he was usually pointedly in favour of ensuring that any actions taken by Chartist bodies were properly representative of wider opinion.

David Goodway notes that Cuffay, while commonly held responsible for the rising, had in fact only become secretary of the “ulterior committee” of organisers three days before the rising: others have speculated that Cuffay was in fact acting (whether for the Executive or on his own) as a brake on an uprising launching at this time. This is speculation, however. Police testified that when arrested Cuffay was in possession of a pistol and a pike-shaft.

The most consistent actors in the planning of the London insurrection seem to have been Payne, John Rose, Brewster, James Bassett, and most of all the 22-year-old surgeon’s apprentice George Bridge Mullins.

William Lacey, Thomas Fay, William Cuffay, William Dowling, and later George Bridge Mullins were found guilty in September 1848 of treason, and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Joseph Ritchie pleaded guilty and was also sentence to be transported for life.

Fifteen others who pleaded guilty to lesser charges of ‘unlawfully conspiring to excite insurrection and riot, and to obstruct by force the execution of the laws and preservation of the public peace, and to procure arms and ammunition for that purpose’ were imprisoned for two years. At least twelve others pleaded not guilty, but were in the end bound over ‘on their own recognisance’ for two years.

We will return to the trials of the Chartist insurrectionaries in a later post…

Many more Chartist leaders and spokesmen were arrested in the wake of the failed revolt, and a number were jailed for sedition based on speeches made before the events of August. Despite all the drilling, arming and speechifying, no general uprising manifested; the agitation died down slowly. Hundreds of activists were now in prison or awaiting trial; supporting the prisoners became vital. But Chartist leaders also fell into fighting amongst themselves and denouncing each other, either for failing to act on their words, or for falling into the trap of violent action and language. Genuine political divisions were also opening up which would soon splinter the movement again. Chartism would decline over the decade five years into smaller and smaller groups.

Was there ever a realistic chance of revolution in 1848? In hindsight, there just does not seem to have been the mass support or the will to really bring a successful insurrection about. The penetration of the movement by spies to its deepest levels might be identified as the reason for its failure – however, in reality, revolutions are not generally brought about by small groups of conspirators, or not on their own. An organic movement grown powerful enough to overthrow a deeply established class system can not be jemmied into existence by a tiny minority, but takes years to grow; to evolve an alternative culture. Chartism at its best was moving towards that. To some extent the insurrectionary impulse was the result of frustration with the failure of mass agitation to move things forward (a pattern seen in the 1802 and 1820 attempts at revolt too); understandable, given the poverty of most working people’s lives and the repression visited on the legal campaigning.

But other factors were at play. Part of the reason why revolutions across Europe were (at least temporarily) successful in overthrowing monarchies and establishing more representative regimes is that those regimes were rigidly adhering to despotic forms of government and class structure – substantial sections of the middle classes and some manufacturing interests supported revolution because they were excluded from power. In Britain, the 1832 reform act and other social and economic changes had strengthened the power base of the state by broadly bringing the middle class on board. The British establishment’s ability to adapt and evolve in the face of demands for change remained the most powerful card in its hand.

1848 may not have been a Revolutionary Moment Missed – it did mark in practice an end to the insurrectionary tradition in British radical politics. Chartism’s legacy, however, was much more nuanced and pervasive; the alternative culture it had inherited and strengthened would go on to influence future generations of radicals for decades.

 

 

Today in London’s radical history, 1848: Chartist rallies in Clerkenwell leads to fighting with police

For several days from the 29th May 1848, 1000s of supporters of the chartist movement assembled on Clerkenwell Green. A general order to police to disperse all chartist meeting led to fighting in the area, which spread to others areas of London…

Chartism, the world’s first mass political working class movement, demanded universal suffrage for all; i.e. the extension of the vote to all workingmen (although there was a vocal female element within Chartism). There were two wings of Chartism: physical force Chartism, which was ready to use insurrection if all else failed to achieve its goals; and the moral force wing, which put its trust in the fact of having right on its side and advocated the peaceful use of political activity as its preferred method.

Chartism emerged at a time when the labouring classes were still in the process of being formed into an industrial proletariat; the combination of artisan craftsmen and a mass of un- and semi-skilled labour were all being reshaped by forces such as de-skilling, an increased division of labour and factory production methods.

The two wings of Chartism reflected changes in the earlier and later periods of working class formation, self-organisation and political expression. In the earlier period, from the 1780s to the 1830s, the physical force aspects were to the fore. As previously described, in the Gordon Riots of 1780 the London Mob of slum dwellers and dissatisfied apprentices ruled the city for several days, finally defeated by Army guns and blades as the Mob attempted to storm the Bank of England. Clerkenwell’s New Prison was stormed, the prisoners released and it was then burned to the ground, as was Newgate. There were numerous riots, violent strikes and attempted insurrections throughout this period, strongly influenced by the1789 French Revolution.

From the 1830s onwards, independent working class political organisation began to replace the earlier spontaneous violent outbreaks and became the dominant form of struggle. The failed great syndicalist union movement of the 1830s had revolutionary goals to abolish (or at least ‘level’) class society through workers mass action, but it was intended to be achieved through an entirely peaceful withdrawal of labour. This domestication corresponded more to the moral force philosophy of the other wing of Chartism.

Clerkenwell Green and the Chartists

Clerkenwell was the heart of the radical political scene in Victorian London and Clerkenwell Green was a central venue for public meetings, demonstrations and frequent clashes between Chartists and the recently formed Metropolitan Police Force.

Clerkenwell was a major stronghold of Chartism from the late 1830s on. In 1837-39: Chartist mass meetings were held on the Green; a local Chartist division met at Lunt’s Coffee House, at no. 34 Clerkenwell Green.
The London Democratic Association was established in 1837 with its main strength in North and East London. They held regular meetings in the area. Though part of the broader Chartist movement they were closest to the physical force Chartists of the North; their membership cards bore the motto ‘Our rights – peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’.
In 1840: Chartists protested here in solidarity with the imprisoned insurrectionaries of the Newport Rising and abortive revolts planned for northern cities.

Local sections of the various attempts to form united Chartist organisations also existed in the area, eg of the Metropolitan Charter Union in 1840, and the national Charter Association in 1841-2. These organisation were however, either shortlived or had lttle real significance in the capital, though London Chartism was becoming strong in the 1840s after a period of fragmentation.

Clerkenwell Green was one of the centres of large Chartist meetings in the tumult of August 1842, when mass strikes in the north and agitation in London seemed likely to break into wider revolt.
Chartist meetings were banned on the Green after this.

The last major period of Chartist activity was in 1848, in Clerkenwell as elsewhere. The build-up to the planned handing in to parliament of the third great Chartist petition involved a reviatlised Chartism all over he country. On April 10th 1848, a mass rally on Kennington Common in South London was intended to be the launch for a procession to Westminster; however, the government was afraid this would be the spark for revolution. Revolution was breaking out or brewing all over Europe at the time… The government planned ahead, brought in 1000s of troops and police to guard the capital, and enlisted thousands of the upper and middle classes to help out as special constables. They fortified buildings and bridges and prevented the Chartists from crossing the Thames into the City and Westminster, having banned the procession. The Chartists most prominent leaders backed down from confrontation, though many Chartists were up for it.

Far from being the end of Chartism, as orthodox histories often relate, April 10th did not see the end of the tensions and possibilities for the movement; London was gripped with the potential for revolt, and mass meetings were held around the capital’s open spaces and meeting grounds into June. The wave of revolts and radical movements sweeping Europe was both an inspiration to many workers, and a caution to the state, which came down hard on any demos and meetings as it had on April 10th. But rallies, marches and agitation continued into the Summer.

For instance, several days of fighting between Chartists and police took place in Clerkenwell, from 29 May 1848, lasting possibly up till June 4th.

Following Irish revolutionary John Mitchel’s sentencing of fourteen years transportation for allegedly plotting an uprising in Ireland, various Chartist and Irish groups organised a meeting and procession at Clerkenwell Green, London, on Monday 29 May 1848 to “demand from the Queen his release”

Following the meeting, the speakers organised the crowd to march through the streets, encouraging others to join in. Numbers of the marchers were reported to have been carrying ‘bludgeons, pitchforks and other dangerous implements’. However, a ‘strong body of police prevented the march from continuing to Buckingham Palace – the demonstrators then headed
back to Finsbury Square, where the leaders informed the assembly that they would
meet again on Wednesday.

The following day, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner issued a notice declaring all “assemblages and processions are illegal, and will not be allowed … all necessary measures will be adopted to prevent such processions taking place, and effectually to protect the public peace, and to suppress any attempt at the disturbance thereof.”

However the Chartists defied the ban by meeting at Clerkenwell Green again the following day. The Morning Post reported that by nine o’clock the area was densely crowded. This time the police did not even allow the gathering to form into a march, but started to disperse the crowd.

It was suggested in newspaper reports that there were ‘no known Chartist leaders at the assembly’ and that the large crowd of about 2,000 people had engaged in stone throwing, “running in different directions and shouting”. Although part of the crowd did disperse under pressure from the police, some activists called on people to stick together, that they could oppose the police; some asserted that the military would not hurt them.

According to the Morning Post (politically, a paper very hostile to Chartism) then declared that the actions of these “deluded people’ left the police with no option but to use their truncheons indiscriminately to clear the Green, which was still occupied by a ‘few men, women, and children, [who] were removed only by violent measures’.

Police tactics definitely outwitted the marchers. The police were hidden nearby and had plain-clothed observers at the assembly to report on any disorder, which helped the police time their intervention. Information had also been received that Chartists would meet at their several lodges and rush out to form a procession. But the police (amply furnished as usual with the informers and spies sent in to radical movements) had lists of the locations of Chartist meeting places, and a number of plain-clothed officers were stationed to watch them. Reserves of special constables and the City police were concealed nearby as backup.

On the 31st May, a crowd gathered again on the Green. According to one report: “in the absence of the conveners of the meeting, who had abandoned it in the face of immense police precautions, “a singular looking being with long hair, a profusion of beard and that ‘air distraught’ which is generally supposed to mark a child of the Muses” shinned up a lamp-post, and harangued the mob.

“When he had finished speaking, sections of the crowd began to make those desperate rushes, first in one direction and then in another, which generally precede a riot. At this critical moment a strong body of the police entered the Green from the east, and forming a line across the open space, swept the people at once and without opposition into the narrow streets and alleys opening from Clerkenwell Green on the west. Strong Parties of police were then placed at all the entrances to the Green and sections were sent to clear the several streets in the vicinity.”

On the 2 June 1848, The Morning Post declared: “owing to the admirable arrangements of the police, no processions were allowed to take place.”

On the following day, the provisions utilised by the authorities were re-stated: “the instructions given to Superintendents are that no processions are to be allowed, and if may are attempted, they are to be broken up at all hazards.”

The policy of the Whig government seemed to be to allow public rallies, up to a point, but to give the police their head to prevent any marches or demonstrations, anything that seemed potentially more threatening than speechifying. Processions continue to be banned.

Here is an account by James Cornish, a Clerkenwell policeman; referring to action against Chartists on one of these days, (though not sure which day, it might have been June 4th, given the reference to Victoria Park, see below).

“The Metropolitan policeman of the 1840s was a strange-looking individual. I wore a swallow tailed-coated suit with bright buttons and a tall hat. The hat was a fine protection for the head and saved me from many a Chartist’s bludgeon. It had a rim of stout leather round the top and a strip of covered steel each side. Then I had a truncheon, a weapon that was capable of doing a lot of execution and gave a good account of itself in those rough and dangerous times…When the Chartist agitation was at its worst I was stationed at Clerkenwell…in those days there were fields about and many open spaces. Clerkenwell was generally a rustic sort of suburb. There were of course great numbers of the working classes who listened readily enough to what agitators had to say about wrongs of which a lot of people knew nothing until attention was drawn to their existence. Stormy meetings were held everywhere and the police were nearly run off their legs in trying to keep order…Those were rougher, harder and coarser times and where in these days many arrests would be made, we in the ‘40s used to brush the mob off the streets and out of the way, the chief thing was to get rid of them…The rioting in London took the form of running fights between the Chartists and the Guardians of the Law, and the man who wanted excitement could get plenty of it at a very cheap rate. Every policeman became a target, and the way some of us got struck proved what first rate shots the Chartists were.

The weapons that were mostly used in the beginning were bludgeons and stone and bricks…as for the Chartists’ bludgeons they got them easily enough from trees and fences…a stake of this kind was about the only stake most of the rioters had in the country!

A famous battleground was Clerkenwell Green and another place I remember well was Cowcross Street. There was plenty of open space on the Green for fighting and many houses in which the Chartists could hide and throw things at us. Day after day we came into collision with them… One day the Chartists seemed to have vanished mysteriously and only two or three police were left to guard the Green. But that was merely a blind. They swooped down on us. By the time reinforcements arrived…the Chartists were giving us a thoroughly bad time. It turned into a massive battle that extended to neighbouring streets, into houses and onto roofs.

Truncheons were useless against the defenders of the roofs but we made good use of them in clearing the streets…there was a terrible to-do that day and I have often thought that I should like to see a picture of the street as it looked when sticks and stones and bricks were flying and police and Chartists were struggling furiously for mastery…we cleared the streets at last leaving many an aching bone and sore head.

Then a message was received to go to Victoria Park “to the relief and rescue of ‘N’ Division’ who were besieged in the church there.” A busy day for Clerkenwell’s coppers.”

Clerkenwell local Dan Chatterton, a Chartist at the time, and later a well-known secularist, republican and communist orator and writer/publisher, participated in these events in his youth; he later wrote he was badly injured during these clashes.

The fighting between Chartists and police spread to the East End. On Sunday June 4th, in Bonners Fields, Bethnal Green, a large Chartist meeting was scheduled, (in preparation for a protest march hoped to be the successor to April 10th). By eight in the morning approximately 300-400 people had gathered. As speakers addressed the crowd the meeting was broken up by mounted police with drawn swords, whose presence and precipitate action did little to calm an already agitated assembly. At least two policemen were attacked in Virginia Gardens during the afternoon in a revenge attack.

In  London Fields, on the same day, a potential Chartist meeting was prevented by a large body of police under a superintendent and two inspectors.

The Chartist leaders had planned to keep up the pressure after April 10th by holding more mass demos and marches, but the Home Office ban, and police willingess to crack heads, left this strategy on tatters by June 4th. The movements more prominent spokesmen and moral force representatives lost their hold on some of the more radical elements at this point. It was clear that moral force methods were not working. A dedicated number of Chartist activists began to meet to plot more direct action – in short, an uprising. An ‘Ulterior Committee’ was formed and began meeting regularly to co-ordinate efforts towards revolt…

… to which we return in this post

Today in London’s unruly history, 1848: a Chartist riot in Camberwell

In the early 19th Century, with working people being increasingly forced off the land and into urban areas, with the growth of factories and massive spread of Cities, working class people were rapidly becoming politicised and conscious of themselves and their class interests. Working class organisations, radical clubs and early Trade Unions formed a growing network across many cities… London was no exception.

The Chartists are usually quoted to be the’ first national movement of British working class’: they aimed broadly at an increase in political power for working class people, excluded from the vote or political process. Although many of their leaders nationally were of middle class (or even aristocratic) origin, (actually in London they tended to be more artisans or working class) they were a hugely broadly based mass movement, organised around six major demands for political reform that had been the program of the British reformers and radicals since the 1760s…

  1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The ballot —To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament—thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

The Chartists’ tactics included huge monster meetings, and a petition to Parliament, presented and rejected three times between 1838 and 1848. The movement was made up of thousands of local branches, whose activities went far beyond pressing for reform, but built a whole culture, of education, songs, history, their own ceremonies and open discussion; they were conscious of their links to radicals of the past and similar movements abroad. and included all kinds of people, women and men, black people… Although many did not advocate the vote for women, others did, and female democratic associations formed a part of the movement.

As their petitions and political pressure failed, many Chartists began to advocate a working class seizure of power by armed force, and divisions split these ‘Physical Force’ Chartists from their ‘Moral Force’ counterparts. Several Chartist uprisings were planned in 1839-40, which failed or were repressed. Plotters,and Chartists involved in organising rallies, strikers and other actions were jailed, transported to the penal colonies.

The Chartists held mass meetings in South London in the 1840s, mainly on Kennington Common, especially in 1842, and then in 1848, the year of the last great Chartist upsurge, when they prepared the third petition. While the plans for presenting the petition were developed, physical force Chartists again prepared uprisings; in London in ‘48 several riots ensued when rallies were attacked by police. Through the Spring and early Summer the capital was in a state of alert: the authorities feared revolution (which was breaking out in France and across Europe), and Chartists hoped and worked for a popular rising to achieve their rights.

Chartist Riot?

In March 1848 this climate led to a riot after a Chartist meeting – which seems to mainly ended in some opportunist looting…

A week after 3 days of riots in newly opened Trafalgar Square in early March, another Chartist meeting was convened, on Kennington Common for 13th March: on the platform were a number of the Chartist leaders. The authorities had taken extensive precautions and troops were under orders to be called out, if necessary, with General Brotherton in command, and the mobilisation of police totalled an extraordinary 3,88i, including eighty mounted men and one hundred in plain clothes, in the vicinity of the Common; 1,141 on the Surrey side of the bridges; and the remainder in reserve.

In the event, no obstruction was offered to 400 or 500 men who about noon – for which time the commencement of the proceedings was announced – departed, so the Camberwell Division of Police later reported, on a signal being given ‘by raising a Pole’. The band took in their Route the most retired arid unfrequented byeways supposed for the purpose of’ avoiding the observations of’ the Police and Special Constables until they reached Bowyer Lane where they commenced an attack upon the small Shop Keepers by breaking their Windows and in some cases forcing down the Shutters and carrying away a quantity of their Goods.

The shops rifled in Camberwell consisted of a pawnbroker’s, three boot and shoemaker’s, a tailor’s, a clothes shop, a confectioner’s, baker’s, broker’s and three general dealer’s. The looters were armed with ‘staves of barrels, and sticks of all descriptions’, including palings. One of the shoemakers told them:—I am a poor man; if you want something, don’t come to me” – 1 said 1 was no maker of laws, I had nothing to lose, and begged them not to distress me.’ He persuaded fifty or sixty to pass on, but when the main body came up they beat in his shop-front arid removed 162 pairs of boots and shoes, worth £35 16s. The principal target was the premises of a pawnbroker and silversmith. His shutters and doors were attacked with ‘Hatchets Hammers Shovels and other offensive and dangerous weapons’ to cries of ‘Hurrah for Liberty’ and ‘Come on, my brave boys, we’ll have our liberty’;”” and ‘watches were thrown into the street over the heads of ‘the people’. He estimated his loss at upwards of £900, including as it did 200 watches and 170 rings.

The whole episode occurred within the space of an hour and only nine arrests were made (by a party of’ mounted police, assisted by special constables) at the time, but since a number of the rioters had been recognised by the locals twenty-five were brought to trial in April. Several witnesses identified among the leaders Charles Lee, a gipsy (not apprehended until a year later), arid David Anthony Duffy,a ‘man of colour’ and unemployed seaman, known to the police as a beggar in the Mint, where he went about without shirt, shoe, or stocking’. (Benjamin Prophett, known as’Black Ben’, was another ‘man of colour’ and seaman.)’ Eighteen men, of’ whom four had previous convictions, were sentenced to from seven to fourteen years’ transportation and three to one year’s imprisonment. The ages of all twenty-six (including Lee) are known: only ten were aged twenty or over (Prophett at twenty-nine was the eldest) and the youngest were three thirteen -year-olds. The Camberwell police superintendent dismissed the offenders as: ‘All Labourers and Costermongers’; yet of the twenty-five tried in 1848 a substantial number had trades, even though most of them were still in their teens. The occupations were: four labourers, three seamen, one fishmonger, costermonger, hawkboy, errand boy, brickmaker, ginger beer maker, bonnet box maker, baker, carpenter, bricklayer, sealing wax maker, glass blower, printer, tailor, currier, shoemaker, twine spinner (rope-maker), and brushmaker (and seller of ‘brooms and brushes).

Although the Camberwell riot was of short duration it was intense and also of historical importance, for it contributed to the hysterical prelude to 10 April 1848 in London” and it was upon 8 and 10 April that the minatory sentences were imposed upon the rioters. It has, however, been overlooked by virtually all historians – and others. The Northern Star did not carry a report of either the riot or the resultant trials. Mayhew mentions the pillaging of a pawnbroker’s shop but assumes that it took place on 10 April (while his collaborator John Binny transcribed the autobiographical narrative of Charles Lee after his return from transportation for life).

The participation of black radicals in the riot is interesting: the early 19th Century radical movement was notable for the involvement of prominent activists of African descent. One of the leaders of the London Chartists was William Cuffay, a Black tailor whose father had been a slave from St Kitts in the Carribbean. Cuffay was prominent in the April 1848 Kennington meeting, and was then arrested in August of that year, accused of involvement in the planning of a Chartist Uprising and transported to Tasmania for life.

There’s a post here on Benjamin Prophett’s transportation,

Chartists in Camberwell

Camberwell had by 1848 become a stronghold of Chartism in South London. Chartists we know of include John Simpson, of Elm Cottage, Camberwell, a local agent selling tickets for a Chartist-sponsored soiree in honour of radical MP TS Duncombe in 1845; and David Johnston, born in Scotland, a Weaver, then apprentice baker in Edinburgh and Camberwell; he married a Soho baker’s daughter and, with her dowry, bought a baker’s shop in Camberwell; he was elected Overseer of the Poor in St. Giles, Camberwell, 1831, ‘by popular vote’;  and ‘was a keen (moral force) Chartist until rowdies from Kennington wrecked my shop in 1848’. We have to wonder if this wrecking was the same riot of 13th March above?
Johnston left in 1848 for Chicago, Illinois, after labouring work in New York and Philadelphia. Lived and worked in Chicago till 1890, when he died. (Autobiographical Reminiscences of an Octogenarian Scotchman (Chicago, 1885)

John Simpson, mentioned above, was also a subscriber to the Chartist land Plan: a list of those who subscribed a little money to the Chartist Land Company, Feargus O’ Connor’s scheme to settle workers on land to make them self-sufficient. O’Connor was undoubtedly the most influential Chartist leader in the 1840s; but his grand scheme failed (after attracting thousands of poor subscribers). After some years of propaganda the Chartist Co-operative Land Society (later the National Land Company) was founded in 1845. O’Connor’s vigourous propaganda work collected a mass of subscribers and donations, and in 1846 “O’Connorville” was founded at Heronsgate, near Chorleywood, northwest of London. Other estates were bought and let out in smallholding to subscribers picked by ballot. But by the end of 1847, the financial difficulties facing the scheme and the incompetence of its directors, became obvious. In 1848 a House of Commons Committee reported that the Company was illegal, its finances in a state of chaos, and its promises impossible to fulfill.

Other Camberwell Land Plan subscribers included

  • John Cheshire, of James St, Camberwell New Rd,
  • Richard Ackenhead, who lived in Arms place, Coburg Rd, and also (later) in St Marks Place, Kennington, was a cordwainer
  • William Clipsham, a joiner, of Nelson St, Spilsbys, Camberwell
  • William Cook, a labourer, of 5 Westmoreland St, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • William Coombes, 9 Regent St, Camberwell, a labourer
  • George Cooper, a labourer, also of Regent St
  • Daniel Dempsey, labourer, 12 Regent St Camberwell

Regent St seems to have been a Chrtist hotspot

John Counningham, Susanna Cotts, James St, Camberwell, and William of the same name – brothers?

  • William Greengrass, labourer, James St Camberwell New Rd

(Again, James Street a sounds a very radical place…)

  • George Richard Day, a law clerk, 1 Surrey Place, Camberwell
  • Baziel Fisk, shoemaker, 1 Tangue Place James St Camberwell New Rd
  • Thomas Heath, joiner, Portland St Camberwell
  • John Keen, tailor, 13 Neat St, Coburgh Rd,Camberwell
  • John King, waiter, 15 Neat St
  • Edward North, carpenter, Windham Rd, Camberwell

who may have been same as Edward North, who lived in Bereford Place, Wyndham Rd, Camberwell, but later listed as a hawker…

  • James Rhodes, dairyman, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • George Rutherford, 3 Pitt St, Camberwell

(There’s also a George Rutherford listed in Wyndham rd as a labourer…)

  • John Wilkins, baker, 1 Acorn Place Camberwell

There’s an interesting pattern tho if you look at where these addresses mostly if not all are – all north of Camberwell Church Street, probably poorer housing then as it is now, if you compare it to what lies south of Church Street. Check out Booth’s Poverty maps and you can see that class-wise, Church Street/Camberwell New Road broadly marked a boundary, delineating something of a north-south wealth divide in Camberwell.

 

Today in London’s infra(re)structural history, 1845: New Oxford Street opens – built to socially cleanse the St Giles Rookery

No Through Road?

This is a brief introduction to some of the social engineering involved in the building of three new roads in London in the mid to late 19th century, exploring the areas destroyed to establish these streets and some of the motivations behind their creation. It is far from comprehensive and only concerns specific examples. However, much of the thinking, ideologies, geography and practice discussed here have been and are being applied to myriad other neighbourhoods throughout the world, certainly at that time, but more and more in the century and a half since. It is a work in progress of sorts… And calls up experiences we have had in our own lives much more recently.

In an early act of development as social engineering, New Oxford Street, in London’s West End, was built between 1844 and 1847, partly to break up the St Giles rookery, a notorious slum, by demolishing some of its most notorious alleys and tenements. Many such schemes to improve London’s main roads were also deliberately used in the 19th Century, to clear areas of poverty and lawlessness the authorities found threatening and troublesome. Part of the impulse behind these plans came from moral campaigns to reform people considered to be to some extent responsible for their poverty and criminality, or failing that, to disperse them and shift them elsewhere.

The area that was demolished for the building of New Oxford Street was the heart of the St Giles Rookery, for centuries probably central London’s most notorious slum, considered a cesspit of humanity, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “ one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts… The lanes were thronged with loiterers, and stagnant gutters, and piles of garbage and filth infested the air.” (John Timbs, Curiosities of London).

Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, the rookery was known for the poverty of its residents already by the end of the sixteenth century (when the area was fairly recently built up). The character of this part of the parish of St Giles generally declined through the eighteenth. Once a “most wealthy and populous parish”, the huge social upheavals in Tudor and Stuart times saw a massive increase in people uprooting and moving, usually from the countryside into towns and cities. Poor folk coming to London to seek work seems to have first led St Giles to its notoriety as a nexus of the unruly poor; this influx of people with no settled place to live or job worried the authorities and the well-to-do, who feared the instability, crime and financial burdens of supporting them on the local parish. Attempts were made in St Giles (and widely elsewhere) to control the migration of undesirables into the parish: in 1637 it was ordered that, “to prevent the great influx of poor people into this parish, the beadles do present every fortnight, on the Sunday, the names of all new-comers, under-setters, inmates, divided tenements, persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses.”

But as those who could afford to move gradually drifted west to newer, more prosperous estates, the houses they left became subdivided and sublet and relet, often on short leases, creating complex patterns of ownership that made repairs and maintenance a logistical nightmare and defeated authorities’ efforts to enforce legal standards. The inhabitants became poorer and overcrowding rocketed. the late 1700s, the parish was “said to furnish his Majesty’s plantations in America with more souls than all the rest of the kingdom besides.” (ie large numbers of St Giles residents were sentenced to be transported to the penal colonies) and for producing a disproportionate percentage of those who hanged at Tyburn (as well as several of the “Jack Ketches”, the public hangmen who “turned them off”) The inhabitants of the rookery were called “A noisy and riotous lot, fond of street brawls, equally ‘fat, ragged and saucy…”

The most notorious streets were Jones Court and Bainbridge Street, according to Mayhew: “some of the most intricate and dangerous places in this low locality.”, a haunt of coiners and thieves, costermongers (pedlars and street hawkers) , fish-women, news-criers, and corn-cutters. A bull terrier was said to stand at the corner of these streets, trained to bark if a stranger approached; it was later taken away by the constables and destroyed. Jones Court, Bainbridge Street and Buckeridge Street were joined together by cellars, roofs yards and sewers, making it easy for fugitives to escape any authorities who came in to arrest them; these warrens were filled with booby traps – for example hidden cess pools. Also infamous was Carrier Street (which ran north to south in the rookery): Mother Dowling’s lodging house & provision shop stood here, frequented by vagrants of every sort. Cellars became so integral a part of life here that ‘a cellar in St. Giles’s’ became a byword for living in extreme poverty.

The rookery mostly consisted of a warren of cheap lodging houses, “set apart for the reception of idle persons and vagabonds.”, where accommodation could be found for twopence a night:

“there was, at least, a floating population of 1,000 persons who had no fixed residence, and who hired their beds for the night in houses fitted up for the purpose. Some of these houses had each fifty beds, if such a term can be applied to the wretched materials on which their occupants reposed; the usual price was sixpence for a whole bed, or fourpence for half a one; and behind some of the houses there were cribs littered with straw, where the wretched might sleep for threepence. In one of the houses seventeen persons have been found sleeping in the same room, and these consisting of men and their wives, single men, single women, and children. Several houses frequently belonged to one person, and more than one lodging-house-keeper amassed a handsome fortune by the mendicants of St. Giles’s and Bloomsbury. The furniture of the houses was of the most wretched description, and no persons but those sunk in vice, or draining the cup of misery to its very dregs, could frequent them. In some of the lodging-houses breakfast was supplied to the lodgers, and such was the avarice of the keeper, that the very loaves were made of a diminutive size in order to increase his profits.”

Notorious pubs were prominent: the Maidenhead Inn, the Rats Castle, the Turks Head, all in Dyott Street, and the Black Horse, each said by outraged commentators to be the HQ of gangs of beggars, thieves and pickpockets.

Of the Rat’s Castle, the Rev. T. Beames, in his ‘Rookeries of London,’ (a classic outraged ‘expose’ of life in the slums) said: “In the ground floor was a large room, appropriated to the general entertainment of all comers; in the first floor, a free-and-easy, where dancing and singing went on during the greater part of the night, suppers were laid, and the luxuries which tempt to intoxication freely displayed. The frequenters of this place were bound together by a common tie, and they spoke openly of incidents which they had long since ceased to blush at, but which hardened habits of crime alone could teach them to avow.”
 Gin shops also abounded, at a time when the half-raw, dirt cheap spirit was the cheapest and quickest way to drink away your troubles: one in four houses in St Giles was estimated to be selling spirits in 1750.

The area contained a large poor Irish population, said to be three quarters of the population in some streets, so much that it was nicknamed little Dublin, or the Holy Land. They gradually displaced older groups like French Hugenots who had moved here in the 1680s. Most of the Irish were labourers, originally arriving to work the harvests, later flocking to the building and brewing trades. In 1780, the majority of the 20,000 odd Irish people living in London were residents of St Giles. Besides the irish, by the 1730s this area also housed a noticeable black community, known as ‘the St Giles Blackbirds’, many ex-slaves, some on the run from their ‘owners’, some former sailors or ex-servants.

Rookeries inspired great fear in the middle and upper classes. At the most basic level the idea of thousands of the poor, swelling together, desperate, with little to lose, always a threat to peace and social order even as individuals, liable to commit crime against their betters, spread disease…

The way the rookeries are described in contemporary writing exposes the kind of threat they saw in them. Well-to-do commentators saw the rookery through a lens tinted with their own prejudices, but always the view is from the outside, looking in, uncomprehending, totally without experience of the lives lived within.

Sometimes they are compared to forests, wild, scary impenetrable places with hidden dangers, as does writer and magistrate Henry Fielding: “Whoever… considers the cities of London and Westminster with the late vast addition of their suburbs, the great irregularity of their buildings, the immense number of lanes, alleys, courts, and bye-places; must think, that, had they been intended for the very purpose of concealment, they could scarce have been better contrived. Upon such a view the whole appears as a vast wood or forest, in which a thief may harbor with as much security as wild beasts do in the deserts…”

There are interesting echoes here, and in other 18th and 19th century writings about slums, of earlier perceptions, writings and fears – about forests and wild woods, and the people who sheltered there. From Robin Hood to disaffected levellers and fifth monarchists, woods were viewed in a similar way, as dangerous, almost impenetrable dark fastnesses, hiding wild beasts and even wilder people – outlaws, rebels, runaways and outsiders (likely to include gender & sexual non-conformists, certainly including escaped servants, serfs and slaves). Fairy tales and folklore reflects this, abounding with a fear of the deep dark woods. In the 16th and 17th centuries rookeries begin to replace forests as the main focus of such fears, as enclosure/agricultural change was increasingly taming and regulating the wilder aspects of countryside and forest. 

Alternatively, rookeries and city slums were compared to insect or animal colonies: John Timbs described St Giles as “one great mass, as if the houses had originally been one block of stone eaten by slugs into small chambers and connecting passages.” The very language dehumanises the inhabitants, labelling them basically slugs, termites or other insects; a dehumanisation of the poor that is a regular feature of observations on the lower classes by the better off. (There are fewer verminous metaphors used to describe landlords or middlemen, often ‘house-farmers’ leasing from the rich and making tidy sums from subdividing the garrets, who benefitted from overcrowding their houses for their own profit.)

In comparing slum dwellers to wild beasts, using metaphors like the slug reference, onlookers are suggesting the beasts have moved to the city. And similar reforming and reshaping urges would be used to control this: like enclosure, demolishing rookeries and building new roads was both profitable, and a taming of disorderly space… bringing order to chaos and inefficiency; light into darkness. 

Other commentators used medical analogies, seeing the slums as diseased or unhealthy body parts or organs, needing surgical removal. Architect Sydney Smirke described the city as suffering from “Corruption, stagnation, lack of communication, and the ‘noxious miasmata’ of disease” which required the scalpel of demolition, “the ‘very beneficial purgation’ that ‘a perfect symmetry’ would bring.” The ‘rotten core’ of London would be ‘cut out’. Disease was very much on London’s collective mind: Smirke was writing just two years after the first cholera epidemic, which had seen thousands die, often in the poorest areas, from drinking contaminated water, though this was not generally recognised until years later.

London’s streets were often also described as being maze-like, tangled and dark – difficult or impossible for strangers to navigate through (to read how common the comparison with the labyrinth was, check out this great article). The labyrinth from classical mythology seemed an obvious parallel for middle class commentators, given the inevitable reminder of the minotaur, the dark and wild beast lurking at the centre of the maze, part animal part man… A perfect analogy for the criminal poor, destitute and violent, the subhuman creatures who the writers saw as inhabiting the rookeries… As much as the invention of the Victorian respectable fear-mind as the minotaur was of the ancient greek mythologist.

Victorian writers saw and depicted much of slum London in terms of dirt – but linked this to immorality and transgression.

“Middle-class observers saw the urban environment that created impenetrable spaces as creating the conditions for the transgression of social boundaries through the bringing into greater proximity of different classes. The great metropolis and the industrial towns of Britain were in fact dirty, as human waste piled up in cesspools, soaked into the soil and flowed into the rivers. The filth of the city, and people who worked around it and on the streets, created classes of people who  were a dangerous and volatile Other to the domestic middle class.” (Strange Bodies and Familiar Spaces: WJR Simpson and the threat of disease in Calcutta and the tropical city, 1880-1910, A Cameron-Smith)

Mid-late nineteenth century writing, from sensationalist journalism to the ‘urban exploration’ of social reformers like WT Stead or Charles Booth, teems with filthy houses and streets, stagnant, overcrowded, labyrinthine courts and rooms. These environments are causably linked to the immorality and dire poverty of their inhabitants; though sometimes the environment, the ‘dirty houses’ themselves, are blamed for the condition of their residents, and sometimes it was vice versa. As Erika Kvistad points out, the obsession with dirt and darkness grew to the point where demolition of the slums came to represent a sort of exorcism of the threat from these areas:

“dirt was the point where scientifically driven social activism and superstitious horror met. They imagined poor homes as “bad property”, both the location and the source of moral uncleanness. The by then disproved miasma theory of disease persists in these texts both as a fact and as a persuasive metaphor. It allowed urban exploration writers to articulate both the fear of the squalid dwellings where poverty, disease and moral decay arise, and the fear that this badness might spread through the wealthier parts of the city. In this way, the demolition of filthy homes functioned not only as a social project, but as a form of exorcism… in many of the central texts of late-Victorian urban exploration writing, the obvious social problems that beset the poor areas of British cities, like inadequate housing, crime, and the spread of disease, become linked with the idea of certain living spaces as intrinsically bad.” (Erika Kvistad, Bad Property: Unclean Houses in Victorian City Writing, University of Oslo).

Dickens, in Dombey and Son, sums up the Victorian view of how environment infected inhabitants:

“Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But, if the moral pestilence that rises with them, and in the eternal laws of outraged Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of man-kind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure.”

An insanitary neighbourhood guarantees wicked and vicious residents, and this threatens to spill out to endanger the nicer folk in their clean streets.

The threat the poor posed to the rich became even more terrifying if they organised and acted collectively, either as gangs, or worse, as a mob. Outbreaks of disorder, riot and uprising were not uncommon in the 18th and 19th century. At their wildest, events like the 1780 Gordon Riots, when huge crowds latched onto a reactionary anti-catholic demonstration and launched five days of cataclysmic attacks on Parliament, London prisons, the houses of the rich, and other centres of power, scared the rich and powerful; many of those arrested and hanged were identified with London’s rookeries, seen as no go areas and centres of popular insurgency. In 1780, several Gordon Rioters were nicked in the St Giles Rookery with loot, including Charles Kent and Letitia Holland, arrested for the attack on Lord Mansfield’s house, who were apprehended in Bambridge Street.

After the French Revolution of 1789, this fear became heightened – what if the ‘mob’ could be harnessed by radicals, the violence of London’s poor allied to ideas of equality and liberty? – in Paris that had ended with aristocrats going to the guillotine.

Responses among the wealthy to this threat varied from the purely repressive, to more sophisticated thinking on social control, moral reform and alterations in urban environments to both neutralise the actual collective threat, and alter the lifestyles and ways of thinking of ‘slum dwellers’.

Some social reformers among the 19th century well to do saw slum clearance as part of the solution to this threat – this represented both a short and a long-term plan. Immediately dangerous and unhealthy slums were dispersed; in the longer term, the behaviour of the poor could be remodelled, channelled, made more law-abiding and respectable. These were broadly of the same  movements and circles (and and often specifically the same individuals) that had also worked to ensure factory acts and other protection legislation was passed, as well as advocated, raised charitable funds for and helped to create the first real social housing in London – the model dwellings – and also agitated against the destruction of open space and for its transformation into parks. For many of these social reformers, this work was a conscious mix of genuine concern for the conditions the working class lived, worked, played in, and an equally genuine fear and loathing of working people and disapproval of much of their culture. The philanthropy they passionately believed in was very much tempered with paternalism – they knew best and would alter the social conditions, and would improve the morals and behaviour of the lower orders. Some of the reformers who pioneered slum clearance thought a proportion of the inhabitants could be saved, if they were removed from the disorderly environment they lived in, though others were wedded to their immoral ways and were just unredeemable.

Others of the would-be redesigners of urban space were less concerned with reforming the poor. They just wanted the most disorderly of them to go away.

By the mid-19th century, St Giles’ notoriety had made it the focus of plans to redevelop the area – with both social control and improvement in east-west road traffic movement in mind.

As early as 1836 a Parliamentary Select Committee recommended demolition of several of the rookery streets: “By pulling down the aforesaid district, a great moral good will be achieved by compelling the 5,000 wretched inhabitants to resort and disperse to various parts of the metropolis and its suburbs.” St Giles location, around one of London’s most troublesome traffic bottle-necks, and its high death rates from disease, marked it for destruction.

There’s no doubt London was almost paralysed by traffic problems by the 1830s. The huge increase in the size of the city, its population, the business being carried on, the sheer tonnage of goods and people needing to be transported, was simply not reflected in much change to the capacity of the roads to contain it all. Much of the two intertwined cities of London and Westminster was laid out broadly as it had been in medieval times; neither adequate nor suitably grand and impressive as befitted the capital of what was becoming the most powerful empire on the planet. The sheer difficulty of moving through London, either on foot or by carriage, was notorious; wagons of goods could end up bogged down in the gridlocked narrow lanes.

Previous attempts to re-organise the chaotic jumble of streets and lanes along more systematic lines (such as Christopher Wren’s proposal to rebuild the devastated City of London according to a grid and radial pattern after the 1666 Great Fire) had been frustrated by the complex web of land ownership, occupation and long-established customs and communities. Central planning was scanty and widely resisted by the rich who owned much of the city; and the building of new roads were often carried out piecemeal. Some roads were built by privately by the owners of large estates, and property disputes blocked, delayed or significantly altered the creation of new thoroughfares. (Witness the aggro that accompanied the creation of the Duke of Bedford’s road through Bloomsbury as an example…)

By the 1830s, there was pressure to remodel the city to make travel and transport of goods more efficient:

“In 1834, architect Sydney Smirke took his readers on a ride through the west central districts of London, pointing out the lack of north-south roads, and showing that 200-year-old thoroughfares were still expected to take the traffic of a population that had tripled in size. His was a serious plea for the government to set up a centralised body to plan and finance the restructuring of the city: ‘No parliamentary measure could be more truly patriotic.’
In Smirke’s analysis, London was stagnating because insufficient money was made available by Parliament for reconstruction, while private property rights were considered to be so sacred that any public-minded schemes were compromised or simply abandoned.

Straight lines should push through convoluted, congested regions, stated Smirke, as he catalogued the ‘strange irregularity’ and ‘ill-directed lines’ of London thoroughfares. The kink in the road by St Giles church was ‘very objectionable’; Clare Market was ‘populous and ill arranged [and] the best mode of improving this district would be to open a spacious avenue through the centre of it.’ Smirke wanted to “obliterate the streets of the past and create a city that reflected the new-found power, wealth and mores of an ascendant middle class: ‘By some objectors we are told to “live as our fathers have lived before us,” who, being content to jostle through crooked and devious lanes, were fain to make their fortunes in blind alleys, with the internal satisfaction that their monies contracted no offensive taint from the foetid corrupt age, according to Smirke, and this has found its physical expression in the twisted streets of that era. The nineteenth-century city must, by contrast, be ‘laid out as to be wide, clear and regular’…

Straight lines and perfect symmetry were also required by those in charge of building sewers. Henry Austin, in 1842, spoke of the need for pulling down the whole of St Giles – not just the northern part – and ‘making a straight street, instead of a crooked line, from Bow Street to Broad Street’. This would facilitate interaction between ‘quarters of the town now separated by a labyrinth of lanes and alleys’. The image here is of the old, economically unproductive regions hampering commercial progress. Austin was involved in Edwin Chadwick’s sanitary movement and was doubtless influenced in his love of straight lines by the knowledge that such streets were best-suited for carrying sewage pipes.

According to the architects and engineers, London needed to have its crooked ‘no-thoroughfares’ replaced by straight broad streets.”
(‘Labyrinthine London’: writers, social reformers and the need for more ‘ordered’ streets in the mid-Victorian metropolis, Sarah Wise)

There was also the question of regulation and control. Rookeries had grown organically, haphazardly, largely uncontrolled, over centuries, and this was reflected in both the physical space and the legal ownership of the buildings. A mass of yards, winding lanes, alleys, dead end courts, lean-tos and sheds, and cellars, on sub-divided lets, complex leases and sub-leases, with many layers of ownership and residence. This made proving responsibility for any issue of possible dispute – rent, repairs, sanitation etc – almost impossible to navigate easily (just as the space was physically hard to find your way through). If this had served in less ordered eras, by victorian times there was an explosion of regulation, of rules, regarding all sorts of areas of city life, dealing for instance with buildings, and with people. The use of statistics and records was rocketing and becoming much more systematic.  A London-wide police force had been created to regularise and codify the imposition of law and order. Slums that were impassable, unknown, could not be allowed to remain so.

But rookeries were worse than unknown – they were like strongholds of the enemy, in territory that the bourgeois state and the wider bourgeoisie, where it manifested itself as a conscious class, could only see should be theirs, uncontested.

Aspects of rookery life were calculated to enrage a class that saw itself as entitled to rule, though also (to some extent) also liked to think of itself as both enlightened and interventionist.

Many slum-dwellers defied the law. A rough community solidarity against the law was a common feature of London’s rookeries.  “The police only rarely went into the rookeries; and if they intended to arrest, then only in large numbers. So there usually was plenty of forewarning; sometimes large numbers of the rookery population came on to the street to confront a police invasion… Living at such close quarters to each other also imposed a certain communal structure on daily life. Eyewitness investigators noted that the rookery communities were often tight-knit and mutually supportive; amid the terrible conditions of the rookeries, still a certain commonality and solidarity bloomed… Being so autonomous from regular police presence meant that the rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade.”
This attitude of resistance involved both social networks of self-defence against the law. But it also led to alterations and adaptations to the physical environment (already hugely useful by the rookeries’ complex maze-like structures) to make incursion by authorities very difficult (see the description of the booby traps and escape routes of Saffron Hill, below).

For the authorities and the respectable commentariat of the time, this type of physical resistance to the power of the law was an assertion of outrageous autonomy. No go areas in the capital could not be allowed to continue to exist. (In a very similar process, dismantling the no-go areas in catholic/nationalist areas of Belfast in the early 1970s, set up to defend against riotous incursions by unionist sectarians was a priority for the British Army… and autonomous street culture in inner city areas like Brixton had to be attacked by the Special Patrol Group, because the police considered this a challenge to law and order, proto-no go areas in development…)

A “new, straight and spacious street

The building of New Oxford Street was specifically the result of the 1837-38 report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Metropolis Improvement. In discussing plans for what would eventually be New Oxford Street, this report refers to “the formation of a “new, straight and spacious street into Holborn, suited to the wants of the heavy-traffic constantly passing … provision would, at the same time, be made in a very great degree, for the important objects of health and morality”.

One of the consultant engineers for this report urged the Select Committee to follow a certain route for the road, because this would prove to ‘be the means of destroying a vast quantity of houses which are full of the very worst description of people.’

Work on New Oxford Street was begun in 1844, and the new road opened to traffic on 10th June 1845, though work wasn’t entirely completed until 1847. Several of the most infamous rookery streets disappeared during its construction, leaving some 5000 of the poor homeless; while the Duke of Bedford, owner of 104 of the demolished houses, received £114,000 in compensation (a huge sum then.) Driven from their homes, but in many cases needing to stay near their work or sources of casual labour, the rookery dwellers generally found lodgings nearby, causing a 76 per cent increase in population in some other local streets. The building of New Oxford Street, together with the later construction of nearby Shaftesbury Avenue through other notorious parts of St Giles, began the reclamation of this long-infamous area for respectability.

Not everyone was convinced of the effectiveness of demolition. Charles Dickens, for instance, was an early critic of the tactic of using road building to clear slums. He pointed out that far from reducing crime and letting in the light of ‘respectability’, the new road had only made worse all the conditions most likely to cause crime: “Thus we make our New Oxford Streets, and our other new streets, never heeding, never asking where the wretches whom we clear out, crowd … We timorously make our Nuisance Bills and Boards of Health, nonentities, and think to keep away the Wolves of Crime and Filth.”

The New Oxford Street scheme wasn’t the first proposal to remodel London in the interests of the rich and social exclusion.

One of the reasons cited in support of the proposals for the original construction of Blackfriars Bridge in the 1760s (apart from the transport and commercial advantages of new river crossings), was to help clear the lawless slums around the mouths of the river Fleet (especially the notorious Alsatia rookery) – it was thought opening up and redeveloping the area to the south would help.

In 1812, architect John Nash had reported to His Majesty’s Commissioner of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, proposing new roads and grand vistas where a hotchpotch of roads and alleys then existed around Charing Cross, then considered the ‘hub’ of London life. For Nash, his development scheme offered the added bonus of bulldozing the Swallow Street rookery in Soho. An Act of Parliament in 1813 ensured the Nash scheme, for a major new road for the north of the capital and from the area around Haymarket and Charing Cross, would go forward. The rebuilding work went on to create great sweeping crescents, notably Regent Street, built between 1817 and 1823, designed by Nash specifically to separate the ‘Nobility and Gentry’ in their ‘streets and squares’ from the “narrow streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community”. Nash’s new roads were organised in such a way as to ‘cut off’ access by the poor in their ghettos in St Giles, Porridge Island, Seven Dials and the mean streets near Haymarket and Westminster, restricting their direct access, making entering the posh streets west of Soho a long and tiring business. If later schemes emphasised the improvements in traffic flow and the movements of goods, the Regent Street/Charing Cross developments also had restriction of movement at their heart. Fear of the London crowds, the threat their very movement around the city inspired in the wealthy, was a major consideration in Nash’s plans. It is not insignificant that the years of its building saw a huge upsurge in the perennial movement for political reform, spiced with poverty and economic slump following the end of the 23 year war with France; the refusal of the government to even consider reform led to brutal repression as at Peterloo, to riots like the Spa Fields uprising, to plots for revolutionary insurgency and plans to assassinate the cabinet. Fears of riotous mobs and serious thinking on how to frustrate their ability to move through the city were not idle fancies.

The building of New Oxford St was, however, only the opening skirmish in a long process of architectural class restructuring, in St Giles, and wider afield in London. Other notorious London rookeries experienced major reconstruction schemes beginning in the 1840s, including Field Lane/West Street in the Saffron Hill area; parts of Spitalfields & Whitechapel removed to build Commercial Street, and the ‘Devil’s Acre’ in Westminster.

The creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855 stands out as a significant point, a major development in the story of metropolitan improvements in London. The Board effectively took over responsibility for planning and building new streets from the Commissioners for Woods and Forests; this was a huge step towards the centralisation of local government in London. The Board existed alongside the local vestries (based on the age-old parish system) , but took over responsibility for the entire capital’s main drains, sewage disposal, and street and bridge construction. In 1875, it was also given the power of slum clearance. This was the fulfilment of the dreams and schemes of a whole slough of writers and campaigners, for whom the fractured nature of planning derived partly from the lack of a grand over-arching authority which could override parochial concerns and beat down petty ownership, for the greater good…

‘Against the Incursions of the law’

Another neighbourhood particularly targeted by campaigners against the moral and social ills of the rookeries was the Saffron Hill area, around the modern junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, to the north of the City of London.
The rookery had partially evolved from a medieval Liberty – land which in medieval times belonged to a religious institution, and thus operated under church laws and courts, not the regular law. This enabled some degree of protection from prosecution by the secular authorities, and liberties became places of refuge for those with an interest in evading the law. Long after the legal distinction had in fact been removed, such areas often maintained traditions and customs of sanctuary and sometimes became rookeries.
Saffron Hill had a well-established reputation for thievery and prostitution. The area was additionally ideally situated for illegal activity and refuge, sited as it was in an administrative borderland, where responsibility for policing was split between the authority of Middlesex, the City and the parishes of Clerkenwell, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre’s and the Liberty of Saffron Hill. The few constables and watchmen in service generally limited their patrols to their own patches. Such criminal legends as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Dick Turpin were all at times said to have been residents of Saffron Hill.
As early as 1598 (when the northern end was known as Gold Lane) Saffron Hill was described as “sometime a filthy passage into the fields, now both sides built with small tenements.” (John Stow). Much of Dickens’s Oliver Twist is set here – this is the neighbourhood of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

Saffron Hill in the 19th century

The rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade. Much of the following evidence was only revealed through demolition during the later slum clearances to make way for the new railway and road through Clerkenwell: “Against the incursions of the law…there were remarkable defences. Over the years the whole mass of yards and tenements had become threaded by an elaborate complex of runways, traps and bolt-holes. In places cellar had been connected with cellar so that a fugitive could pass under a series of houses and emerge in another part of the rookery. In others, long-established escape routes ran up from the maze of inner courts and over the huddled roofs: high on a wall was a double row of iron spikes, ‘one row to hold by, and another for the feet to rest on,’ connecting the windows of adjacent buildings. … To chase a wanted man through the escape ways could be really dangerous, even for a party of armed police. According to a senior police officer… a pursuer would find himself ‘creeping on his hands and knees through a hole two feet square entirely in the power of dangerous characters’ who might be waiting on the other side: while at one point a ‘large cesspool, covered in such a way that a stranger would likely step into it’ was ready to swallow him up.” (Chesney)

The Fleet River, behind Saffron Hill

The river Fleet, now an open drain, running through the rookery, was also utilised: “though its dark and rapid stream was concealed by the houses on each side, its current swept away at once into the Thames whatever was thrown into it. In the Thieves’ house were dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels and other means of escape.”
The area’s most notorious low lodging house was No 3 West Street, on the north-west side of the Fleet Ditch, and at the eastern corner of Brewhouse Yard (which ran north from West St parallel to Saffron Hill, roughly where Farringdon Road now crosses Charteris Street). No 3 had once been known as the ‘Red Lion Tavern’, but for the century preceding its destruction was used as a lodging-house, a notorious haunt of thieves, a coiners gang, illegal distilling, and prostitutes. It was sometimes called Jonathan Wild’s House, or ‘the Old House in West street’, and was said to have hidden prison escaper Jack Sheppard and highwayman Jerry Abershaw. The house was adapted to serve as a hiding place, being filled with dark closets, trapdoors, sliding panels, and secret recesses, including walled off dens in the cellar, which hid refugees from the law. Even when police surrounded the place, their prey would often escape. During one raid a constable went into one of the rooms to arrest a thief, and seeing him in bed, called for other officers; he turned his head and saw the man getting under the bed. From where he vanished: there “were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square; from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley – out of reach of his pursuers.” In the same house, there were other, almost surreal means of escape, clearly designed by criminal genius minds, with an MC Escher-esque touch: “The staircase was very peculiar, scarcely to be described; for though the pursuer and pursued might only be a few feet distant, the one would escape to the roof of the house, while the other would be descending steps, and, in a moment or two, would find himself in the room he had first left by another door. This was managed by a pivoted panel being turned between the two.” (The Rookeries of London, Thomas Beames, 1852.)

In one of the garrets was a secret door, which led to the roof of the next house from which any offender could be in Saffron Hill in a few minutes. The house was pulled down in 1844.

Neighbouring Chick Lane was home to organised criminal gangs like the Black Boy Alley Gang which carried on a struggle against the law in the 1740s, targetting several constables & magistrates for assassination from here. Several people were hanged in the law’s counter-attack.

The poor and criminal classes of these slums not only built ingenious methods of concealment and escape: they sometimes organised their own welfare systems. The ‘Hempen Widows Club’, run from near Black Boy Alley, operated as a self-help society of the poor, one of many, which had articles including: everyone had to be prepared to swear anything to save each other from being hanged, everyone was to be prepared to swear to be a substantial housekeeper in order to bail one another from custody and members in prison were allowed seven shillings a week out of the kitty.

As with St Giles, mobs from Saffron Hill were also identified as being involved in the Gordon Riots, especially the burning of the nearby Langdale’s Distillery. (For more more on this and on Saffron Hill, check out Reds On the Green)

And, it’s very likely, poor folk from here also took part in the Crimp House Riots of 1794, the Spa Fields Riots and many other riotous gatherings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

“Physical and Moral Evil”: The Clearing of Saffron Hill

Lord Shaftesbury, a leading upper class busybody, made special studies of overcrowding and conditions in Saffron Hill to report to the House of Commons, stating: “It is impossible to imagine the physical and moral evil which resulted from these circumstances.” Imagine it they did though, and their fears led to concrete actions against the slums.
Something approaching 20,000 people are thought to have been displaced in this area between the 1830s and the 1870s by a series of calculated demolitions (though historian Gareth Steadman thought this a figure exaggerated), undertaken by the City authorities, determined to shovel the poor out from the Fleet Valley, while at the same time creating new quick transit routes to improve trade and movement of goods through the City (eg from the Docks to the West End).

In fact the poor had originally concentrated in the Fleet Valley in the first place after being gradually forced out of the City itself, by earlier ‘improvements; large numbers moved there after the 1666 Fire of London.

The ‘improvements’ in Farringdon and Clerkenwell were long in germination (plans for a road along the lower Fleet valley were first drawn up by Wren in the aftermath of the 1666 Fire, though nothing came of it then), and development occurred in stages between the 1820s and the 1880s, but the continuous road from Blackfriars Bridge to Kings Cross, although built in fits and starts, represents a consistent thread of town planning as social engineering, a continuous plan to destroy the poorest and most ‘infamous’ areas. And as John Gwynn had advocated in London and Westminster Improved, Illustrated by Plans, 1766, also allowing at the same time for ‘a noble, free and useful communication’ between Surrey and Middlesex, and of ‘amazingly improved’ property along the way.

Holborn Viaduct under construction, 1869

The slum clearances included various stages: the building of Farringdon Road, (legislated for in the 1840s, though not finished until 1856), the laying of the first section of the Metropolitan Line, the construction of Holborn Viaduct in 1861 (this development alone displaced 2000 people), the enlarging of Smithfield market, the laying of Charterhouse Street (1869-75), of Clerkenwell Road (finished 1878), and finally Rosebery Avenue (1889-92).

Some of the more supposedly ‘deserving’ residents of the demolished slums were rehoused. The City managed to build dwellings for 200 individuals and 40 families when Holborn Viaduct was erected, but not even skilled artisans, never mind the very poor, were eventually placed there (“they are occupied by clerks, who keep pianos in their rooms…”). Model Dwellings built by Model Dwelling Companies and Housing Associations rehoused some 1160 people from the Clerkenwell Road area in the 1870s – though this road also passed through more ‘respectable’ artisan areas and had displaced some of those considered on the ‘worthier’ spectrum of the working classes. But as with clearances in other areas of London, the relatively high rents and strict social control imposed by the improving landlords excluded most casual labourers and their families. Effectively throughout the century thousands of poor working class and ‘lumpen’ elements, especially unskilled and casually employed, were shifted from one slum to another as inner London was gradually socially cleansed.

Clearance of undesirables was in some cases the main aim, and use of the land thus cleared only secondary. Some of the cleared land remained unused for years; Farringdon Waste, created where part of the Saffron Hill rookery stood, lay unbuilt on for several decades. The vicar of Cripplegate complained that “within the City of London there are sites amply sufficient to prevent the poor from being overcrowded – sites which for years have remained unproductive, which will long remain so, because the Corporation of the City of London has shovelled out the poor, in order mainly to lower the poor rates of the City parishes…” Ironically as several areas of empty land remained undeveloped, they themselves became partially re-colonised by elements regarded as undesirable, the focus for ‘unruly behaviour’. Congregations of boys and other idlers became a nuisance. By the 1860s the ‘Farringdon Street Wastes’, or ‘The Ruins’, as the sites were known, (now occupied by nos 29–43 Farringdon Road, adjacent to modern Greville Street) had become a well-known gathering place for ‘betting men’, and steps were taken by the City authorities to remove them.

Commercial Street: The Wicked Quarter Mile

Another notorious rookery was the area around modern Commercial Street, Spitalfields, between Brick Lane and Bishopsgate. A mass of narrow alleys and dark yards; many of the buildings here were overcrowded, teeming with the poor; a good number were lodging houses, dosshouses, where the hungriest of the homeless scrounged a living, and of these most were identified by the police as haunts of criminals, thieves, prostitutes and other undesirables.  A double bed would cost 8d, a single 4d and when the all the beds were taken a rope might be fixed down the middle of the room with residents sleeping against it back-to-back for 2d. Those without the money for their lodgings were evicted nightly.
Commercial Street was built in the 1840s, partly as a way of breaking up this dangerous area, filled with the poor & desperate, to “let in air, light, police, and most important of all, disturbing the inhabitants from their old haunts.” Commercial Street’s commercial value was in fact exaggerated:  for twenty years as it didn’t extend far enough northwards to be of much use as a highway; but this wasn’t its main aim. 1300 poor people were evicted, and many of the most infamous areas knocked down. Each side of the new thoroughfare, tenement blocks were build by Model Dwelling Companies, (Rothschild Buildings and Lolesworth Buildings to the east, Wentworth and Brunswick Buildings and Davis Mansions to the west) sponsored by middle class housing reformers, built by pioneering Housing Associations like Peabody. Although an important motive for their construction was a desire to improve working class living conditions, and thus help stave off class violence and rebellion, and drag the immoral poor out of the gutter, in the long run the new Dwellings failed in their purpose. Rents were deliberately set high enough to make sure only most respectable of working class could afford it; certainly excluding the very poor who mainly inhabited the rookery.

Thus thirty years later Flower and Dean Street area, off Commercial Street, was still considered a ‘rookery’, and described as “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders.
The 1870s saw a revived campaign of middle class reformers to demolish it, a huge propaganda war waged at portraying the inhabitants as immoral, ‘unsavoury characters’ criminals, prostitutes etc. This was a time of great fear among the middle classes, after the Paris Commune rising, that the disorderly poor would, if not controlled/pacified by charity and coercion hand in hand, rise up and destroy them.

Repeated attempts of charity, police, religion, sanitary reform and coercion having constantly failed to control the Flower and Dean Street area, only demolition would do. But it took the Jack the Ripper murders to provide the push that led to the demolition of the “foulest enclaves” of Flower & Dean Street. Three of the ripper’s victims had lived lives of dire poverty in the street, and the media storm the killings roused focussed a spotlight on the area. The Four Per Cent Dwelling Company bought up the north-east side of the street and built Nathaniel Dwellings; on the north side of Wentworth Street, Stafford House was erected (thanks to the guilt-ridden landowners the Hendersons, in an attempt to banish the bad publicity the murders were spreading). Through the 1890s other blocks went up in the old rookery, between Lolesworth and Thrawl Streets.

Ironically a century later, these model blocks off Commercial Street became run down and decayed themselves, and were in turn labelled slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. (Only this time the tenants’ resistance would change the outcome…)

Workhouse inmates breaking stones for road-building, Bethnal Green


St Giles again: Cross-purposes

Thirty years after the original building of New Oxford Street, further social cleansing took place in St Giles, this time under the guise of cleansing of insanitary housing. St Giles had already seen an influx of refugees from slum clearances in nearby areas of Holborn, the City and the Strand in the 1860s, and was increasingly jammed to the rafters. Under the terms of the 1875 Artisans Dwelling (or ‘Cross’) Act thousands of residents in overcrowded London slums were evicted, and the buildings demolished. The result of sustained lobbying by housing reformers, notably the Charity Organisation Society, the idea behind the Act was that bad quality housing could be cleared, in an organised way for the first time, on the orders of the local medical officer, compensation paid to the owners, and then the land would be sold to a developer on the proviso that they would build decent working class housing.

Wild Court, Drury Lane, before the social cleansing

Many of the social reformers who agitated for and sponsored such legislation knew well that it was the owners or middlemen making the money who should shoulder much of the blame for slum housing, and that many of these landlords sat on local Vestries and thus were able to defeat or delay attempts at real change. Thus the Cross Act was a disaster, making overcrowding much worse. Partly this was because excessive compensation was paid to the landlords, for land which was then not allowed under the Act to be used for commercial use, so its value dropped heavily; meanwhile, because compensation was based on rental receipts, land owners in areas likely to face action under the Cross Acts rammed more people into their properties, and lied through their teeth about the value of houses. And while the poorest were usually those evicted (in St Giles, those displaced were ‘waifs of the population, poor labourers, hawkers, thieves and prostitutes, many of who were “lying out in the streets” or found space in already crowded neighbouring buildings), where planned replacement ‘model dwellings’ were built, (which took years, and in some cases never happened), they were not the type of people allowed, or who could afford, to move in. Although the Peabody Trust built 690 tenements to replace demolished slums in Great Wyld Street and Drury Lane, there was no accommodation for barrows and donkeys belonging to costermongers, the majority of the evictees, and the rents were too high. The net effect was to increase overcrowding in the area, as most of the cleared worked locally and were unlikely or unable to move far. This kind of well-intentioned reform rewarding the property-owners and making things worse for the poor seems to have been a regular feature of late-19th Century philanthropy. Local Medical officers also openly used the Cross Act and other sanitary reform legislation to forcibly rid their manor of people they saw as scum, with little pretence of rehousing them – in St Giles in 1881, the Medical Officer reported that he saw no possibility of improvement until many of those who had been evicted were completely removed in the area, and that he “was pleased to have got rid of them.” Some 8000 people were driven out of the St Giles area in the 1870s.

Some of those cleared in Great Wyld Street (now Wild Street, off Drury Lane), were unwilling to simply play victim, and took up squatting: “they made a forcible entry into Orange Court, and were turned out of the empty houses after they were compensated by the Board of Works.” Sadly, this is a rare example of recorded resistance I have discovered this to massive program of social cleansing – though much may have been lost, as the voices of the poor were seldom heard amidst the clamour for ‘improvement’.

The lack of recorded mass resistance to the destruction of thousands of homes and evictions is striking, especially if you compare it to the corresponding wealth of opposition to enclosure… While rookery dwellers were known for communal solidarity against incursion by bailiffs, constables and other forms of authority in the previous centuries, this seemingly didn’t evolve into collective defence of their ‘communities’ very existence… Why this didn’t occur is a vital question. Classic Marxists might well identify the slum dwellers as a lumpen proletariat who hadn’t developed a consciousness of themselves as a class; however they clearly had a sense of common interests. The ground down individual battle for survival can tend to depress and isolate, however; alienation and fatalism are often present in It’s possible that people saw the rookeries as not really worth fighting for in their actual conditions; it’s also possible that bonds of solidarity were constantly weakened by the transient nature of slum life. More research needs doing here.

Other road schemes that conveniently drove through London and Westminster slums included Victoria Street, built 1845-1851  through the Devil’s Acre rookery; Stamford Street, Southwark, built around 1860; Bethnal Green Road built 1872-1879 through the Shoreditch slums; the building of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road 1879-1887, which bulldozed the ‘infamous’ seventeenth century rookery around Newport Market (near Leicester Square), as well as the southern part of St Giles. Mr Henry Hughes of Grosvenor Square had described Newport Market in a letter to The Times, after he had had his gold watch and chain snatched nearby, and he and a police officer had tried to give chase. ‘”Notwithstanding the vigilance of the police officers, they are baffled in their efforts, owing to the maze-like intricacy of its rows of doorless hovels, harbouring and screening those who fly there after their depredations.” Mr Hughes advocated for the area’s demolition, and soon got his way: Newport Market stood in the path of Charing Cross Road, and was knocked down in 1887.

Still later, between 1900 and 1905, Aldwych and Kingsway were built upon the Clare Market, Holywell Street and Wych Street area, also a long-established rookery with a reputation for fencing of stolen goods and criminality.

Although the evidence of the effects of slum clearance often defied the intentions of the authors of these schemes, the same approach was paramount for dealing with old and run-down districts for decades, and while brazenly admitting the motivation was often to disperse the poor, the old trope that this was for their own good and would lead to their pulling themselves up by their bootstraps was continually repeated. In 1875, Mr Leon Playfair, MP, told Parliament that ‘dispersion’ of paupers during street improvements ‘is one of the greatest advantages of such a measure …. the rooting out of the rookeries has been the cause of much moral improvement.’

The Wrong Side of the Tracks

Coinciding with the early years of the roadbuilding schemes we have already discussed, London was also experiencing the railways boom. Along with much of the country the capital was rapidly being criss-crossed by railway lines, laid by private railways companies in a mad rush of speculation…

The building of the railways were generally driven through poorer districts, as the ‘low-grade housing stock’ was the cheapest to buy up. Thousands of houses were knocked down to accommodate the lines; at least 50,000 people are believed to have lost their rented accommodation between 1836 and 1867 due to demolitions for rail building. As with the road-building schemes, many of the evicted poor had little choice but to move into already overcrowded neighbourhoods.

Railway companies had sweeping powers of Compulsory Purchase, several years before the Metropolitan Board of works was able to employ this as a way of clearing targeted buildings. This was granted by the plethora of parliamentary acts passed to authorise each rail line; completely coincidentally many MPs and Lords were shareholders in the private railway companies; some also owning large parcels of the land the tracks and stations were built on, thus receiving compensation for their loss. Where tenants would get nothing.

To what extent was railway building also used to clear areas considered full of undesirables? One notable example stands out, of a so-called notorious area that DID disappear due to the rail boom.

Agar Town

In 1866, the Midland Railway Company demolished Agar Town, an area several Victorian writers described as the foulest slum in London, to make way for the development of St Pancras railway station. Thousands were moved out as their homes were knocked down. Interestingly, recent studies of the area have suggested that Agar Town area was not anywhere near as much of a slum as the hype around it made out, which begs the question of why such a virulent campaign of vilification was mounted – possibly to build up a swell of  support for demolition, redevelopment etc…? In any case, this area was totally eradicated in the 1860s; an entire London neighbourhood vanished under the new station and depots. (Which itself was recently re-developed into a multi-billion shiny office-cultural-residential complex, with lots of privately owned public space and up-market housing… There are timeless echoes of the clearance schemes of the 1800s – eradicating the longstanding chaotic streetlife of Kings Cross, dealers and junkies, prostitution and homelessness, has been a major bonus for the local authority… And there was some discussion of how people with mental health and other ‘complex problems’ could be excluded from housing in the social/’affordable’ newbuilds on the area – such new shiny estates should be free from such troublesome individuals…

This is far from the only example of slums demolished to make way for railways and stations. For instance, just along Euston Road to the west of Agar Town, several decades earlier, the building of the Metropolitan Line, a ‘cut and cover’ shallow underground line, ‘necessitated’ the demolition of ‘notorious’ streets to the north of Euston Road, which also allowed the road widened at this time. We’re still looking into how much the removal of the slum dwellers was part of the rationale for rail-building, and how much it was simply cheaper and easier to drive rail infrastructure through poor areas than more well-to-do neighbourhoods.

All in all, the road (and rail) schemes discussed above, the plan succeeded in destroying some of London’s rookeries, but largely failed in their more nebulous social aims – since the poor moved to slums nearby or elsewhere.

Far from opening up the labyrinths to the moral influence of the middle classes’, the new streets simply continued the segregation of the poorest, moving them here and there as areas became targeted for ‘improvement’.

Discipline and Punish

The destruction and redevelopment of poor areas, especially rebellious or uncontrollable poor areas, did not begin in the mid-nineteenth century. However, its usefulness for social control purposes gained much traction in mid-late Victorian times.

The clearing of lower Fleet Valley, St Giles and Spitalfields rookeries, among many others, was an important part of a combination of social processes that cleared most of the resident working class, and especially the rowdy, uncontrollable element, the threat of mob violence from inner London, from the doorsteps of the rich, away from the centres of business and leisure of the powerful, from the nexuses of power that ran a growing empire. Apart from removing the immediate daily danger of rebellion crime and disease from these areas, this clearing also created space for internal expansion for capital itself, on its own doorstep so to speak. How much of this was planned social engineering, how much ad hoc, and how much happy coincidence for the powers that be, is open to question. Certainly some of it was deliberate; and such processes were at work elsewhere. Much of Paris was redesigned in the 1850s-60s, under the leadership of Baron Hausmann; the wide boulevards driven through the centre, helped move troops/police around, to deal with rebellious crowds, made both administration of the city/social control more effective and speedier, and contributed to demolition of narrow, uncontrollable alleys and led to mass removal of the poor from central areas to the outskirts. (In Paris this was even more of a priority, since working class crowds had overthrown three regimes in the previous sixty years). Breaking up the potential rebellious unity of local areas, where people knew each other, shared customs, loyalties, and knew the narrow winding streets better than the authorities, was a specific aim. Like the London social reformers, Hausmann also used the pretext of bad sanitation as an excuse to destroy slums and move thousands of people to outlying areas of the city, “for their own good”, but happily also making them less threatening to authority and the seats of power.

But the destruction of the rookeries was also a crucial element of the imposition of discipline on working class. This involved many and diverse elements – the internalisation of the work ethic, splitting and separating the ‘respectable’ and unrespectable lower orders, demarcating ‘criminal subculture’ and ‘criminal economy’ as separate from respectable working lives… “regularisation of labour markets and economic activity , the moving of social and economic life off the streets by regularised employment in offices shops and factories, the organisation of social activities in youth clubs, boys organisations and the concentration of public street life into particular times and situations – public events. ‘Saturday night’ (during which police could be more lenient than at mid week), the regularisation of family life with men at work, women in the home, children at school etc…

The result was a certain stabilisation of working class communities  – “the regularly employed working class assimilated to bourgeois standards of order and indeed conceptions of criminality. Those in stable employment, oriented to consumption and family, are distanced from the street economy of social crime and cheap goods of dubious origin. Consciousness of the value of property acquired from the wage, and from savings, assimilates the working class to definitions and attitudes to crime shared with the middle classes. The street thief, robbing workers of their pay packets as much as the middle classes of their wallets, or the stalking murderer, preying on the vulnerable of all social classes, becomes the paradigm of crime. During the second half of the nineteenth century the modern ‘moral panic’ about crime and violence becomes a feature of urban life, of which the two most well known examples in London are the garrotting panic of 1862 and the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888.”

So earlier middle class panics about the lower orders in general was transformed into a fear, shared across the social classes, of the marginals and criminal subcultures. The respectable working class gets up on time, doesn’t drink, or not to excess, consumes and respects property and law n order, and only engages in regulated and controlled leisure pursuits. The re-organisation of streetlife and of areas where life, pleasure, work was played out in the street was a part of this re-ordering:

“The streets provided the largest and most accessible forum for the communal life of the poor. It was in the streets that members of the community came together to talk and play, to work and shop, and to observe (and sometimes resist) the incursions of intruders such as school board visitors, rent collectors and police officers… for most of the nineteenth century the poor were intensely hostile to the police, and…this hostility resulted in large measure from resentment at what was regarded as unwarranted, extraneous interference in the life of the community.” (Benson 1989: 132)

Increasingly, through the course of the nineteenth century, the police established their authority and presence in working class communities; both to deal with crime, and (more crucially) to directly impose surveillance and discipline over working class daily life; especially over streets, pubs, music halls, etc. Police were part of what historian Robert Storch called “the bureaucracy of official morality”, an active agent of the Victorian middle classes. Storch writes:

“The imposition of the police brought the arm of municipal and state authority directly to bear upon key institutions of daily life in working class neighbourhoods, touching off a running battle with local custom and popular culture which lasted at least until the end of the century… the monitoring and control of the streets, pubs, racecourses, wakes, and popular fetes was a daily function of the ‘new police’ … (and must be viewed as)… a direct complement to the attempts of urban middle class elites…. to mould a labouring class amenable to new disciplines of both work and leisure.” (Storch 1976: 481)

The police acted

“…through the pressure of a constant surveillance of all the key institutions of working-class neighbourhood and recreational life….. It was precisely the pressure of an unceasing surveillance…[in which] … the impression of being watched or hounded was not directly dependent on the presence of a constable on every street corner at all times… [but rather]… the knowledge that the police were always near at hand and likely to appear at any time.”

In the wake of demolitions of notorious streets, the emergent social housing was also used as a method of control. Model dwellings, the earliest form of social housing, was built, often in or near to the evicted slums. But only the respectable and hard-working were admitted, and codes of behaviour and morality in the new flats were strictly controlled, and rents kept relatively high, to exclude any of the ‘undeserving poor’. Part of the separation of the marginal from the conforming discussed above.

The early pioneers of Model Dwellings and other social housing reform believed that the physical environment, even the architecture, that people lived in could either sap their moral will, keep them held in poverty, or be adapted and changed to mould them into better more hardworking citizens. The layout of Model dwellings was specifically designed to have what was thought to be a beneficial moral and social effect. One of the main aspects of slum life they aimed to change was overcrowding – families having to share a room, where they slept, ate and did everything together; often even more than one family might live together in one room. Housing reformers were keen to give these poor families more space; however their pressing reason was not privacy, but because they saw this way of life as in itself immoral. Not only did it encourage immodesty and improper sexual relations (a subject of pathological obsession and innuendo for the Victorian middle class), but in a more complex and nebulous way, they thought that it formed part of a collective, communal life that should be done away with. Life publicly shared, in housing, the street, the pub, and other places of amusement, was itself somehow unconducive to respectability and self-reliance; the Model Dwellings were designed to separate people as much as possible – children from parents, one family from another. Physical space was designed to keep people apart – stairwells and other physical barriers between flats and doorways – in fact separate sanitary arrangements were built in at extra cost to reduce ‘immodest’ contact. Part of the plan was definitely a reinforcing of the patriarchal family unit, split off from a shifting wider communal society or even extended family.
Amongst the very earliest Model Dwellings were blocks built in St Giles, Clerkenwell and Spitalfields, the very areas we have seen that roads were used as slum clearance program – to specifically offer a way out, but only on certain moral terms, and only to those who worked hard enough in the right trades to afford it and signed up to live in ways that were considered acceptable.

These patterns of social control can be seen again in the late twentieth century. In the USA, from the late 1960s on, this process, when specifically and deliberately designed to rid inner cities of riotous and troublesome poor (usually African-american or latino) populations, was euphemistically labelled ‘Spatial Deconcentration’, by the government, military and corporate powers that developed it.

In 1980s Britain, after the 1981 riots,  areas like Brixton, in South London, with its street culture, the refusal of the work ethic by large sections of the population, the proliferation of squatting and counter-cultural and marginal ways of life and earning of money, attracted similar attention from the improving minds… Attitudes from police and authorities identified all these elements as needing to be either repressed, or bought off with social programs, to defuse the chances of further riots as in ’81… ideally both strategies would be used in tandem. So along with schemes to ‘tackle unemployment’, fund youth centres and create programs, there were also attacks on the squatting and street cultures, evictions, targeted harassment of those hanging out on the street. But there was also some altering of urban landscapes to suit the purposes of authority: the most notorious squatted houses and ‘blues’ clubs in Dexter Road (off Railton Road) were bulldozed (Dexter Road in fact completely vanished); walkways in Stockwell Park Estate that allowed rioters to bombard police from above and move rapidly around the estate during the fighting were afterwards partly removed, and the Railton Road/Mayall Road triangle, the centre of the fighting, was also redesigned, closing off ways crowds could move around, evade the police and gather again.
Areas merely associated with crime, or having a ‘bad name’, or even being working class have also been routinely altered and renamed, to shimmy the bad karma, without fundamentally dealing with the class basis and social /economic causes of poverty and ‘criminal behaviour’.

Tellingly, though, especially if you are relating urban social control and use of architecture to enclosure, observers have also long been aware that nee developments in architecture, street furniture, road and estate layout, can be subverted, used to create new methods of resistance or places of concealment, and turned back against the controllers. This can be seen as early as the sixteenth century in relation to enclosure fences, when complainants against enclosers in Neat House Fields and other areas of Westminster (officials from the parish vestry of St Martins-in-the-fields) objected to the hedges and ditches erected to enclose land, which they claim were being exploited by unruly and immoral elements (by which they seem to have meant thieves and prostitutes) to conceal themselves from observation. [We will write more on this anti-enclosure battle on August 1st this year]. If there’s virtually nothing in our existence that capital can’t take and try to profit from, there’s also nothing it can create that we can’t in turn deform and reshape to our own nefarious purposes. Hilariously, the rebuilding of the ‘frontline’ in Brixton provides another example – where the demolished squats of early 1980s Vining Street were replaced by housing association newbuilds, with funky entrances that won architectural awards. Only a while later was it realised that the stairs and gates so lauded were perfectly designed for hiding dealers and other ne-er-do-wells.

Central London has gone further along the route of urban clearance than other areas of the City, or even other European capital cities (Paris excepted?). Pretty much the whole of the old City of London was cleared of its residents in the century after 1840 (although much luxury accommodation has in fact grown up in the last couple of decades). Undoubtedly this was partly because of pressures for office land, but the desire to push any possible threat from unruly plebs further away from the centres of economic power was also clear. In the case of the lower Fleet Valley, for instance, the conglomeration of crime and punishment, slum and slaughterhouse, the prisons cheek by jowl with the slums, the “dung, guts and blood” carried by the river Fleet, have been wiped from the map. (Although even in living memory, some streets of supposed ‘criminal’ character remained in the Clerkenwell area).

Processes developed here continued and were refined elsewhere. The many prisons built in the Fleet valley were erected on what was then the City’s edge, but were gradually closed down as the metropolis expanded, and public methods of punishment vanished, from being conducted in open space, replaced by those inflicted inside, and out of sight. The jails that replaced the Fleet, Newgate, the Bridewell, in the nineteenth century were themselves constructed on the then edges of town (eg Brixton, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs). With motorisation our modern Newgates are often found out in the countryside far from public view – on the Isle of Sheppey, in North Yorkshire, the Cambridgeshire fens…

The rookeries’ proximity to centres of power had developed historically, organically: communities which grew up to serve as labour to the wealthy, or provide services (selling, costermongers etc), or to prey on or otherwise cream a living off (through crime or begging). As the city expanded and some people became very rich, and as transport improved and people could live further from their source of income – if they had the means – the wealthy often moved out to newer suburbs, perhaps to the west or north of London. This often left formerly good quality housing, that was ripe to be taken over and sublet, colonised by the poorer classes, where no one with more money wanted to actually live in the old inner city anymore. This process has in fact repeated and reversed several times over the centuries. Between the early 1900s and the 1970s, the populations of inner city areas declined, as people of all classes moved out to outer London or to surrounding counties. The massive program of building social housing between the world wars and after World War Two, and economic prosperity and a rise in home ownership, left vast swathes of London’s old industrial and working class areas either vacant or under-occupied, with old run-down housing and derelict land abounding. This in itself created opportunities for new occupation, both in terms of profitable redevelopment and of alternative movements like squatting. Vast changes in socio-economics and fifty years later, the inner cities are now THE place for the wealthy and middle class to live again, and all the power and wealth of state, local state, business and its entourages of media and service industry, are focused on enabling this desire. This obviously involves the removal of people considered just not productive or well off enough to justify their inhabiting very profitable inner city space – council tenants, anyone on benefits, migrants – either to be crammed into smaller spaces at a convenient distance or be forced out of the capital altogether.

And the ‘shoveling out of the poor’ continues in London; working class communities are still being broken up, in some decades more slowly and more subtly these days. In 21st century London, with what seems like a vicious urgency, local authorities, developers and property owners are effectively collaborating to rid the city of anyone whose occupation of valuable city land is seen as just not economically profitable enough. These communities don’t even need to necessarily be troublesome, rebellious or infamous these days – although there’s an element among the planners, politicians and improvers of always seeing working class people as a problem, especially where they live in social housing.

Compared to the complex tangle of motives of 150 years ago that drove the roadbuilding schemes which demolished the rookeries, today’s social cleansing has much less of a moral drive, its true; it is less acceptable to be so blatantly high-handed and dismissive of whole communities. This doesn’t mean the developers and social planners don’t hold communities in contempt – just that they have be more circumspect, dressing plans up in PR, glossy brochures, terms like social mix… It is also interesting that the social housing that was originated as a way of dealing with the people displaced from the slums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, housing once held up as the decent, respectable and law-abiding alternative to lawless and insanitary slums, is now considered redundant, as well as unprofitable, and taking up space that a better class of people are entitled to. It is no longer thought necessary in some quarters to build or maintain social housing either to discipline the working class, or to buy them off and prevent upheaval and protest. The alternative view, to house people cheaply and well, is definitely out of fashion.

The question arises, is a movement going to arise, that can collectively challenge this process, and where is it going to come from?

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London radical history: John Goodwyn Barmby founds the Communist Propaganda Society, 1841

John Goodwyn Barmby was a utopian communist, influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen and the early 19th century French Utopian socialist theorists, who launched propaganda organisations to spread these ideas, as well as founding his own communist community in west London. He is often associated with the growth of socialist and utopian projects during the rise of Chartism.

Barmby was born in Suffolk in 1820. He had no formal school education but read widely, and deciding to not pursue a profession, but to follow a career of social and political radicalism. He was reputedly addressing small audiences of agricultural labourers when aged sixteen.

He founded the East Suffolk and Yarmouth Chartist council in September 1839, and in December was elected delegate to the Chartist convention. He was re-elected in 1840 and 1841, though by this time, he was moving away from political radicalism towards the promotion of a communal organisation of society. He became a correspondent of the Owenites’ New Moral World, where he wrote on language reform and the ideas of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, and held conversations with some followers of Gracchus Babeuf. In 1840 he visited Paris with a letter of introduction from Owen, to study the French utopian socialists an their ideas; he claimed to have originated the English term ‘communism’ at this time. Barmby became impatient with the imperfectly purist tone of the Owenite movement. He and his wfire Catherine became ardent propagandists for a new society.

On 13th October 1841, Barmby founded the Communist Propaganda Society (also known as the Central Communist Bureau) to spread the idea of communal living and the re-organisation of society along communist lines. The organisation’s HQ was at 77 Norton Street, Portland Place, between 1841 and 1843.

Barmby designated 1841 Year 1 of the new communist calendar. Sadly this penchant for grandiose sounding organisations and self-important declarations was not generally born out in reality…

Barmby also founded the Universal Communitarian Association shortly later – how many members this or the Communist Propaganda Society had is unknown.

He also launched two journals, the monthly Educational Circular and Communist Apostle in 1841, and the monthly Promethean, or, Communitarian Apostle, which promoted rational marriage and universal suffrage. He lectured at a ‘Communist Temple’ at Marylebone Circus, Marylebone.

The Promethean was launched in January, 1842. The name is significant both of Barmby’s debt to the radical poet Shelley, and because of the place occupied by Prometheus in the radical thought of the time. Prometheus was the redeemer of man through knowledge, the hero who braved the wrath of obscurantists and gods to bring man his heritage that was deliberately withheld. Like Owen, Barmby believed that there was no obstacle but ignorance.

The four issues of The Promethean contained articles by Barmby on a quite extraordinary variety of subjects: one series on Communism, another on Industrial Organisation, An Essay Towards Philanthropic Philology, advocating a universal language, The Amelioration of Climature in Communalisation, on the effect of human activity on climate and the prospect of climate control in the future, and Past, Present and Future Chronology. An Historic Introduction to the Communist Calendar. The Promethean was, however,not a great success.

Out of this activity and through his contact with James Pierrepont Greaves, founder of the Ham Common utopian community, Barmby established the Moreville Communitorium at Hanwell in 1842. which featured such excitements as a diet of raw vegetables, daily hot and cold baths and a rigid teetotal regime. `

Greaves and he published the New Age, or, Concordian Gazette.

The following year, Barmby issued a Communist Miscellany, a series of tracts written by himself and his wife, and founded the weekly Communist Chronicle, which also supported the German communist Wilhelm Weitling.

Thomas Frost described Barmby at this time as ‘a young man of gentlemanly manners and soft persuasive voice, wearing his light brown hair parted in the middle after the fashion of the Concordist brethren, and a collar and necktie à la Byron.’

Barmby was also described as “a Christ-like figure, with blonde hair down to his shoulders; together the young couple walked the London streets with a cart from which they dispensed tracts and harangued passers-by.
”

The Moreville Communitorium was renamed the Communist Church by 1844. Barmby conducted a propaganda tour in the north and midlands in the winter of 1845–6 and forged links with the Dublin sect of White Quakers. In 1845 he combined with Frost to revive the Communist Chronicle, for which he translated some of Reybaud’s ‘Sketches of French socialists’, and wrote a philosophical romance entitled The Book of Platonopolis, which sought to fuse utopian fiction and modern science. However, Frost soon tired of Barmby’s sectarianism and separated from him in 1846, to establish the Communist Journal.

Frost’s competition with Barmby destroyed both journals but Barmby continued to proselytize in Howitt’s Journal, and contributed to the People’s Journal, Tait’s Magazine, Chambers’s Journal, and other periodicals. In 1847, he lectured at the Farringdon Hall, Poplar, London, and in July he convened a meeting at the John Street Institute in support of the Icarian settlements in Texas. It was probably to his friendship with W. J. Fox MP that Barmby owed his introduction to Unitarianism, following his post-1848 disillusionment with communism. After his return from revolutionary Paris, where he had gone in 1848 as Howitt’s representative and as the envoy of the Communist Church, he was successively minister at Southampton, Topsham, Lympstone, Lancaster, and Wakefield. He was one of the best-known ministers in the West Riding of Yorkshire and held his post in Wakefield for twenty-one years from 1858, leading the Wakefield congregation which included the industrialist Henry Briggs. He was also secretary of the West Riding Unitarian mission.

But Barmby always retained his liberal political convictions, and was closely involved in the Wakefield Liberal Association from 1859: and in 1867, he organised a large public meeting there in support of parliamentary reform and joined the National Association for Women’s Suffrage. Barmby was a member of the council of Mazzini’s International League and also supported Polish, Italian, and Hungarian freedom.

He died in Suffolk on 18th October 1881.

Some of this post was lifted from here

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s penal history: the Fleet Prison finally closes, 1844.

The Fleet Prison, the first purpose-built gaol in London, stood for around 700 years on the banks of London’s the Fleet River. It went through several incarnations. The first Fleet prison was built in early Norman times, on a tiny island in the River Fleet, just outside the walls of the city of London, the river providing a protective moat for a square tower. It was, like the Tower of London and the many castles that dominated the English landscape, a visible symbol of the power of an aristocracy and monarchy which had dispossessed the existing population and ruled by force and by threat of force.

Later, when this first Fleet Prison fell into disrepair, in the 14th century, it was rebuilt where Old Seacoal Lane (a short alley off Farringdon Street) now runs.

This immediate neighbourhood was famed for centuries for a concentration of prisons: Ludgate, the Fleet, Newgate, the bridewell, Giltspur St Compter, were all in a relatively small area inside the City wall, and outside. In fact some of them had begun life in the wall, as two of the City Gates, Ludgate, and Newgate) already strong fortified points, so ideal for holding offenders… Some of them were outside the City walls, because building land was less of a problem, and people didn’t want prisons next door to them. Also to cope with fact that cons used to leg it out of City to escape jurisdiction… Near to liberties and rookeries too? But the clustering of communities of the excluded: foreigners denied entry to the city, the poor and outcast, workers I dirty and anti-social trades, which lined the Fleet river, in the dubious and debated authority between London and Westminster, may also have had its impact: prisons developed where they could directly overawe the people who they existed to control, where hauling someone off may have been a shorter journey. But the various prisons also housed offenders against the myriad different and often mutually hostile jurisdictions and courts which then judged offences ranging from debt, through heresy and political subversion, pissing off the powerful, to murder and robbery. However, imprisonment was in itself for many years not a punishment; prisons were often holding cells while waiting for court lists to get round to you, when you would be sentenced to either death, a fine, a visible period of public humiliation of abuse, banishment, and later on transportation to penal colonies. Or, occasionally, got off. If you were imprisoned for debt, however, locked up on the compliant of whoever you owed money to, you could languish there until your debt got paid. Which it might never be.

Once a City of London Prison, by the late fourteenth century the Fleet held prisoners from Westminster courts such as Common Pleas, the Exchequer and the Kings Council and Chancery. It also held people who owed money to the king, or had crossed him.

The Prison’s Keepers were royal appointees. It was often a hereditary position, very profitable, with lots of money to be extorted from inmates, so was much sought after (generally obtained by payment of a large bribe). Warders below the Keeper also bought their positions from the ranks above them (a low-ranking position cost £20, then a fortune, in 1558), as they could also make a mint by selling every conceivable service or commodity to prisoners. The screws received no wages, so had to extort every penny they could from those they guarded. Inmates with cash could obtain reasonably comfortable quarters, have good food and drink brought in; those convicts who couldn’t pay found themselves in the coldest, dampest cells, supplied with the roughest food etc.

Like all prisons, the Fleet was hated by the London poor. On 13th June 1381 the prison was burned to the ground by revolting Kent peasants and London rebels, after they’d released all the prisoners. After the rebellion the Fleet had to be rebuilt.

While the vast majority of its guests were poor and mostly forgotten, the Fleet did house some notables. In the era of dissent leading up to and through the English Civil war, the Fleet held inmates locked up for their political beliefs. From 1638 to 1640, John Lilburne, radical Puritan activist and later Leveller leader, was held here, having been arrested for helping to publish and distribute puritan books attacking the state-sponsored Anglican Church. His then mentor William Prynne was also a guest here. While held in irons Lilburne sent a challenge to Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud to debate with him the issues that had got him nicked. At Whitsun 1639, Lilburne sent out an appeal to his fellow apprentices, in the form of a pamphlet thrown among holidaying apprentices in Moorfields, asking them to a campaign for a public trial for him… As a result they marched to riot outside Lambeth Palace in support of him, attacking Archbishop Laud.

The Fleet later held Leveller leaders and other political prisoners during the English revolution. The poet John Donne was also imprisoned there, on the petition of his father-in-law, who he had neglected to ask permission from before marrying his daughter.

In 1666, like most City prisons it burned down in the Great Fire.

Most prisons were hothouses for disease and ill-health, being overcrowded, cold, damp and neglected. Those on the banks of the Fleet River were, like many of the buildings on its banks, heavily affected by the river’s dank and polluted flow. The only viable local sewer, a dumping ground for the animal carcasses of Smithfield and the foul chemicals of tanneries and dyers vats, the Fleet was not a healthy neighbour. (The ‘moat’ around the first prison building became so clogged with carcasses you could allegedly walk across it).

Filth, disease, torture and daily extortion in the Fleet Prison led to a petition to parliament for relief of debtors held there. In 1691 Moses Pitt published The Cry of the Oppressed during his incarceration here (the authorities tried to suppress the publication). One abuse he complained of was the unique right of creditors to apply to have prisoners transferred to the Fleet from other prisons. The Fleet was the most expensive debtors prison to be held in; Fleet screws would routinely bribe creditors to provide fresh pickings for them in this way.
Pitt’s pleas changed nothing, for thirty years later things were running much the same. At least one Keeper, Thomas Bambridge in the 1720s, was so blatantly corrupt and sadistic that he was officially accused of extortion, and that he had “arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons and destroyed prisoners for debt”. The authorities may have been more worried that he had taken money to allow escapes and even provided a special door for the purpose! Also that a couple of his victims weren’t poor nobodies: Sir William Rich, unable to pay for better conditions in the jail, was threatened with a poker, then shackled and thrown into a freezing hole above an open sewer. Robert Castell, scholarly author of The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated, was forced to sleep in a sponging-house where smallpox was rife, even though he begged the Warden for mercy, and died as a result.

In the ensuing outcry, a parliamentary Committee was appointed in 1729 to investigate what was going on in the Fleet. The Committee laid before the House a catalogue of brutality, incompetence and corruption. It was admitted by Bambridge’s predecessor ‘that so many prisoners had escaped, during the time he was warden, that it was impossible to enumerate them.’ Healthy women had been forced into smallpox wards; casual cruelty was an everyday occurrence. When the Committee moved on to look at the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, they found things to be much the same. Investigating the overall management of London’s prisons, they uncovered a Byzantine web of lets and sublets, transfers of ownership and corrupt charities.

The Prisons Committee had been painted at the Fleet by a rising young artist called William. Hogarth. Hogarth’s sketch caught the moment when Bambridge was brought face to face with his accusers.

Bambridge was tried but acquitted, leading to such strong anger that parliament framed an act to sack him. But despite the horrific descriptions of torture and brutality they took no action. Not even the Prisons Committee could break the inertia of the House of Commons. The hours of evidence and cross examination, the long reports to Parliament and stories in the press, still didn’t result in a Prison Reform Act. (Bambridge, incidentally, cut his throat in his Chambers at Paper Buildings on Fleet Street in 1741. So something good came out of it.)

As with all London prisons, inmates continued to struggle against its conditions, via escapes, rebellions and protests. In June 1731 “the prisoners in the Fleet Prison caused a riot and insulted the keepers… they alleged they were ill-us’d and stood up for their rights and privileges.”

On 6 June 1780, the Fleet was stormed by the Gordon Rioters, and all the inmates freed – bar some who asked politely for time to get their stuff together and find somewhere to go, having been inside for years. To give them time, the crowd decided not to burn the prison that day, but came back the next day instead! A fire engine that arrived to put out the flames was also set on fire. A witness, George Sussex, imprisoned for debt, said later that he observed a man in the gallery of the prison pouring a flammable liquid onto the floor and another man in a sailors jacket setting it alight; in about two minutes the gallery was aflame from end to end. However a company of Light Dragoons arrived and opened fire, (killing up to a hundred rioters according to one source, but only one, according to another?!). Passing rich folk in coaches were stopped and money demanded from them – in the Fleet Market, the Duke of Gloucester, the King’s brother, was held up and robbed as the Prison burned.

Though it was rebuilt after 1780, conditions didn’t substantially improve… Reformer John Howard condemned it as crowded and dirty;

he was surprised by the scandalous neglect of all discipline, and the shameful violation of all morality.   ” They also play in the court,” he says, “at skittles, mississippi, fives, tennis, and other games ; and not only the prisoners : I saw among them several butchers and others from the market, who are admitted here, as at any other public house. The same may be seen in many other prisons where the jailer keeps or lets the tap!  …Besides the inconvenience of this to prisoners, the frequenting a prison lessens the dread of being confined in one. On Monday night there was a wine club; on Thursday night, a beer club—each lasting usually till one or two in the morning. I need not say how much riot these occasion, and how the sober prisoners, and those that are sick, are annoyed by them. “Seeing the prison crowded with women and children, I procured an accurate list of them, and found that when there were 243 prisoners, their wives and children were 475.”

The Liberty of the Fleet arose from the late fourteenth century, when prisoners could get the day out if they posted bail or were accompanied by a warder (obviously for a fee…) This grew into a custom that instead of residing in the cells, prisoners could take lodgings in neighbouring houses, on a kind of semi-parole, so long as they paid the Keeper. This Liberty grew to be a mile and a half across; both in and around the prison, many people sheltered from creditors, who were legally barred from pursuing them there; if you had some cash you could live it up, with sports, games, drink etc. In 1820, inmate Robert Mackay became world rackets champion.

For a while the Fleet also gave its name to marriages. People could get married in the Fleet – the advantages being they were cheap, and could be performed at any time, without banns or licenses, and without a clergyman. This was especially useful for women friends of sailors; a wife could receive his wages if he vanished or died, where an unofficial companion couldn’t. Women also married insolvent debtors here, to clear their own debts. The only feasible kind of wedding for much of the London poor, with useful economic advantages, the institution was hated and denounced by the authorities, and was abolished in 1753.

As all London prison held radicals and rebels, especially in the in first half of the 19th century, radical ideas also spread within them. So on occasion in the Fleet – (probable) spy and promiser of money (that usually never materialised) to radical causes, Pierre Baume, wrote to Robert Owen in 1827, telling him he was preaching Owen’s socialist ideas in the Fleet Prison (where Baume was temporarily detained for debt…).

Pressure for reform of the grim and corrupt prison system in the late 18th and early 19th century gradually led to more critical views of jail regimes. Reform was proposed to both improve prisoner’s lives, but also to try to institute a more rigid and sobering ethos that would reduce re-offending by upgrading the morals of inmates, and separating people, under tighter and surveillance and control. New pentitentiaries and prisons were planned and built, along these lines, in London’s then outer suburbs (slightly further from the public gaze) – Brixton, Pentonville, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs (three of which remain in use today) and at Millbank.

Gradually the older prisons were closed down; the fact that they stood in areas of the city now becoming prime real estate may have also been an impetus. The Fleet Prison was ordered to be closed in 1842 during prison reforms, including the ending of imprisonment for debt, and the building was finally demolished in 1846.

On the site of the old prison, the Congregational Memorial Hall was built, which was to become an important venue for London’s left and trade union movements…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s radical history: Chartists hold mass meeting, John Street, Fitzrovia, 1848.

The John Street Institute was founded by utopian socialist and patron saint of the co-operative movement, Robert Owen in 1840, and became the main centre of Owenite activity in London between 1840 to 1858. It stood in John Street (now renamed Whitfield Street), off Fitzroy Square, in London’s Fitzrovia.

The Institute was nicknamed the Infidel Hall, out of resentment at its anti-religious lectures, by the London City Mission Magazine. It became a meeting place for radical workmen, Chartists, socialists, atheists, deists and other radicals…

A well-known rendezvous for Reformers in the middle years of the century was the John Street Institution, situated near Tottenham Court Road. It had been a chapel, I think, but was then leased by the followers of Robert Owen. Lectures were given there; meetings were held there; classes were conducted there. A more useful centre of social and political activity did not exist in all London. The platform was perfectly free. Chartism, Republicanism, Freethought, Socialism-all sorts and conditions of thought could be expounded in John Street if capable exponents desired to expound them. I had heard Mrs. C. H. Dexter lecture there in 1851 on the Bloomer costume, and in the Bloomer costume. There also, five years later, I heard the venerable Robert Owen, then a patriarch of eighty-four. The subjects discussed were of the widest and most varied character-social, political, religious, literary, scientific, economical, historical. And the lecturers who discussed them were as varied as the subjects-Thomas Cooper, Robert Cooper, Samuel Kydd, Dr. Mill, Dr. Sexton, Iconoclast, Henry Tyrrell, Richard Hart, Joseph Barker, Brewin Grant, George Jacob Holyoake, and many another whose very name is now forgotten. Of all the able men who endeavoured to enlighten the public from the John Street platform not one survives save George Jacob Holyoake. When the lease of the institution expired, a source of real light and ventilation expired also.” (William Edwin Adams)

The Social Institute was opened in February 1840 as the hall of the London branch of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists, as the Owenite Association of All Classes of All Nations had now become. The branch had formerly met at 69 Great Queen Street. Around the country there were twenty or so of these buildings, more usually known as Halls of Science, which were built in the early 1840s to serve as the focus of propaganda activity of the mainly working class branches. Their function however was largely superfluous after 1842, when the ‘missionary’ aspect of the Owenites had been abandoned.

The exterior of this building was carried out in the plain stucco typical of era, projecting forward was a porch with square columns. Inside was a large hall, fifty feet square, equipped with a church-like organ and galleries. 1,100 people could be accommodated. Its cost was around £3,000.

Congresses of the Owenite Rational Association were held here in the early 1840s… (and Owenites were still holding Congresses here in 1857).

Later the Institution also became a meeting place for the Chartist movement. Chartists were holding regular meetings here by 1848, the year the Chartists held a national convention here, attended by 49 delegates, and including a mass meeting on 21st March, in the lead up to the final mass demo to hand in the third Chartist Petition on 10 April.

A National Assembly of Chartists was also held at John Street from 1 to 13 May, in the aftermath of the failure of the petition.

The Chartist movement was undergoing its last significant crisis, as some leaders bottled the implications of their bluster and rhetoric – but others plotted revolution. The ‘Ulterior Committee’, the secret Chartist group planning an uprising, also met here, as they moved around trying to avoid police spies, on 14 June 1848… 14 were present, with Peter McDouall in the chair… Allegedly, at this meeting, detailed plans were made for an insurrection to start the following weekend: “A map of London was produced, and different plans of attack formed” Barricades were to be erected from the Strand near Temple Bar to Ludgate Hill, from Cheapside up St Martins le Grand and Aldersgate Street to the Barbican, across Saffron Hill to Hatton Garden and St Giles Church, Drury Lane, Russell Street and Covent Garden back to the Strand. Theatres and public buildings to be set fire to. Pawnbrokers and gunshops plundered for arms. Barricades also across Waterloo Bridge to Kent Road. Police station there to be attacked and march by troops on London intercepted. Could rely on 5000 armed Chartists plus 5000 Irish.”

However, that same day the committee dissolved itself, apparently having become aware that had been compromised by spies. Plans were revived in July and August, but the spies were still deep in their midst, and arrests on 16th August curtailed the intended rising…

After use by the Owenites ceased in 1858 the John Street building came into commercial use and mostly seems to have been used for performing arts – the famous small person ‘General Tom Thumb’ was apparently ‘on show’ here at one time. By 1914 the building (since 1867 known as 40 Whitfield Street) was the Albert Rooms dance hall. The old Institute is believed to have been demolished in the 1980s. A smallish office block is on the site.

Thanks to Keith Scholey’s research for this post. 

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London radical history: the legendary Communist Club starts life, Soho, 1840.

The Communist Club was essentially a political social club, primarily for German émigrés, which, under a variety of names, operated out of various central London premises during the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most Left personages of the era had some association with the Club, but the most important was Karl Marx. The Club formed an important institutional link between Chartism, utopian socialism, the First International, early anarchism, the Social-Democratic Federation (the first socialist group in Britain) and the new wave of ‘pure’ Marxist socialism of Edwardian times (the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Labour Party). The Club also formed an important connection between the British and Continental European (German, Russian) socialist movements.

The Communist Club started life as the Deutsche Demokratische Gesellschaft (German Democratic Society) founded on 7th February 1840 by seven members of the Bund der Gerechten (League of the Just) including Karl Schapper, Joseph Moll and Heinrich Bauer.

The League of the Just itself had been formed in Paris in 1836 as a split consisting of the “most extreme, chiefly proletarian, elements of the secret democratic-republican Outlaws’ League, which was founded by German refugees in Paris in 1834” (Engels). Originally democratic-nationalist in ideology, under the influence of Wilhelm Weitling the League of the Just soon became utopian socialist.

Schapper and Bauer had been exiled to London after having been arrested following an insurrectionary action in Paris in May 1839.

According to Schapper “…the founders of this society decided to make education the foundation of their movement and not to let themselves be guided by leaders…” This was a reaction to the defeats of the workers’ movement in the 1830s, which were blamed on the lack of political education of the working class, which had left it open to opportunistic leaders.

The Club was also a front for the secret League of the Just, serving as a recruiting ground and propaganda vehicle.

Until the early 1880s) the Society was known by a rapidly changing variety of different but similar names. However, the most fitting and commonly used name was the Deutsche Arbeiter Bildungs Verein (German Workers Educational Association). The DABV rapidly became the main organisation of the German workers in London, its numbers rapidly grew from not more than 30 members before 1844 to around 500 by February 1847. The Association acted as an educational and social club for German workers, of which there were then many in the capital, many exiled leftwingers. In 1845-46 business meetings were held on a Sunday, political discussions (e.g. reading and commenting on contemporary political and philosophical literature) on a Tuesday night, with Saturdays reserved for cultural activities – such as song and dance – and classes in elementary education (e.g. English lessons). There was also a choir and a library, and leftwing newspapers could be read in the reading room. Literature, mainly socialist and communist, from Switzerland, France and Belgium, was also sold. In the autumn of 1846 the Club acquired a press for printing announcements of meetings and the like, and the following year had the intention to produce a journal provisionally entitled Proletarier.

However, many of the club membership were more interested in the practical benefits than the politics (this dynamic was to increase over the years).

Initially utopian socialist ideas, primarily those of Etienne Cabet and Wilhelm Weitling, predominated. Gradually utopianism was replaced by a more class conscious approach. By December 1844 the Club was pressing atheism, opposing nationalism and had generally grown far more radical.

The Association met in the Red Lion pub in Great Windmill Street from 1840 to 1846. Merging with French exiled groups, the Association became more cosmopolitan; Engels remembered the clientele including “Scandinavians, Dutch, Hungarians, Czechs, Southern Slavs, and also Russians and Alsatians” as well as “a British grenadier of the Guards in uniform”.

After Marx and Engels joined the League of the Just, in the summer of 1847 it was reorganised as a democratic propaganda society and renamed the Communist League. It was for this organisation that the famous Communist Manifesto was issued. The reading and adoption of this probably happened in the upstairs room of the Association premises in Drury Lane (rather than the Red Lion as indicated by Liebknecht and others).

Correspondingly the open social club was renamed the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein (Communist Workers Educational Association), de-emphasising the Germanic element. Engels noted that its “membership cards bore the inscription all men are brothersin at least twenty languages, even if not without mistakes here and there”. Germans, however, remained the largest section of the Association.

After the 1848 revolution in France many exiles returned to Germany where the League played a significant part in the struggles of that year, but with the defeat of the 1848-9 uprisings, most gradually drifted back to London. Marx and Chartist socialist Ernest Jones lectured to the club at this time.

The German Workers Educational Association is believed to have supplied the choir which sung at the foundation meeting of the International Working Men’s Association (the famous First International) on 28th September 1864 at St Martins Hall, Long Acre. However the DABV did not formally affiliate until 10 January 1865. At this time the DABV was meeting at 2 Nassau Street, Soho (now Gerrard Place off Shaftesbury Avenue), the tavern of Heinrich Bolleter. Members of the Association who were on the General Council of the First International included Schapper, Bolleter, JG Eccarius and Friedrich Lessner (the latter two tailors associated with Marx).

Although clearly the German element was dominant, internationalism was not dead; the DABV taking an active part in commemorations held for the 24th June 1848 massacres in Paris.

On 15th December 1868 the General Council of the IWMA reported that the membership of the DABV was now 1,800.

The next that is heard of the club, once more known as the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein, is in the late 1870s, when it seems to have been part of what was known as the Social Democratic Club. This ultimately consisted of five sections of various nationalities.

The English section, originally known as the English Revolutionary Society, had been formed on the initiative of Frank Kitz during the summer of 1877. Charles Murray, a longtime acolyte of Chartist Bronterre O’Brien, and Johann Neve were also present. By November the group was known as the Social Democratic Club and was meeting at the Grafton Arms in Fitzroy Square. It had now acquired ‘international’ sections, the German section apparently being the CABV. The emphasis appears to have again been on the Communism rather than the Germanity of the group. Around 1878 the Social Democratic Club took premises in 6 Rose Street, Soho (now Manette Street). The building was demolished for the 1929 extension of Foyle’s bookshop.

Important practical work of the CABV at that time included involvement in a masons’ strike, raising money for the strikers and ensuring that imported German masons understood the situation and left the country. The Rose Street premises was used to house fugitives from the German Anti-Socialist Laws: “The club was crowded with refugees; our hall at times resembled as railway station, with groups of men, women, and children sitting disconsolately amidst piles of luggage”.

The CABV had extensive contacts with the English socialist movement at this time. These include Joseph Lane’s Homerton Socialist Society which was then affiliated to the CABV. This later became part of the Labour Emancipation League, which later merged into the Socialist League. Rose Street holds a particular place in the history of British Marxism, as it was here that the first meeting which was to lead to the formation of the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation, the first Marxist organisation in Britain) took place. On 2nd March 1881, Henry Myers Hyndman and HAM Butler, a Conservative MP, called a meeting of Radical MPs and workingmen opposed to coercion in Ireland. This proposed a federation of Radical clubs based on a Chartist-like program of reforms and a committee was formed to make further arrangements, which ultimately led to the formation of the Democratic Federation.

As well as the social democrats the CABV was extensively linked to the anarchist movement at this time, being involved in the ‘Revolutionary Congress’ of 14-19 July 1881; the organising committee of this included Sebastian Trunk representing the CABV. Although designed to unite anarchists and socialists, it essentially became an anarchist affair. More importantly the CABV subsidised Johann Most’s Freiheit, a German language paper issued from 1879 to 1882.

The club split between anarchists and social democrats. The anarchist section associated with Most stayed in Rose Street, while the Social-Democrats moved to 49 Tottenham Street as the Second Section of the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein. The Second Section prefix was soon dropped, afterwards there being no more name changes (although the short English version – the Communist Club – became used in common parlance.) The anarchists later moved to Stephen’s Mews, Rathbone Place as the International or German Club. The premises here were the scene of a police riot on 9 May 1885.

In its final phase the Communist Club was less of a political body and more of a social club. Frank Kitz disparaged it as a mere West End dining room, but it remained an important focus of Left wing life in the capital. Several aged radicals lived close by, including Lessner at no. 12 Fitzroy Street around 1888, and William Townshend, veteran O’Brienite, who lived at the Club’s premises at no. 49 Tottenham Street. The Club band was particularly noted and performed at many left wing events.

The Club retained its importance as a venue for lectures and events. Friedrich Engels, George Bernard Shaw, Keir Hardie and William Morris all spoke at no. 49. One of the most notable was the Sixth and final Annual Conference of the Socialist League, (William Morris’s semi-anarchist split from the SDF) held at the Club on 25th May 1890. This Conference saw the ousting of William Morris and marked the beginning of the transformation of the League into an anarchist group. 49 Tottenham Street is still standing.

In 1902 the Communist Club moved to 107 Charlotte Street. Shortly thereafter Stalin and Lenin visited. This was probably in connection with the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. This took place at a variety of locations. The first London sitting took place on 29th July 1903 at the “English Club” in Charlotte Street.

After 1900 the SDF renewed its acquaintance with the Communist Club. In 1903 the delegates to the Annual Conference were formally welcomed as guests to the club. This was made a festive occasion with songs and speeches – in effect the Conference’s ‘social’. The Conference had been marred by the expulsion of several leading impossibilists (anti-reformists) and shortly after the Socialist Labour Party was formed.

In April or May 1903 this newly Party held its first meeting in London at the Club; as were future SLP conferences. The SLP is most known because of its contribution to the foundation of the Communist Party. This was far from its roots, which lay in the industrial unionist ideas of Daniel De Leon.

The other Impossibilist party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, also a split from the SDF, was also greatly connected to the Communist Club. The Club was the first headquarters of the SPGB (June 1904 to September 1905) and other meetings were also held here.

The Communist Club would have been severely affected by the First World War, when most German nationals returned to the Fatherland to fight or were interned. Its end came shortly after the war.

In most sources it is stated that the Club was closed down after police raids in 1918. However the SPGB was still holding meetings here in late 1919 (which were recorded in the minutes as taking place in the Communist Club). Weller gives the date of closure as 1920. Secretary of the Communist Club during its last six months of existence was Harold Edwards. Born in 1900, this young anarchist, a friend of Errico Malatesta, dropped out of political activity in the 1920s to become an antiquarian bookseller.

The premises continued to be used as a meeting place until at least 1922. The building was destroyed by bombing during the 1940-41 Blitz.

Finally the existence of the International Socialist Club during the early 1920s should be noted. Based at 28 East Road, off City Road, this was promoted as the successor to the Communist Club and was the venue of a number of important meetings connected with the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, including the second day of the Unity (Foundation) Congress.

This is an excerpt from The Communist Club, by Keith Scholey, published by past tense. 

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Today in London’s radical history: Bethnal Green Chartists in court, for assembling, illegally, armed, 1840.

In 1839-40, the Chartist movement reached its first great peak of strength. Building on decades of agitation for constitutional and political reform, emerging from the ruins of earlier political groupings, but adding in the massive experience of the struggle against the stamp tax on the cheap press, the beginnings of large-scale trade unionism, and the birth of the co-operative movement, Chartism was bringing together millions of working class people to demand a voice in the decision making processes – the vote. Monster rallies took place of thousands, mass agitation was drawing in recruit and spreading ideas in the cities and countryside, a huge petitioning effort was underway to show Parliament the strength of the feeling across the country. To many the pressure for change seemed unstoppable.

But in the wake of the rejection of the first Chartist petition by Parliament in July 1839, the outright refusal of the ruling elites to consider further reform, pressure began to build within Chartism for achieving results by other means. Chartism had inherited from earlier reform movements an inherent division, between those who thought campaigning and mass demonstrations, petitions and ‘moral pressure’ from below could bring change – and others who felt their rulers based their control of society of force, and would not give up even a share of it without being forced themselves. The latter, a substantial minority, were strengthened by the refusal of the state to compromise with polite Chartist petitioning, and also by the rhetoric of Chartist leaders who talked a good fight when they really were not prepared to rise in arms…

After the petition was rejected, plans were set in motion for a Sacred Month, the ‘Grand National Holiday’ of William Benbow revived – a General Strike, in effect. Although agreed and even launched, many Chartist leaders were scared by the implications of leading such a movement, and back-pedalled. The strike fizzled out. In the wake of this the ‘physical force’ Chartists began working in earnest to plan for uprisings to overthrow the government that held them down, going beyond demanding a the vote to conceiving of a working class that could take power itself, in its own interests, dispossessing the classes that lived on their backs. This manifested in the Newport Rising of November 1839, when South Wales Chartists launched a revolt, intended to be part of a wider revolutionary attempt. The revolt was put down and its leaders tried for treason.

But even as the trial of John Frost and the other Newport leaders ended with sentences of death and transportation, in early January 1840, plans for uprising were still being hatched in the north of England. Revolts were planned in Sheffield, Dewsbury and Bradford, but were either foiled by the authorities (often with the help of spies) or failed to gather the support needed. And there were spirits abroad in London, too, willing to arm with the aim of overthrowing the hated government:

“In the metropolis, too, the work of disaffection was apparent. Repeated meetings took place, and schemes of the very worst character were devised; and, on Tuesday the 13th of January, the government received private information that an insurrection was to break out on that night or on the following morning, and that the firing of London in various parts was to be the signal for a general rising throughout the country. Orders were in consequence instantly transmitted to the Horse Guards, for the preparation of a sufficient force to repel any treasonable attack which might be made; and here, as well as at all the barracks in the vicinity of the metropolis, and at the Tower, the whole of the men were put under arms. The metropolitan police-force and the city constables received orders to be ready for immediate action, and the London Fire-engine Establishment — a body of most enterprising and active officers — formed into a fire-police, was placed in readiness to employ their exertions to assist the municipal authorities to suppress the supposed intended conflagration.

            The alarm, which was necessarily spread through the metropolis in consequence of these warlike preparations, however, turned out to be without cause; for although on that night a very large meeting of Chartists took place at the Hall of Trades, in Abbey-street, Bethnal-green, there was no attempt at violence. The conduct of the speakers at this assemblage, indeed, sufficiently showed the extremes to which they desired their followers to go; and a subsequent meeting on the following Thursday proved that they were not quite so harmless as their apologists would have had it supposed. At this convention, held, as it was announced, for the purpose of discussing the existing state of the working-classes throughout the country, upwards of seven hundred persons attended, the majority of whom seemed to be individuals of low rank. At nine o’clock the committee came upon the platform, when Mr. Neesom was called to the chair. After the chairman had detailed the objects for which the meeting had been called, Mr. Spurr, who had on a former occasion taken an active part in the discussions, rose to propose the first resolution. After a few preliminary observations, he contended that the only way to preserve the peace was to be prepared to wage war; and in support of such an assertion he thought it would be well deserving the attention of the meeting to bear in mind the words of a celebrated person, “to put their trust in God, and keep their powder dry,” which was received with loud cheering. On silence being restored, the speaker was about to proceed, but a body of police appearing at the door with drawn sabres, caused the greatest possible confusion. The chairman entreated the meeting not to be disturbed, as it was held on constitutional principles, but in order not to give their enemies an opportunity of succeeding, he hoped there would be no breach of the peace committed. The police then, having blocked up every avenue leading to the room, prevented all present from retiring, and proceeded to search their persons. Daggers, knives, sabres, pistols primed and loaded, and other weapons of an offensive character, were taken from many of them, while upon the floor were discovered others of a like description, evidently thrown away by their owners in order to enable them to escape detection. Twenty-one of the persons who were taken into custody on this occasion unarmed, were detained in the Trades Hall, and eleven others, upon whom pistols and daggers had been found, were removed to safe custody, in order to await their examination before the magistrates. Upon subsequent inquiries taking place, several of them were discharged, while, however, others, with new prisoners subsequently secured and identified as parties to the meeting, were tried and convicted at the Old Bailey Sessions, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.” (The Newgate Calendar).

Chartists would of course continue to agitate, strike and plot revolution for several more years… But if 1848 has often been seen as the highpoint, the moment when radical change could have come, it is possible that in 1839-40 the moment was in reality even closer. Sadly, general strikes, insurrections, plots for uprisings, armed meetings, failed to achieve a working class seizure of power 176 years ago…

But hey, there’s still time…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Today in London radical history: Chartists rally on Kennington Common, 1842.

On 22nd August 1842, 40,000 Chartists defied a ban to rally on Kennington Common & fought police who attempted to clear them.

In 1842, a series of wage reductions in factories around North Staffordshire and Manchester sparked a sudden and widespread movement of strikes and demonstrations. The widespread distress and poverty force on thousands of workers enraged a wide swathe of the north in late July and early August. Strikes brought factories to a halt in Staffordshire and Lancashire, Manchester; mass meetings were held on the moors, and huge processions of workers carrying banners and bludgeons to defend themselves. These became flying pickets, spreading the strike from mill to mill and factory to factory (in some places the movement is known as the plug riots or plug plot as sabotaging workers pulled the plugs from boilers to prevent steam pressure being raised). The movement radiated out like wildfire. On August 12th, a meeting of delegates from 358 factories meeting in Manchester, escalated the strike wave to a new level when the vast majority voted to expand the aims of the strikes beyond the purely economic, to stay out until the Charter, the demand of the Chartist movement for political reform, was achieved. The movement spread into Yorkshire. It seemed for a few days as if the abortive Grand National holiday or Sacred Month that had failed to launch almost exactly three years before in 1839 was beginning for real…

As the government began to panic, they started to move contingents of troops north to repress the growing movement. But although the centre of the battle was up north, and Londoners were not joining the strike, they were far from passive. On August 13th columns of soldiers were marching to Euston station to be shipped off to the industrial battlegrounds; they were booed and hissed by gathering crowds in Regent Street. This kicked off a week of Chartist inspired-disturbances in the capital.

On the 14th, more demonstrations were held to boo further troop movements troops. The following day, the angry crowds became so dense around Euston, soldiers were charge ordered to charge and disperse them.

On the 16th, a mass chartist meeting was held in Stepney in solidarity with plug rioters and other northern comrades. On the 18th another mass Chartist meeting held was held on Islington Green, which developed into a march to Clerkenwell where there was fighting with police who tried to disperse them: “this same assemblage of persons… paraded the town in procession till one in the morning, and listened to speeches of the most atrocious and treasonable character.”

On the 19th, the police had been given “positive orders… not to allow any Mob, as Night approached, to enter London”… As Home Secretary Sir James Graham wrote to the Duke of Wellington: “In London the excitement is increasing; and we have been determined not to allow an adjourned meeting to assemble this evening at Islington, in consequence of the proceedings of… last night.” A large Chartist rally, Clerkenwell again ended in tussles with the cops, despite the police guarding all entrances to Clerkenwell Green and two magistrates walking about with copies of the Riot Act; such great numbers gathered that they were able to break through the police lines and remained in possession of the Green till late, though no meeting was held.

Other meetings at Lincolns Inn Fields, and Great Queen Street, saw similar scenes: speeches were delivered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields at 10.00pm, and when police attacked them, the crowd marched to Covent garden and fought police In Bow Street. Several policemen were beaten before the crowd drifted off.

The weekend was quiet, but on Monday August 22nd, two monster Chartist rallies were called, to meet on Kennington Common in South London, and at Paddington in the west of the city. After several days of disturbances, the authorities were intensely nervous. Troops were moved to Kensington Common from the army barracks at Hounslow, and from Woolwich Barracks to Clapham Common, in readiness for use against demonstrators in the event of more disturbances. “Every wall, public building &c. [was] thickly studded with Proclamations, Cautions &c. emanating from the various authorities, strictly prohibiting public meetings, &c… London may be said to be under police, if not under military law.”

By the Monday afternoon, crowds ‘very numerous, very gay’ assembled on Kennington Common. “The whole appearance of the scene was rather of a gay and festive kind, and quite different from that which the gatherings of the fierce democracy at Islington, Clerkenwell and Stepney exhibited.” Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor turned up but decided not to speak as he was bound over to keep the peace, and legged it (his instinct for self-preservation was always keen). 15 minutes later, as the meeting started, police swarmed onto the Common, some mounted, led by the Commissioner Richard Mayne, scattering the demonstrators off the Common. The crowds remained in strong possession of the surrounding streets, and skirmished with the ‘blue lobsters’ for hours, but the meeting had been halted, without calling in the military. At Paddington, police fought a three-hour battle to clear the area around the railway station; a third impromptu rally at Clerkenwell Green broke out into fierce fighting in which the police were overwhelmed.

However, after the 22nd, the Chartist disturbances in London subsided. A large rally on the 23rd at White Conduit House in Islington passed off peacefully. Most significantly perhaps, was that no strike wave had developed in London inspired by the northern outbreak (though it was said that 600 builders working for Cubitts had struck).

The strike wave in the north continued for several days and erupted into fighting in many places, but the question of whether the aim was political reform or immediate wage rises began to divide the movement in places. The army shot several people during riots in Halifax and Preston, and the arrest of a large crop of Chartist and strike leaders eventually drove the workers back to work.

More on the 1842 General Strike:

Catherine Howe, (2014). “Halifax 1842: A Year of Crisis”. Breviary Stuff, London, UK. 

Mick Jenkins (1980). The General Strike of 1842. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 

And on the London disturbances of August 1842: David Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online