Early this morning in London radical history, 1891: enclosure notices around Ham Common torn down

What later became known as Ham Common may have originated as a grant of land to the manor of Ham, in compensation for parish lands enclosed by king Charles I to create Richmond Park in 1637. Ham Common formed part of an arc of common land belonging to several manors – Petersham Common, Richmond Common and Mortlake common, all of which bordered one on another. Parts of all of these lands were shaved off to be included in the king’s new playground, acquired partly by persuasion, bribery and bullying of landowners and local villages.

The enclosure of Richmond Park was one of Charles’ numerous unpopular acts that contributed to the unrest leading to the English Civil War.

This act of basic royal landgrabbery itself caused centuries of resistance, and the privatisation of Richmond Park was eventually overturned in the 1750s.

Of the several manors plundered, Ham lost the most land to the new park. Prior to the enclosure, the common land of Ham extended much further eastwards than the current Ham Common – as far as the course of the Beverley Brook and the boundary with Roehampton. Of the total 1,000 acres enclosed by the park, 895 acres previously fell within Ham’s boundaries and, of that, nearly half – 400 acres – was common land, the rest being agricultural land in private ownership or already owned by the crown.

Opposition in Ham to the loss of their lands was so vocal, the king had to appoint a commission to treat with “the proprietors and other inhabitants.”

As a result, Charles I was pushed into paying compensation to the commoners of Ham for their loss, and granted them a deed of gift of the remaining unenclosed common land for all time. so far as the manors of Ham and Petersham were concerned. By an indenture dated 22nd December, 1635, the residents gave up to the king 483 acres in the former parish and 265 acres in the latter, in return for £4000 and the reservation to themselves and their heirs of “all theire right and interest of Comon in all and every other the wast-grounds of or belonginge to the said severall manners of Ham and Petersham that are not to bee inclosed within his majesties said newe Parke his mtie. being well pleased that neither his majestie. his heires or successors nor any of his or theire Farmours of the said manors or either of them shall from henceforth have make or take any benefitt or profitt in or out of the residue of the said Wastgrounds of the said mannors or either of them soe left out of the said intended newe Parke but that the said Tenants respectively have the sole benefit and profitt of the same.”

This ‘Deed’ was held from the very start to give some residents rights of access and protection against enclosure and exploitation of resources for profit by landowners. Though legal opinion was for centuries divided over the actual legality of any such guarantee, both the local villagers and the lords of the Manor recognised that it restricted the rights of the lord.

Apart from area of the present day Common, other common land existed around the enclosed farm land of Ham. Commoners also enjoyed lammas rights on large areas of enclosed farmland along the river Thames, on what later became known as Ham Fields.

Ownership of the common land generally lay with the lord of the Manor and, from the mid 17th to the early 20th centuries, in Ham, this was held by the Earls of Dysart – the aristocratic Tollemache family. However, the indenture’ of Charles I seemed to guarantee the Ham commoners control over the Common. The Dysarts smarted under the perceived restriction on their powers compared to many other manorial lords, and as William Harland put it, were “ever on the look out to find ways in which to encroach on the rights of the villagers and filch back some of the power and land the estate lost even before they owned it.”

Nearly a century and a half after king Charles acquired part of the manor’s land, Ham Common was itself to become the subject of a battle over enclosure, when the landowners, the Dysart estate tried to fence off the wood and declare it private.

The Dysarts’ ancestors had lived in Ham House, Richmond, since the 1630s; the family’s staunch support of the royalist cause during the civil war gaining them the lordships of the Manors of Ham and Petersham.

By the late 1870s, the father of the 9th Earl of Dysart had amassed huge debts. His heir inherited an estate in disrepair and financial precarity. The trustees running the estate on his behalf (several of his posh relatives) needed to exploit the lands to raise some ready cash.

Through inheritance and canny purchases the Dysarts owned about 70% of the land in the Ham and Petersham area. With building land in demand as London expanded, and agriculture becoming relatively less commercially attractive, the estate looked to two main avenues for money-making: developing land for housing, or digging gravel to sell to building companies. The Dysart holdings in the adjacent former manor of Canbury were extensively developed for housing as Kingston expanded northwards. However, in Ham, the potential for gravel extraction from the common lands (and also the lammas lands) was high.


The management of Ham Common, as with most commons, moved from the manorial courts to a locally appointed vestry (effectively a parish council). Disputes, offences and problems came to the attention of the Vestry and were recorded in their minute-books. As with many commons, typical recurring issues included regulating the removal of gravel, loam, turf and furze (the Common was a major source for these resources), ‘encroachment’ (which could include adjacent land-owners trying to enclose bits of land or use land they weren’t entitled to: grazing of animals by non-local owners included one incursion of a flock of 200 sheep from Kingston), squatters, usually on marginal land (who might subsequently gain right of residence or even ownership, through ‘adverse possession’) – generally seen as a burden on the parish), camping travellers, gipsies and tinkers… As well as over-grazing by those entitled to feed their livestock on the common, nuisance caused by geese, pigs rooting and blocking drains, or damage to turf from exercising horses…

Alternately tussling with and making accommodations with the Dysarts’ attempts to take or withhold resources and control parcels of land took a notable part of some Vestry meetings. But the meeting minutes always show the Vestry taking to itself control over the Common lands, on behalf of the inhabitants. In contrast to some commons, simple proven residence within the manor seems to have been the deciding factor for recognition of the right to ask to access resources, where copyhold, freehold or leasehold title of some kind was often required… On occasions, when disputes and complaints about over-grazing, who had rights to herbage etc became difficult, general meetings of inhabitants of Ham were called to discuss and come to some decisions on use, which tried to reflect a fair use of resources for all inhabitants who needed them. This didn’t mean some people didn’t try to sneak some advantage to themselves, but a system was in place to at least try to manage the Common fairly.

This reflected the general feeling, expressed wit relation to may commons and woods, that open space belonged to the community. Often this belief flew in the face of so-called legal ownership, by the lords of the manor etc; at Ham it was clearly in evidence that the locals felt they had been granted the Common by King Charles’ deed, and thus had an even stronger claim.

This was to be important when the Dysart family decided to try to press for enclosure and greater exploitation of the common lands.

Ham Common was protected by gates to prevent animals straying off: there were Gate houses near each corner of the western section of common, one on Ham Street by what is now St Thomas Aquinas Church, Ham, and two on the Upper Ham Road, to the north by the New Inn and one to the south of the common.

In the 1830s and 40s, Ham Common was home to a vegetarian socialist commune.

Surrey Comet Journalist William Harland, active in the campaign against the attempt to enclose Ham Common, later suggested that the powers of the Vestry had been stripped by “the establishment of a ‘Local Board’ [with powers over sanitation and other amenities] in 1862… a real death-blow to the control  exercised by the villagers over the Common under the old regime.”
The new urban sanitary authority established in 1864 “never rose to its duties in relation to the fine open space which was its fairest heritage”.

The Vestry had been relieved of its former powers of spending money out of the poor rate for the administration of the Common and the Local Board did not, “as it undoubtedly should have done as soon as the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866 was passed, take the proper steps in conjunction with the Kingston Rural Sanitary Authority to render itself the controlling power.”

If the Local Board had taken their eye off the ball somewhat by not registering the Common under the 1866 Act, at first the Dysart estate was also indifferent. However, the need for cash as the estate fell into debt caused greedy eyes to be cast on the Common…

Lord Dysart and the Dysart Trustees sought to exploit the agricultural land of Ham and in particular the lammas land. “The Trustees began by helping themselves copiously to the gravel for Ham House, which be it noted is outside the parish, thus exercising an alleged right the use of which by other people, they say, injures so much the beauty of the Common. And yet for nearly eighteen months the Trustees removed gravel at the rate of from eighteen to twenty cartloads weekly.” (Harland)

In April 1891 the Steward of the Dysart Estate erected six notice boards on the Common warning that those removing “gravel, turf, etc without having obtained the license of the Lords of the Manor” would be liable for prosecution.

“NOTICE.

By Order of the Lords of the Manor

Of Ham.

HAM COMMON

Notice is hereby given that any person or persons found digging or removing gravel or sand or cutting or removing turf, gorse, furze, mould or other substance from this Common or killing or taking therefrom any game or rabbits without having obtained the license of the Lords of the Manor or their

Steward for the purpose will be liable to be prosecuted.

A. Bertram,

Steward of the Manors

34, Norfolk Street, London.

January, 1891.”

They also erected notices on the lammas lands, claiming the common fields and footpaths were private property:

“NOTICE

By Order of the Trustees of the

DYSART ESTATE.

This Land is private and all Persons found trespassing or committing damage thereon are hereby warned that they are liable to be ejected and will be prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the Law.

A. Bertram,

Steward.

34, Norfolk Street,

January, 1891. Strand, London.”

However, these high-handed actions were not to go un-opposed. From the start of the Dysarts’ removal of gravel from the common for use at Ham House, locals claimed that this was ‘outside the manorial right’, as Ham House itself lay within the neighbouring manor of Petersham.

Opinion within the village of Ham took the general view that access and use of the Common had been managed by the villagers in their own interests for two centuries, based on the ‘Deed’ of Charles I, and this should at least continue, albeit in the hands of a ‘proper authority’.

Edward Radford

The erection of the noticeboards sparked outrage, resulting in a mass meeting being held on Ham Common. The initiator of agitation against the attempted enclosure was one Edward Nicholas Radford, (veteran of the Crimean war, a butler at Bute House & a lay preacher), who
“summoned a meeting on the Common for Sunday, June 21st, to consider the matter. The gathering was enormously successful, from 1,500 to 2,000 people attending, including a large number of sympathisers from the adjacent towns of Kingston, Richmond and Twickenham. A resolution was unanimously passed protesting against the action of the Trustees and intimating that unless the objectionable notice boards were removed within a fortnight they would be cut down. A Vestry meeting was also held on June 26th, at which a committee was appointed to ascertain if the erection of the boards was legal or illegal and if the latter to wait on the Trustees and demand their removal.

An investigation committee was likewise appointed by the meeting on the 21st.”

With a sly dig at the tendency of ponderous local worthies to found organisations and committees, Harland later commented that:

“In order to dispose of both these bodies at once it may be as well to say that neither contributed much towards the ultimate settlement of the dispute. The latter, called the Ham and Petersham Common Rights and Footpaths Committee, chiefly concerned itself with the re-opening of the footpaths around Ham House, closed by order of the Trustees, though it also drew up a short and useful report on the whole question which was made public at the end of July. The other body, known as the Vestry Committee, really shifted all its duties on to its fellow and did nothing.”

While busybodies dithered, others were prepared to take some direct action:

“The Trustees ignored the decision of the meeting on June 21st and accordingly on July 5th another big demonstration took place. The issue at this gathering unluckily got somewhat confused and though the mass of local opinion was clearly in favour of the mandate of the first meeting being enforced the voting on the resolutions submitted got mixed and the people dispersed irresolutely without pulling down the boards. Radford, though feeling sure of his ground and of the support of the inhabitants, did not wish to run the risk of promoting a disturbance, especially as a large force of police was present, and accordingly it was decided to wait till early the following day and then do the vital work.” (Harland)

The offending notice boards which sought to restrict the rights of the commoners came under attack early the next morning; four notices were chopped down.

Shadrach Hopkins

“At four o’clock in the morning Radford accompanied by George Hall, Shadrach Hopkins, William Piggott, all labourers, and myself, proceeded to the Common and sawed down four posts out of the six. The delight and excitement amongst the villagers were tremendous when the fact was known a few hours later and ample proof was forthcoming that the decision to take prompt and bold action had been the best possible under the circumstances and was ratified by every resident having the welfare of the Common at heart. The remaining three notices were cut down at another public meeting on Wednesday, July 15th. The next day summonses were taken out against Radford, Hopkins, Hall and Piggott only for that they did “wilfully and maliciously damage certain notice boards on Ham Common there situate the property of the Trustees of the late Earl of Dysart, doing injury thereto to the amount of £ 8 .” (Harland)

Radford, Shadrach Hopkins (Groundsman at Sudbrook Golf Course!), and labourers William Piggott and George Hall were arrested, and prosecuted for felony.

Their defence was led by Harland, a journalist with the Surrey Comet, aided by the aged Cornelius Greenwood (who must’ve been knocking on in age, as he had been  ‘ploughman to Farmer Hatch’ in the 1830s…!) and George Rooke.

Apparently one of these two blokes in Cornelius Greenwood, stalwart of the defence committee… Not sure which one!

“The Prosecutions Defence Committee, as a matter of course, was constituted at a public meeting held on the Common on Monday, July 20th, the members who served all the way through the long contest being Albert Voysey, Jacob Claridge, James Masked, James Coombes, Edwin Leatham, Albert Edward Hall, William Venn, Walter Tulett, George Darnell, James Berridge, Alfred Parker and myself. Voysey acted as Chairman and Claridge as Treasurer, whilst I filled the post of Secretary. No time was lost in getting to work. A public appeal for assistance was issued, most of the metropolitan journals backing up the villagers and Mr. George Eaton Hart, then proprietor of The Kingston and Richmond Express, rendering invaluable aid locally by allowing his paper to be used as the organ of the agitation.

The services of Mr. Henry Prince, of Lewes and Brighton, were secured to defend Radford and his companions before the Kingston County Bench on Thursday, July 23rd, and the result of the hearing — a protracted one lasting over three hours— was the committal of the defendants to the Surrey Quarter Sessions the following October, the magistrates deciding that the question was one only a jury could properly settle. In the interval the Defence Committee worked very hard. They held meetings, organised concerts and entertainments, left no likely sources of revenue untouched and lost no opportunity of acquainting the public mind with all the facts.”

The Prosecutions Committee raised most of its funds to fight the case locally, and according to Harland was based among the local working class:

“the members were practically working men and any notice of their labours would be incomplete without the fullest recognition of their enthusiasm, self-sacrifice and loyalty. They were in truth the salt of the hamlet.”

A by-product of the defence campaign was the uncovering of other encroachments on the manor’s common lands:

“One of the most notable and interesting occurrences they arranged was the beating of the bounds of the Common Fields, or the Lammas Lands as they are sometimes called, on Michaelmas Day. As far as possible the old frontiers were traversed and encroachments and enclosures carefully noted by a large band of villagers. In this connection it may be as well to quote from the report of the Ham and Petersham Common Rights and Footpaths Committee the result of their investigations respecting grabbing in these semi-open lands: “The Fields consist of nearly all the land bordering on the River Thames from Cold Harbour near Ham House to the One [Mile] Tree near the Albany Club [Kingston] , and are bounded on the land side by a number of small enclosures adjacent to Ham Common and Ham Street. The Lammas rights, though somewhat curtailed, are still exercised over the greater part of this area, but during the last thirty years a number of these Common Fields have been enclosed so as to prevent the people exercising their right of turn-out. A list of these is appended and they are described by their number on the 25in. map of the Ordnance Survey — {a) Back of All Souls’ Lane, Nos. 27, 28, 29, 30, supposed to have been enclosed by the late Mr. Hatch, now underlet in two instances, (b) Two fields near the New Road, Nos. 84 and 85, enclosed about eight or ten years [ago] by the late Mr. Scott when he came into possession of them, (c) Part of a field. No. 78, hedged off the Lammas Lands about twenty-eight years ago by Mr. Willing and sold to Mr. Scott, with the other enclosed land to which it was added, (d) The Meadlands near Teddington Lock, enclosed thirty years ago by the late Mr. Hatch, (e) Two fields near the parish yard, known as Stoney Lands, Nos. 107 and 109, always hedged, but used to be thrown open at Lammas-time. Nos. 107 was stopped by the late Mr. Warner, and No. 109 by a Mr. Nye, about twenty years ago. (/) The Headland Acre, part of No. 119, near the Upper Ham Road, enclosed by the Dysart family about twenty-five years ago, and thrown into Church Farm, together with a large piece adjoining it on the Kingston side, now occupied by Mr. Walker, (g) A field. No. 87, thrown into another by gradual breaking down of the parting hedge between Nos. 87 and 88, in the time of the late Mr. Hatch. The Common Fields not yet enclosed are Nos. 5 (open meadow), 78 (part), 72, 112 and 119 (part).” The present holders of land in the Lammas Fields are Messrs. Horace and Arthur Saunders who have 100 acres ; Mr. James Walker, of Ham or Church Farm, who has 25 acres; and Messrs. John and Harry Hatch, of Manor Farm, who have about 200 acres.”

Beating the Bounds was an old tradition used to keep the knowledge of a parish boundaries alive, but it also had a customary use for establishing where illegal enclosures had been made, and was sometimes employed to legitimise direct action against enclosure fences etc. (A 1751 engraving exists showing Richmond parishioners, led by the vicar, breaking down a section of the wall around Richmond Park, during the agitation against the denial of access to locals by its royal owners.)

The Quarter Sessions in 1891 were held at Newington (near the modern day Elephant & Castle). The trial of Radford, Hall, Hopkins and Piggott took place on Thursday October 22nd , 1891, before the Deputy Chairman, Mr. Henry Yool.

The four men were acquitted, despite the prosecution being led by no less than the Solicitor General, Sir Edward Clarke QC.

“Hall broke his leg a fortnight before and lay in Richmond Hospital whilst the issue was being decided – Mr. C. F. Gill defended and Sir Edward Clarke, then Solicitor-General, prosecuted. It is needless to go into all the details of that memorable action for many of them must be yet fresh in the minds of those who took any active interest in the matter. Mr. Gill called no witnesses but relied solely on the plea that the Trustees by taking criminal proceedings, whilst the civil courts were open to them, were attempting to turn honest men into felons merely for asserting what they believed to be their inalienable rights.

The jury promptly returned a verdict of not guilty and so gave the commoners their first victory in the modern struggle with the Dysarts.”

The journey home from court seems to have turned into a celebratory travelling party:

“No one who participated in the return home of the party — besides the three defendants able to attend, numbers of the villagers went to London to personally hear the case – will ever forget the wild enthusiasm with which they were welcomed. The journey by break from Richmond to Ham through Petersham, was practically a continued ovation.

The villagers — men, women and children — apprised by telegram of the result, greeted the defendants with cheers and shouts and the waving of aprons, evergreens and anything else that happened to be handy when the carriage passed along. Windows, doors and garden gates contributed their quota of spectators to the witness of the triumphal return that finally terminated in a brief meeting at which the excitement of the day found a fitting culmination.”

The Defence Committee dissolved itself at a public meeting on December 1st, 1891 “though it was recognised that the recent trial had by no means settled matters and that the people would have to be on the watch to resist further agressions on the part of the Trustees.”

As with many struggles against enclosure, the dual approach – legal campaigning on the one hand, and some direct action on the side – seem to have effectively scuppered the Dysarts’ immediate plans.

But Harland’s comment that “it was recognised that the recent trial had by no means settled matters and that the people would have to be on the watch to resist further aggressions on the part of the Trustees” was prophetic: the 1891 acquittal was not the end of the struggle over common land in Ham.

The Dysart trustees had not given up. In July 1892 they tried to invited a selected group of “freeholders and copyholders of the manor, residents upon the Common and others”, to a meeting, where they tried to persuade them to agree to a set of rules “submitted practically abolishing all the rights of the villagers and asserting in full the claims of the Trustees which had proved before to be so objectionable and so unwarranted. As a result of the proceedings a committee was appointed to go further into the matter but its labours came to nought through the insistance of the Trustees on their assumed rights as Lords of the Manor. There were one or two staunch commoners on the committee and sooner than admit the demands of the Dysarts they very properly retired…”

Gravel was again quarried from Ham Common by Baron Sudely, one of the Dysart trustees; meanwhile a local labourer, Walter Miles, was prosecuted for also taking some gravel. This sparked the revival of a Ham Common Defence Committee, which took a hand in the legal defence of Miles and the case was again dismissed.

The question of the management and control of the Common and the lammas lands would be largely transferred to attempts to  enclose the latter by Parliamentary bill.

In 1896 the Dysarts promoted The Petersham and Ham Lands Footpaths Bill, seeking to enclose the 176 acres (71 hectares) of lammas lands in the manor, also known as Ham Fields. The bill slyly included sops to local opinion, in its proposal to grant Petersham Meadows and Common to the public ‘in perpetuity’: in exchange, as it were, for being allowed to get on with developing the Fields. The Bill was opposed by the commoners of Ham, by the London County Council, and by the Society for the Preservation of Commons and Open Spaces; a number of petitions were launched against it, and a vigorous debate ensued in the House of Commons. The bill was defeated by 262 votes to 118 in Parliament, as it was deemed to contravene the Metropolitan Commons Acts.

In December 1896, a local enquiry was established with the Board of Agriculture to consider a scheme for the lammas lands under the Metropolitan Commons Acts. However, the Board determined that the provisions of the acts did not apply in this case, effectively giving a green light to the Dysarts to begin plotting how to dispose of the lammas lands again.

The Metropolitan Commons (Ham) Supplemental Act 1901 established a Board of Conservators to manage Ham Common.

In 1902, another Private Bill, the Richmond Hill (Preservation of View) Bill, was brought. Although it was substantially the same as the 1896 Bill (still aiming at the enclosure of the lammas Fields), it was cleverly reworked to appeal to campaigners around access and preservation. Clauses were inserted for improving public access by providing wider and more extensive riverside footpaths. The new title played on the then very public concern among Richmond residents that the view from Richmond Hill over the river was threatened by developments.

This bill passed in Parliament (179 in favour to 79 against).

Its passage did transfer the Dysarts’ residual manorial interests in Ham Common and vested them in Ham Urban District Council (which had now replaced the Local Board). The Board of Conservators was now dissolved, and Ham Urban District took over management of Ham Common. The Dysart Trustees also gave £3000 to be invested for the upkeep of the common and any residual money to go to almhouses or other local charitable purposes.

The 1902 Act was, however, double-edged: part of the inclusive settlement with the Dysart Trustees extinguished the remaining lammas rights in Ham, thereby freeing up the agricultural land for development, to the profit of the Tollemaches. The arrangement was not without critics. MP Henry Labouchère observed that Lord Dysart “… would get possession of 176 acres of lammas land and secure valuable building rights, notwithstanding that Parliament had decided that no common lands within a radius of fifteen miles of London should be built upon.”

The Dysart estate were thus eventually successful in extinguishing lammas rights on the 176 acres of open farmland in Ham. Instead of building though, much of the former lammas land was leased from 1904 to the Ham River Grit Company, and the area exploited for gravel extraction to feed the demand from construction. Millions of tons of river gravel were extracted from the pits up until 1939.

Postscript: Later history of Ham’s Lammas Lands

These days, the lammas lands, or Ham Fields, are themselves designated Metropolitan Open Space.

From Teddington Lock downstream to Petersham, a quarter of a mile of open lands stretch from the Thames bank, covering about 200 acres in all. About 72 acres form Ham Lands Nature reserve.

A grit lorry removing gravel from Ham Lands, 1930s.

Again it was local campaigning that prevented much of this space from being developed and pushed it toward its present status as a place for wildlife to flourish and people to wander.

Most of Ham Lands had been excavated for gravel in the early 20th century then filled in from 1939 to the early 1950’s. After the war, most of the pits were filled with bomb-damage rubble from London. The pits operated until 1952, after which some of the land was used for subsequent housing development. Local resistance to further development led to the area being designated Metropolitan Open Land, preserving Ham Riverside Lands as a nature reserve.

Struggles to prevent further building on the edges of Ham Lands continued through the 1960s to the 1980s.

It’s well worth reading William Harland’s account of Ham Common and the Dysart family’s relations with the locals

There’s a great Ham local history site with oral history recordings including lots about Ham Lands

Also worth checking out, the Friends of Ham Lands

Today in radical herstory, 1899: working class Suffragist Jessie Craigen dies

Jessie Craigen (c.1835-99) was a working-class activist and public speaker in the earlier phases of the movement for women’s suffrage in Britain. Craigen’s background was relatively unusual, in a movement which was at the time dominated by middle and upper-class activists. She was also a freelance (or ‘paid agent’) speaker in the campaigns for Irish Home Rule and the cooperative movement and against vivisection, compulsory vaccination, and the Contagious Diseases Acts.

 Her background is somewhat obscure. Her father was said to be Scottish, possibly a seafarer, who died when she was an infant; her mother was sometimes described as an Italian actress, and she was described in a newspaper of 1866 as a ‘Scotch lady’, though a few years later she claimed to have been born in London.

As a child, after her father’s early death, under her mother’s influence she apparently appeared on the stage from the age of four, which may have helped her acquire the skills and the confidence for her later career in public speaking.

She began in the late 1850s giving readings from plays and recitations, before moving onto delivering orations at temperance meetings, and was described on one such occasion in 1861 as a ‘clever Quakeress’ Craigen moved around the UK, living variously in Retford, Nottinghamshire and Bristol in the 1870s and ‘80s. She made a living as a paid ‘Lecturer on Social Subjects’. 

By December 1868, she was addressing suffrage meetings. A newspaper reporter wrote in 1869 at Alnwick, Northumberland, that her talks were well attended, but added with typical male snobbery, that this was because a lady lecturer was a novelty, and he recalled Dr Johnson’s comments on the subject,
… a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Even by the standards of late nineteenth century England this was misogynistic, as well as increasingly inaccurate.

“The earliest published reference so far found regarding her association with the suffrage movement refers to a series of meetings she held at the end of 1870, in the north of England.  Such speaking tours were a recent innovation, for few suffragists had yet found the courage to undertake public speaking of such a kind and on this scale. She was not, however, a regular employee of the suffrage movement, nor, at this point, did she take direction from any suffrage society. This was work which she herself initiated and managed, travelling the length and breadth of Britain, accompanied only by her dog, Tiny. During these tours she held impromptu, outdoor meetings as she saw fit, and collected petitions which she then sent to London headquarters, requesting only the occasional five-pound note to cover her living expenses. By such means, she was able to reach audiences not usually addressed by the middle-class leadership of the movement during its set-piece public meetings in the halls of the larger cities.” (Sandra Stanley Holton)

She is recorded as speaking on behalf of women’s rights between 1868 and 1884. Her main supporters were the radical suffragists Priscilla Bright McLaren, Lilias Ashworth Hallett and the Quaker sisters Anna Maria and Mary Priestman, all part of closely knit family and political networks which were highly influential in Liberal circles.

Although the womens’ suffrage movement had largely arisen from individuals of the well-to-do classes, a number of these had come to realise the necessity of gaining support from the working classes.

Feminist and campaigner for women’s rights, Helen Blackburn described Jessie Craigen as a ‘strange erratic genius’ who spoke with a tone like a ‘mighty melodious bell’, recalling that she planned and carried out her tours by herself, travelling all over the kingdom from John O’Groats to Lands End, accompanied only by a dog. Blackburn also attributed Craigen’s renown as a speaker to her ‘magnificent voice’, with which she was able to gather audiences and hold them riveted, ‘from miners in Northumberland… and fishers in Cornwall… to agricultural labourers in the market-places of country towns’… “Lecturing always in the open air, at the pit’s mouth, in market places”, her method was to hire a bellringer to attract an audience and then “mount on a chair, a cart, or barrel” to speak. She found her audiences “amongst the miners in Cornwall, the agricultural labourers of Dorsetshire, the colliers of South Wales, the factory hands of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the miners of Durham and the north”. She became one of the first advocates for women’s suffrage – if not the first – to be arrested for publicly speaking out for the cause.

Descriptions of Jessie Craigen focus relentlessly on her appearance, and all agree that by conventional standards of beauty dominant at the time (and today) she was not physically attractive (unsurprisingly few accounts of men spend anything like a similar amount of time calling attention to their physical attractiveness…) Jessie was called ugly, short, stout, and badly-dressed in old and unfashionable clothes. However, pretty much everyone agreed that she was a fantastic public speaker.

The early Marxist writer and politician Henry Hyndman wrote (in his usual patronising posh way):

“Jessie Craigen was ugly, self-taught, roughly attired, and uncouth in her ways. Yet all this was soon overlooked when once the lady began to speak…She came forward, dumped down on the table in front of me an umbrella, a neck wrapper, and a shabby old bag. Then she turned round to face the audience. She was greeted with boisterous peals of laughter. No wonder! Such a figure of fun you never saw. It was Mrs. Gamp come again in the flesh – umbrella, corkscrew curls and all. There she stood with a battered bonnet on her straggling grey hair, with a rough shawl pinned over her shoulders, displaying a powerful and strongly marked and somewhat bibulous physiognomy, with a body of portly development and as broad as it was long… In two minutes the whole audience was listening intently; within five she had them in fits of laughter, this time not at her but with her. A little later tears were in every eye as she told some terribly touching story of domestic suffering, self-sacrifice, and misery. So it went on. This ungainly person was producing more effect than all the rest of the speakers put together.”

 By 1879 Craigen was appearing on platforms with the principal figures of the suffrage movement. She had, at this point, been taken up by a network of radical suffragists, formed by the kinship and friendship circles of women of the Bright family. An upsurge in suffrage campaigning began at the end of the 1870s in anticipation of a new Reform Bill, she organised meetings in the market squares and outside the local works of the small towns and villages of the north, in preparation for a major demonstration in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester in February 1880. Lydia Becker reported to Priscilla Bright McLaren a meeting that Jessie Craigen organised in one of the poorest wards in Manchester. It attracted an audience of some 600-700, “all poor working women”, who responded to the suffragists in ways to which Lydia Becker was quite unaccustomed: “If my eyes had been shut I should have fancied it was men who were cheering and clapping; the applause was as hearty and strong as at a men’s meeting”. This contact with working women took on something of a conversion-experience for Lydia Becker: “to see them look at me – oh, it was really sacred – awful; it was as if I received a baptism”.

On 3 February 1880 Craigen spoke at a ‘Great Demonstration of Women’ in the Manchester Free Trade Hall, alongside such luminaries as Mrs McClaren, Lydia Becker and Josephine Butler. One eye-witness recalled it as “a night never to be forgotten”. The dense crowd wishing to take part was almost entirely of women, some of whom were said to have walked 10, even 20, miles to attend. An overflow meeting had to be organised nearby, with Margaret Bright Lucas presiding, and even then thousands, it was claimed, were turned away. Priscilla Bright McLaren chaired the main meeting and reminded her audience that they were present in a hall built “in the cause of freedom”. Jessie Craigen’s contribution came at the end of the meeting, when she roused the audience to new heights of enthusiasm, “sending forth a voice that pealed like a sonorous bell over the vast multitude … till every one had risen from their seats in one united burst of cheering”.

Subsequently, she became one of the attractions in a series of major demonstrations which was organised in each of the larger cities around the British Isles by Priscilla Bright McLaren and her friend, Alice Scatcherd.

Craigen was also associated with the beginnings of the Women’s Protective and Provident League in 1874, forming a women’s union among the jute-workers of Dundee which survived for several decades. She also helped organise opposition for the Contagious Diseases Acts among working-class women, and she remained active on animal rights until the end of her life.

Coming from a very different social backgrounds to many of the speakers and organisers she was associating with seems to have caused awkwardness; women like Craigen, who took payment for her lecturing, were generally looked down on and considered on the same terms as personal servants by the middle-class activists who dominated the suffrage movement. Class position was everything at the time, and the attempt of suffrage activists to break down barriers barring women from playing a part in public life did not mean that similar barriers for the working class were necessarily intended to also be challenged. Sandra Stanley Holton observes that Craigen “entered a movement formally committed to autonomy and self-realisation for women, yet met among some there with destructive expectations as to her own emotional and political subordination.” Her middle class allies found Craigen’s attitudes to money embarrassing – ie , they did not need to struggle to survive financially as she did – but her need for money also made her more dependent on wealthy backers. Her unconventional appearance led to her being increasingly seen as a liability by women who wanted their movement to present a more respectable and conventional face. 

The problems with her appearance reflect the superficial demand for a woman to present as attractive and well-dressed and to dismiss her if she does not conform to that – not exactly a dead dynamic today, but all-consuming in her era. Jessie Craigen was ‘unladylike’ – “large, ungainly, and, by the standards of many in the suffrage leadership, she dressed unsuitably. She was unrestrained in her expression of passions, both political and romantic.”

However, her undoubted abilities as a speaker and affinity with the ‘lower orders’ meant she was a valuable asset to the movement. The tension between these two perceptions of her led to what seems like farcical attempts to give her a makeover: certain of her middle-class sponsors attempted to spruce up her appearance, and it was to this end that she was kitted out in stately silk dresses and lavender kid gloves during her brief heyday as a suffrage speaker.” Others, however, felt that adopting these accoutrements would alienate the very plebs Craigen could appeal to,  making them feel she wasn’t like them (so presumably her shabby appearance should be encouraged? It’s difficult to know which group to feel greater contempt for here.)

In the early 1880s, Jessie Craigen was also heavily involved in the Ladies National Association, in the campaign for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation which allowed police officers to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in certain ports and army towns. The women were then subjected to compulsory checks for venereal disease. If a woman was declared to be infected, she would be confined in what was known as a lock hospital until she recovered or her sentence finished. Many of the women involved in the suffrage movement were also active in opposition to these laws, on the grounds that they in effect legalised prostitution under police control. The opposition was based on a blending of morality – prostitution was sinful and should not be condoned by the law – and concern for the women involved, as the Acts opened them up to abuse and exploitation by male policemen. Their campaign was ultimately successful, and the Acts were repealed after three years of operation. Its basis in moral superiority aside, the campaign was one of the fist widespread successful political campaigns organised by women in Britain.

In 1881-2 Craigen formed a romantic friendship with the feminist and suffragist Helen Taylor, the daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill and stepdaughter of liberal theorist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. Taylor was heavily involved in the Irish Land League, often hosting Irish MP and activist Charles Parnell to her home, and she drew Craigen into this movement, to the point where Craigen dropped out of the suffrage movement for a while to work on Irish causes. Visiting Ireland, she in fact began to espouse more radical views on Irish freedom than Taylor, and the pair fell out (this seems to have been partly due to Taylor’s outrage that Craigen was thinking and acting independently from her influence…)

In the 1880s the women’s suffrage movement suffered splits and splintering of forces. Jessie Craigen was involved in fierce arguments as to whether married women should be included in the proposals for women to get the vote under the upcoming Reform Bill. More cautious and moderate elements suggested leaving married women out of any proposals; Craigen and other ‘radicals’ demanded married women not be excluded. Although with her involvement the radicals largely carried the day, in te end no women were enfranchised under the Reform Bill at all.

The movement’s failed to win any measure for women’s right to vote under the Third Reform Act of December 1884 led to a sharp decline in activity. Jesse Craigen’s position, as a paid agent speaker, became more difficult and she gradually faded from the women’s rights scene.

She continued to protest on behalf of other causes however, contributing an article to the Nineteenth Century Review against proposals to build a Channel Tunnel, and when speaking at an anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination demonstration in Chelsea, in April 1894, she was described (in the usual misogynist terms) as ‘a stout, elderly lady of dark complexion, with a stubby beard and a strong moustache…’  The mingling of  the anti-vaccination movement and animal rights sentiments here is interesting –progressive social views could also merge into quackery and anti-scientific hokum… However, of course, these days, such crossovers have died out. Oh wait…

The Local Government Act 1894 had created a system of urban and rural district councils, and had permitted women to be councillors. By this time Jessie Craigen was living in Ilford in East London. In December 1894, she stood as the only woman candidate in the election for Ilford Urban District Council, on behalf of the Women’s Liberal Association. She was unsuccessful, coming fourteenth out of seventeen candidates.

She died in her lodgings 2, Grove-villas, Ilford Lane, Ilford, Essex on 5 October 1899: local newspapers described her as a ‘well-known old maiden lady’ and ‘miser’, who had shared her house with fifteen dogs. Her obituary in the Zoophilist declared that “as a woman of the people, she exercised a great influence over the working classes… We shall miss her courageous and outspoken advocacy… her racy and eloquent speeches”.

Despite Jessie Craigen being a well-known figure in her time, no known photographs or even drawings of her survive; a reflection on her class background as much as her sex. Many lesser-known activists from more affluent backgrounds, and many more men, were recorded for posterity.
This lack of any pictorial record led illustrator Kate Taylor to do some sketches of how Jessie may have looked.

A point that Kate Taylor makes in her appreciation, “People who don’t fit a certain mold rarely make history books, no matter how much heavy lifting they do” is interesting and pertinent. Jessie Craigen spread the idea of women’s suffrage extremely effectively, to many people, using the skills and talents she had evolved; however, one undoubted aspects of the ethos of a large part of the ‘suffragist’ movement was a kind of cult of beauty. Great emphasis was placed in the art, imagery and pageantry of the movement on classically beautiful figures, expressing also a myth of feminine purity and radiance: mirrored by the vicious anti-suffragette propaganda which generally caricatured activists as ugly, overweight shrieking harpies with twisted features. Whether unconsciously influenced by the male depiction of them as ugly or not, much of the mainstream message of the suffrage movement was focussed on beauty. Jessie just didn’t fit the notions that many in the movement were trying to project, despite the attempts to pretty her up. She lived a bit too early for the later suffragette photo-art and tableau used in their printed propaganda – she probably wouldn’t have been allowed in. Were her unrespectable origins – part proletarian but even worse, part bohemian theatre (horror!) also a reason for her part in the movement herstory to be played down? Orthodox accounts of the movement, generally written after some women achieved the vote in 1918, barely mention her. Many of these also leave out or play down the importance of figures like Mary Wollstonecraft – too radical, in both her personal life and her revolutionary ideals, to fit in to the respectable image many in the suffrage movement wanted to build for feminism. Maybe, as Kate Taylor writes, they felt she “her “masculine” appearance gave critics evidence of what women would become if they gained the right to vote: unladylike, messy, unrestrained.”

Jessie Craigen’s name is recorded on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.

Sandra Stanley Holton’s essay on Jessie Craigen is well worth a read.

Today in London’s striking herstory, 1890: Sweet Victory! East End chocolate factory workers win strike

In 1890, women working in a Mile End chocolate factory went on strike. The chocolate workers’ strike boosted the growth of women’s trade unionism in late Victorian England.

In the aftermath of the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike in and London Dock Strike in 1889, trade unionism flourished, especially among previously un-unionised workers, often labelled unskilled or semi-skilled. Between 1888 and 1892 union membership doubled from 750,000 to 1.5 million. London’s East End, where both these seminal struggles had taken place, saw a particular spike in union growth – inspiration spreading also because people probably had direct contact and knowledge of the 1888-9 events, taking place in front of their eyes…

Among the many strikes and disputes that broke out was a short sharp stoppage by East End chocolate makers in 1890. Though not high profile, this struggle was victorious, and encouraged others organising among London’s tens of thousands of young women workers.

Although Factory Acts had been passed in the UK through the 19th century to prohibit children working in factories, older children and ‘teenagers’ (a term or concept not yet developed then…) were often exempted.

In the late 19th century, girls of 13 and upward were often employed in confectionary, jam, and other small food factories (while young boys were more likely to be found in rope-works, foundries, paper mills…). The work was often hard, with long hours; as the work was often classes as low-skilled, wages were generally low – compounded by the general attitude among employers (and some trade unionists as well!) that women’s work, and especially young women’s work, was less important or deserved lower rates of pay. Employers also felt they could treat women worse, with poorer conditions, more strict rules and bullying.

A meeting aimed at young women working at Messrs Allen’s chocolate factory was held on 10 July 1890, at the offices of the Women’s Trade Union League, at 128 Mile End Road. Earlier attempts to help workers in the mainly small confectionary factories of East and South London had come to nothing. On this occasion, however, “twelve girls came, and their dread of being followed, watched and subsequently discharged was pitiful,” wrote Black. They were mainly earning around 17 shillings a week, employed packing chocolate into boxes

The next day, Women’s Trade Union League full-time organiser Miss James (a former confectionary worker) visited Allen’s factory in Emmot Street, to distribute handbills and at explaining the objects of the union.

However, arriving at Allen’s, she found that a lockout had already started.

“To her amazement she found the girls standing about in a crowd, though it was not yet seven o’clock. They surrounded her, telling her that they were ‘out’ and asking anxiously, ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Is there anybody who will help us?’

Miss James led them to the office of the Women’s Trade Union Association, where the Union secretary, Clementina Black, was working. Black described how:

“In a twinkling the room was full and over-full of girls, and the street outside was full of those girls who could not come in, and of the fringe of onlookers which gathers so speedily in that great boulevard of the East End, the Mile End Road.”

Six of the young women workers gradually told their story. Their working conditions were hard and management vicious. The workers were banned from leaving the factory in the dinner hour, forbidden to eat between eight and one on weekdays and between eight and two on Saturdays. This meant the women spent all day from 8am to 7pm inside the factory. They also suffered numerous petty fines and fines and deductions from their pay.

The current dispute had been sparked by a fine imposed on one woman had slipped and fallen on the job. The forewoman had issued her with a fine of half a crown for falling over: refusing to pay, she had been summoned to the office the next morning, and threatened with the sack unless she paid up. In response, the other women working on the shop floor had stopped work and demanded her reinstatement. No work got done that day…!

At 5pm, factory owner Mr Allen himself came down to investigate, and locked the women out; told the women to “put on their hats and go home”.

Clementina Black called on well-known union organiser John Burns for help. A meeting for all the factory girls employed at Allen’s was held at Mile End Liberal and Radical Club; a committee was elected and a register drawn up. All those present also joined the union.

The following Monday, John Burns and Miss James accompanied the strikers to the factory gates before 8am, and a “business-like system of picketing” set up. Only eight factory workers went in to work, though occasionally “a clerk would peep out” to see what was going on.

A strike committee room was set up in nearby Skidmore Street, and a “polite note” was sent to Mr Allen requesting for a meeting for negotiations. Some 200 women were on strike by then, many aged around 16 or 17.

Since the Women’s Trade Union League was not able to use its union funds to support strikes, raising money to support the 80 or 90 young women who were out on strike became vital. Funds were mainly raised by personal appeals to other trade unions and workers directly. Very quickly workers began to contribute. Burns himself collected more than £50 in an hour at the London County Council offices; at the Woolwich Arsenal and in the docks, men lined up to donate coppers to the cause. An envelope postmarked House of Commons also arrive – containing £5. Soon the union organisers were able to issue tickets allowing the girls to get lunch and tea.

Many young women working at Messrs Allen’s other East End factories, at Canal Road and Copperfield Road, also wanted to join the strike. Not wanting to escalate the dispute, John Burns persuaded them to carry on working as normal, but promised that they should be called on to join the strike if necessary.

By the Wednesday, Allen had replied to the letter sent by Burns, declining mediation and saying that he would rather deal with his workers directly. “On this, a deputation of girls was elected, and a letter sent in, asking Mr Allen to see them.” They demanded:
– reinstatement for the young woman whose dismissal had sparked the strike,
– a right to leave the factory at lunchtime,
– an end to fines,
– an end to the practice of suspending those who were absent for a further two or three days,
– a promise of no punishment for those who had joined the union.

Allen now changed tack and agreed to meet John Burns before beginning talks with the workers. Burns and Allen engaged in a three-hour discussion which left no-one in doubt that the dispute would soon be over. A further series of meetings between Burns, Allen, Black and the striking factory workers themselves followed, which eventually worked out a solution largely favourable to the women.

Allen agreed to all the demands except the abolition of fines for lateness, though he agreed to reduce them, and to withdraw these at the end of the year as long as workers’ attendance did not suffer as a result.

An agreement was finally signed on 22 July, and work at the chocolate factory resumed.

Emmot Street, the location of this factory, seems to have disappeared, unless it has become Emmot Close, which lies just south of Mile End Road, to the west of the Regents Canal. This seems possible, since Copperfield Road (site of another of Allen’s factories) is just round the corner over the canal, and while another local road named as containing an Allen factory – Canal Road, also doesn’t exist, there’s a Canal Close one street away. Looks like there might have been a cluster of Allen factories within a few streets.  

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Related: Another, slightly later strike among women workers in South London at the Corruganza Box factory

The 1911 Bermondsey Strikes, taking place during another upsurge of working class workplace organising that in many ways echoed the ‘new unionism’ spike, also began among women working in confectionary and jam factories.

 

 

 

Resisting enclosure past & present: East London Waterworks, Leyton Marsh, and the Leyton Lammas lands

NB: Update to this post (July 2020): since this was published the application for the controversial Waterworks Festival was refused by Waltham Forest Council… One victory! The planning application for the massive expansion of the ice rink is still up in the air…

Regular readers of our blog will know that one of our obsessions is open green space in London – its history, how much of what was defended and preserved by collective action, and its present and future use…

In the capital, as in many big cities, land has often gone through many incarnations over the centuries. If some spaces have remained largely open and accessible (although that had to be fought for), some pieces of land have been split up, parts built on, some saved and other sections lost; then in some cases, returned to open space. Industry has taken over then declined or fallen derelict and been re-wilded (or re-wilded itself).

Some of this process is still going on. The long years of battling against enclosures, campaigning for parks to be built or commons and woods to be left undeveloped, are not over. Corporate interests, local authorities, admin quangos, often owning or managing space, have certain visions as to how they can be exploited; some of which clash with other viewpoints. Land is a cash cow to some; a resource to milk, or jto be sold off, built on, concreted over.

For many others of us open space remains a vital part of what makes a city liveable. Many times we have to come together to fight off attempts to enclose places we love; other times, there’s a chance to return open land lost to a useable and shareable environment. Because of the nature of land ownership, even public land ownership, campaigns to save or reclaim open space can often face an uphill battle, because the authorities who supposedly manage such resources on our behalf may see the space differently to us. (To be honest there’s often conflict about use of open space among users…)

The Lea Bridge Waterworks, where Leyton and Hackney Marshes meet, in North East London, are one space where the next developments are under up for debate at the moment shines an interesting light on past, present and possible futures. Collective resistance helped preserve part of this space in the past; community campaigns have helped fight off some recent developments, and could help re-shape the area for all our benefit…

Part of what was once open land here is threatened by the expansion of ‘leisure’ facilities… part is fenced off after failed development plans… part is open as a nature reserve but a corporate festival is planned for the next three summers (experience with other open spaces suggests this may mean increased exploitation for such large destructive moneyspinning events…)
There’s a lot of local anger and opposition, taking inspiration from the history of resistance to the loss of open land here. Parts of what was once lammas land, on the old Leyton Marsh, have been a contested zone for many decades… The high point being direct action in 1892 which helped preserve access to some of these lands…

The Icerink Cometh?

The Lea Valley Icerink, which stands off Lea Bridge Road, has applied for planning permission to expand, which would mean the building doubling in size, snaffling more of the open land around it. We ourselves love ice skating at Lea Valley, but stealing more open space to expand it is just unnecessary…

Meanwhile, on the old East London Waterworks Site opposite, there are plans for a large corporate music festival is planned for this August (and the next two summers). The site is next door to the Waterworks Nature Reserve, a lovely place, well worth a visit. Built on the former Essex filter beds, the derelict treatment plant has been allowed to fall back to nature and has been developed as a nature reserve, a cracking place for watching wild birds, but also just for wandering and hanging out. The Reserve is designated as part of a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. It’s really not the place for a festival to have plonked next door.

As campaigners Save Lea Marshes point out: “If the noise and light pollution will be significant nuisance for human neighbours, it will be catastrophic for neighbouring wildlife, particularly birds. This is simply an inappropriate place to hold a one-off one-day music festival, let alone an annual three-day event.”

The Walthamstow Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest is very close to the proposed ‘premises’ and birds particularly will be seriously impacted by the noise coming from the event.

The immediate chance to object to both the proposals for the festival and the expansion of the Rink closed on March 10th, but that won’t mean the end of campaigning, should the plans be approved… (The festival might fall victim to the corona pandemic, maybe…!)

There’s also been conflict for a while over the neighbouring Thames Water site…

Until the 1960s the Thames Water Site was part of the Lea Bridge Waterworks, providing water to the people of London. A complex of 25 filter beds were served by an aqueduct bringing water from the Walthamstow reservoirs further north.

The site was closed after the new Coppermill Water Treatment Works were opened. The Lee Valley Park Authority eventually agreed to take over the Middlesex Filter Beds (after first suggesting they should be filled in to make football pitches) and later took on the Essex and Leyton Filter Beds.

Today, the Middlesex and Essex Filter Beds are beautiful, important and secluded nature reserves. They show what can be achieved when industrial sites are sensitively managed to return to nature.

The whole of the site was designated as Metropolitan Open Land in the 1970s.

However, in the 1980s, the so-called Essex Number One Beds were retained by Thames Water as an operational site, first of all a ‘temporary’ pipe store; later a base for the Thames Water/Clancy Docwra mega-plan to replace the East London water mains. In the process they have completely trashed the site without any regard for its status as Metropolitan Open Land.

The Thames Water Site, to the west, and the Nature Reserve, to the east, and the lammas lands, to the southeast…

When Thames Water decided they wanted to offload the land, it was originally earmarked for two brand new academy ‘free’ schools, but after much local opposition this was kyboshed in the planning process, as it was a completely inappropriate site miles from any prospective catchment area, and would have increased traffic overload on the already gridlocked Lea Bridge Road.

Defence of open space on Leyton Marsh… only part of the story

(and a long and complicated story it is… bear with us!)

Campaigners fighting to preserve the open space and reclaim the Thames Water site stand in a long local tradition: this area has a long history of resistance to the enclosure if open land; as well as complex conflicts over its use. The most famous incident took place in August 1892, when 3000 people gathered to pull down railings protecting a railway that had been unpopularly run across Leyton’s ‘Lammas’ land, and wrecked the railway lines.

The land around Lea Bridge was one all Lammas lands: of old 1 August, was Lammas Day, (from old saxon “loaf-mass”)…

Lammas Day signalled the annual shift from agricultural focus from planting crops to grazing animals. It was the last day on which grass was cut for hay, and the day grazing could commence and the hunting season began. ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ – the first day for shooting grouse – is in fact Lammas Day, pushed eleven days back by the UK’s transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in 1752.

The right to cut hay and graze animals on certain fields extended to all parishioners, rich or poor. Such fields were known as Lammas land. Their use belonged to everyone, ‘without regard to tenement’  – meaning you didn’t have to be relatively well-off house-owner to have Lammas Rights. If this existed by long-established tradition, it was often a tradition that had to be enforced collectively, when the rich and powerful attempted to take possession of land, fence it off, exploit it commercially, etc. Lammas Day was thus also a day when battles around enclosure often took place, as the ritual significance of the day was a central part of the rural year, and the ritual opening up of land for grazing was a useful arena for protest around loss of access. Martinmas, November 11th, the day when woods were traditionally open to all for cutting wood for fuel, was another day of ritual protest (– see Thomas Willingale’s actions in nearby Epping Forest…) The ritual importance of these dates outlasted the actual economic significance in many areas.

East London Waterworks

Waterworks were long established on the river Lea all along its length; its proximity to London and the increasing pollution of the Thames and its tributaries further west made a relatively clean water supply on the capital’s eastern doorstep invaluable. Even today reservoirs and treatment plant dominate a good part of the Lea Valley.

The waterworks lay on both banks of the Lea, bridging the boundary of Essex and Middlesex from at least 1760, whilst expansion after 1850 was concentrated on the Essex bank within the Districts of Leyton and Walthamstow.

Waterworks were established on Leyton Marsh from the early nineteenth century, as London expanded and demand for water and its treatment increased. But each successive expansion of the Lea Bridge works, from at least 1824, encroached upon ancient Lammas lands, and required the loss, buyout or extinguishment of any existing commonable Lammas rights local communities had, whether by agreement, paying compensation, or just by jumping in and ignoring protest.

Leyton, Walthamstow and Hackney parishes all bordered on each other on the marshes, and residents of all three parishes held lammas rights there. Until around 1752, Walthamstow and Leyton had ‘intercommoned’ – shared access by agreement – on what was known as the Great Mead (or Walthamstow Common Mead). This system broke down in 1752 due to a dispute over the change in the Calendar in 1751/2. After the alteration of the calendar in 1752, apparently Leyton continued to turn the cattle onto the lammas lands on 1 August (New Lammas Day), while Walthamstow went with beginning grazing on Old Lammas Day (from 1752, 13 August). You couldn’t make it up.

The land, and the return on the property rates, was a valuable public asset.

The Great Eastern Railway bought stretches of land on Leyton Marsh for the London to Cambridge line in the 1840’s, in many cases without compensation to local people, as the Railway Acts of the time did not recognise Lammas Rights. Later sections of land were bought to build Temple Mills Marshalling Yards.

A considerable portion of the Lammas lands on Walthamstow and Leyton Marsh were ‘dis-lammased’ in 1854 and handed over to the East Waterworks London Company for extensions to the treatment plants. On top of earlier land lost, this grant reduced the Walthamstow Lammas land to only 100 acres.

The loss of land to the waterworks contributed to disputes between neighbouring parishes over the remaining lammas land, already aggravated by the complex interaction of commoning, and the slightly fragmented parish borders. In 1858, Leyton challenged Walthamstow’s attempt to establish the extent of the ‘Walthamstow Slip’ (a detached part of Walthamstow actually inside Leyton’s borders) through the most valuable part of the waterworks company’s Essex Filter Beds (an attempt to prove the valuable land was Leyton’s not Walthamstow’s? With an eye to extracting profit from the Company?). By 1873 a fence was put up on the boundary between the two parishes here. By 1876, 176 acres of Leyton Lammas Land remained for the use of local people.

In 1890, the waterworks company laid railway tracks and erected fences across Leyton Marsh, blocking a traditional bridle path, in order to create an access to the new filter beds, for the transport of coal to the pumping engines. This enraged locals, already seething at the gradual erosion of access to the land.

By 1892, commoners were agitating for the marsh to be preserved as an open space, and were lobbying the parish vestry to refuse to sell their common rights to the Company.

The Leyton Vestry (Council)’s Lammas Lands Committee, a long-standing body, with responsibility for managing access and negotiate compensation for its loss, (made up of local Liberal or Tory gentlemen), ordered the water company to take up the rails and remove the fence. The Company refused, and the vestry took matters into their own hands. Four gentlemen agreed to take responsibility for a little bit of direct action, hoping to encourage the masses to join in.

On Lammas Day 1892, a crowd from Leyton, joined by a force some 2500 strong from Hackney, and led by Councillor Christopher George, a member of the Local Board and the Essex County Council, and Leytonstone resident Henry Humphries, marched on the Marsh, demolished the fence, and instigated the removal of the rails themselves. The rails seem to have run roughly north-east-southwest, from the nearby line into the waterworks.

Barbados-born Humphries, a Justice of the Peace and County Councillor in Essex, was prominent in this direct action. He was charged, along with eight others, four of whom were prosecuted under the Malicious Damages (Railways) Act of 1861.

Many working class radicals joined in the action. Like many other mainly working class areas across London and beyond, Leyton, Walthamstow and Homerton was home to a network of Working Men’s Clubs, many highly politicised, with politics that ranged through Liberal, Radical, socialist, to anarchist. These cubs were self-organised, venues for political debate, self-education and discussion – and centres for organising. Among the trade unionists and agitators that frequented the clubs, land, and access to it, had increasingly become a subject for fierce discussion and campaigning. The urban working class had remembered that their immediate ancestors had been dispossessed by enclosure. The clubs, though inherited ideas from groups like the Spenceans and the Chartists, who had identified the theft of the land by the wealthy as one of the crucial sources of poverty, and made regaining access to land a central plank of their platforms, forming organisations like the Land and Labour League. This took the form of agitation for access to urban open space for recreation and holding meetings, as well as demanding that land be nationalised of collectivised for common use…

Among the contingent from the Hackney clubs who flocked to the defence of the lammas lands were land agitators of the “Commons Defence League,” a radical association that had been founded by the well-known leftwing agitator, John de Morgan, an Irish-born radical who had for some time lived in Hackney, and had twice served time in prison for his part in riots against theft of Common Land in Plumstead, South London.

However, the East London Water Company wasn’t going to just roll over. The Company immediately took out legal proceedings against George and Humphries. And on the Tuesday after the tracks were removed, they sent out workers to re-lay them.

A commemorative plaque to the 1892 direct action, erected in 1929

The following Saturday another mass meeting was called at the Antelope pub, still standing today at the top of Marsh Lane in Leyton.

The atmosphere was different this time. The Lammas Lands Committee – already embroiled in a court case with the water company – thought further direct action would endanger the case. They refused to endorse further destruction, leaving the crowd to be led by Ambrose Barker, founder of the Walthamstow Working Men’s Club. This kind of tactical split was quite common in battles against enclosure and in defence of common land, with moderate elements concentrating on legal tactics, (though sometimes tentatively endorsing direct action, when the legal case for doing so seemed solid), then pulling back, and a more fiery element often refusing to stick to legal methods…

Once again, after this meeting, thousands marched down to the Marsh and took up the rails. The water company, again, re-laid them on the Monday.

But on Tuesday, 1,500 people descended on the tracks, including a large party from Leyton and four Working Men’s Clubs in Homerton. They ripped up the rails and again knocked down the fences the water company had erected around them.

The water company had the rails re-laid yet again on the Wednesday.

However, again on the following Saturday, led by a man known only as ‘the Village Blacksmith’, the Homerton clubs gathered their full strength to yet again march on the tracks, pulling them out of the ground and scattering them all over the fields.

Five days of sabotage won the day. The water company gave up.

Local people – at a packed meeting at Leyton Town Hall on Wednesday 30th November 1892 – formed a ‘Lammas Lands Defence Committee’ to defend the George and Humphries in their legal battle with the Waterworks Company, and to oppose the Parliamentary Bill then being promoted by the East London Waterworks Company to extinguish further Lammas rights on Leyton Marshes.

In August 1893, locals held a meeting was called to celebrate the previous year’s ‘Great Riot’. A speaker proposed that the land saved should be handed over to the local people, for purposes other than grazing. By this time the lands were mainly used for recreation, often for playing cricket.

A compromise was reached in 1893, confirmed by the East London Waterworks Act of 1894. The company withdrew all claims to enclose any part of the marsh, ended the legal proceedings against Humphries and George, and paid all their costs, as well as donating £100 to improve the bridleway. In return, the rails were allowed to stay. What looks like the remains can still be seen, in the half-exposed cobbles in the Waterworks Nature Reserve.

In 1904, local Lammas rights were commuted, to be replaced by Access Right: the land is vested with the local authorities, but is to be kept open for the whole community to use.

Under the 1904 Leyton Urban District Council Act, 111 acres of Lammas Land to the north and south of Lea Bridge Road were acquired by the Leyton Urban District Council: “vested absolutely in the Council subject to all existing Lammas Rights…and the Council shall from the passing of such resolution and subject to the provisions of this Act hold the same… as and for an open space for the perpetual use thereof for exercise and recreation and shall maintain preserve manage and regulate the same as such accordingly.”

Lammas Rights were not extinguished by the Act, which allowed for local people to receive other rights or money in exchange for their Lammas Rights. The Lammas Lands Defence Committee wanted ‘‘rights of recreation’’ in exchange for the Lammas Rights. The decision of the LLLDC to accept recreation rights in exchange is recorded in the Council minutes of 31st January 1905:

“That the Lammas Rights over the Lammas Lands acquired by the Council under and by virtue of the Leyton Urban District Council Act, 1904, be extinguished in consideration of the said Lands being devoted to the purposes of a Public Open Space or Recreation Ground, as provided for by said Act.”

In giving up their Lammas rights, local people were expecting the council would honour their side of what was, in effect, a contract: the Council and its successors are under a duty to maintain the land as “… a Public Open Space or Recreation Ground..” perpetually. This duty applied to almost the entire area of 111 acres, excepting only parcels of land of no more than 20 acres in total which could be exchanged or sold if the Council felt they were unsuitable for use as “open space or recreation ground.”

The fields at Marsh Lane did not come under this agreement and remained as Lammas land.

The 1892 victory was celebrated in an annual festival, held here for many years by the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee; formed in recent decades to commemorate the preservation of the Lammas Lands, and to help keep them free.

Common land on the marshes further south, remaining at the turn of the twentieth Century, including White Hart Field and East Marsh, was also incorporated by the local District Councils in 1904. These lands were in turn incorporated into the Lea Valley Regional Park in 1971, as part of a network of ‘metropolitan open lands’. Although no longer truly common land, public right of access remains within the metropolitan open land definition.

Although the old lammas rights of grazing animals had been replaced by more leisurely pursuits, this was not a break, but a continuity: it was the ability to access the land that mattered to people and that people felt was their right, even if the reasons had evolved. As Juliet Davis noted of Marsh Fields, “A Leyton Lammas Lands Defence Committee (LLLDC) member recalls old Leyton ‘commoners’ returning from the marsh with pockets stuffed with rabbits and blackberries. Such practices represent threads of continuity – all-be-they ambiguous – in the context of wide ranging transformations of the site over three centuries. It is arguably less the specific or historic practices of beating bounds or grazing cattle that are important for a contemporary reappraisal of common land, but the openness and possibility offered by genuinely public space for the development and layering of multiple informal and social uses and their spatial artefacts over time. Such possibility – in terms of practice and of culture – is commonly recognised as being absent in contemporary, controlled and/or privatised public spaces.”

Campaigning to prevent the enclosure and destruction of marshes in the Lea Valley didn’t end with the Leyton Lammas riots.

Between 1979 and 1985, the Save the Marshes Campaign fought to prevent the Walthamstow Marshes, further north, being destroyed for development into a marina, and a later plan to dump 8000 tons of ballast there.

Locally, the old lammas lands have seen a succession of bits of land nibbled away and attempts by the Council to flog bits off.

In 1949 Leyton Council attempted to redevelop the Marsh Lane area as a Sports Ground and to provide Leyton Football Club with a Stadium on the Lammas Land: local people opposed them and after campaigning, the Council then dropped the idea. Railway sidings were extended as far as Lea Bridge Road in the 1950s. The Gas Board also occupies some of the former lammas land.

In Lea Valley Regional Park bought all the Lammas Land to the west of the old Cambridge Railway Line from the Council under a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). But since then, the Park authority has taken the view that it now has the absolute freehold of the land it holds and does not acknowledge the need to maintain it as Public Open Space or Recreation Ground as provided for in the 1904 Act or contract under which Lammas Rights were given up.

Over the years the Park’s denial of rights of way over our Lammas Land has been resisted. Shortly after the CPO in 1971, people refused to stop using the ancient Porters’ Way route from the Black Path to Lea Bridge Road by Essex Wharf. The Park found that they were unable to deny people’s right to use the path.

However, the Lea Valley Riding School have now taken over all the land between what was once Low Level Brook (now the Flood Relief Channel) and the former Waterworks Aqueduct, on the former Lammas Land, and the Park has from time to time denied local people right of way over the land the School occupies.

The Ice Rink now also occupies much of the land between the Waterworks aqueduct and the River Lea, on Porter’s Field – partly on land sold by the Council to a private fairground at a time when the 20 acre limit for disposal/ exchange under the 1904 Act had not yet been exceeded and partly on Lammas Land proper.

In 1993 the Council proposed fencing off over one third of Seymour Fields at Marsh Lane so that it could be used only by people prepared to pay for the use of the football pitches, and an income-generating fenced off Astroturf football pitch, with a 15 foot high fence and huge floodlights. An overwhelming negative response from local people pushed Councillors into voting against the scheme and overturning it.

And Leyton Marsh has come under further pressure more recently. Marsh Lane Fields, which continues to be referred to as Lammas Land, is outside the remit of the Lea Valley Regional Park. The western edge of this space began was built over in the late 1990s by the construction of the Leyton Freight road (Orient Way) and the Eurostar train depot. In 1989 local people had defeated plans to put Freight Road spurs across Marsh Lane Fields, but Orient Way, was eventually built, against massive local opposition and despite its rejection at the 1994 Public Inquiry.

From 2004, the loss of land here was exacerbated by development plans to relocate businesses and allotments from the Olympic site here…

The Olympics caused major upheaval in the Lea Valley, generating much hype and large profits, destruction of housing and long-standing industry. Huge areas of East London were redeveloped; in a number of areas open green space was appropriated, for training facilities, police compounds… with lots of it to be sold off for various dubious developments… Much of this nefarious dealing is documented at Games Monitor site. Large open spaces were laid out in recompense, its true, like Queen Elizabeth Park. But conflict over management of open space has if anything intensified.

One small site of resistance to the Olym-perial Project was Leyton Marsh, opposite the waterworks, where a basketball training facility was built for the duration of the games, despite many objections, and a protest camp, which attempted to block the development. Although the land was returned to open space afterwards it was heavily damaged. There was an attempt to use the land nicked for the basketball court to erect a new bigger ice-rink, to replace the existing one on Lea Bridge Road. This was defeated in court. But there’s now yet another proposal to enlarge the ice rink, doubling it in size…

The Thames Water site’s future is still up for grabs. Although the proposal for the free school was knocked back in Waltham Forest’s planning process, campaigners fear this may be overturned on appeal; especially since the government effectively own the land, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, acting on behalf of the Education Funding Agency (now the Education and Skills Funding Agency – “ESFA”) paid the vast sum of £33.3 million + VAT to acquire the site for the pair of free school academies. ESFA were very likely aware that the site was Metropolitan Open Land but were willing to ignore the fact, and may be confident that a pliable Planning Inspector will eventually approve the change of use.

Most of the organisations, authorities and quangos who have had some involvement or responsibility for the land have behaved less than admirably. Thames Water have knowingly destroyed the site. Thames Water used to be a publicly owned utility, in theory at least, owned and operated for the public benefit. Since privatisation, had a series of owners bent on loading the company with debt and extracting as much money as they can. When the last Walthamstow Planning Strategy – the so called Core Strategy – was being adopted, Thames Water lobbied for the site to be re-designated for a “commercially viable” development: but the Inspector at the Public Enquiry confirmed that the site’s status as protected Metropolitan Open Land should continue.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency knowingly overpaid for the land, expecting compliant authorities to give them what they want.

The Lea Valley Regional Park Authority – supposed to act as custodian of the parkland as a whole – has stood by, wholly disregarding its own Park Plan and made no effort to protect the site, in dereliction of its duties to protect the Park, only paying lip service and announcing grandiose plans that have come to nothing.

The Park Authority was even offered the Thames Water site as compensation for land that it was required to give up for the Chobham Manor housing development, next to the Olympic Park. It opted to take cash compensation instead; then splurge this money on large leisure facilities and not on improving the landscape. It then stood back and did nothing while the site was purchased for a purpose that is anything but Park-compatible use.

The approval for an annual, three day, 15,000 people capacity per day, electronic dance music festival appears to fit with a continuing strategy of fencing off and eventually developing the open space here – including the lovely Waterworks Reserve.

Waltham Forest Council’s licensing department has been deluged by objections from borough residents opposed to the Premises License application of Waterworks Events Ltd. The local community has protested vehemently en masse to the Council, the festival organisers and Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, on social media and by email. However, campaigners are suspicious that the assessment of the festival’s Premises License application may be a foregone conclusion – because Waltham Forest Council’s Licensing Department, have allied with the festival’s landlords, Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, in facilitating and advising the planning process of the festival prior to the Premises License application being submitted. There’s suspicion that the Festival was given the nod of approval from at least a Senior Officer and possibly by Waltham Forest Councillors (although the Lea Bridge Road area Councillors say they didn’t know about the planned festival and that they oppose it). Is this going to be the legacy of the much-touted 2019 Borough of Culture: Waltham Forest’s precious and much loved Lea Marshes green spaces being exploited by opportunistic rich Old Harrovian (Frederick Roscoe Valadas-Letts), party animal nightclub promoters from outside the borough, to the cost of Waltham Forest’s residents?

The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority wants to ‘dispose’ of the Waterworks Centre and the land behind it, to sell it off for housing (a plan which Waltham Forest Council also supports). Is disconnecting people from the land, by fencing it off for events like this, part of their long-term strategy to turn a green field site into a brown field site, paving the way for the eventual building of housing over what should remain accessible open land?

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We Stand at a Fork in the Way

“Presently, the landscape is dislocated, with local people traversing well-worn routes into and out of each individual pocket of green space but unable to vary their walks much because of the fences they find in their way. Local people treasure these spaces, but few travel any distance to visit them and there is little to capture the wider public’s imagination. Historic buildings, such as the unusual octagonal sluice house, are hidden from view and the area’s industrial heritage and its significance as the boundary between the Danelaw and Anglo-Saxon England are ignored. Consequently, the vast potential of the area as a place to linger, a place to explore and a place to reconnect with nature is being overlooked. Re-integrating the ex-Thames Water Depot site into the landscape can change all this, bringing real health and well-being benefits to the people and wildlife that call this corner of north-east London home.” (‘The centrepiece of The East London Waterworks Park a future for the ex-Thames Water Depot site that benefits the whole community’, The East London Waterworks Campaign, January 2020)

The Thames Water site could form a connecting thread between Leyton Marshes and Hackney Marshes, linking the open spaces of the Lea valley in one continuous whole – Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes, Walthamstow Wetlands and Tottenham Marshes to the north, the Waterworks Centre and Nature Reserve to the east, Hackney Marshes and Middlesex Filter Beds to the south and the river and towpath to the west… a huge urban park where people and wildlife can roam.

Campaigners at Save Lea Marshes believe the following principles should form the basis of any decision about the land:

  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks is Metropolitan Open Land and its status as such should be protected.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks plays a critical role in connecting the marshes of the Lower Lea Valley.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks backs on to one of the most beautiful and unspoiled sections of the River Lea, the haunt of kingfishers, stretching from the mighty Lea Bridge Weir to Friends Bridge.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks contains significant remnants of its industrial heritage, adjacent to the weir, which can be interpreted to promote understanding of this important historical site.
  • The Lea Bridge Waterworks can be linked to the Essex and Middlesex Filter Beds and managed and re-wilded over time.

The East London Waterworks Park Campaign have put forward an alternative vision to the corporate exploiters, developers, scheming councils and quangos…
Which includes proposals for a wild swimming site, an extension of the nature reserve, and opening up the fenced off land to link it up with the other green spaces it borders onto. A brilliant and far-sighted vision, well worth getting behind.

Support Save Lea Marshes in calling for the Lea Bridge Waterworks to be protected from development and opened up to public access.

Much more info here

and more on the history of the waterworks

Worth a read: (Inside the Blue Fence, An Exploration, by Juliet Davis)

Today – and yet not today – in London festive history: the first UK Workers May Day held, 1890

In the late nineteenth century a new layer of meaning was added to May Day, as the first of May became associated with the international workers movement.

For the early workers’ movement internationally a key demand was for a reduction in the length of the working day. The 1884 Chicago congress of the Federation of Organized and Labor Unions (which later become the American Federation of Labor) declared that from May 1st 1886, it would impose an eight-hour working day in the United States by industrial action. Unlike most strikes which respond to particular events, this date was set several years in advance.

It is unlikely to have been a purely arbitrary date – but why the first of May? In parts of the United States May 1st was known as Moving Day, the date when leases expired and when new terms and conditions of work were set for building tradesmen and others who worked outdoors. This would make it an obvious date for setting new hours of work. Of course the notion of May 1st as effectively the start of a new year might itself be related to older seasonal traditions. It is also quite possible that for some within the workers’ movement at the time the date had a symbolic value as a time of renewal, related to these traditions. Immigrants to the USA brought with them various May Day customs from their home countries. For instance a Maypole was famously set up at Merrymount in New England by Thomas Morton in the 1620s.

There does also seem to have been a precedent for radical movements to regard May 1st as significant. We have already seen that the Levellers’ ‘Agreement of the People’ was published on 1 May 1650. The proposed French Revolutionary Calendar renamed the month Floreal, with the opening day envisaged as a celebration of love and nature. The utopian socialist Robert Owen announced in 1833 that the New Moral World should begin on 1 May 1834 – Owenite ideas certainly had their influence in the US so this may have been a factor.

Whatever the factors involved in choosing the date, the events of Saturday 1 May 1886 and the succeeding days are well documented. The eight hour day strike went ahead in parts of the USA, and by May 3 1886 perhaps 750,000 workers had struck or demonstrated. In Chicago police killed two people when they opened fire on Monday 3 May during clashes outside the McCormack Reaper Works, where workers had been on strike since February. The following day a policeman was killed by a bomb thrown at a protest meeting in Haymarket square in the city. Eight anarchists who had been in the forefront of the 8-hour-day agitation in Chicago were convicted of murder, of whom seven were sentenced to death.

There was an international outcry against the trial and the sentences. In London those who spoke out included William Morris, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Ford Madox Brown, Walter Crane, E. Nesbit, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling.

Nevertheless, four of the accused were hanged. The deaths in Chicago had a powerful impact across the world, not least on Jim Connell who was inspired to write ‘The Red Flag’ anthem in 1889 on a train to New Cross, after attending a meeting about the Chicago martyrs.

The movement for a shorter working day did not die with those who became known as the Chicago Martyrs. In December 1888 the American Federation of Labour called for a national day of demonstrations and strikes on 1 May 1890, and this call was echoed in July 1889 by the international socialist conference in Paris.

In London, May Day 1890 was marked by a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, a venue that was to become the focus for May Day protests for many years to come.

From the start, though, there was a division over whether to mark the day on May 1st it, or at the nearest weekend. Most of the socialist parties and trade unions in Europe and the US were going ahead for May 1st, and many UK socialists and trade unionists were in favour of holding a demonstration on Mayday, feeling it would be more powerful for workers to stop work, and to be in step with their comrades internationally. A meeting in late March 1890, organised by the Labour Electoral Association, attended by delegates of 50 trade unions, discussed the proposal for “a general public demonstration in favour of the legislative enactment of an Eight Hours Day.” This meeting voted, after some debate, for May Day; a resolution was passed that “where the workmen’s organisations were strong enough, all men should leave work, except such as were certain of being dismissed altogether if they did so; and that where they were not strong enough, there should be a meeting in the evening and a petition should be signed.”

However, nine days later, another, larger, meeting, with 94 attending, again under the auspices of the Labour Electoral Association, reversed this decision, and voted instead to hold a demo on Sunday 4th May, beginning in Hyde Park.

Despite their reservations, many socialists fell into line behind this, including the Bloomsbury Socialist Society (dominated by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling), who had previously pushed hard for May Day. Others, like the radical newspaper, the People’s Press, blamed the hidebound conservatism of some of the older craft-based trade unions for bottling it:
“It is unfortunate that this year the English workers could not see their way clearly to falling in line with their continental brethren on 1st May, for which the ‘apathy and abstention’ of the older and richer unions were held responsible.”

A May Day Central Committee was set up, representing the federated radical clubs, trades unions, and various socialist groups and societies. But even when May 4th was agreed on, there were divisions, with the London Trades Council (suspicious of the Marxist links of some on the Committee, and not yet committed to a legally legislated 8-Hour Day) insisting on separate speaking platforms, and on marching separately.

While the Mayday Central Committee was committed to the statutory enactment of the eight-hour day, the London Trades Council in 1890 would go no further than to declare itself in ‘favour of the principle of reducing hours of labour, leaving the precise method to the future’. It was dominated by an older generation of trade unionists who were nervous about supporting even the Sunday demonstration. However, as one of the old guard of trade unionists, George Howell, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green, put it, “Goaded by the attacks of the Socialists and New Trade Unionists, the London Trades Council found itself obliged to participate in May Day celebrations in favour of ‘solidarity of labour’, Eight Hours and other idealist proposals”. Tom Mann, a leading socialist and New Unionist, succeeded in getting round the majority’s opposition to a legal, eight-hour day by proposing that the London Trades Council hold a separate demonstration on May 4th. Hence the Trades Council made its own separate arrangements, including marching to Hyde Park by a different route from the Central Committee’s procession and having seven separate platforms for its speakers in the Park.

Meanwhile, support from the two main socialist organisations was also sketchy… the Social Democratic Federation dithered as to whether to take part. SDF leader, the strange tory-Marxist HM Hyndman, was bitterly sectarian towards anything not originated by himself, and particularly opposed to anything that had been resolved by the 1889 Paris socialist Congress He also held a grudge against Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, who had split from the SDF due to his jingoistic and dictatorial behaviour). In the end, Hyndman arranged with the London Trades Council for the Federation to speak from two of its seven platforms in Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, the smaller, more puristic Socialist League, as usual a bundle of contradictions, enthusiastically supported May Day as an international Day of working class solidarity – but disparaged the issue of an 8-Hour Day as of lesser importance, and a mere ‘palliative measure’ distracting from the fight for a socialist society. The League also stuck to the letter of the international resolution and declared they would support only an event on May 1st itself.

May 1st 1890 actually fell on a Thursday: the Socialist League and London anarchists marked the day by holding a meeting at Clerkenwell Green (still a venue for a mayday march today!), which attracted a few thousand people. It also attracted the hostility of the police, who hated the socialists, and harassed and attacked both a contingent of Soho socialists & French anarchists, marching to Clerkenwell Green, and women strikers from a Clerkenwell envelope factory, also on their way to the Green. (Polie violence against socialist open air meetings was a regular occurrence at the time, and they would continue to target Mayday events in later years).

The main demonstration took place on the following Sunday – May 4th – and saw contingents heading towards Hyde Park from all over London. Reports credited the demo with attracting over 300,000 people.

There were, as detailed above, two demonstrations even on the 4th, with the Trades Council, supported by several unions (including the dockers), marching up Grosvenor Place to Hyde Park, while another demo began at the Embankment and marched through Holborn and Oxford Street…

The following description from the South London Press of the attendance of the North Camberwell Radical Club and Institute provides an insight into how local groups organised themselves for the march:

“A goodly contingent went from this club to take part in the monster eight-hours demonstration. The procession was headed by the club’s excellent band, which discoursed some well-chosen music on the way. A large banner followed, bearing the device in front, ‘The Proletariat Unite’, and on the reverse side the legend, ‘Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ pay; Eight hours’ rest, eight bob a day’. Mr Oodshorn devised and executed the banner, which was very effective. Mr J. Harrison (chairman of the club) headed those who marched in front, and Mr. H.J. Begg accompanied the contingent until it took its place in the general ranks. Two breaks followed the pedestrians – one full of ladies, and one containing those of the sterner sex who were not equal to a four-hours march on a warm day. Messrs. Benstroke and J.Sage (chairman of the Political Council) acted as marshalls. The breaks, which added greatly to the effectiveness of the procession, were under the charge of Mr A. Boreham (chairman of the Entertainment Sub-Committee). The contingent arrived in the park in time to hear some good speaking from No.7 Platform, and afterwards Mrs Besant’s stirring speech from the Socialists’ platform. The whole affair was excellently managed, and good humour and good order prevailed throughout'”(South London Press, 10 May 1890).

The various speaking platforms spread out around the park, centred on the famous Reformers Tree. Platform 1 featured Miss Robertson of the Women’s Trade Union League, WM Thompson, Radical candidate for Deptford, and John Turner of the Shop Assistants Union. From Platform 2, Robert Bontine Cunningham-Grahame, the Liberal but socialist MP for North West Lanarkshire, Irish land League leader Michael Davitt, and George Lansbury (then an SDF member but later Labour MP and leader) spoke. Platform 3, organised by the Gasworkers Union, hosted several of their members, as well as Eleanor Marx, German Socialist leader Eduard Bernstein, and others. Platform 4, with Bloomsbury socialist Edward Aveling as MC, included Russian anarchist Sergius Stepniak, French Marxist Paul Lafargue, and the representatives of various radical clubs as speakers. Platform 5, was also run by the Gasworkers Union, and their leader Will Thorne, the SDF’s John Burns, and several women trade unionists spoke. George Bernard Shaw and others spoke from platform 6. Finally platform 7 included representatives of various small trade unions.

Friedrich Engels reported on the demo in a letter to the German socialist August Bebel:

“The demonstration here on 4th May was nothing short of overwhelming, and even the entire bourgeois press had to admit it. I was on Platform 4 (a huge dray cart) and could catch sight of only a part – a fifth or an eighth – of the throng, but it was head upon head, as far as the eye could reach. 250 or 300,000 people, of whom over three-quarters were workers demonstrating. Aveling, Lafargue and Stepniak spoke from my platform – I was but an onlooker… Stepniak, and also Ede [Eduard Bernstein] on the platform where Tussy [Eleanor Marx] was, had a brilliant reception. The seven platforms were 150 yards apart, the last some 150 yards from our end of the Park, thus over 1200 yards long and our meeting (that for the introduction of the 8-Hour day by international legislation) was at least 4 to 500 yards wide and all tightly packed, and on each side the 6 platforms of the Trades Council and the two of the Social Democratic Federation, though not even half as well attended by the public as ours. All in all, the most gigantic meeting that has ever been held here…”

From the numbers of banners, contemporaries assessed the May 4th demo as being hugely strengthened by members of supporters of ‘new unionism’, the recently born organisations, mainly born among poorly paid ‘low skilled’ workers. This wave had begun in the East End of London with the matchwomens’ strike in 1888, followed by the gasworkers and dockers’ strikes of the following year, all of which had inspired a flush of strikes and unionisation among industries generally ignored by the longer-established, craft unions. Based as they were in the skilled workforce, almost exclusively male, conservative in their outlook and tied to political parties, the craft unions observed new unionism with suspicion. The London Trades Council, created by the older unions, was slow, ponderous and cautious, and not keen to associate with some of the radical elements who were emerging.

The London Trades Council’s attempt at separate organisation didn’t go well. The Leicester Daily Mercury’s correspondent gave the following assessment:

“The fact is that the Trades Council were beaten by their very numbers. They marched into the park in straggling detachment, and all interest in the demonstration had died away and the crowd had gone before the last detachment arrived, weary and forlorn, at ten minutes to six. Thus the Eight Hours Bill party gained a triumphant victory. They showed their full strength, and their opponents, the numerically stronger, never even looked imposing. They occupied the ground first and engaged the interest of the crowd. They had excellent and well-known speakers, whereas their opponents confined themselves to working men orators. Last, but not least, they had a clear and definite proposition to make.

The only Trades Council platform which drew a large crowd was the main one, at which Tom Mann and Ben Tillett of the Dockers’ Union spoke. This was surrounded by dockers, barge-builders, ropemakers and railwaymen. Mann, though he was a well-known advocate of the legal eight-hour day, loyally spoke to the Trades Council motion.

The Central Committee’s organisation coped better with the huge number of demonstrators. At 4.00 p.m. a bugle sounded, and their speakers, standing on the seven wagons serving as platforms, began.”

However as The Times correspondent noted: “Procession after procession came streaming into the park, bands played through speeches and it was a medley of sounds.”

The biggest crowd gathered around platform five, the Gas Workers’ Union’s platform, to hear John Burns, then at the height of his radical reputation, who gave a fiery speech, which included very blunt criticism of the older generation of trade union leaders on the TUC and London Trades Council. He said that he and the men on that platform ‘had done more for unionism in the last twelve months and had formed more trade unions in that time than all the Broadhursts and Shiptons put together. Burns said that although the gas workers “had got an eight hours day by voluntary effort and by combination”, they knew that “directly trade declined and the boom was past” the employers would take such gains away unless they were protected by an act of parliament.

While the main theme on the Central Committee’s platforms was the eight- hour day, it was not the sole one. On their second platform Thomas Sutherest, then Radical prospective parliamentary candidate for Doncaster, gave a vigorous speech against sweated labour. Michael Davitt, the great Irish Nationalist advocate of land nationalisation, also spoke from that platform, urging not only that “the land should belong to the people” but also that, “It rested with the people themselves to send to Parliament men from their own ranks who were really representatives of labour, and the working classes would never achieve any satisfactory reform until they realised and acted upon this fact”.

While the massive London demonstration of May 4th, 1890, received international attention, there were others elsewhere in Britain. These were held in places with marked SDF, Socialist League or New Union activity or a blend of these. Within England, the largest May Day demonstrations appear to have been in Northampton and Leeds.

In Northampton, in spite of pouring rain, there was a large procession headed by a temperance hand. The Times reported that:

Nearly 10,000 working men assembled in the market square, representing almost every branch of labour in the town and district, including about 2,000 agricultural labourers from adjacent villages.

In Leeds some 6,000 workers marched in procession, with a band playing the Marseillaise. At their head was a banner of the Leeds Jewish Tailors, Pressers and Machinists, and those in the march included 1,100 Jewish tailors, 900 slipper makers and 800 gas workers, followed by contingents of dyers, maltsters, teamsters and general labourers. There were also sizeable demonstrations in Bristol and Plymouth.

In Scotland the largest demonstration was in Aberdeen on Saturday, May 17th. Some 6,000 trade unionists took part in the procession and between 10,000 and 20,000 heard H.H. Champion speak at the open-air meeting. In Edinburgh, in spite of the opposition of the trades council to a demonstration, between 400 and 600 people turned out to hear Keir Hardie and other speakers on Sunday, May 4th.

The question of whether to go for a working day or not was more than one of caution and practicality however, and Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s assessment of the argument concludes that the decision to plump for the weekend actually did damage the prospects for May Day as a festival of working class resistance in Britain (in contrast to some countries on the continent where it became a huge part of workers’ cultural tradition):

“The crucial matter at issue was whether the workers should be asked to demonstrate in working time, that is to go on strike, for in 1890 the First of May fell on a Thursday. Basically, cautious parties and strong established trade unions – unless they deliberately wanted to be or found themselves engaged in industrial action, as was the plan of the American Federation of Labor – did not see why they should stick their own and their members’ necks out for the sake of a symbolic gesture. They therefore tended to opt for a demonstration on the first Sunday in May and not on the first day of the month. This was and remained the British option, which was why the first great May Day took place on 4 May. However, it was also the preference of the German party, although there, unlike Britain, in practice it was the First of May that prevailed. In fact, the question was to be formally discussed at the Brussels International Socialist Congress of 1891, with the British and Germans opposing the French and Austrians on this point, and being outvoted. Once again this issue, like so many other aspects of May Day, was the accidental by¬product of the international choice of the date. The original resolution made no reference at all to stopping work. The problem arose simply because the first May Day fell on a weekday, as everybody planning the demonstration immediately and necessarily discovered.

Caution dictated otherwise. But what actually made May Day was precisely the choice of symbol over practical reason. It was the act of symbolically stopping work which turned May Day into more than just another demonstration, or even another commemorative occasion. It was in the countries or cities where parties, even against hesitant unions, insisted on the symbolic strike that May Day really became a central part of working-class life and of labour identity, as it never really did in Britain, in spite of its brilliant start. For refraining from work on a working day was both an assertion of working-class power – in fact, the quintessential assertion of this power – and the essence of freedom, namely not being forced to labour in the sweat of one’s brow, but choosing what to do in the company of family and friends. It was thus both a gesture of class assertion and class struggle and a holiday: a sort of trailer for the good life to come after the emancipation of labour. And, of course, in the circumstances of 1890 it was also a celebration of victory, a winner’s lap of honour round the stadium. Seen in this light May Day carried with it a rich cargo of emotion and hope.” (Birth of a Holiday: The First of May Eric Hobsbawm)

Two weeks after the events of May Day 1890, this article was published in the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal, written by William Morris, artist, designer and communist. It pretty much expresses the League’s disapproval of not observing May 1st itself, bit spends more time expounding their view of the 8-hour agitation as a waste of time, a mere sop to ‘slaves’. This was their theoretical approach to most campaigns for immediate daily improvements in working people’s lives (though many League members in practice also took part in such work). Their purist disdain for everyday struggles was only one of the reasons the SL never really took off; within a couple of years the organisation had dwindled to nothing.

The ‘weekend’ Maydays continued to be held in Hyde Park for a number of years through the 1890s, moving to Crystal Palace in 1900…

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Some more on the history of May Day:

Peter Linebaugh: The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day

Some of the history of Maydays in South London (from which some of the above article was nicked.

Other bits were lifted from Hayes Peoples History

Other useful reading on this:
Eleanor Marx, Volume Two, By Yvonne Kapp

Edward Aveling’s account of the organising of the 1890 May Day

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London’s unbrid(al)led herstory: Edith Lanchester sectioned by her family for ‘living in sin’, 1895.

On 25 October 1895, Edith Lanchester was kidnapped by her father and brothers, sectioned, and forcibly incarcerated in a lunatic asylum  – her punishment for announcing her plan to live unmarried with her lover.

Only a couple of weeks ago, an appeal judgment  in the Supreme Court ruled that the 2004 Civil Partnership Act 2004 – which only applies to same-sex couples – is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, a ruling that may open the door for heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships, instead of getting married.

What about those of us who want to continue living in sin?

Cohabiting, living without any formal recognition by church or state, is now much more common, and pretty much accepted in most quarters. But its not quite respectable, and there are plenty of carrots and sticks like tax breaks for married couples, legal problems with inheritance and passportry, that lean heavily on unmarried couples.

Less than a century and a quarter ago, it was enough to get you locked up in an asylum and tortured – if you were a woman. Particularly a socialist and feminist, questioning patriarchal marriage and class society…

Living with a lover/partner and not getting married is of course a practice as old as humanity; marriage may have evolved as a way of celebrating/announcing that you were bundling. But aeons of male domination had certainly overlaid the institution of marriage with the patriarchal meaning – this woman in my property, hands off (to other men), and learn your place, b****.

Most religions reinforced this with violent denunciation of ‘living in sin’ – sex, conception outside of ‘holy matrimony’ were abominations and could get you a one way ticket to Satansville. Sex and sharing of lives outside of marriage, opened up the chances of women and men refusing to submit to control in other areas, for one thing, like obeying lords, kings and bosses. Men also feared that women who refused to be branded as property were emasculating them – for some reason many supposedly celibate churchmen were particularly hot on this.

However, resistance to marriage remained powerful, most especially among the poor. Aristos and royal families used marriage as a currency – posh women were traded, sold, to seal alliances, etc. The high profile nature of upper class relations and the belief in the divine superiority of the ruling elites meant that breeding, bloodlines, purity, and the ceremonial pomp of marriage were essential. Not so much for the lower orders, among whom relations conformed a lot less strictly to church and state diktat. Getting together and living with someone, maybe breaking up, leaving a husband and shacking up with someone else, having several partners, were all very common. Marriage was too limiting in a short-lived world where famine and poverty meant a high death rate; where constant war (and forced impressment of men) could mean a husband or partner were sent off to fight/to sea for years… Where you had to pay the church to get married.

[And abuse, selling of women, violence and adultery, abandonment were common too, just as IN marriage – not to see it through rose-tinted glasses.]

This didn’t mean the laws and conventions on marriage were being enforced – that the unmarried weren’t being lectured, shamed in church sermons, sometimes arrested – they were. But the resistance went on, just because co-habitation fitted with many people’s practical needs and desires.

Puritanism, from the 16th century, campaigns for moral reform, from the 17th, and the growth of capitalism, pushed hard at the social relations of co-habitation, and combined to alter the nature of the family. A woman’s role was to give birth to children, raise them, take care of the home, obey her father and then her husband and all other lawful (male) authority.

By the mid-19th century it was forbidden among polite society to cohabit, although it continued quietly among the labouring families of rural communities and also in the poverty-stricken slums of the big cities.

“Among the middle and upper classes, and the ‘respectable’ working classes who imitated the genteel social habits of the class above them, to openly cohabit was considered to be extremely sinful. The scandal damaged the reputations of both parties, though it was much worse for the women, whose ‘reputation’ would be completely ruined.”

Even some early feminists did not approve of ‘living in sin’ – all the risk and danger (especially the chance of having an ‘illegitimate’ child) fell on the woman’s shoulders. Marriage was thought to protect a woman, give her increased respectability, social standing and security.

Edith Lanchester was a feminist, socialist, a member of the early British Marxist grouping the Social Democratic Federation. In 1896 when she announced she intended to live unmarried with her lover, James Sullivan, her family had her forcibly locked up in a mental hospital. A loud campaign by socialists and freethinkers got her released after 4 days.

Born in Hove, Sussex on 28 July 1871, Edith, often known to family and friends as ‘Biddy’, was the fifth child of a well-to-do architect Henry Jones Lanchester and Octavia Ward.

Edith was part of the first generation of middle class women who broke out of the straits of Victorian social control, refused to be used as a bargaining chip or adornment, who fought to get access to education, to find financial independence, get jobs, have careers, determine their own lives.

After attending the Birkbeck Institution and the Maria Grey training college, she worked as a teacher, then as a clerk-secretary for a firm in London.

But in tandem with gaining control over her own destiny as a woman, Edith also developed a socialist politics – not unusual at that time, when the movements of early feminism, socialism, Marxism, anarchism, and others overlapped, influence each other, argued and evolved. Her socialist feminist convictions had led Edith to conclude that the wife’s vow to obey her husband was oppressive and immoral and she did not wish to lose her independence. She was politically opposed to the institution of marriage.

By 1895 Edith was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the early British Marxist organisation. She had developed her freethinking to the point that she was prepared to defy the narrow conventions of her background, when she met and fell in love with James (Shamus) Sullivan, a Irish labourer and fellow socialist; in social terms, someone far enough ‘beneath’ her in class position that even marriage would be considered impossible. Marriage, however, was not on Biddy’s mind…

In 1895 she informed her family that, in protest against Britain’s patriarchal marriage laws, she was going to cohabit with Shamus. This didn’t go down well with her family, who had frowned upon her involvement with the dangerous socialists. This was truly shocking stuff for a wealthy professional family, a challenge to all the respectable values that kept society from falling apart and made Britain capital of the world.

Her family tried every argument to dissuade her from this rash act, including the line that she was devaluing herself as a woman, losing her good name, a respectable woman’s most valuable commodity, and that any children would be illegitimate – considered a shameful and despised state for them. In an attempt at compromise, Edith even offered to change her surname and live abroad, but would not agree to marry.

Unable to change her mind, the Lanchester family resorted to asserting male property rights over the rebellious female. On Friday October 25th 1895, Biddy’s father and brothers invaded her house (in the then working class neighbourhood and radical hotspot of Battersea), argued wither, assaulted her when she tried to physically resist, and forcibly subjected her to an examination by Dr George Fielding-Blandford, a leading psychiatrist and author of Insanity and Its Treatment.

The good doctor immediately signed emergency commitment papers under the Lunacy Act of 1890, on the grounds that she must be mentally disturbed to even plan such a union – if she could not see that living unmarried meant ‘utter ruin’ and ‘social suicide’ for a woman, she was of unsound mind and needed to be locked up for her own protection. For her own protection, Edith’s father and brothers tied her wrists and dragged her to a carriage, in which she carted off to the Priory Hospital in Roehampton.

Dr Fielding-Blandford explained his reasoning to the press:

“Lanchester had always been eccentric, and had lately taken up with Socialists of the most advanced order. She seemed quite unable to see that the step she was about to take meant utter ruin. If she had said that she had contemplated suicide a certificate might have been signed without question.

I considered I was equally justified in signing one when she expressed her determination to commit this social suicide. She is a monomaniac on the subject of marriage, and I believe her brain had been turned by Socialist meetings and writings, and that she was quite unfit to take care of herself.”

Thus showing how social and economic ideas that questioned the existing order were labelled as a mental health problem… An advance on the medieval diagnosis, of oppositional thinking or lifestyle choices being the work of the devil and getting you burnt as a witch or heretic? Possibly. Just not much of an advance.

The abduction also illustrated the fear among traditionalists that social change had eroded the boundaries that maintained society in its ideal state, and that allowing women to get educated, think for themselves and act on their own behalf was a terrible error that was leading to all sorts of newfangled monstrousness. ‘Over-education’ was written on the Certificate as cause of Edith’s madness: women should just not be allowed to learn anything that could distract their pretty little heads from serving men’s needs. Its worth noting that the British Medical Journal and the Lancet both felt Blandford may have gone too far by actually signing a medical certificate diagnosing insanity, but still felt socialism was a dangerous influence on women who they saw as ‘mentally weaker’ than men and thus more easily influenced by mad ideas like equality.

After being imprisoned in the Roehampton Asylum, Biddy was subject to mental, physical and sexual abuse. Tortured.

This forcible abduction caused an outcry. Mr Lanchester wrote to the Times, pointing to Edith’s behaviour as evidence of her madness, and raising the mental instability he claimed was in the family, and her ‘overstudy’ and ‘natural impressionability’. However, if the Lanchester family felt justified in violently sectioning Edith, and that rubberstamping her torture would eventually defeat her plans to bring shame on the family name, they had miscalculated.

The abduction blew up into a national scandal that dominated the press for days. The New York Times reported that the affair had “rivet the attention of three kingdoms” and that “no penny paper had printed less than ten columns on this engrossing subject during the week”.

John Burns, MP for Battersea, (and a sometime socialist himself who may well have known Edith personally) intervened on her behalf. Left-leaning papers Reynolds News and the Clarion supported Edith, the latter asserting that ‘a woman has a perfect right to do what she likes with her own body’.

The Marquess of Queensberry offered Edith his support, of a kind, putting up a cheque for £100 as a wedding present if she would go through the legal marriage ceremony but under protest, and then repudiate the ceremony afterward. He justified this by stating:

“I do this because I wish personally to be associated with what will be a strong protest against our present marriage laws, and should be delighted to give such a brave woman a wedding present.”

[Yes, that Marquess of Queensberry, the one who got Oscar Wilde sent to prison for being gay. A very contradictory character: an outspoken atheist – which got him excluded from the house of Lords –  promoter of working class boxing – virtual inventor of the modern rules – violent homophobe… brutal towards his children and wives… questioner of the patriarchy?!]

Protests against the sectioning and torture of Edith began immediately. Some of her SDF comrades joined with the Legitimation League, an organisation set up to campaign to secure equal rights for children born outside of marriage, and organised a public meeting, where a resolution was passed against Fielding-Blandford, and Lanchester’s landlady, SDF activist Mary Gray, was persuaded to being legal action against Edith’s brother for assaulting her during the raid on her home.

Shamus and a group of SDF supporters sang The Red Flag from outside the asylum’s walls and beneath Edith’s barred window on the evening of Sunday 27th October.

Under Section 11 of the 1890 Lunacy Act, Biddy could be detained for up to a week, but further incarceration would require another certificate. After four days of lobbying, by the SDF, with the help of John Burns, Edith was seen on Monday 28th October by two Commissioners of Lunacy, who proclaimed her sane, although they labelled her ideas “foolish”, and ordered her released. She was let out the next morning. She would never see her father alive again.

Although some of her socialist comrades had stood by her, supporting but her “brave and radical challenge by a committed socialist feminist to the institution of marriage and to late Victorian society’s highly constrained and patriarchal conception of femininity”, other radicals, mostly men, were not so helpful. The SDF in fact shied away from officially supporting her in case she brought them into disrepute (?!) As an organisation the Federation never quite got women’s rights or women’s liberation. SDF activist and Marxist theorist Ernest Bax publicly dismissed Edith’s views on marriage from a bourgeois moralistic standpoint. Independent Labour Party leader and sainted Labour guru Keir Hardie accused her of discrediting socialism, worried that ‘the public’ would associate socialism with sexual immorality.

One socialist who did stand in solidarity with Edith was Eleanor Marx, who had been disgusted by the misogynistic failure of male socialists to support and defend Edith’s position, and had herself struggled to enlighten male chauvinist lefties as to the class dimension of the feminist struggle, and the female element in class politics.

She denounced comrade Belfort Bax in a public letter to an open debate on “the woman question”, but Bax, being scared of Eleanor, declined the challenge. Bax was a repulsive early men’s rights activist, who denounced feminism, thought capitalism was bad largely because it subjected men ‘under the heel of women’. Which shows that an expensive private education and inculcation of bourgeois standards can bring you to ‘socialism’ but it can’t necessarily teach you to look around you and see the world as it is. What a prick.

Eleanor Marx hired Edith as her personal secretary, and sheltered her at her home in 1897 when she gave birth to her first child with Shamus, Waldo Lanchester. Press attention again circled the arrival of this ‘love-child’ of controversial parents.

Other female suffragists also rebelled against marriage. Elizabeth Wolstenholmeinitially refused to marry her boyfriend Ben Elmy because they both objected to the anti-woman marriage laws. They cohabited in secret, but when she became pregnant her suffrage colleagues persuaded them to marry because it would severely damage the suffrage movement to be associated with such ‘immorality’.

But there were Victorians in the upper echelons of life who cohabited, and some who made no secret of it. The parents of prominent feminist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon Bodichon never married, despite having several children (who took their father’s surname). Historians believe this is the reason their children were shunned by their cousins, who included Florence Nightingale.

In spite of the disapproval of bourgeois society and its continuing hold on some of the so-called radical left, and spiting the predictions of the press that he would abandon her and she would end in the workhouse or on the game, Edith and Shamus’ relationship was not a youthful fad – they remained together until his death in 1945. In 1902 Edith gave birth to her second child Elsa. By this time the family were living at 48 Farley Road, Catford.

During World War I, Biddy and Shamus opposed the slaughter, from both internationalist and pacifist principles of Quakerism. Her daughter, Elsa recalled that Biddy and Shamus were “violently anti-war” and that pacifism ‘roared through’ the house.

When their son Waldo was conscripted he registered as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for a year. By 1917 Edith identified politically as a communist, denouncing the ‘socialists’ who had supported the war as ‘practically Tories’ who had betrayed the working class. She remained associated with the Communist Party for a number of years.

The bohemian and freethinking atmosphere that Edith and Shamus were a part of, and the creative and rebellious spirit that had sustained her against her family, passed on to their children.

Upon his release Waldo was supported by his mother to become a puppeteer and weaver. He would become one of the most innovative and well-known puppeteers of the twentieth century.

His sister, Elsa, became even more well-known… a liberated, self-determined and provocative woman, which in itself serves as a further two fingers to the conservative men who locked up her mother. She became a music hall star, singing songs laced with sexual innuendo, then and actress, having trained with dancer Isadora Duncan (but disliked her autocratic and pretentious approach), founded the Children’s Theatre in Soho, in 1918, and later became a Hollywood name… She had her radical moments, too, being a lifelong atheist, a member of the Independent Labour Party after World War 1, and her participation in the London avant-garde dance, theatre, film and performance scenes in the early 1920s. She ran an artistic nightclub, the Cave of Harmony, on the edges of London’s West End, where “Bohemianism, modern dance and musical comedy opened up new identities and spaces for female self-exploration.”

“In 1920 she made her London debut in a music hall act as an Egyptian dancer. About the same time she founded the Children’s Theatre in Soho and taught there for several years. In 1924 she and her partner, Harold Scott, opened a nightclub called the Cave of Harmony. They performed one-act plays of Pirandello and Chekhov and sang cabaret songs. Performances at the Cave were semi-improvised and often included odd ditties such as ‘Rat Catcher’s Daughter’ that Lanchester had dug up out of the magnificent resources of the British Library. The Cave of Harmony became a popular meeting place for London artists and intellectuals, including H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and James Whale (who would direct The Bride of Frankenstein). A local journalist was the first to immortalise the ‘naughty lady’ in song, fatally struck by her bronze hair and her brassy behaviour. His words make one wish to have known her:12 I may be fast, I may be loose, I may be easy to seduce. I may not be particular To keep the perpendicular. But all my horizontal friends Are Princes, Peers and Reverends. When Tom or Dick or Bertie call, You’ll find me strictly vertical!

Simultaneously, Elsa Lanchester joined a group of radical socialists called the ‘1917 Club’ and became something of their mascot. It fixed her image: a bohemian socialist with loose morals, outrageous behaviour, and brightly coloured unmentionables (the famous pink drawers she claimed never to have owned). Geoffrey Dunlap wrote bitterly about her:13 Pink drawers alas — why should her drawers be pink Their colour gives me furiously to think — Pink drawers — and do they never turn red Flushed at their mistress’ sin while she’s in bed. No they are pink, and peonies in their fair hue Their innocence remains forever new.

During a 1926 comic performance in the ‘Midnight Follies’ at London’s Metropole, a member of the British Royal family walked out as she sang, ‘Please Sell No More Drink to My Father’. Elsa closed her nightclub in 1928 as her film career began in earnest. She later noted that art was ‘a word that cloaked oceans of naughtiness’, and she had her share of it, working as a nude model by day and a theatrical impressario by night.” (from Underground London: From Cave Culture Follies to the Avant-GardeJaap Harskamp)

Later Elsa married actor and director Charles Laughton; there has for decades been a suggestion, fuelled by her own writing, that she was his beard, Laughton being at least bisexual and possibly gay, and that the marriage was designed to mask this. This she have discovered after they married, and she wasn’t best pleased to find it out, but tried her best to accommodate him and support him.

(However, other friends of Laughton have contended that these rumours were not true…)

Elsa’s most famous film role was as the Bride of Frankenstein in the classic 1935 film…

Edith Lanchester died in 1966.

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Civil ceremonies, queer marriage legalised, married persons tax breaks – HAH! You can do it if you really want but  – We salute the spirit of Edith Lanchester.

In the USA they have a brilliant holiday. Loving Day, which celebrates the legal fight of a mixed race couple to beat the racist laws against mixed marriages…

We love that, but also suggest celebrating those of us who choose to live and love without submitting to any nonsense from church or state. We don’t need your vows, stamps, or bits of paper to tell us how to freely share our lives. Neither of us obeys or owns the other.

Past Tense would like to humbly propose 29th October as a candi/date when we can hold an annual ‘’Unmarried Love Day’…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London transport history, 1891: The first London bus strike starts.

A history of the first strike by London transport workers in 1891, which was over pay and conditions and largely successful. The article also contains some information about developments in bus workers’ unions around the same period.

The first person to try and organise the London tram and bus workers into a union, was a young barrister called Thomas Sutherst.

He managed, with considerable help from the London Trades Council to organise between two and three thousand tram workers, into The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees union founded in 1889.

London had some 8-9,000 bus and tram workers in 1891, the three main London Tram and Bus companies running services in the Capital were the London Road Car Company, Tillings and the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the later the LGOC was by far the largest .

However, the LGOC was a notoriously bad employer, with employees sacked for “The slightest cause of complaint” crews were even expected to contribute to a fund to cover accidents, repairs and fines levied for any misdemeanours.

London bus and tram drivers wages in 1891 were 7 shillings a day and conductor 4 shillings 6 pence, this was comparatively low compared to other manual workers. They also worked long hours, between fourteen to sixteen hours a day with as little as ten minutes for lunch.

However, it was the introduction of new ticket machines that sparked the first ever London bus and tram strike in July 1891. The issue being the ability of the conductors to keep a percentage of the fares to subsidise their meagre earnings.

Two mass meetings were called by the union, both starting after midnight, to enable crews to meet their shift obligations.

Over 3,000 bus and tram workers attended the first mass meeting at Fulham Town Hall in first week of June 1891 and a second meeting the following day at the Great Assembly Hall, Mile End Road.

The Trade Unionist magazine of 6th June 1891 reported the Fulham Town Hall meeting and included the following remarks

“Great excitement prevailed during the whole meeting and speakers were frequently interrupted with snatches of song, Brakes and private buses conveyed the men to their different districts of London in broad daylight”.

The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees, union demands included:

  • 12 hour day
  • One clear day off every fortnight
  • A weeks notice of dismissal
  • Abolition of stoppages for accidentals
  • Daily wage of 8 shillings a day for drivers, 6 shillings for conductors and 5 shillings for horse keepers & washers

When their demands were not met, the first London bus and tram strike commenced at midnight on Sunday 7th June 1891.

The strike seemed to have secure generally high level of support from the public, media and the vast majority of bus and trams crews answered the strike call. Some men remained at work, but their efforts to take the buses and trams out were frustrated by the “angry mobs” of strikers.

The strike soon spread to bus crews in other companies, the London Road Car Company, who came out on strike in sympathy and demanding the 12 hour day.

London’s other bus and tram company Tillings, was unaffected by strike and continued to run a normal service, having agreed to the unions terms earlier.

One area of surprising support for the strikers came from the “entrepreneurs” who organised “Pirate buses”, far from undermining the strike, they actually maintained the strike by paying large donations to the strikers to keep the strike going, thereby pocketing large profits, while providing only a limited service.

On the second day of the strike the bus and tram unions President, Thomas Sutherst met the LGOC and LRRC directors to discuss the strikers demands, they agreed a 12 hour day but no significant movement on pay.

The London bus and tram workers continued the strike for the rest of the week finally securing the following agreement.

  • 12 hour day
  • Drivers 6 shillings 6 pence a day (after one year)
  • Conductors 5 shillings a day (after one year)
  • Horse keepers and washers 5 shillings 6 pence

As well as Thomas Sutherst, George Shipton Secretary of the London Trades Council “worked day and night addressing meetings and organising pickets” collected nearly £1,000 for the strikers

The “Great Bus strike” was called off on Saturday 13th June 1891, after one week on strike, final agreement was reached on the 18th June 1891, however the return to work had not gone smoothly, some activists had been victimised and despite Sutherst assertion at Fulham Town hall that their would be no resumption of work until every union member reinstated, this failed to materialise and despite the efforts of even the Lord Mayor.

While the strike was not totally effective in secure all its demands, importantly the union had won the right to a 12 hour day as well as putting down a marker for future generations of bus and tram workers.

After the strike had concluded The London Trades Council agreed to pay £10 towards Fred Hammill costs while he organised the busmen’s union in the Capital.

One interesting aspect of the strike was the attempt by a group of strikers to establish a London Co-operative Omnibus company to rival the private enterprise giants.

They even purchased an omnibus to the front they attached a broom symbolising how they were determined to sweep the LGOC and LRCC away.

Thomas Sutherst the unions President called for the “municipilisation” by the Council and arguing that the council should buy the whole tram lines and rolling stock, as had happened in Huddersfield (The first municipal tram system opened in January 1883)

The demise of Sutherst, London County Tramway & Omnibus Employee union was the result of the general, onslaught by the employees after the original flame of “New Unionism” that had spilt out the London Dock Strike of 1899. But “in its short life it was a useful one and it was responsible for considerable improvement in working conditions of bus and tram crews”

Later a Bus, Tram, Motor Workers Union merged with the London Cab Drivers Union (the later established in 1894) to form the London & Provincial Union of Licenced Vehicle Workers (LPU) established in 1913 but also known as the “Red Button Union” because of the colour of their union badge. The L PU was strongly influenced by syndicalism, and distinguished itself from the start as a highly political union, supporting nationalisation of transport and opposing world war, while supporting the Russian revolution of 1917. The LPU was prominent in the August 1911 London strike wave that hit the capital as well as the 1915 Tram strike.

While the union was now dominated by tram workers it maintained a separate London cab owners section under the leadership of branch secretary Blundy .

The LPU’s Journal was entitled the “Licensed Vehicle Trades Record”, edited by George Sanders and produced fortnightly and cost 1d.

The other union to have membership amongst London Tram workers was the Manchester based Amalgamated Association of Tramway & Vehicle Workers (AAT) established in 1889.

The AAT tram union (which had members in West London at Chiswick, Hanwell and Fulwell) secured a larger base in London when it merged with the small London Tramways Employees Association in 1910. The AAT was known as the “Blue Button Union” again because of the colour of its union badge.

See the article by John Grigg on the April 1909 Fullwell Tram strike led by Jack Burns

In late 1919 early 1920 The LPU (109,425 members) and AAT (56,979 members) merged in to form the United Vehicle Workers.

The United Vehicle Workers union became part of the Transport & General Workers Union on its establishment on January 1st 1922.

This article was taken from the Hayes People’s History website and can be found here

 

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s ?radical? history: the Fabian Society holds its first conference, 1892.

The first conference of the ‘moderate socialist’ Fabian Society was held in Essex Hall, off the Strand, in central London, over the 6th/7th February 1892. That the Fabians didn’t hold another conference for over twenty years suggests the experience wasn’t either useful or comfortable. The first history of the Society was prepared for this conference, by George Bernard Shaw, and later reproduced as Fabian Tract no. 41.

The tone of the conference reflected a growing move away from the socialist groups that the Fabians uneasily co-existed with – speakers were hostile to the Social Democratic Federation and generally anti-Marxist. The main political issue – whether to support only specifically socialist groups – was rejected. The Society’s links to the more mainstream and moderate Liberal Party continued.

Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their origins, as a more ‘politically oriented offshoot of the puritan self-improvers of the Fellowship of the New Life.

The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action clashed with the more spiritual and ‘lifestylist’ Fellowship quite early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which like the older group met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.” (It’s not that often that lefties split demanding a LESS specific program!)

Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”

Eventually joining the Labour Party, by orthodox accounts, the Fabians became a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour party culminated in the post 1945 ‘Labour landslide’ Parliament, with Prime Minister Clem Atlee, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians.

However, Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, crediting them with excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks: 10% of the male membership in 1892.

He identifies their main claims to influence as

  • having destroyed the influence of revolutionary Marxism in Britain
  • to have inspired the Labour party
  • to have laid the foundations of the welfare state, or at least municipal reform, through the London County Council.

Hobsbawm dismisses these claims as largely self-mythological.

They didn’t destroy the influence of Marxism in Britain – there wasn’t ever really a substantial Marxist strand in the British socialist movement, compared to explicitly reformist trends.

Neither were they inspirers, or even pioneers of the Labour Party. In contrast to other 1880s-90s socialist groups they in fact opposed the idea of an independent working class party… Only when their other projects failed did they join, not really till the 1910s.

As to the welfare state: they did exercise their greatest influence in drafting propaganda on welfare reform for labour movement, and leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were in regular contact with actual or future policymakers in government, opposition or civil service… BUT while their fact finding etc was respected, their own proposals were rarely adopted, in fact most welfare reforms were implemented in specifically non-Fabian forms… (The left wing Liberal tradition influenced by the ‘Cambridge Marshalians’ and JA Hobson were far more influential in the fundamental Liberal Party 1906 welfare reforms for example).

Even their claims for role in municipal social change are exaggerated.

The Fabians emerged not from the working class or the radical-liberal traditions that dominated nineteenth century left movements, nor adhered to newer ideas like Marxism. They were at odds with most other socialist groups, opposed to even the popular idea of independent working class party, supported imperialism, wouldn’t take position on Boer War, and wobbled on important questions of trade unionism and workers rights etc. They lacked contact with workers; though the Society attracted an inflow of workers in 1892 after the ‘new unions’ upsurge, and many affiliated regional societies formed (which could in theory have formed the nucleus of a socialist party), the leadership blew it or couldn’t have pulled it off, and most of its provincial societies joined the Independent Labour Party, formed the following year.

But the Fabians were equally out of tune with Liberals, though permeation of the Liberal Party was pretty much their policy for years. In fact a substantial anti-Liberal element drove away Liberal intellectuals and economists attracted to them early on, who developed the left wing liberalism that developed the ideas on which social welfare reforms of 1906 and 1911 were based (a strand which also began to reject laissez faire economics); the socially critical, left wing intellectuals like JA Hobson, WH Massingham, who even after the effective demise of the Liberal Party in the 1920s developed social democratic theory: leading on to Beveridge, Keynes, and Marshal.

Fabian membership boiled down into three main groups:

  • members of the traditional middle and upper classes who had developed a social conscience or rebelled against/disliked modern bourgeois capitalism;
  • self-made professionals, and civil servants: including journalists, writers, professional politicos and organisers, managers, scientists… “brainworkers”;
  • independent women, reasonably newly ’emancipated’, often earning their own living, most often as writers, teachers, or typists…

‘New’ men or women, then, rising through social structure, or creating new ones; the new intellectual or literary or professional strata; mostly salaried middle classes, uncommon then but growing rapidly, an administrative, scientific, would-be technocratic elite. This group dominated the Fabian leadership, and Fabian theory; its social composition directly gave birth to the Fabian conception of socialism (especially the Webbs) to be administered by an enlightened professional managerial caste.

By the 1880s a separation between ownership and management was growing in private firms, with a corresponding huge rise in the numbers and importance of professional salaried managers, admin workers; there was also a steep growth in the civil service, journalism, and so on.

The Webbs were keen observers of this, and of the ethos of this emerging ‘caste’, especially efficiency, They thought middle class professionals would play a big part in achieving socialism, bigger in their eyes than workers. Ramsay Mac called for “a revolution directed from the study; to be one, not of brutal need but of intellectual development, to be in fact, a revolution of the comparatively well-to-do.”

The Fabian conception of socialism never theorised the working class as the only or even the main agents of change, or based their views on class struggle. In practice they fell back on usual vague ideas of education, progress, enlightenment in all classes, the general growth of unselfishness and social conscience. A vaguely expressed idea of a gradual evolution in rational self-interest and social consciousness among the right sort of people… The middle classes wouldn’t oppose socialism as they would perceive its necessity and reasonableness, and their own self-interest, in such a society, that “this form of social organisation really suited them just as well if not better than the capitalist.”

The Fabians theorised a new society, but based this new society very much on themselves, their actual practice, and sense of their mission, their own importance, their role in this society.

Hobsbawm warns that “No hypothesis which seeks to link ideas with their social background can be proved to everyone’s satisfaction”, but suggests we have to see the Fabian Society “in terms of the middle class reactions to the breakdown of mid-Victorian certainties, the rise of new strata, new structures, new policies within British capitalism: as an adaptation of the British middle classes to the era of imperialism.”

The upsurge in public and private administration, science, journalism, professional writing and statistics/social sciences, from the 1870s on, did mean these people were in new and uncertain social positions, and hadn’t necessarily developed identification with existing structures or classes. There also was hostility and class snobbery from the old political and social upper classes towards salaried professionals, which you can see in the sneering at clerks and socially ambitious bourgeoisie that permeates Late Victorian literature.

As Hobsbawm says “the middle class socialism of the Fabians reflects the unwillingess, or the inability, of the people for whom they spoke, to find a firm place in the middle and upper class structure of late Victorian Britain.”

Which implies alienation, or not fitting in, both discomfort from from their side, and disdain from the existing structures; there may, though Hobsbawm doesn’t say this, also have been a sense of their own importance and abilities and a feeling of being unappreciated, and some element of knowing their own superiority over what they saw as a useless idle rich class.

Despite their origins in the Fellowship of the New Life, and the influence of William Morris on some of their early thinkers, the Fabians came to some radically different conclusions than both their ‘parent’ group and Morris. To some extent, like Morris and his sometime mentor John Ruskin [of whom hopefully more in a couple of days], the core of the Fabians were expressing the mid/late 19th century crisis in the new middle classes, the ‘bourgeois’ alienation from their own existence – but Ruskin and Morris, and their disciples, resolved their dissatisfaction with modern capitalist modes of production by going somewhat medievally-craftsy, while Fabians embraced the social and structural changes capitalism brought, though did see the possibility of a new political order. Certainly William Morris had a vision of really different society socially and economically, while the Fabian vision is not immediately very attractive.

Sidney Webb thought there were no practical reasons (though many historical and social ones) for this new class or caste to adhere to capitalism, especially the laissez-faire variety; THEY are crucial to the functioning of modern economy, both in the private and public sector, but neither private enterprise or the profit motive is crucial to THEM or their work…

BUT as Hobsbawm points out, the type of ‘socialism’ they were likely to be attracted to was then likely to aspire towards the technocratic, hierarchical, if meritocratic, based on management by an elite: fulfilling their vision of their own role in current and possible future societies. “So we can confidently predict that… [the manager] will remain for all time an indispensable functionary, whatever may be the form of society.” (from S. Webb, The Works Manager To-day, 1917.) 
This concept of socialism also goes some way to explaining the later enthusiasm of some leading early Fabians, like the Webbs and Shaw, for the Stalinist USSR; Lenin and the Bolsheviks also saw socialism as a question of management by the proper authorities, not of a transformation of daily life organised from below.

All of which does provoke two questions – how much did the Fabians really speak for these castes, and did this sense of not fitting in, or not being appreciated, dissolve over subsequent decades, ie were these groups happier with rewards of capitalism and more integrated later? Clearly only a small minority of these new professional and managerial strata joined the ‘socialist movement’, though others expressed alienation in different ways.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London history: riot against enclosure of One Tree Hill, 1897… and open space under threat in Croydon…

Today we remember how, 120 years ago, South Londoners saved one open green space and re-opened it to the public… while in another South London borough, Croydon, green spaces are at risk of being sacrificed to development.

One Tree Hill, in South London’s Honor Oak, had always been an open space, a traditional gathering spot for locals, more recently for recreation. ‘Rolling down One Tree Hill’ is referred to in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Sorcerer’ as a disreputable Victorian pastime!

The Hill marked the on the border of the two parishes of Lewisham and Camberwell (previously it also marked the boundaries of the counties of Kent and Surrey). Many visitors also came to enjoy the view of London from the Hill, easier in those times as the hilltop was less wooded.

Such a spot, a distinctive hill, especially marking a boundary, tends to gather myths; some historians used to assert that One Tree Hill was the spot where Boudicca’s rebellion was crushed in battle by the Romans (somewhat dubiously; the battle probably took place in the midlands). Queen Elizabeth I was also supposed to have drunkenly knighted the ‘one tree’, or Oak of Honour that gives the hill (and Honor Oak) its name.

A number of old footpaths ran across the hill, from Forest Hill to the Brockley Road and Peckham Rye.

“A Spirit of Unrest”

In Autumn 1896 One Tree Hill was suddenly enclosed by a golf club, who had bought if from the previous owners, and erected a sixfoot fence around it! Locals were understandably annoyed. A local “Enclosure of Honor Oak Hill Protest Committee” was formed, which met from August 1897 in the Samuel Bowley Coffee Tavern,

Peckham Rye. twenty-three original members rose to about one hundred and fifty, including members of the Camberwell and Lewisham local Vestries (precursors to today’s Borough Councillors). They got support from the Commons Preservation Society, and began a laborious process of collecting evidence about traditional access to the Hill, whether there were any traditional common rights etc.

Unfortunately this process did unearth the fact that despite what was widely claimed, One Tree Hill had never been part of Sydenham Common, kyboshing any claim for common rights there.

Meanwhile regular public protest meetings, in Spring-Summer 1897, many held in the open air on Peckham Rye. But according to committee member Councillor John Nisbet, “a spirit of unrest, at what was termed the slow methods of the Executive, began to show itself amongst a small section of the members…”

At a meeting of the Committee, a resolution to defend the hill by pulling down the fences was defeated. But in late August, the Golf Club prosecuted two lads who had broken down part of the fence and ‘trespassed’ on the hill, and children who wandered through a broken section to pick flowers were also attacked by a fierce guard dog belonging to a security guard watching the grounds.

Further failed attempts to get the Committee to authorise direct action against the fence led to a resolution at a mass meeting on October 3rd on the Rye, which condemned the Club’s prosecution of the two ’trespassers’, who had just been convicted & fined and voted for the removal of the fence the following Sunday.

On this day, October 10th, supposedly as many as 15,000 people assembled at One Tree Hill; after apparently waiting a while for an appointed demolisher to arrive, a section of the crowd in Honor Oak Park pulled down parts of the fence. The crowd then rushed onto the hill from Honor Oak Park and Honor Oak Rise. “The hill was soon covered with a disorderly multitude, and it was quickly found necessary to reinforce the police who had been posted to keep order.” Some of the crowd attacked the house of the grounds keeper, (he of the vicious dog), and only the arrival of more cops kept the rioters at bay. The more constitutional element attempted to take control, starting a meeting and denouncing the “unseemly and riotous conduct taking place…an appeal was made for quiet and more orderly conduct…the crowds, after singing ‘Rule Britannia’, dispersed …”

Although the Protest Committee disassociated itself from the violence, two former members, Ellis and Polkinghorn, who had left the Committee, frustrated with its slow progress, and three friends, publicly went to pull down a section of fence at Honor Oak Rise, on

October 16th, stating they’d been instructed to do so on behalf of the public (which seems a reasonable defence!) Their names and addresses were taken – the Golf Club promptly sued them in the High Court for trespass.

“A Lurid Glare upon the Upturned Faces”

The following day, Sunday October 17th, a very large crowd gathered, obviously expecting trouble. Estimates vary from 50,000 to 100,000 people present., which may be slightly exaggerated. They were faced by 500-odd police, some mounted, patrolling the hill, who fought off several attempts to demolish the fence and rush the hill, mostly at the south side, overlooking Honor Oak Park. At least 12,000 people were said to be hemmed in here, many of who stoned the cops, charging them several times and being charged in return. “Late in the day a furze bush was fired, and this cast a lurid glare upon the upturned faces of the packed mass of onlookers.” Ten people were nicked, two of whom got sent down for a month, three for fourteen days and the rest fined.

The following Sunday, the 24th, thousands again gathered at the Hill, though there was no trouble.

The Protest Committee condemned the rioting, issuing appeals for order. They maintained the way forward lay in its inquiries into rights of way over the hill, and in its attempts to persuade the Camberwell & Lewisham Vestries that the enclosure should be reversed. The Committee’s investigations had revealed several rights of way across the hill: at an inquiry in January 1898, the Joint Committee of the two vestries voted to go to court to challenge the enclosure.

They sought advice from the Commons Preservation Society. This process dragged on, into 1899; meanwhile the Golf Club had obtained a court judgment for trespass against the five members of the “One Tree Hill Commons Rights Defence League”. The South London Press called these men “the extremists – the irregulars – of the one Tree hill Movement…” and claimed that the more respectable committee had refused to let them see any of the evidence they had collected, to help in their defence.

Over the next few years, though the riots never revived, the process of negotiating for a sale of the hill ground on, with Camberwell Borough Council putting pressure on the owner of the Hill, J. E. Ward, to sell the land. Ward dug his heels in, asking for a huge amount for the land. Eventually the London County Council stuck a clause in their 1902 General Powers Bill, for a compulsory purchase – leading to the Hill being bought for £6,100 in 1904, and re-opened to the public.

In 1997, a hand-crafted centenary bench was put up to remember the anti-enclosure protests, though it has since vanished.

It is still a very lovely open space now, definitely worth a visit/picnic, with its occasional great view of London through the trees that have grown up since the enclosure riots. In the spirit of the miscreants who rolled down the hill and the anti-enclosure irregulars who ripped up the fences, it was from here that the Association of Autonomous Astronauts tried to launch their independent ventures into space in 1999.

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This text is an excerpt from Rights of Common: The Fight Against the Theft of Sydenham Common and One Tree Hill, published by past tense.
Available from our publications page 

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The story of how One Tree Hill was kept open is not just of historical interest… because the struggle against enclosure and the destruction of open space in South London is hardly a dead issue.

Public services today are stretched to breaking point by financial austerity, (imposed ideologically to take back as many resources as possible from all to aid the push for them to be sold to private interest). Local authorities everywhere are debating what to cut. One area under increasing threat is open green space; allegedly expensive to maintain. Some local authorities are proposing to make cuts of 50 or 60 % to budgets for parks. As a result, there are the beginnings of changes, developments that look few and far between now, but could be the thin end of the wedge.

So you have councils looking to renting green space to businesses, charities, selling off bits, shutting off parks or parts of them for festivals and corporate events six times a year… Large parts of Hyde Park and Finsbury Park are regularly fenced off for paying festivals already; this could increase.

At the same time, pressure for building of housing in London is also ramped up to eleven, driven by a housing shortage created by the destruction of social housing, a financial bubble based on property prices, and the lop-sided UK economy’s obsession with London. Although thousands of private flats and houses have been built, most people can’t afford them. But the money awash in construction, twinned with a focus on regenerating some areas (code for moving working class people out and middle class people in) had led many London councils into alliances with property developers, and to making deals to build everywhere they can, usually with a net reduction in social housing. These pressures have led the capital to a powderkeg situation, and upheavals and rebellions among both social and private tenants are increasing.

Everywhere slivers of green not protected by law are vanishing; or social housing with access and views over green space is being replaced with new developments for the rich (as at Woodberry Down, or West Hendon). The threat to open space is part and parcel of the massive changes underway in the city, attempts to permanently alter the capital in favour of the wealthy, driving those who can’t afford it to the margins or out of the city entirely.

Close to where locals defended One Tree Hill in 1897, South London’s Croydon Council are facing pressure from a government-appointed inspector to deregister many open spaces in the borough, which many see as a step towards reducing longstanding protections which prevent them being built on.

Long years of struggle produced some statutory legal protection for commons, greens and woods, and many other bylaws and designations of scientific interest etc have helped keep green places from destruction. But this can be swept away…

The Local Plan, which has gone through numerous drafts and changes since work began on it in 2012, was reviewed by the government-appointed inspector at an inquiry earlier this year. His findings have been put out for consultation.

Among the amendments the inspector has recommended to the Local Plan is to take away protection from more than 70 of Croydon’s parks and open spaces, including many areas that like One Tree Hill, were once part of the Great North Wood. According to the inspector, they are just not “special” enough.

The council had proposed designating a raft of parks and open spaces with a new planning status, “Local Green Space”. But the inspector was unimpressed with the case made by the council for many of the parks and spaces, including Rotary Field, Purley, Biggin Wood, Addiscombe Railway Park, Millers Pond, Coulsdon Coppice and even All Saints churchyard in Sanderstead.

The inspector has thus drawn a red line through all these open spaces, and many more, to the consternation of residents’ and friends’ groups. They fear that without some form of planning protection, it will be all too easy to bulldoze their park for the next batch of flats.

It may be that Croydon’s own somewhat inconsistent attitude had confused the inspector, Paul Clark. The council has encouraged one developer to build on a section of Queen’s Gardens, in front to the Town Hall, in the redevelopment of the Taberner House site. Queen’s Gardens is the only green, open space in the town centre.

A neglected scrap of playing fields at the bottom of Duppas Hill Park also looks like it will be built on for a school and housing, while the green acres of playing fields at Coombe Woods have been recommended for bulldozing to make way for a selective free school.

A consultation over the inspector’s proposals and the Local Plan has just ended, so it remains to be seen what happens next. But this pressure is likely to be seen elsewhere, as open space is seen as less of a priority than housing, and the vast profits to be made therefrom. Now is the time to be on guard, if we want to preserve our free access to the green places that matter to us.

It may seem like parks, and other green spaces are givens; things that can’t be taken away. But what seem like certainties can be lost before we realise. Look at way social housing have been dismantled over the past 30 years. In the 1960s council housing was taken for granted as a right by millions: it has been reduced to a last resort, which current government proposals could sweep away. Or the way the NHS is being parcelled up into private providers… there are many who see green space as a luxury and something that can be got rid of or at least shunted off into the hands of some quango… Whatever gains we have, whatever we win, whatever rights we enjoy, came from long generations of battling  – the moment we stop, rest on our laurels, powerful forces start pushing back against everything we have won.

ruggles to preserve open space is that people won because they considered the places they were defending to be theirs, to belong to them, even when that stood in opposition to the legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on those traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it formed the backbone for direct action and a collective campaigning approach, this sense of the commons being ‘ours’ could overcome all the power of law, profit and parliament. This is a lesson worth
taking when we think about how we view open space: although we can take many inspirations from our history, reliance on the past can not be a defence, we need to be re-forging a sense that the resources of the world are for all of us, for people’s enjoyment, not for the profit of a few.

We need to be redefining what is ours, collectively, in opposition and defiance of the laws and fences built to exclude us; and not just when it comes to green or urban space, but for the whole world. In the midst of 21st century London, a whirlwind of global profit, backed by a government with a determined ruling class agenda, is uprooting
communities, altering the landscape, destroying or severely hamstringing any right to social housing, welfare, health, education, for increasing numbers of us.
What are we going to do in response?

Read more on the Croydon Plan here and here

Get involved to defend open space:

Open Spaces Society – Founded as the Commons Preservation Society in 1865; the CPS played a huge part in legal actions and campaigning to preserve green space nationally, and was instrumental in the passing of legislation to protect commons. The Society today remains committed to defending open space, footpaths and rights of way. http://www.oss.org.uk

National Federation of Parks of Green Spaces  a UK network of area-wide Forums. We exist to promote, protect and improve the UK’s parks and green spaces by linking together all the friends and users Forums/networks throughout the country. http://www.natfedparks.org.uk/

The Land Is Ours – campaigns peacefully for access to the land, its resources, and the decision-making processes affecting them, for everyone. http://tlio.org.uk/about-tlio/

The Land Justice Network (formerly Land for What?) is a network of groups, individuals and networks who recognise the need to change the way land is owned, used, distributed and controlled in the UK. https://www.landjustice.uk/

The Ramblers – ‘Britain’s walking charity, working to protect and expand the places people love to walk and promote walking for health and pleasure’. http://www.ramblers.org.uk

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

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Today in London radical history: Police raid Fitzrovia house looking for ‘French anarchist bombers’, 1892.

As we have already noted on this blog, late 19th century London was home to large numbers of exiled socialists, radicals, and anarchists.

In the early 1890s, French anarchists, very much inflamed against social injustice and repression, became obsessed with the idea of revenge and individual acts of terror against representatives of the bourgeois society that they hated.

Heavy repression against workers organising to improve conditions in 1891, including police shootins on demonstrations, resulting in nine deaths, and arrests, beatings and jailings of anarchists, sparked a campaign of bombings against members of the judiciary by the anarchist Ravachol. Ravachol’s arrest in turn led to further bomb attacks by other French anarchists.

Several of those involved were suspected of having fled to or have been based in London. Two French anarchist exiles, Theodule Meunier and Jean-Pierre Francois, were wanted for alleged involvement for a bomb attack on the Café Very, in revenge for the part a waiter there had played in informing against Ravachol.

A cabinet maker by trade, Meunier had joined the French anarchist movement during the early 1890s. It was said of Meunier that he was “…the most remarkable type of revolutionary illuminist, an ascetic and a visionary, as passionate for the search for the ideal society as Saint-Just, and as merciless as seeking his way towards it.”

On June 27th 1892, Inspector Melville of (Special Branch) and 30 officers raided the houses of Delbacque, a French exile who lived in 30 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, an area teeming with French political refugees and their projects. They smashed open doors and wrecked the place, but failed to find either Francois or Meunier. Further raids in July also netted no bombers… There were rumoured appearances by Francois (to the adulation of the faction that enthusiastically supported ‘propaganda by the deed’) at the anarchist Autonomie Club, though it was was supposed to be awash with police informers. This may or may not have resulted in the tip-off that led Melville to be seeking Francois in Poplar, where he was living in the name of Johnson. Unluckily he came across him in the street in October (it took Melville and four cops to arrest him; his wife grabbed for a gun when their lodging was raided in turn).

In fact there was little concrete evidence against Francois, although he was extradited to France.

Meunier was not nicked until 1894, when Melville grabbed him in Victoria Station. He was also extradited and sentenced to 25 years penal servitude. He died in penal colony in Cayenne in 1907, stating “I only did what I had to do. If I could start over again, I would do the same thing.”

I am not sure what happened to Francois…

Interestingly, in order to extradite Meunier to France, the British courts re-defined the idea of a political crime. To a certain extent Britain tolerated ‘political’ refugees, nationalists, socialists, so long as they fitted into certain ‘acceptable’ parameters – only operating against their own government, fighting for democratic reforms, only organizing military conflict against soldiers- broadly aiming to replace one group in power with another. Political refugees fitting in with this could often expect a reasonable hearing in the liberal British courts, and requests for extradition from abroad might well be refused.

Many anarchists however refused to abide by the ‘rules’ that liberal governments were prepared to accept: they considered all authority as an enemy, aimed at the abolition of all governments; also, increasingly in the 1880s and 90s, some active in those sections of anarchism which believe ‘propaganda by the deed’ would inspire the overthrow of hierarchical society, felt that targeting politicians for assassination was OK, and even bourgeois civilians generally were the source of oppression of the working class, so they were also fair game.

Governments could all get behind the idea that this was just not cricket. The extradition court in Meunier’s case saw the idea of a political offence re-drawn to except anarchists, who be rejecting politics, refusing to aim at the replacement of one form of domination by another, thus excluded themselves from being ruled political. And could thus be extradited without anyone’s sense of their own liberal fairness being bruised. QED.

Special Branch’s Inspector Melville was to become a leading thorn in the side of the anarchist scene in late 19th/early 20th century London. Apart from rounding up exiles where he could, he built a formidable spying apparatus which not only collected information on anarchists of various nationalities, but also sponsored fake bomb plots to get as much publicity and put away as many comrades as he could. The notorious Walsall anarchist bomb plot was thought up in his fertile mind. He later rose to head Special Branch, and then became the secret chief of what later became MI5.

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