Today in London smashing herstory, 1909: Suffragettes love the sound of breaking glass

Emmeline Pankhurst and other women’s suffragists founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; having come to the conclusion that the existing pressure groups campaiging to extend the vote in the UK to women had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed that would take the extreme measures needed to win women the franchise.

The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became the dominant issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support.

In 1908, WSPU actions became more militant and more ‘aggressive’. In June that year throwing stones to break windows of government buildings was first adopted. In October, the WSPU issued a general callout for people to join in its attempt to ‘Rush’ the House of Commons, which attracted thousands of participants and led to 37 arrests.

These actions raised the WSPU’s public profile; they snap led to an increase in donations which allowed the organisation to hire more paid staff across the country. 

Calling for public participation in mass actions effectively appealed to women, over the heads of the politicians and the ‘normal’ political process, with the intention of creating a public order crisis which would intimidate the government into giving women the vote. This approach was universally condemned: even pro-Women’s Suffrage newspapers like the Manchester Guardian labelled it counter-productive. It enraged the authorities, who increased penalties for arrested suffragists and slapped them with heavier charges like ‘incitement to riot’.

In 1909, undeterred, the WSPU upped the ante on the previous year’s activities…

In May, WSPU employees and militants mobilised a large crowd – press estimates ranged up to 10,000 – which attempted to storm Sheffield’s Drill Hall where an important meeting was being addressed by H. H. Asquith. A major riot nearly ensued, although the crowd did not get into the meeting. Christabel Pankhurst hailed this event as a triumph, writing that ‘the women who were barred out from the Prime Minister’s meeting called upon the general public … and to this appeal there was a wonderful response’.

Following this, the WSPU organised its ‘Women’s Exhibition’ at the Princess Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, between 13 and 26 May; the next major action was the thirteenth mass ‘deputation’ to parliament, scheduled for 29 June. Emmeline Pankhurst and other leaders of the Women’s Social and Political union had planned to deputation to see the Prime Minster, Asquith, to demand legislation regarding extending the franchise to women. A large public meeting followed by a procession to Parliament accompanied them. But a spot of sabotage was scheduled to follow if the deputation was refused access to the PM (as was expected to happen).

“On 29 June [1909], the usual meeting in the Caxton Hall began with martial music played by the new fife and drum band; the musicians wore purple uniforms, adorned by green sashes and white braid.   Subsequently, a small initial deputation set out, led by Mrs Pankhurst and composed of eight women, two of whom were elderly.”

Along with Emmeline Pankhurst, the delegation included Maud Joachim, Mrs Saul Solomon’, Miss Margesson. Mrs. Haverfield,  Mrs. Menzill, wife of Colonel Menzill, and granddaughter of the late Lord Wllborne; Mrs. Frank Corbett, sister-in-law of the late member of the house, and Miss Neligan, who was 79.

The police conducted the little group to the door of the Commons, where Chief Inspector Scantlebury, the stout, red-faced head of the police attached to Parliament, gave Mrs Pankhurst a large envelope. The envelope contained a letter from Asquith’s private secretary, stating that the Prime Minister would not receive the deputation. Mrs Pankhurst threw the letter to the ground, saying that she would not accept it – she and the ladies accompanying her were subjects of the King and had come in the assertion of a right.’ As the police began to push the women away, Mrs Pankhurst lightly struck Inspector Jarvis in the face three times.   He told her she was striking him for a purpose, and that he would not be perturbed… After Mrs Pankhurst gave Inspector Jarvis two stronger blows and another woman knocked off his hat, arrests were obtained.

A prolonged melee followed in which 3,000 police were engaged, and 108 women and 14 men were arrested… The scrimmage was watched by a number of MPs, some of whom climbed the railings of Palace Yard to obtain a better view.” 

Labour MP Keir Hardie did suggest inside the chamber that the delegation should be allowed in; to little avail.

At the WSPU HQ at Clements Inn, the action had been planned meticulously in advance; down to advice to women taking part that they should expect to be roughed up by the police, and designs for wearing ‘cardboard corsets’ to help protect them from batterings in the melee. Grace Roe, interviewed in the 1960s, remembered that she “rigged up one of these in the bath and fitted it to my shape and put in cotton wool to protect my breasts and then put on my hockey outfit and set off…” Vera Horne rode around the Square on a horse passing messages and instructing groups to advance on the House until the police nicked her.

After mounted police had cleared Parliament Square, phase 2 of the action began. Small groups of six suffragettes emerged from 30 small offices that the WSPU had rented for the day and made dashes on the House of Commons. Grace Roe was one of these groups, and noticed an open gate at Palace Yard – she and others ran through to try to enter the Commons but were aught by police halfway down the yard.

Simultaneously, attacks on government buildings began:

“At nine o’clock, a group of thirteen women, using small stones wrapped in brown paper, began to break windows at the Privy Council, Treasury, and Home Offices. To avoid injuring anyone within, pieces of string had been tied to the stones, which were swung against the windows while held by the string, and then dropped through the holes. The window-breakers were arrested immediately.”

Despite their determination, the deliberate action of criminal damage didn’t come easy to some of the saboteurs; one noted

“To women of culture and refinement and of sheltered upbringing the deliberate act of throwing a stone, even as a protest, in order to break a window, requires an enormous amount of moral courage. After much tension and hesitation, I threw my stone at the window… I was immediately arrested and marched off by two policemen.”

This was the largest disturbance so far in the WSPU’s militant sabotage campaign (the previous record for arrests had been in 1907, when 74 women were nicked). At first, the WSPU disowned the action, but later gave it their approval. (This was a WSPU tactic at the time – to assert that militancy was all carried out by the rank and file of the organisation and the leadership[p had no control at all over it… in reality Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst had a tight grip on what was planned and carried out, in many cases… This was largely a diversion to try to avoid arrests of WSPU leaders for conspiracy or incitement, but also, no doubt, a bit of deniability was involved, in case anyone did anything the leadership felt was going too far, or aroused unpopularity in the wrong quarters?)

The 108 women and 14 men arrested were taken to Cannon Row Police Station. In court next day, the WSPU’s leaders announced their intention of testing in law the right of petition. This kept the issue alive for several months until the courts could decide. As a result, action against those arrested for public order offences was suspended, but the window-breakers were tried on 12 July, and imprisoned when they refused to pay fines.

At this point a new weapon was introduced: the hunger-strike, pioneered by Marion Wallace Dunlop between 2 and 5 July. Since the autumn of 1908, the WSPU had declared that suffragettes would not tolerate ‘second division’ conditions in prison but would demand ‘first division’ treatment, on the grounds that they were political prisoners.The WSPU now announced its intention of enforcing the political prisoner demand before the window-breakers were tried, and when committed to Holloway they refused to put on prison dress and broke their cell windows. Two of the prisoners were also accused of biting and kicking the wardresses. The WSPU leadership hailed this redistance to normal imprisonment as the beginning of a ‘Prison Mutiny’, which they threatened would spread to other prisoners and other gaols. As Christabel Pankhurst said on 19 July, ‘If the suffragists broke down the awe of prison rules and regulations it would work through the prison population like a fever, and that would be a very serious matter indeed.’
Following Marion Dunlop‘s example, all the window-breakers went on hunger-strike and were released over several days at the end of July.

 

Today in London aeronautical herstory, 1909: Muriel Matters flies suffragette airship over West London

Steampunk rebels eat your heart out…

If you thought the scene in the old Ealing Comedy film Kind Hearts and Coronets, where the suffragette aunty flies a hot air balloon to distribute ‘Votes for Women’ leaflets from the air, was made up – think again…

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Women’s struggle to win the right to vote in the United Kingdom in the first couple of decades of the 20th century was long and full of both inspiring actions and fierce repression.

As well as traditional methods of campaigning, lobbies, meetings, leafleting, some activists carried out direct actions, sabotage, arson and destruction of property. As the male establishment continued to lock women out, suffragettes developed novel ways of grabbing media attention, devising elaborate and eye-catching stunts.

One lesser known but brilliant action employed red hot technology: the launch of the suffragette airship, flown over London in 1909 by Muriel Matters.

Muriel Matters

Muriel Matters was born in Australia and became a professional actress. Moving to England, she got involved with the direct action wing of the suffragette movement. She became politically active after being challenged by the anarchist Prince Kropotkin to use her skills for ‘something more useful’ than the dramatic recitals she was earning a living from, after she performed at his home…

Kropotkin asserted that “Art is not an end of life, but a means.” Matters took this on board, and soon became involved with the Women’s Social & Political Union, and then the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), to further the cause of women’s suffrage. She later wrote that her encounter with Kropotkin, “proved to be the lifetime in a moment lived – my entire mental outlook was changed.”

Throwing herself into campaigning for the vote, Matters travelled the south east counties of England in 1908 as “Organiser in Charge” of the first “Votes for Women” caravan, holding meetings, spreading the word and helping found WFL branches. In October 1908, she took part in a WFL protest at the Houses of Parliament, chaining herself to a grille in the Ladies Gallery of the House of Commons, while declaiming a pro-suffrage speech. As a result becoming one of the very first women to make a speech in Parliament… (if unauthorised)! She was jailed for a month in Holloway for this action. She also formed the League of Light, an organisation to support women, particularly stage actresses, who were oppressed or abused by their employers.

The Women’s Freedom League ‘Votes for Women’ Caravan

On 16 February 1909, King Edward VII officially opened Parliament for the coming year. As a part of the usual bombastic festivities a procession was to be held to the Houses of Parliament, led by His Majesty.  To gain attention to the suffrage cause, Matters’ decided to hire a dirigible air balloon (similar to a modern-day blimp in appearance) and intended to shower the King and the Houses of Parliament with pamphlets headlined with the words “VOTES FOR WOMEN”.

Thirty years later she recalled the trip:

“That morning I went to Hendon and met Mr Henry Spencer who had his airship all ready near the Welsh Harp [These days renamed the Brent Reservoir.] It was quite a little airship, eighty eight feet long (25m), and written in large letters on the gas bag were three words, Votes For Women. Below this was suspended an extremely fragile rigging carrying the engine and a basket, like those used for balloons. We loaded up about a hundredweight of leaflets, then I climbed into the basket, Mr Spencer joined me, and we rose into the air.”

The dirigible, with ‘Votes for Women’ painted on one side and ‘Women’s Freedom League’ on the other, ascended to an altitude of 3,500ft (1,000 metres). “It was very cold,” Muriel recalled, “but I got some exercise throwing the leaflets overboard.”  She later described how Spencer had to climb out of the basket repeatedly and clamber ‘like a spider’ across the dirigible’s framework to make adjustments to the engine. “Suddenly I realised that if he fell off, I hadn’t the first idea how to manoeuvre the airship.” she said. “Not that I was terribly bothered about that. I was too busy making a trail of leaflets across London.”

Matters scattered 56lbs weight of handbills on the streets and houses below as she flew, with other leading members of the Women’s Freedom League, Edith How-Martyn and Elsie Craig, following behind by car.

However, airships and dirigibles, in these early days of steampunk, were difficult to manoeuvre, especially in adverse weather conditions… They tended to drift with the wind, having limited power of their own – in this case a small motor. The wind on the day in question blew somewhat against the suffragette Air Force, frustrating Muriel’s plan to fly over the Palace of Westminster, Instead they drifted around the outskirts of London, passing over Wormwood Scrubs, Kensington, Tooting, eventually crash-landing in the upper branches of a tree in Coulsdon in Surrey, after a flight lasting an hour and a half in total.

Despite failing to fly over the king’s procession, Matters considered the aerial adventure a great success. “The flight achieved all we wanted”, she said. “It got our movement a great deal of publicity, as you can imagine. In those days, the sight of an airship was enough to make people run for miles!”

Muriel’s airship adventure was also the first powered flight from what later became the London Aerodrome at Hendon, which was to feature prominently in both World Wars, and site of various pioneering aviation experiments, among them the first airmail, the first parachute descent from a powered aircraft, the first night flights, and the first aerial defence of a city.

Muriel Matters continued with her political life as an active member of the suffragettes lecturing all over the world.

Like many of her comrades in the Women’s Freedom League and the core group of Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes (and in marked contrast to the bulk of the women’s suffrage movement), Muriel opposed the slaughter of the First World War. In June 1915, one year after the outbreak of the war, Matters declared her opposition to the war in an address entitled “The False Mysticism of War”.

Returning to London from lecture tours abroad in 1916, Muriel became involved with the “Mothers Arms” project in East London led by Sylvia Pankhurst. With the help of others, she educated working class children in the Montessori method in addition to feeding and clothing them. (She had previously studied under Maria Montessori in Barcelona).

After the war, Muriel ran (unsuccessfully) as Labour Party candidate for the seat of Hastings in the General Election of 1924, on a largely socialist platform advocating a fairer distribution of wealth, work for the unemployed and furthering the equality of the sexes.

Muriel Matters died on 17 November 1969 in St. Leonards on Sea nursing home aged ninety-two.

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Being obsessed by airships as well as radical history, Muriel Matters’ flight over West London blew our minds when we read about it. Imagine if this had not been an isolated event, but the start of a free feminist flotilla; airborne activists defeating the male establishment’s control of the streets by taking over the skies… Imagine if we could build such a fleet today; dirigibles or drone-powered; link them together to form free-floating libertarian communist cities in the lower atmosphere, outside the alleged national airspace of the so-called nations… Our theory heavier than cannonballs, our dreams lighter than air…

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

Today in London radical herstory, 1907: Women’s Suffrage campaigners first big demonstration for the vote, the ‘Mud March’

On 9 February 1907, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies held the first large-scale women’s procession through London, from Hyde Park Corner to Exeter Hall; on the Strand, (now the site of the Strand Palace Hotel).

Around 3,000 women took part, from a range of social classes and occupations, and representing over 40 suffrage organisations. The march was organised by Phillippa Strachey, daughter of leading suffragist Lady Strachey. The women’s suffrage movement had adopted a myriad of tactics, but had never really attempted a mass demo before; the success of the Mud March inspired the NUWSS and the WSPU to organise many larger and larger marches over the next few years.

The torrential rain led to this demonstration becoming known as the “Mud March”: “mud, mud, mud” was the dominant feature of the day, wrote Millicent Garret Fawcett.

The movement for women’s suffrage had become divided between the ‘constitutional’ wing, broadly grouped around the NUWSS, and those who supported direct action, who had largely joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

The NUWSS continued to lobby, campaign, work through the main political parties, and try to convince politicians as female suffragists had done for several decades. The WSPU held that this approach had been failing to achieve the vote for women for so long that new tactics were needed – more militant and confrontational. WSPU demonstrations, heckling and harassing of politicians, and disrupting of political meetings had been achieving publicity beyond what the constitutional suffragists had managed… Although at this time, relations between the NUWSS and WSPU were still reasonably cordial, and certainly not as acidic as they became later, the more respectable wing felt the pressure to up their game a bit, to show they still had as much influence…

In January 1906 the Liberal Party, led by Henry Campbell-Bannerman, had won an landslide general election victory. Before the election many Liberal MPs had made vague or more definite promises that the new administration would introduce a bill to legislate for women’s suffrage, But after the election, safe in power, Campbell-Bannerman refused to act on the vote for women, saying that it was “not realistic” to introduce new legislation.In response, the WSPU organised a march in protest, attended by 300–400 women.To show that there was support for a suffrage bill, the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage proposed holding a mass procession in London to coincide with the opening of Parliament in February.

Plans for the march highlighted the divisions that were already opening up in the suffrage movement. The Women’s Cooperative Guild would attend only if certain conditions were met, and the British Women’s Temperance Association and Women’s Liberal Federation (WLF) would not attend if the WSPU was formally invited, objecting to the WSPU’s criticism of the government. The WLF was an arena where much of the suffrage movement thus far had been operating. At the time of the march, ten of the twenty women who sat on the NUWSS executive committee were connected to the Liberal Party.

The procession designed to raise public awareness for a private member’s bill for women’s suffrage at the opening of the Parliament.

The march was noted at the time for its wide-ranging class representation. The leadership of he suffrage movement was often highly aristocratic, and this was reflected in the prominent figures heading the march, including Lady Frances Balfour, sister-in-law of Arthur Balfour, the former Conservative prime minister; Rosalind Howard, the Countess of Carlisle, of the Women’s Liberal Federation; the poet and trade unionist Eva Gore-Booth; and the veteran campaigner Emily Davies. But the middle class was also heavily present – professional women – doctors, schoolmistresses, artists – and there were also large contingents of working women from various cities, marching under banners announcing their varied trades: bank-and-bobbin winders, cigar makers, clay-pipe finishers, power-loom weavers, shirt makers. If the leadership of the NUWSS and WSPU was generally posh, women’s suffrage was a cutting issue right down to the active layers of the working class.

The march was led by Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS, Lady Strachey, Lady Frances Balfour, and Keir Hardie, also prominent suffragists. The Artist’s Suffrage League designed posters and postcards advertising the march, and designed and made around 80 embroidered banners for the march itself.

Despite the wet weather, thousands of people turned out to watched the march. The sight of thousands of women from across social divides marching together was enough of a novelty to persuade people to brave the rain. Press from across Europe and America were fascinated by the diversity of women involved. At the time, it was perceived that women were reluctant to make displays of themselves in public. As such, the participants in the march were considered to be even more dedicated to the suffrage because they were willing to put themselves through such an experience. Kate Frye was on the march, and she obviously relished taking part, writing in her diary that she “felt like a martyr of old and walked proudly along.”

The rally at the end of the march was chaired by Walter McLaren, and his wife, Eva, a member of the Women’s Liberal Federation, gave a speech. Other speakers were made by Eva Gore Booth (Women’s Trades Council) and Esther Roper (Women’s Textile Workers’ Committee), and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, president of the NUWSS, Lady Strachey, Keir Hardy, and Israel Zangwill.

Although the militant WSPU was not officially represented, many of its members attended the demo, including Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Annie Kenney, Anne Cobden-Sanderson, Nellie Martel, Edith How-Martyn, Flora Drummond, Charlotte Despard and Gertrude Ansell. At this point “belonging to both organisations, going to each others’ events and wearing both badges was quite usual”, though heavy divisions were opening up and would sharpen over the coming months.

At 2.30 pm the march, having formed a line down Rotten Row, set off in the drenching rain, led by a brass band, and followed by a phalanx of carriages and motor cars, many of which carried flags bearing the letters “WS”, red and white banners and bouquets of red and white flowers. Despite the rain, thousands of onlookers thronged the pavements to enjoy the novel spectacle of “respectable women marching in the streets”.

Some of the press was heavily critical of the demo, including modern liberal darlings, The Observer, whose leading article the day after the march read:

“It is not so much who is to mind the baby … but a question concerning the fundamental idea of sex, and the effects physical, mental and economic, that any revolutionary change in the conditions of women’s life must have on the vital civic duty and natural function of women—which is the healthy propagation of race. … What is aimed at is nothing less than complete sex emancipation; the right of women not only to vote, but to enter public life on equal conditions with men. It is a physical problem before all things, and an economic problem of great complexity and difficulty. … It is the fact that woman are not educated to take any rational interest in politics, history, economics, science, philosophy or the serious side of life, which they, as the embodiment of the lighter side, are brought up, and have been brought up since the days of Edenic beginnings, to consider as the privilege and property of the stronger sex. The small section of women who desire the vote completely ignore the educational feature of the whole question, as they do the natural laws of physical force and the teachings of history about men and Government”

Lovely.

The Observer also recorded that “there was hardly any of the derisive laughter which had greeted former female demonstrations”, although The Morning Post reported “scoffs and jeers of enfranchised males who had posted themselves along the line of the route, and appeared to regard the occasion as suitable for the display of crude and vulgar jests”.  The Daily Mail —which supported women’s suffrage (unusually progressive, for them?) —carried an eyewitness account, “How It Felt”, by Constance Smedley of the Lyceum Club. Smedley described a divided reaction from the crowd “that shared by the poorer class of men, namely, bitter resentment at the possibility of women getting any civic privilege they had not got; the other that of amusement at the fact of women wanting any serious thing … badly enough to face the ordeal of a public demonstration”.

A commemorative napkin designed to remember the Mud March

Approaching Trafalgar Square the march split in two (along, er, class lines!): representatives from the northern industrial towns held an open-air meeting at Nelson’s Column, which had been arranged by the Northern Franchise Demonstration Committee. The main march continued to Exeter Hall, for a more respectable indoor rally chaired by the Liberal politician Walter McLaren, whose wife, Eva McLaren, was one of the scheduled speakers. Keir Hardie, leader of the Labour Party, told the indoor meeting that if women won the vote, it would be thanks to the “suffragettes’ fighting brigade” (possibly meaning the actions of the WSPU, a comment that got him loudly hissed by several Liberal women on the platform) Hardie spoke strongly in favour of the meeting’s resolution, which was carried, that women be given the vote on the same basis as men, and demanded a bill in the current parliamentary session. Daggers were certainly out between the constitutionalists and the militants: at the Trafalgar Square meeting, Eva Gore-Booth referred to the “alienation of the Labour Party through the action of a certain section in the suffrage movement”, and asked the party “not to punish the millions of women workers” because of the actions of a small minority. But when Hardie arrived from Exeter Hall, he expressed the hope that “no working man bring discredit on the class to which he belonged by denying to women those political rights which their fathers had won for them”.

The march was considered so successful that Pippa Strachey was asked to organise all the NUWSS’s later large marches.

Four days after the march, the NUWSS executive met with the Parliamentary Committee for Women’s Suffrage to discuss a private member’s bill. The same day, the suffragettes held their first “Women’s Parliament” at Caxton Hall, after which 400 women ‘rushed’ the Commons to protest against the omission from the King’s Speech, the day before, of a women’s suffrage bill; over 60 were arrested, and 53 chose prison over a fine.

On 26 February 1907 the Liberal MP for St Pancras North, Willoughby Dickinson, published the text of a Women’s Enfranchisement Bill, proposing that women should have the vote subject to the same property qualification that applied to men. This would have enfranchised between one and two million women. Although the bill received strong backing from the suffragist movement, in the House of Commons, some of the MPs who might have normally supported votes for women regarded it as giving more votes to the propertied classes, while doing nothing for working women. On 8 March Dickinson introduced his bill in the House of Commons for its second reading (pleading that members should not be swayed by their distaste for the WPSU’s militant actions; the “Ladies Gallery” was kept closed during the debate in case of protests by the WSPU). But the debate was inconclusive and the bill was “talked out” (filibustered) without a vote. After a mammoth effort in supporting the bill, lobbying MPs and campaigning, this feeble end affronted many on the NUWSS; the damp squib respectable campaigning had achieved had the effect of increasing support for the more militant WPSU.

The success of the Mud March, despite the foul weather, helped establish the large-scale organised procession as a key tactic for the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain. The demo was the largest-ever public demonstration in support of woman’s suffrage thus far; although progress on the parliamentary front seemed as far off as ever, the demo had huge significance in the general suffrage campaign. It brought the constitutionalists’ tactics closer to those of the WSPU. The ‘humiliating’ idea of parading in the street also established a theme of martyrdom in the movement, which was to increase over the next decade (especially among the upper class women for whom public appearances were supposed to be carefully choreographed). Ray Strachey wrote:

“In that year the vast majority of women still felt that there was “something very dreadful in walking in procession through the streets; to do it was to be something of a martyr, and many of the demonstrators felt that they were risking their employments and endangering their reputations, besides facing a dreadful ordeal of ridicule and public shame. They walked, and nothing happened. The small boys in the streets and the gentlemen at the club windows laughed, but that was all. Crowds watched and wondered; and it was not so dreadful after all … the idea of a public demonstration of faith in the Cause took root.”

The Mud March marked a sea change in public perception of the NUWSS – from being seen as a “regional debating society” it entered into the sphere of national politics. The failure of Dickinson’s bill also led to a new direction in NUWSS strategy; it began to intervene directly in by-elections, on behalf of the candidate of any party who would publicly support women’s suffrage.

The stage was set for seven years of intense campaigning, that would accelerate into near civil war…

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

Today in London’s striking herstory, 1908: Corruganza boxmakers win a strike against wage reductions.

In August 1908, 44 young women box makers went on strike. They were part of a 1,500-strong workforce from the Corruganza Box Making works, off Garratt Lane, Summerstown, South London, and they had never struck in their lives before.

Below we reprint Bronwen Griffiths’ account of this strike, originally published in the South London Record, journal of S. London History Workshop.

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The Corruganza company made cardboard boxes of all types for shops and industry and the women concerned worked in a department dealing with tube rolling, cutting and glueing. The cause of the strike was simple. Mr Stevenson, the manager, had ordered a reduction in the wages paid for piece work. In some cases he wanted to cut the pay back to half the previous rate.

Miss Mary Williams, the forewoman, refused to accept the new wages even though she herself had not been affected by the reductions.

“I asked him for a revised price list to put before the hands” she said, “and he gave me the prices on a piece of paper and said ‘If they don’t like it they can clear out’. I told the girls and they struck there and then. I and two of the others were supposed to be the ring-leaders and we got the sack.” (Wandsworth Borough News Aug. 1908).

The strike got considerable public support as well as the backing of the National Federation of Women Workers, which had been formed only two years earlier. Mary MacArthur, Secretary of the Federation, came to address the workers on the picket lines and provided them with strike pay. Within two weeks this had been increased to 5 shillings a week because people like the writer John Galsworthy had sent in sums of £5 and more.

Much of the argument between managers and workers centred around the issue of what was a reasonable piece work rate. The young women were prepared to accept a reduction on one type of the work but, according to Miss Williams, “He (Mr Stevenson) reduced plain work and they could not agree to that, especially as the girls had already lost on the first reduction. Taking all the year round and taking busy times with slack times, our wages do not average 12s. per week. We are supposed to work 91/2 hours a day.”

When we are busy, we work those hours and earn perhaps 17s. a week but for the rest of the year we don’t do nearly so much, and are lucky to get 10s. a week. Under the new conditions, I don’t suppose we could earn more than 10s. a week at the best of times, and our average would certainly be a lot lower than that”.

Another of the strikers was more emphatic. “He won’t give us a blooming chance to live. We used to earn from 15s. to 17s. per week and now we shall get from 6s. to 9s. per week. That is not enough to keep one, let alone a family on”. (Wandsworth Borough News Aug. 1908).

This was at a time when average wages for box making were from 10-15s. a week, with a pound a week being the highest wage. However, according to the ‘Women’s Industrial News’ (1912) ‘workers hardly ever get a full week’s work’.

Nor was the work easy. Polly, who was quoted in ‘The Woman Worker’ of August 21st described how she was exhausted by working on one of the large, heavy rolling machines: “Don’t yer all know that I often gits knocked up with pain in the stommick and ‘ave ter lie in bed all day through ‘andling it? They don’t remember that when they’re reducing their rites and slinging nimes abart”.

Mr Stevenson was adamant however that the women were idle and had ‘tyrannised’ his factory.

“For the past 15 years” he told the ‘Borough News reporter covering the strike “there has been no reduction in wages in the works. More than one attempt has been made to reduce the wages to a proper basis and in proportion to the small amount which the firm receives for the goods. The girls have always objected to any reduction and the managers have always given way to them. That is not my habit and 1 do not intend to start now”.

He continued: “I wanted to put little girls on the machines some time since, but they refused”. (‘They’ referring to the older women). “In fact, they have ruled the place and tyrannised for over 10 years and I don’t intend to stand it. Under the new arrangement the girh will be able to earn from 15s. to 25s. per week and that 1 consider a fair wage for girls”.

The ‘Boro’ News’ reporter toured the factory, claiming that the women could earn between 17s. and 26s. a week at the new prices. These young women were novices. The strikers were very indignant with what they alleged to be ‘mis-statements’ in the paper. “What do ‘e say in yer piper! That we could earn free paand a week at the gime. Lummy, we should just ‘alf like to have a go at it. Fifteen bob is not so bad, and a quid is a lot, but free paand!! So ‘elp me, it’s a bit fick, I don’t fink! “

Although the ‘Boro’ News’ reported Mr Stevenson as saying that no additional women would go out on strike ‘The Times’ of August 14th wrote:

“Peaceful picketing was carried on during yesterday, and one result of this is that seven girls, who were taken on yesterday morning, have signified their intention of not going in this morning”.

The strikers, together with the Federation of Women Workers, arranged a demonstration at Trafalgar Square on Saturday August 22nd. The women came from Earlsfield Station carrying banners with the words ‘Box Makers At Bay’. They marched in a downpour from Waterloo Station via the Embankment to Trafalgar Square where they were met by a crowd of between-five and seven hundred supporters. Mary MacArthur opened the proceedings and the crowd heard speeches from the women themselves, from Frank Smith of the London County Council and from Victor Grayson MP.

The ‘Woman Worker’ of August 28th gives the following account of the demonstration:

“When we got to Waterloo it was raining. My word, it did rain. We marched three a line over Waterloo Bridge and along the Embankment. The rain soaked through and through us. It got into your bones, so to speak” as Polly said.

“And the mud. It was slush up to our ankles, but we felt real gay all the same.

‘Ye waited for a bit under the archway, till all at one it cleared. Polly started to sing, ‘If you can’t do no good, don’t do no harm’.

(This was the women’s strike song).

We were all still singing when we marched into the Square, and all at once the sun started shining, and the big crowd started cheering.

“Miss MacArthur told the people all about the goings-on at the Corruganza works. Then she asked Alice -to speak up and tell the people all about everything. Alice is what they call a fine girl. She’s the big dark one what does the heavy work. Her as Mr Stevenson calls the ‘Battersea Bruiser’. She told ’em how we had been cut down so as we couldn’t earn nothing, and how she stood up to Mr Stevenson and the Galloping Major (what Miss MacArthur says is a commissionaire) and how she got the sack. Then Polly up and spoke. She told the folk how heavy the work was, and what hard times we had been having before the prices were cut down. Then it was Annie’s turn. She has always kept respectable, has Annie, though she has had an awful struggle.

“Annie told them as how she had lost her mother before she was a year old, and her father when she was seven. ‘I have always kept strite up to now” Annie said. ‘Gawd ‘elping me, I will still’.

“All the speeches were fine. Miss Margaret Bondfield and Mr Frank Smith spoke up for us grand, and Mr Victor Grayson, who looked a very young boy to be a member of Parlyment, was spiffin’.

“When the speaking came to an end the crowd flung no end of money up to us. Not only pennies, but crowns and half-sovereigns too.”

Support continued to pour in after the demonstration in the form of money and letters. A group of box-makers from Manchester wrote to the ‘Woman Worker’ saying: ‘We know how hard it is to make a living wage, and we realise that it is our battle the girls are fighting as well as theirs. So we made a collection amongst us, because we think it is our duty to help one another as much as lies in our power’.

On September 3rd the dispute was settled by the Board of Trade. The firm agreed to reinstate all the strikers and the piece work rates were to remain as before, except in the case of tube rolling for incandescent mantle boxes where the rate was to be reduced. Mary Williams, the fore-woman, decided not to return but was sent £10 by a well-wisher to help her until she found another position. The Women’s Suffrage League Paper saw the victory as an important step for women. ‘The amount of sympathy and help given to the strikers by the public shows that, thanks to the Suffrage agitation, fair play towards women has now made decided progress’.

Later in September, however, ‘The Times’ reported Mr Stevenson as saying that the strikers had agreed to accept the reductions as originally proposed and that ‘the strike was entirely without justification. The charge of ‘sweating’ which was really too absurd to need refutation, disposes of itself’.

Miss Sophy Safliger, who represented the strikers at the conciliation proceedings replied immediately to Mr Stevenson’s letter of the 17th September: ‘The reductions agreed to at the conciliation proceedings were only in respect of one class of work, and had already been agreed to by the girls before the strike took place. In the interests of the girls and their helpers, a statement that the strike was entirely without justification cannot be allowed to pass. It is not to be supposed that work-girls, most of whom had worked many years with the firm and were entirely dependent upon their own earnings, with no organisation or funds behind them, would be likely to throw up their work and risk hunger for an imaginary grievance’.

In fact, the ‘Woman Worker’ had already reported on the 11th September Mr Stevenson’s attempts to hide the facts behind the strike. ‘It seemed that at the first meeting the negotiations had not progressed at all, and a fierce resumption of the war had appeared probable. But on the second day a great discovery was made. The strike was an accident – a carelessness. Mr.Stevenson had been misunderstood by the girls, by Miss Williams, by Miss MacArthur, by the Press-men, the Board of Trade – everybody. Reductions? Bless you, he had intended one only: a little one. applying merely small percentage of work, and not seriously affecting wages … It was agreed at last that a settlement should be accepted in good faith and Miss MacArthur reminded the girls that they were organised now and therefore no longer helpless, no longer likely to be agreed upon’.

At the same time as the strike, the Women’s Industrial Council, as reported by ‘The Women’s Industrial News’ of September 1908, was investigating the box-making industry reporting that ‘fifteen or sixteen years ago the wages of. the women employed were, comparatively speaking, good, and the average wage throughout the trade, including that of learners, was, at a guess 15s. If it had been possible to form a strong trade union the same rates might perhaps prevail today. But some employers lowered prices by introducing a great many young learners, who often received for the first few weeks, or even months, nothing at all and only a very small wage afterwards’.

By 1910, ‘The Women’s Industrial News’ was able to report that it is particularly pleasing ‘those who saw at the time of the Council’s enquiry the growing underpayment in this trade, to find it included among the first four in which Trade boards are being instituted; and to learn that the women, stimulated by the hope which these Boards offer them, are joining a trade union by hundreds’. These Boards were set up to regulate wages.

The Corruganza box-makers strike, starting from personal hardship, had now become history and part of a larger struggle. It is an important landmark in working class women’s history.

SOURCES

Clapham Observer Aug 1908
The Times Aug-Sep 1908
Tooting & Balham Gazette Aug-Sep 1908
Wandsworth Borough News Aug-Oct 1908 .
Women’s Freedom League Papers 1908
Women’s Industrial News 1908-1912
Woman Worker Aug-Sep 1908
Women in British Trade Unions 1974-1976. Norbert Soldon. Publ. Gill & Macmillan, 1978.

 Typist’s Postscript:

About ten years later there was another strike at the Corruganza factory; after a popular forewoman was replaced by a strict disciplinarian, who cracked down on what some of the workers thought to be a relatively free and easy work regime, the new gaffer was assaulted by a number of the workers who then walked out on strike. As far as I can work out they were all sacked and not taken back. 

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2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London entertainment history, 1907: striking performers & artistes launch the ‘Music Hall War’

The ‘Music Hall War’ of 1907 saw music hall employees, stage artistes and London theatre proprietors walk out on strike against changes in conditions imposed by music hall and theatre proprietors. The strike was sparked by changes to pay, the scrapping of perks, and an increase in working hours, and a dispute about increased matinée performances.

The strike officially began on 22 January 1907 at the Holborn Empire in London. It lasted for two weeks, winning support from popular entertainers of the day including Marie Dainton, Marie Lloyd, Arthur Roberts, Joe Elvin and Gus Elen, all of whom took an  active part in picketing outside both London and provincial theatres.

The strikes ended two weeks later and resulted in a rise in pay and better working conditions for both stage workers and artistes.

Music hall entertainment evolved in the London taverns and coffee houses of 18th century, where performers were hired to sing whilst the audience socialised. By the 1830s many publicans set aside specific rooms for punters to play music or sing together; some of these groups met to rehearse during the week, then put on a Saturday evening show at the end of the working week. Sometimes such gatherings were known as a ‘free and easy’. These meetings became popular and increased in number to two or three times a week. Gradually ‘music halls’ grew out of these back rooms, and theatres were purpose-built to house the growing popularity of Music hall entertainment. The audiences consisted of mainly working class people; the performers overwhelmingly arose from the same class. While the old ‘free and easy’ groups had initially been generally male, and this was reflected in early audiences, impresario Charles Morton actively invited women into his music hall, believing that they had a “civilising influence on the men”. The surge in popularity further attracted female performers and by the 1860s, it had become common place for women to appear on the music hall stage.

By 1875 there were 375 music halls in London, and a further 384 in the rest of England. As the number of venues increased and their popularity rocketed, other avenues for profit-making opened up – for instance, Music-hall proprietors enlisted a catering workforce who would supply food and alcohol to the punters. To capitalise on the increasing public demand, some entertainers frequently appeared at several halls each night, especially in London, where travel between halls was relatively quick and easy. As a result, leading performers became popular, not only in London, but in the English provinces.

Music halls adopted a design based on contemporary theatres – which included fixed seating in the stalls. These improvements proved expensive and managers had to abide by the strict safety regulations which were introduced for theatres in the late 19th century. The mounting overheads, including building costs and the performers fees, music hall proprietors were forced to sell shares to raise cash – many formed syndicates with wealthy investors.

In 1898 Oswald Stoll had become the Managing Director of Moss Empires, a theatre chain led by Edward Moss. Moss Empires had bought up many of the English music halls and came to dominate the business. Stoll became notorious among his employees for implementing a strict working atmosphere. He paid them a little wage and erected signs backstage prohibiting performers and stagehands from using coarse language.

By the start of the 1900s music hall artistes had been in several unofficial disputes with theatre managers over the poor working conditions, low pay, lack of perks, and a dramatic increase in the number of matinée performances. By 1903 audience numbers had fallen, in part due to the banning of alcohol in auditoriums and the introduction of the more popular variety show format, favoured by Stoll.

Until the turn of the century, most music hall entertainers had enjoyed relatively flexible working arrangements with music hall owners. By the Edwardian era, however, terms and conditions were increasingly formal, preventing entertainers from working at other local theatres, for example.

The Variety Artistes Federation had been founded in 2006, and quickly amassed a membership of nearly 4,000 performers. In the same year the Federation initiated a brief strike on behalf of its members.
This was not the first attempt to organise a trade union for music hall performers: in 1873, a short-lived Music Hall Protection Society had been founded, and in 1884, the Music Hall Artists Association had briefly existed, founded in response to managers’ imposition of a maximum salary and wage reductions. In the latter case the association had lapsed after management’s offensive was broken, partly by divisions among managers, some of whom broken agreed wage levels to hire music hall stars.

In the late 1890s a 5000-strong Music Hall Artistes Railway Association had also campaigned to secure cheaper rail travel for artistes from the railway companies. This Association had united with the Grand Order of Water Rats and several other smaller music-hall friendly societies in 1906 to form the Variety Artistes Federation.

The 1907 dispute began when in addition to the single matinée (afternoon) performance included in most performers’ contracts, music hall owners began to demand additional shows – adding up to four matinées a week to the workload, in some cases, for no extra pay. A memorandum distributed by the VAF on its founding summed up the artistes’ resentment of this practice:

“Notwithstanding the vast increase in the popularity of music entertainments (due, sin some measure, your memorialist submit, to the work of the artists themselves), and the great addition to the number of variety theatres, the position of the artist has suffered great deterioration.

Whereas a few years ago artists were called upon to give only six or seven performances per week, they are now required under the two-houses-per-night system to play twice that number (and in some cases, unfortunately, matinees in addition), but except in a very few instances they have had to give these twelve, thirteen, fourteen or fifteen performances for the same salary they received for six or seven hithertoo. To these altered conditions they have submitted in the interests of the proprietors; but now the provisions of the barring clause are being so rigourously enforced as to inflict a great additional hardship and heavy financial loss on artists who are out or work by preventing them from accepting contracts when engagements are offered.”

(For the issues caused by the barring clause see the strikers’ demands, below).

In December 1906, Walter Gibbons, proprietor of a chain of music halls, attempted to transfer the entire staff working at the Brixton Hippodrome to the Brixton Empress and vice versa, in response to a licensing dispute with the London County Council. Resenting this diktat, the VAF picketed both theatres; Gibbons tried to beat this by hiring non-VAF artists. A fortnight of chaos followed. Although Gibbon eventually backed down, the VAF decided now was the time to escalate the dispute across a number of venues.

A mass meeting of VAF artists, members of the Amalgamated Musicians Union and the National Association of Theatrical Employees at the Surrey Theatre on 20th January 1907 agreed demands and launched a strike.

On 21 January, workers at the Holborn Empire joined the strike action, and theatrical workers at other venues followed suit and initiated widespread strikes across London. The strike eventually spread to 22 London variety theatres, involving some 2,000 of the Variety Artistes Federation’s membership on picket lines at one time or another.

Picket lines were organised into shifts outside theatres by workers and artistes. The news reached provincial theatres and managers attempted to convince their artistes to sign a contract promising never to join a trade union.

The disputes were funded by the few more famous and wealthy performers, including Marie Lloyd, Arthur Roberts, Gus Elen – as well as by the Edwardian labour movement. Labour leaders including Ben Tillett and Keir Hardie spoke out in support of the strike.

Lloyd frequently performed on picket lines for free and took part in fundraising – playing a well-publicised benefit gig, dubbed ‘A Night With the Stars’, at the Scala Theatre on February 11th. Generally she donated her entire fee to the strike fund. Lloyd explained her support for the strike: “We the stars can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the federation in whatever steps are taken.”

The strikers’ set out their list of demands, as follows:

  1. That at all halls working two shows a night, all matinees shall be paid for at the rate of one-twelfth salary for each matinee. In one-show-a-night halls, all matinees over one per week to be paid for at the rate of one seventh salary.
  2. That no artiste or artistes shall be transferred from one hall to another without his, her, or their consent.
  3. That “time” shall not be varied after Monday in each week without the artistes consent.
  4. That all disputes shell be referred to a Board of Arbitration, such board to consist of two nominees of ________________ the undersigned, and two nominees of the Variety Artistes Federation Executive Committee, and an independent chairman, to be nominated by the above four nominees.
  5. That a “barring clause” of one mile and three months in London, and five miles and five months in the provinces, be adopted.
  6. No commission to be stopped where artistes are booked direct.
  7. No bias or prejudice to be shown to any artiste who has taken part in this movement.
  8. This agreement to refer to all existing and future contracts, and to become operative on _____________ 1907.
  9. That the V.A.F. form of contract be adopted as soon as supplied.

The causes and grievances lying behind these demands were legion:

  1. That at all halls working two shows a night, all matinees shall be paid for at the rate of one-twelfth salary for each matinee. In one-show-a-night halls, all matinees over one per week to be paid for at the rate of one seventh salary.

In the years leading up to the strike a number of music hall managers, in a bid to increase their revenues, had decided to stage two performances every evening instead of one. The first typically beginning around 6:45 and the second at around 9:00PM. As the overall lengths of these performances had to be shortened to fit two shows into one evening admission prices were reduced, but doubling up on attendances led to greatly increased receipts overall. When this system was implemented the majority of performers were told that they would have to give two performances per evening instead of one, but without any increase in salary. Of course, the length of their individual turns was reduced but with earlier start and later finish times they were made to remain in the theatre much longer. Thus the artistes were expected to contribute more to each evenings performances without any corresponding increase in payment. Even so, most accepted this with minimal complaint. However, the unfairness did not end there.

In the music halls at that time it was customary for performers who were engaged for a full week of evening performances to give one afternoon matinee performance free. When the performers were engaged for twice the number of evening performances, even without their salaries being increased, they were expected to give twice the number of free matinee performances as well, ie. two per week instead of one. This further increased the burden placed upon them with still no increase in payment. Some managers went even further, writing into contracts “matinees as required”, and at holiday periods performers might be expected to give matinee performances daily – for no pay.

This demand by the V.A.F. therefore was for nothing more than a return to the original status quo. Where performers were contracted to perform one show a night they would give one matinee free as before, and additional ones would be paid pro rata. Where they were contracted for two shows a night, each matinee would be paid at what amounted to half their nightly salary, so for two matinees they would be paid one evenings salary which effectively amounted to the same thing.

  1. That no artiste or artistes shall be transferred from one hall to another without his, her, or their consent.

Music Hall artistes were generally contracted to the manager rather than the hall, and as many managers controlled more than one hall they would expect to shift their performers around as and when they saw fit. If a performer was transferred to another hall in the same locality that might present little hardship, but a performer might just as easily be moved to a hall across London or somewhere in the provinces. This might make it impossible for that performer to fulfill other engagements he or she may have entered into with another manager (and which he/she could easily have kept whilst working at the original location), thus leading to a loss in earnings. Furthermore, artistes could be transferred to halls in different parts of the country from week to week thus accumulating considerable travelling expenses for which they were not compensated.

This clause therefore sought to protect the artistes from these types of hardships by ensuring that they would only be transferred to other venues by mutual agreement.

  1. That “time” shall not be varied after Monday in each week without the artistes consent.

Managers would sometimes manipulate the timing of certain acts to force out artistes whose services were no longer required. For example, a particular performer may have two concurrent engagements for twenty minute ‘turns’ at different halls, timed to appear on stage at one venue at say 8:00PM and the other at say 10:00PM. If the manager of one hall decided he no longer required that act he could not dismiss it without paying up the remainder of the contract. So instead he would deliberately change the timing of that turn so that it clashed with the artistes other commitment. This would force the artiste to be the one to break the contract since he/she could not be in two places at once, and the manager would not then be liable to pay compensation.

This clause in the V.A.F.’s demands was intended to give some measure of protection to artistes against this form of constructive dismissal. It was hardly unreasonable to ask that artistes be informed on Monday at what hours they were required to perform for the remainder of that week, and would afford them some measure of security to accept other bookings.

  1. That all disputes shell be referred to a Board of Arbitration, such board to consist of two nominees of {space for signatory} the undersigned, and two nominees of the Variety Artistes Federation Executive Committee, and an independent chairman, to be nominated by the above four nominees.

In all disputes between managers and artistes the managers themselves had always been the sole arbiters. The artistes had had little choice in most cases other than to bow to the managers will, however unfair that may sometimes have been.

The purpose of this clause therefore, was to ensure that future disputes would be settled fairly, according to the facts.

  1. That a “barring clause” of one mile and three months in London, and five miles and five months in the provinces, be adopted.

It was common practice for music hall performers contracts to include a clause barring them from performing at another hall within a certain distance to the one at which they were contracting to appear. This was not unreasonable since engagements were usually arranged in advance. If an artiste was then to appear at another nearby hall before actually commencing a given engagement the local populace would already have seen his or her act. This reduced the novelty of that artiste’s performance and lessened his/her drawing power, potentially reducing attendances at the second hall.

What was unfair about this restriction however was that it commonly took no account of time, but simply came in to effect from the moment the contract was signed. Some engagements might be arranged a whole year or more in advance however, and it was unfair to prevent an artiste from earning a living within a particular area for so long a period of time. Furthermore, an artiste may have signed a number of such future engagements, thus adding to the areas in which he/she is barred from appearing in the short term.

The purpose of this clause was simply to limit the time and distance over which this barring clause applied in an effort to be fair to both parties. Since halls were more numerous in London, and the population more densely packed so that they drew their patrons from a smaller area, the restriction was less here than in the provinces.

  1. No commission to be stopped where artistes are booked direct.

Oftentimes, artistes would be booked through a theatrical agent, in which case the agent would be paid a commission consisting of a percentage of their salary. This commission was recompense to the agent for their time and effort in finding work for the artiste. When no agent was involved however, it was common practice for the theatre managers to stop the customary agents commission (5%) from the artistes salary which they would then keep instead!

This clause then was intended to end a practice which was unique to the music halls and which the artistes considered to be little less than extortion.

  1. No bias or prejudice to be shown to any artiste who has taken part in this movement.

This clause was simply to protect any performers who had taken leading roles in the strike from reprisals by the managers.

  1. This agreement to refer to all existing and future contracts, and to become operative on {space for date} 1907.

This clause was to the date, when agreed, from which the these new terms and conditions were to come into effect.

  1. That the V.A.F. form of contract be adopted as soon as supplied.

The V.A.F. were to supply the managers with a new form of contract document encompassing these terms and conditions which the managers were then to use for future contracts.

The strike was not limited to the artistes alone. The orchestra musicians also took part, their main grievance being with their low pay. They asked for a minimum salary and payment for matinees based on one full evenings salary for one show a night houses, and half an evenings salary for two show a night houses.

The National Association of Theatrical (Stage) Employees, which represented the music-hall stage hands, also joined in the strike. In some ways their members had most to strike about. They had been particularly hard hit in those houses which had changed to two shows a night. Two shows meant a longer evening, more scene and lighting adjustments etc. All of which meant more work for everyone from the dressers and make-up artists to the scene changers and lighting men. Poorly paid already, they had been expected to work even harder for the same money. Their demands were simple, just a decent living wage – fair pay for honest work.

Some music-hall managers either recognised the justice of the strikers claims or felt the pressure and quickly came to terms. Others resisted more strongly, attempting to keep the halls open by bringing former performers out of retirement and booking unknowns. The striking artistes picketed these halls distributing leaflets declaring ‘Music Hall War!’; the managers responded distributing leaflets of their own defending their position. But by and large the public supported the strikers, especially when they had such popular favourites as Marie Lloyd and Marie Dainton on their side.

When the music hall owners responded by engaging lesser known acts and bringing others out of retirement, the union picketed theatres. On one occasion, Lloyd recognised one of those trying to enter and shouted, “Let her through girls, she’ll close the music-hall faster than we can.”

The strike lasted for almost two weeks.

Gradually the managers were worn down and forced to come to the negotiating table to settle the dispute with fairer pay and better conditions.

In due course, the dispute was referred to arbitration – the suggestion apparently coming from the author Somerset Maugham – and Sir George Askwith, conciliation officer at the Board of Trade, was appointed to try to find a resolution. A ruling was agreed, and on February 12th theatres re-opened as the strike was settled.

After 23 formal meetings and numerous less formal ones, the resulting settlement produced a national code, a model contract and a procedure for settling disputes. In effect, the performers won more money, plus a guaranteed minimum wage and maximum working week for musicians.

Askwith conducted a hearing taking evidence from the Music Hall owners and representatives of the Unions. However, although his February ‘Interim Award’ ended the strike, it took months for the final award to be settled. In June 1907, the first Askwith Award – a 32 page document – was published, attempting to clarify the appropriate “rules, regulations and rates that are applicable to variety theatres in Great Britain and Ireland.” The Award guaranteed musicians in London 30/- per week as minimum pay although drummers only received 28/-.

But it was only 12 years later in 1919 that many of the contracts agreed were actually made mandatory across the music halls a a whole.

Although the strike ended well, the music hall owners exacted small revenges on Marie Lloyd. For instance, five years later, when the first music hall royal command performance for the music hall was held, vengeful managers excluded the greatest star of the music halls from their line-up.

Grievances and disputes in the music halls continued, however, as this extract from the 1907 Trades Union Congress Annual Report reveals:

  • Mr. J. O’Gorman (Variety Artistes Federation) took the opportunity of thanking the Trade Unionists for the help they gave the members of his society during the late strike, especially Mr Isaac Mitchell. He went on to explain the growing evil of the matinee custom, which compelled variety artistes to give a lot of extra performances for nothing. They went to arbitration, and they got an award: but he was sorry to say that, with one exception, the music-hall proprietors were trying to evade it. He hoped the Trades Unionists of the country would continue to support them if they were driven further.

But over time conditions did improve. The music hall artistes had shown that they now had a voice, and the V.A.F. would continue the fight to protect the rights of its members for many years to come. It began its own regular weekly publication, “The Performer”, which was founded by ‘Uncle Fred’ who had been a journalist before becoming a renowned ventriloquist. It would remain the main association for members of the Music Hall and Variety profession until 1957 when it amalgamated with British Actors Equity (formed 1930).

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

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Today in London herstory, 1908: Suffragettes rush on Parliament

1907-8 saw a sharp stepping up of the campaign by UK women to win the vote. Successive rejections of lobbying of MPs, attempts to get political parties onside and other conventional measures had pushed the Women’s Social & Political Union into direct action…

In September 1908, WSPU leaders Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel, and Flora Drummond decided the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) would organise a ‘rush’ on the House of Commons – an attempt to enter en masse to demand the vote for women.

A deputation would attempt to enter ‘enter the House, and, if possible, the Chamber itself’.   To advertise the event, Christabel had thousands of handbills printed, as follows:

‘Women’s Social and Political Union

VOTES FOR WOMEN
Men & Women
HELP THE SUFFRAGETTES
To RUSH THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
ON TUESDAY EVENING, 13th October, 1908 at 7:30

What Christabel meant by `rush’ was not made entirely clear on the leaflet, but asked to explain, she said, `By rushing the House of Commons, the suffragettes mean going through the doors, pushing their way in, and confronting the Prime Minister.’…

On 8 October, in the WSPU offices, Christabel apparently showed the new flyers (`Have you seen our new bills?’) to a visiting police officer, Inspector Jarvis.

On Sunday 11th October the WSPU held a large rally in Trafalgar Square, where Emmeline, Christabel and Flora addressed the crowd. Emmeline Pankhurst records that the police were present at the rally and had them under close surveillance, taking notes of the proceedings and following them [Emmeline Pankhurst My Own Story].  The next day all three were served with the summonses instructing them to attend Bow Street police station that afternoon, on a charge of ‘conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace in circulating . . . a certain handbill calling upon and inciting the public to do a certain wrongful and illegal act, namely, to rush the House of Commons’. None of the women obeyed the summons, however, instead going to a WSPU meeting in Queen’s Hall. Although the police were present at this meeting they did not arrest the women, but again ordered that they should attend Bow Street the following morning, the 13th, the day of the ‘rush’.  Again the women failed to turn up, eluding the police for a day, the three women presented themselves for arrest at 6 p.m., just before the demonstration.  (They had spent most of the day sitting in the Pethick-Lawrences’ roof­-garden, reading newspapers.) They consequently were unable to attend the ‘rush’ themselves.

That evening, about 60,000 people gathered in the vicinity of Parliament Square.   Five thousand constables had been placed on special duty, and the square was completely cordoned off.   As on previous occasions, groups of suffragettes tried to force their way past police lines, and were arrested for trying to do so.

Suffragette Constance Lytton, who witnessed the rush, wrote an account tells of a mixed gathering, women and men, those supporting the cause and those against, together with ‘curiosity-mongers who were fascinated by the fight although without interest for its cause’.

During the course of the evening, twenty-four women and thirteen men were arrested, and ten people were taken to hospital. One woman – Labour MP Keir Hardie’s secretary, Mrs Travers Symons – managed to enter the floor of the House while debate was in progress. Rather than make her way to the Ladies’ Gallery as expected she ran through the doors into the Chamber where MPs were debating the Children’s Bill.  She shouted ‘leave off discussing the children’s question and give votes to women first’ before being bodily removed by the attendant.

The day after the rush, Emmeline Pankhurst, Flora Drummond and Christabel Pankhurst appeared at Bow Street court ,charged with conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace.  The subsequent trial lasted two days, attracting much press and public attention.

The women argued in court that ‘rush’ did not imply violence or any illegal act.  Christabel Pankhurst, a trained lawyer (though as a women unable to practice professionally) defended all three in court, causing a sensation when she tried to call two cabinet ministers as witnesses.  The judge found all three defendants guilty, and imprisoned them when they refused to pay fines.

The WSPU however considered the whole event a success, as the events had won them a lot of publicity.
After serving her sentence, Emmeline Pankhurst was released from Holloway Prison in December 1908.  She was met by a carriage escorted by two bands, women riding white horses and 200 women in white dresses.  The parade was followed by a breakfast of 350 people to celebrate the achievements of her action and she was awarded a WSPU medal to mark the event.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London’s radical history: Anarchist Tom Cantwell, publisher of Freedom, dies, 1906.

This post was totally nicked, tis hard this time of year, and Nick Heath basically wrote what needed to be said…

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“Cantwell was neither a great writer nor speaker, yet he did both well whenever he made the attempt. His specialty was spade work. He often comes to my mind when I listen to the excuses of those who think they cannot be useful without genius. The arranging of meetings, distribution of hand bills and the hundred and one things incident to the revolutionary movement, where hard knocks and privation prevail, without the compensating advantages of glory or notoriety were his speciality”. obituary of Tom Cantwell by Harry Kelly, Mother Earth, February 1907.

Tom Cantwell was born on the Pentonville Road in London on the 14th December 1864, the son of a map-mounter’s clerk. He worked first as a basket-maker and then as a compositor. It was while he was working as a basket-maker that he probably joined the Socialist League in 1886. It was there that he learned the basics of the compositor’s trade. He signed a notice of the North London branch and served on the committee to organise the Whit Monday outing. At this time he was living in Holloway. In February 1887 he served on the committee to prepare for the commemoration of the Paris Commune. He became a lecture secretary, served on the SL executive, and worked hard as a lecturer and propagandist. He had become an anarchist by at least 1887 which is indicated by a lecture he gave entitled “No Master”. That year he spoke with John Turner, Sam Mainwaring and H.B. Samuels at an anti-Jubilee meeting in Hyde Park. He played the part of the foreman of the jury in William Morris’s play The Tables Turned put on in the SL hall in 1887. He lectured at the Berner Street Club in the East End in 1888 on sweated basket-makers and was particularly critical of the Parcel Post department’s behaviour in its contracts for basket-making.

On the evening of May 1st 1891 he was a speaker on the Mile End Waste alongside David Nicoll, Yanovsky, Charles Mowbray and Arnold. The large crowds were mainly made up of dockers and other riverside workers. In attendance was a large force of police, both foot and mounted.

With the repression brought down on the movement by the Walsall affair in 1892 the Commonweal offices were raided. According to David Nicoll the Special Branch officers were told by Cantwell in jest that “We have been expecting you for some time, and do you think we should be fools as to keep anything here likely to get men into trouble”. This was contradicted by W. C. Hart in his highly sensational book Confessions of An Anarchist who says that a book – The Emancipator – which was an explosives manual being prepared by the provocateur Coulon had its type already made up. According to Hart Cantwell “ accidentally” dropped the formes of type during the raid. However this is contradicted by Inspector Melville, one of the police officers supervising the raid who was to construe Cantwell’s sarcastic comment as an admission of guilt but fails to mention the dropping of type formes.

Cantwell was one of the speakers who spoke at the protest meeting on Sunday April 24th at Hyde Park. A large crowd were amused by his imitation of the Scotland Yard inspectors Littlechild and Melville who had told him that they were anarchists.

He was one of those who restarted the Commonweal in May 1893 alongside John Turner, Carl Quinn, Ernest Young , Joseph Presburg and H.B. Samuels. On 5th December of the same year he wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Police on behalf of the Commonweal Anarchist Group Publicity Committee giving notice of a meeting to be held in Trafalgar Square “for the purpose of obtaining a condemnation of your actions in suppressing Anarchist opinions and misrepresenting Anarchist principles”. He had received no intimation on the expected conduct of the police and wanted to know “if you adhere to the claptrap in which you indulged about a fortnight ago”. The letter was minuted as to be ignored and that no meeting would be allowed subject to a decision by the Secretary of State. Cantwell was described as a militant Anarchist who had been connected with The Commonweal for some time. In 1893 Cantwell produced the last issues of the original series of The Commonweal as well as the new series during 1893-4 – with only the six month break when he was imprisoned. He started printing it from 27th May 1893 at 4 Sidmouth Mews. On 29th June he and Ernest Young were arrested for flyposting a poster about the wedding of the Duke of York. The poster advertised an indignation meeting to be held in Hyde Park on 2nd July to protest against the “waste of wealth” expended on “these Royal Vermin”. Apparently Cantwell was behind the idea of the poster and of meetings around the theme. The case was finally dismissed, both Cantwell and Young remaining in prison until the trial, though the owner of the hoarding fined them both.

In 1894 Cantwell published an edition of Mikhail Bakunin’s God and the State with a postscript from Max Nettlau.

On 29th June 1894 he and Carl Quinn addressed a meeting at the new Tower Bridge which was to be opened the following day by members of the royal family and politicians. They wanted to appeal to the workers who had built it and Cantwell had printed a placard which read : “Fellow workers, you have expended life, energy and skill in building this bridge. Now comes the royal vermin and rascally officials in pomp and splendour to claim the credit. You are taken to the workhouse and a pauper’s grave to glorify these lazy swine who live upon our labour”. The reaction to the two anarchists speech was violent. There were many professional anti-socialist hecklers around this speaking pitch, many of them retired soldiers. A mob of 400-500 attacked the anarchists, surrounding Cantwell and shouting “lynch him”, whilst others attempted to strike him with large pieces of wood. For this the police arrested Cantwell for disorderly conduct! As John Quail says “ being pursued by people who were trying to hit him with large pieces of wood obviously amounted to disorderly conduct”.

Quinn managed to escape but was arrested the following day when he went to the police station “to see fair play for Cantwell”. They were kept in prison for a month during various court appearances. Their subsequent trial was something of a travesty. The meeting had been like many previous ones, with no charges brought by the police but this time the charges were incitement to murder members of the royal family, seditious libel on the royal family, and two other incitements to terrorism, all rather flimsy. The judge showed much bias towards the defence. The police were doing what they could to get Cantwell and Quinn sent down, part of the ongoing State campaign against anarchism that had began with the attacks on free speech in Manchester in 1893. Despite many defence witnesses – including William Morris who declared as a character witness that Cantwell was “a good-natured man, perhaps rather rash” – the two anarchists received six months imprisonment with hard labour.

In the period after his release he was also involved in the publication of the anarchist paper The Torch which was set up by the well brought up young ladies Olivia and Helen Rossetti and their brother William. However Cantwell’s habits and character became sources of irritation for the rest of the group. The Rossetti sisters in their fictionalised account of the London anarchist movement of the time, A Girl Among the Anarchists, were to write in a derogatory fashion about Cantwell (disguised as Short in the novel). Geoffrey Byrne, another member of the group was to state that the Rossettis were driven away from the movement because of Cantwell’s behaviour, although there may well have been other reasons for their departure.

In spring 1895 Cantwell was invited by Alfred Marsh to join the Freedom Group, together with John Turner and Joseph Presburg to “reinforce” the ranks and to relieve William Wess who was seeking other employment. With occasional interruptions, when other people were available, Cantwell was in charge of the Freedom printing office from 1895-1902. Harry Kelly, an American anarchist who had moved to England, wrote that “Cantwell and I were the only simon-pure workingmen in the group”. However Cantwell had become difficult. It may be speculated that his imprisonment had affected both his physical and mental health. Harry Kelly was to remark that “he had never quite recovered from the six months hard labour”. He threatened the Italian anarchists Pietro Gori and Edoardo Milano with a gun and appears to have tried to dictate editorial policy to Marsh.

In April 1895 the printing of Freedom was re-started at Judd Street in Kings Cross, in a small building described as a “glass house”.

In April 1896 Cantwell moved with all the print type to 127 Ossulston Street in Somerstown. The printshop there was known as the Cosmopolitan Printery until 1902. In the next year all other anarchist papers closed down. From September 1898 A Belgian, F. Henneghien was able to replace Cantwell and this was a relief to many as he tended to fall out with comrades on a regular basis and was seen as very unreliable rarely producing anything on time. As regards Freedom George Cores noted that Cantwell “ had, as acting editor, a peculiar habit of censoring all contributions, making everything which appeared conform to the gospel according to Cantwell. This did not suit the comrades”. Marsh himself was to write in 1897 to Nettlau that “you cannot imagine what a time I had. 2½ years with Cantwell is enough to kill anyone” (Cantwell had left Freedom in November, at least temporarily). He was again responsible for the printing of Freedom after Henneghien left in 1900.

Cantwell had a heart complaint from at least 1894 and he was soon to have a stroke.

Cherkesov found him on Christmas Day 1902 with his head lying in the “ashes of the fireplace all but dead. He recovered and lived several years after but was never able to work and was never again the same man”. Apparently he had continuing heart trouble after the stroke. Freedom published an appeal for him in 1903 saying that he was “overtaken by a long and trying illness”. He died on December 29th 1906. He was buried at Edmonton Cemetery on 3rd January 1907, his funeral being attended by William Wess, Tom Keell, and Frank Kitz, among others.

Max Nettlau in a tribute to him wrote of his unfailing attendance of meetings, his regular publication of Commonweal after 1892 despite great difficulties and his night activities when he flyposted on prohibited hoardings.

Despite his many faults Cantwell had a long record of activism and remained loyal to his ideas until the end, unlike, say, Olivia Rossetti who ended as a sympathiser of Italian fascism and devout Catholic. He was still able to win the affection of an anonymous member of the Freedom Group who wrote :“We shall all miss poor T.C., in spite of his many crochets”, and Harry Kelly was to remember his old comrade with the final comment: “Farewell, Tom Cantwell! It was worth while meeting you”.

Nick Heath.

Sources:

Becker, Heiner. Notes on Freedom and the Freedom Press 1896-1986. Raven 1. Freedom Press.

Becker, Heiner and Walter, Nicolas. Freedom : people and places in Freedom : A hundred years 1886-1986. Freedom Press

Cores, George. Personal recollections of the anarchist past. Kate Sharpley Library.

Meredith, Isabel (Helen and Olivia Rossetti) A girl among the anarchists. University of Nebraska Press.

Oliver, Hermia. The international anarchist movement in late Victorian London. Croom Helm.

Quail, John. The Slow Burning Fuse. Paladin.

Avakumovic, I , Saville J. BiEntry on Cantwell in Dictionary of Labour Biography Vol. 3

Old Bailey Proceedings, 23rd July 1894.

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

Today in London’s radical history: Suffragettes target Chancellor Asquith’s house, 1906.

The Women’s Social & Political Union’s militant campaign for women’s suffrage stepped up in 1906, with one of the main tactics being to invade Liberal election meetings and heckle, demand support from and put pressure on candidates.

They focused especially on the Liberal cabinet members, including Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Henry Asquith (later Prime Minister).

“The general trend of events now made us feel the necessity of securing a personal interview with Mr. Asquith, and we therefore wrote asking him to receive us. He replied that his rule was not to receive any deputation unconnected with his office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we then wrote as follows :
To THE Right Hon. H. H. Asquith, Chancellor of   THE Exchequer. Sir: I am instructed by my Committee to say that the subject of the enfranchisement of women, which they desire to lay before you, is intimately bound up with the duties of your office. Upon no member of the Cabinet have women greater claims than upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Your Budget is estimated on a system of taxation which includes women. Women not being exempt from taxation have a right to claim from you a hearing. Women are told that you are mainly responsible for the refusal of the Prime Minister to deal with their claim. But being convinced of the justice of giving votes to women they renew their request that you receive a deputation on an early date in order that their case may be presented to you.
Faithfully yours, E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Hon. Sec. of the London Committee of the Women’s Social  and Political Union 45, Park Walk, Chelsea, S.W.

Mr. Asquith returned no answer to this, our second letter, and therefore, without making any further attempt to obtain his consent, we wrote to him saying that a small deputation would call at his house, No. 20 Cavendish Square, on the morning of Tuesday, June 19th. On the appointed day the women arrived just before 10 o’clock in the morning, but, early as it was, they were told that Mr. Asquith had already gone to the Treasury. They thereupon decided that half their number should wait on the doorstep and that the other half should go to look for him. Those who went to the Treasury were told that Mr. Asquith had not arrived, and those who remained on guard at his house were equally unsuccessful, for whilst they had been standing there waiting, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had escaped through the back door in a closed motor car.”

Two days later, they returned to Asquith’s house:

“Our determination to meet Mr. Asquith face to face was still strong, and after our failure to see him on the Tuesday we at once wrote to say that we were sending a larger deputation to interview him in two days’ time. We had now three flourishing branches of the Union in London, one in the centre and two in the East End, and some thirty or forty representatives, partly drawn from these branches and partly from our central Committee, formed the deputation. Carrying little white Votes-for- Women flags and headed by Theresa Billington, some thirty of the East End members marched off in procession for Mr. Asquith’s house ; but on arriving at the edge of Cavendish Square, they were met by a strong force of police who told them that they must at once turn back. The poor women stood still in affright, but would not turn. Then the police fell upon them and began to strike and push them and to snatch their flags away. Theresa Billington tried in vain to prevent this violence, “We will go forward,” she cried “You shall not hit our women like that,” but a policeman struck her in the face with his fist and another pinioned her arms. Then she was seized by the throat and forced against the railings until, as was described by an onlooker, “she became blue in the face.” She struggled as hard as she could to free herself but was dragged away to the police station with the East End workers following in her train.   Immediately afterwards Annie Kenney, with a number of others, most of whom were members of our Committee, came into the Square. Annie knew nothing of what had taken place and, preoccupied and intent on her mission, she walked quickly across the road, but, as she mounted the steps of Mr. Asquith’s house and stretched out her hand to ring his bell, a policeman seized her roughly by the arm and she found herself under arrest. Following this, Mrs. Knight, one of the East End workers, who, because she suffered from hip disease had felt that she could not walk in the procession, came into the Square and crossed the road. On seeing none of the other women she concluded that they had already gone into Mr. Asquith’s house. She intended to join them but, just as she was about to step on to the pavement opposite No. 20, she was roughly pushed off the curb-stone by a policeman and arrested as soon as she attempted to take another step forward. Mrs. Sparborough, a respectable elderly woman dressed with scrupulous neatness in worn black garments, who by the work of her needle supported herself and her aged husband, stood watching this scene in deep distress. Noticing that two maid servants and some ladies at the window of Mr. Asquith’s house were laughing and clapping their hands, she turned to them protesting gravely: “Oh, don’t do that. Oh, don’t do that. It is a serious matter. That is how the soldiers were sent to Featherstone!”A policeman immediately pounced upon her and dragged her away.”

Nicked from: The Suffragette; the history of the women’s militant suffrage movement, 1905-1910

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

Today in London’s undercover history: police spy Rubino exposed, 1902.

As we have remarked on before on this blog, late-19th century London was home to a bustling community of exiles from various European countries, a fair proportion of who were radical activists of one stripe or another, driven from their homes for their political involvement. In Germany, Italy, Russia, Austria, active participation in leftwing politics could often be the key to harassment, arrest, beatings, eviction and the sack…

For many socialists and anarchists living in London, however, fleeing this repression to what was on the face of it a more liberal and tolerant regime in Britain didn’t necessarily mean they escaped surveillance by the police back home. The fact that it was easier to live in London meant it became a base for printing propaganda to be shipped back to the exiles’ country of origin – and increasingly in the 1880s and 90s, to organise plots, provide arms for uprisings and assassinations.

The active involvement of the exiles in supporting radial and revolutionary struggles from London inevitably meant that the secret services, the political police, of several major European powers had an interest in knowing what was going on in London’s radical circles, and in disrupting and dividing it if possible. Most of the socialist and anarchist groups, clubs, and meeting places were heavily infiltrated by spies of all nationalities. British Special Branch also got in on the act. Since many of the activists were expecting police infiltration, and some of the spying was less than competent, suspicion, paranoia and general distrust quickly became second nature among the exiled left scenes. This is in itself, is of course almost as good as spying on people, to make them think that everyone they know is a spy, especially if they aren’t.

Anarchists were particularly targeted by the secret services, especially after some elements of anarchism took a shine to bombings and assassination in the 1880s-90s. The attraction of anarchism to loud-mouthed bombastic nutters, very hard to distinguish from agent-provocateurs, lent itself nicely to a climate of denunciations, accusations and back-stabbing. Which can do the police’s job in itself – sabotaging as much effective action as possible. Yes, we’ve been there – and you know who you are.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Italian police had a number of spies among the exile anarchist community in London. In 1902, the Italian anarchists unearthed a plot organised by the Italian inspector Ettore Prina, using Gennaro Rubino as a spy. The Italian anarchist community in London already had a history of being spied on, arguing among themselves and accusing each other…

Prina enrolled at least two informers: Gennaro Rubino and Enrico Boiada. Rubino provided him with lots of photographs of anarchists, and opened a printing company could both provide a cover for Rubino and follow anarchists’ plans step by step by actually publishing their newspapers and pamphlets. And even more conveniently the anarchists could use the premises of Rubino’s press to organise conferences and meetings and to give temporary shelter to comrades who were unemployed or passing through London. According to Prina, Rubino’s project obtained the approval of leading anarchos, Errico Malatesta, Louise Michel and Peter Kropotkin. But little did the anarchists know that the Italian Ministry of Interior funded it completely to the tune of fifty pounds.

However, in May 1902, the anarchists came into possession of documents revealing Rubino’s collaboration with the Italian police. On 9 May, Malatesta summoned him in front of a court of honour, in the anarchists’ club at 55 Charlotte Street. Rubino did not attend the meeting, at which about thirty people were present. Instead, he sent a long letter to Malatesta claiming that his real intention was to double-cross the consul and the police inspectors by taking the money without providing them with any useful information. Rubino included three letters received by Inspector Prina to support that version; in these letters, the inspector complained about the unsatisfactory nature of Rubino’s spying. Moreover, Rubino added that he had assisted several comrades with the money obtained from the consulate. Finally, he insisted he accepted Prina’s proposal in order to carry out ad hoc counter espionage and discover the identity of other spies of the Italian police.

Rubino accused other anarchists of being linked with the Italian police. And confusion, and some deception (to cover their sources?), about how the anarchist had obtained their proof led to suspicions and counter-accusations.

The day after the meeting, the anarchists sought to obtain more information and documents from Rubino regarding his allegations, but without any appreciable results. They also attempted to ambush Inspector Prina, but he got wind of the plot and avoided any physical harm. As usual when a spy was unmasked, the Italian anarchists issued a leaflet of denunciation, a diffida, against Rubino. In the leaflet, after Rubino’s exposure, they publicised Prina’s address and the name he used as a cover: Piero Marelli. In addition, they published a note in Lo Sciopero Generale and other anarchist newspapers in Europe.

The Rubino affair created a climate of suspicion. Rumours began to circulate; mutual accusations, grudges, and uncontrolled suspicions swirled through the anarchist community. Some anarchists began to raise doubts about the authenticity of the papers implicating Rubino. Moreover, they criticised the fact that the documents were controlled by a small group that, basically, formed judge and jury on the case. They argued that the police could have orchestrated the entire affair and they requested Malatesta and the others to reveal who had provided the documents. A maelstrom of accusations followed, some meetings organised to try to resolve matters ending in fist-fights.

In November 1902, in Brussels, Rubino shot at the King of Belgium, Leopold I, but missed his target. Rubino, who was about to be lynched, was immediately arrested. At the trial, he proclaimed to have acted on his own initiative and to consider himself an anarchist, and that the attempt was an act of revenge for the Belgian authorities’ recent murderous crackdown on a strike in Louvain. He received a life sentence. The police in London felt Rubino may have made an attempt on the life of the King of Belgium in order to prove his bona fides. Rubino had a troubled history of debt, fraud and had clearly been picked to be a spy as he was an easily influenced character – sadly it seem quite possible that he genuinely thought he was still part of the anarchist movement. Maybe he even thought he was playing the police when acting as an informant (not a unique case – the WW1 London syndicalist Billy Watson got caught up in this sort of double-dealing in 1918.) Murky and orrible shit. Rubino died in prison in 1918.

The fallout from the affair left scars on the Italian anarchists, causing splits that didn’t heal, and the collapse of at least one newspaper, among other repercussions.

More than a hundred years later, and we can recognise some of the trademarks. A public inquiry into undercover police infiltration of activist movements in the UK carried out in the last 5 decades is about to begin, and hard work by a number of those targeted by police spies is continually turning up evidence… But paranoia and suspicion, the division caused by knowing the agents of the state are amongst you, can be as paralysing as the actual work these fuckers carry out.

It’s well worth a proper read of an account of the Italian anarchist scene in London at the time, which gives much more of the background on this and other such cases at the time. Your humble blog-typist is struck by the similarity of some of the arguments raging in 1902 and some of the reactions to exposures of police spies within activist scenes in the last 5 years. While some of the tactics and techniques the filth use have changed, some have not – but what remains constant is our ability to be fucked over by both their penetration of us and the revelation of it.

Carefully tread we must, as Yoda would say.

If you have been personally affected by issues raised in this blog, it might be worth contacting

http://campaignopposingpolicesurveillance.com/

https://policespiesoutoflives.org.uk/

http://undercoverresearch.net/

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

Today in London’s rebel history: anti-Boer War meeting attacked by a patriotic crowd, Highbury Corner,1900

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

War finally came on October 9th, 1899; on October 22nd, the local socialist movement had its first test, when an anti-War meeting at Newington Green Road was broken up by a mob singing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘We are Soldiers of the Queen’. The only arrest was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) speaker Percy Kebell, a 21-year- old clerk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Don’t Be A Soldier: The Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918, Ken Weller.

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