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 Hardy 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).

Advertisements

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.

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

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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 syndicalist Billy Watson go 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/

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

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.

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

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

Today in London’s radical (?) history: Labour Party founded, 1900.

The Labour Representation Committee, later renamed the Labour Party, was founded at Congregational Memorial Hall, in Farringdon, London, on 27 February 1900, at a TUC congress.

In 1899, a Doncaster member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, Thomas R. Steels, proposed in his union branch that the Trade Union Congress call a special conference to bring together all left-wing organisations and form them into a single body that would sponsor Parliamentary candidates. The motion was passed at all stages by the TUC, and the proposed conference was held at the Congregational Memorial Hall on Farringdon Street on 26 and 27 February 1900. The meeting was attended by a broad spectrum of working-class and left-wing organisations — trades unions represented about one third of the membership of the TUC delegates.
After a debate, the 129 delegates passed Hardie’s motion to establish “a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour.” This created an association called the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), meant to coordinate attempts to support MPs sponsored by trade unions and represent the working-class population. It had no single leader, and in the absence of one, the Independent Labour Party nominee Ramsay MacDonald was elected as Secretary. He had the difficult task of keeping the various strands of opinions in the LRC united.

Labour had a mixed heritage right from the start: dominated by the trade unions that founded it, with all their confused heritage.
It was always a broad church, half opportunist leadership, half a working class membership that did change social conditions on the ground… basically reformist, yes, but involvement in local councils, education, etc, did make a huge contribution to an evolution of people’s working lives.
On the other hand… much of this was pressure from below, or hashed up half-baked reforms to stave off revolt. And the constant betrayals, compromises, nationalist rubbish, introducing of immigration controls, supporting wars and promoting imperialism, disempowering people’s self-activity, succumbing to corruption, graft, paternalistic contempt… From signing up to the slaughter of World War 1, calling in the troops on strikers from their very first spell in government (no to mention any number of times during their most radical period in power, after WW2), to New Labour adopting Thatcherism with a yuppie face and dancing off to dismember the Middle east (again)… On the other hand there’s little doubt that much of the welfare state, social housing, the NHS which made such a massive difference to us all, reformist or not, owed a great deal to the impetus from grassroots support from Labour activists.

The party tends to spasm from left to right, in reaction to the dominance of the other faction… Now, of course, we are experiencing a leftward surge. History suggests that all the promises of Corbyn and co may end as many new Labour dawns do… Without wishing to engage in posturing, we desire much more than we will ever get from Labour. What is sad in many ways is the eternal renewals of faith in the party’s somewhat bankrupt structures, given new shots of life in every generation. Since Labour always disappoints, the big question is what forms the disillusion of the thousands currently flocking to sing Corbyn’s praises takes, when the dream turns sour.

A book that’s worth a read on the history of Labour: Labour: A Party Fit for Imperialism, by Robert Clough.

On Labour and post-WW2 strikes: The Labour Government versus the Dockers.

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

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

 

Today in London’s rebel history: suffragettes jailed for attack on Parliament, 1907.

The Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), as part of their campaign to pressure the British parliament into extending the vote to women, held a ‘Women’s Parliament’ at Caxton Hall at the beginning of each parliamentary session from 1907, with a subsequent procession to the Houses of Parliament and an attempt (always unsuccessful) to deliver a petition to the prime minister in person.

The WSPU completed plans to march from the Caxton Hall to Parliament on 13 February [1907], the day after the King’s Speech. In the north of England, WSPU organizers sought out women willing to go to prison, and arrangements were made for their brief stay in the homes of London suffragettes.   Two days before the demonstration the WSPU held secret meetings at which 200 delegates were divided into fourteen groups, and each group was provided with a leader.

On 13 February the `Women’s Parliament’ met at 3 p.m. Tickets for the Caxton Hall had been sold out well in advance… Amidst great excitement, a resolution condemning the omission of women’s suffrage from the King’s Speech was passed, as was a motion that the resolution be taken to the Prime Minister. Then Mrs Pankhurst’s cry `Rise up, women!’ was answered by shouts of `Now!’ and a procession of about 400 women was formed. Mrs Despard led the marchers out into bright sunshine, and some of them sang, to the tune of `John Brown’:

Rise up, women! for the fight is hard and long;
Rise in thousands, singing loud a battle song.
Right is might, and in its strength we shall be strong,
And the cause goes marching on.

When the first contingents reached the green beside Westminster Abbey, the police announced that the procession could continue no further.   The women refused to halt.   As they went forward, mounted policemen began to ride through their ranks, in an attempt to break up the march, and constables on foot seized women and shoved them down side streets and alleys.   The struggle continued for several hours, as bedraggled women hurled themselves again and again against the police.   Fifteen women managed to reach the lobby, where they were promptly arrested.

The disturbance lasted for hours; only around 10 p.m. did the melee end. For the first time, arrests had not been confined to a handful of WSPU leaders – fifty-one women had been arrested in addition to Mrs Despard, Sylvia, and Christabel.

Most of the women arrested were given 14-day prison sentences in court the next day.

Caxton Hall’s central role in the militant suffrage movement is now commemorated by a bronzed scroll sculpture that stands nearby in Christchurch Gardens open space.

Check out: A list of those arrested.

(though only 47 are listed there… there seems to be discrepancies in the number nicked).

http://www.alicesuffragette.com
a site dedicated to Alice Hawkins who was imprisoned for her actions on this day.

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

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

Today in London’s radical past: Flora Drummond invades 10 Downing St, 1908

“Now in January 1908 as members of the Cabinet were arriving to discuss the programme for the ensuing session, suffragettes streamed into Downing Street and one of them began to address the group of sightseers. The police dashed across to stop her and found that she and a nurse had chained themselves to the area railings of No. 10. Files and hacksaws had to be fetched from Scotland Yard to free them. Meanwhile they kept shouting raucously ‘Votes for women’. Amid the confusion Mrs. Drummond, known as ‘The General’, arrived in a taxi-cab and, eluding the police, forced her way into No. 10, but was promptly ejected. On two subsequent occasions the suffragettes threw stones and broke the windows of the house, shouting: ‘Next time it will be bombs’; later, for picketing the street, some were at last arrested.”

(No. 10 Downing Street, A House in History, R. J. Minney)

(In those days you could walk right up Downing Street, folks, yes, even right up to the 1980s… )

Born in 1878 in Manchester, Flora McKinnon Drummond (née Gibson, later Simpson), was a British suffragette, nicknamed The General for her habit of leading Women’s Rights marches wearing a military style uniform ‘with an officers cap and epaulettes’ and riding on a large horse, Drummond was an organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and was imprisoned nine times for her activism in the Women’s Suffrage movement.

In the early 1900s Flora was active in the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party. When in 1906, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were nicked in Manchester for hassling Liberal election candidate, Winston Churchill. Flora witnessed their arrest, and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union on their release. Moving to London, by the end of 1906 she had served her first term in Holloway after being arrested inside the House of Commons.

Flora was known for her daring and headline-grabbing stunts. As well as invading 10 Downing Street, later in 1908 Flora hired a boat and sailed up the Thames to Parliament, so she could lecture about women’s suffrage to the MPs sitting on the riverside terrace.

She was a key organiser of the Trafalgar Square rally in October 1908, for which she received a three month term in Holloway, along with Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst for “incitement to rush the House of Commons”. All three rejected the option of being bound over to keep the peace for twelve months instead of a custodial sentence. Flora was early in pregnancy when she was imprisoned, and was granted early release on the grounds of ill-health, after fainting.

In October 1909 she was the organiser of the first militant procession in Edinburgh.

Drummond’s terms in prison, including several hunger strikes took a physical toll on her and in 1914 she spent some time on the Isle of Arran to recover her health. Subsequently she concentrated her efforts on public speaking and administration rather than direct action thus avoiding further arrest. She remained prominent within the movement and in 1928 she was a pall-bearer at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst.

Flora Drummond died in 1949 following a stroke at the age of 70.

Another interesting element to Flora’s story:

As a natural extension of her role as march organiser, Flora captained the WSPU Cycling Scouts. The WSPU Cycling Scouts were formed in 1907 as a means of spreading the suffrage mission to areas beyond urban centres, especially throughout the countryside. The London branch of the Suffragette Scouts was the best known and Flora, who was then based in the WSPU’s Clement’s Inn head office, served as their captain and champion. Each Saturday up to thirty suffragettes dresses in the purple, white, and green colours of the union, their bicycles decorated with flags and other WSPU swag, set out from their meeting spot in Sloane Square for a destination on the outskirts of the city or beyond.

In an interview with the Pall Mall Gazette, Flora outlined the group’s tactics, explaining “We ride into a district, introduce ourselves to the police, and tell them we are going to hold a meeting in the village square. Then we get on a chair or a box, as the case may be, form our cycles into a group around it, and deliver the gospel of votes to women. We go to those places where there is no branch, and where our work is not known yet so well as it should be; our object, which we have no difficulty in accomplishing, being to form new branches.”

WSPU branches around Britain, including Scotland, were encouraged to form their own brigades of Cycling Scouts along the same line of the one Flora captained. The Suffragette Scouts were an important part of the WSPU’s extension work, and one of the most intensive uses of bicycles as part of the suffrage campaign.

From a really excellent blog on the history of women’s cycling,

http://www.sheilahanlon.com/

___________________________________________________________________

An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html