Today in London retail history, 1918: West End hairdressers go on strike

In December 1918 a hairdressers strike broke out in London’s West End: the largest ever hairdressers strike in Britain…

Below we reprint an account by Philip Hoffman, an official of the Shop Assistants Union, from his autobiography, ‘They Also Serve’.

At this time the London hairdressing trade was divided into 3 zones – the City, the West End, and the Suburbs. Hairdressers in the three zones faced very different pay and conditions. In the City, hours were much shorter, tips were larger, and trade brisker than in the Suburbs, but fixed wages were very low; some City hairdressers were on a basic wage of as little as 15 shillings a week. In the West End, hairdressing was considered more upmarket and ‘gents’ and ‘ladies’ were served in the same establishments. There, hours were longer than in the City, but tips were even higher. Hairdressers in the Suburbs worked the longest hours.

Many hairdressers existed on a scanty basic wage, which they could supplement with tips and by selling extras, such as various lotions, face towels, shampoos, (and presumably contraceptives!), usually on commission from the salon. To encourage sales the commission rate to assistants were often quite high.

‘Ladies’ hairdressers generally commanded a higher wage, due to the greater skill and technique involved; ‘ladies hands’ were more likely to have a pride in their craft…

City hairdressers were mostly overseen by the City Hairdressers Guild, which in the manner of the Guilds contained both masters and workers, and tried to resolve disputes and pay issues internally. Low basic wages meant that there was a lot of pressure for a decent minimum wage… In 1917, after much negotiation, a basic minimum of 28 shillings a week for over 21-year olds was agreed… Which was still notably lower, for instance, than the 35 shillings a week Glasgow hairdressers shortly obtained. [Glasgow hairdressers had won improvements in their minimum wage scale from 28s. to 30s. during July, 1915. followed by Edinburgh a month later, and further wage rises had been won in 1917.]

Towards the end of 1917 widespread negotiations were opened in the West End salons. The result was the following Charter, to which more than 20 firms signed up:

Hours – 48 maximum.
Wages at 21 years:
Manicurist (Ladies’) 25S. and 10 per cent. on all takings. Gents’ Hands 35s. and 12 and a half per cent. (chiropody 2d. in is. extra).
General Hands (that is those who do some work in Ladies’ Saloon as well as Gents’) 45s. and commission.
Ladies’ Hands 60s. and commission.
Charge Hands 50s. and commission.
General Conditions-Mealtimes as in Shops Act (which did not apply to hairdressers) and one week’s holiday with full pay.

However a short successful strike was necessary before this agreement was agreed to by Faulkners Saloons, who ran salons in several London railway stations. In June, Harrods Stores, with more than 71 hairdressing employees, signed up to an extended charter, including:

Chiropody-60s. and 10 per cent. on takings.
Postiche Dresser – 60s. and 5 per cent. on takings.

By this time the City Guild agreed to a minimum of 32 shillings. and increased commission from eight and a half to twelve and a half per cent. There were now, in July 1918, eighty-two firms under agreement with the Union, including two large stores, Harrods and Selfridges.

The Shop Steward question was causing difficulty. One firm sacks the Steward as soon as appointed. All staff is withdrawn and an advertisement is put in the trade journal, and the firm falls into line. Another proves more obstinate, but as the staff puts on sandwich-boards and parades in front of the premises, in three days the firm gives way.

The question of assistants waiting on clients at their homes or places of business arises for settlement. This and other matters compelled the drafting of definite duties for Shop Stewards, one of whom was appointed in every saloon. A Code of Working Rules for Shop Stewards was displayed. Here is the code summarised as briefly as possible

“1. All assistants must be members of the Union.

2. The Steward is the recognised intermediary between staff and employer; his duty is to adjust all disputes; when not able to do this they must be reported to the branch committee whose decision is final. Examples are :

(a) Disputes between employers and employees.

(b) Bad time-keeping.

(c) Arrears in subs.

(d) Unprofessional conduct.

(e) Non-Unionists.

Every member is expected to perform his duty to employer, during business hours, and to his colleagues at all times.”

Naturally, after securing so much for so many, the assistants began to tackle a comprehensive charter. A crowded meeting at the International Hall, Cafe Monico, Piccadilly Circus, in January, 1918, confirmed and amplified what was presented to them. Actually they tried to do a very ambitious thing: to draft a charter for all London. The ambitious part of the scheme was to try and get the employers to agree. Indeed, to get the hairdresser employers of London to agree with one another, let alone with those they employed, was proved well-nigh impossible. It is to their credit they tried it. They saw that if, with the ever-increasing development of women’s hairdressing, they were to win control over working conditions, London could not be treated in zones. London must be treated as a unit and the occupation catered for on the basis of class of trade, graded by prices charged. The difficulty of reaching coherence between employers in the matter of charges, was in great part the cause of their inability to work together. The margins were very narrow. As long as anyone with a £10 note could open a barbers shop and charge anything they liked for shaving and haircutting, it was extremely difficult to get a firm foundation, as difficult as it was to get a decent living ! Work it out, on the basis of four shaves per hour at tuppence per shave, with a continuous stream of clients waiting their turn, for 48 hours of the week, you will have gathered in 32 shillings., out of which sum must be paid rent, rates, taxes, light, heat, towels, and so on.

The profession had a weekly paper, The Hairdressers’ Journal, which had quite impartially given reports of the assistants’ activities, so that the meeting which confirmed the draft charter was fully reported, and it became a matter for general, if heated, discussion in the trade. There were three employers’ associations catering for hairdressers: The London Suburban Master Hairdressers’ Association, the City Guild, and the Incorporated Guild of Wigmakers, Hairdressers and Perfumers. The last body was precluded by its charter from dealing with wage negotiations. Nevertheless, its secretary took the initiative and convened a meeting of all London employers at the Cafe Monico early in 1918. But the meeting was apparently not a happy one, for the journal thus commented : “As the meeting developed, the conversation lapsed into the haggling, quibbling and hair-splitting that one expects to meet with over a committee table.”

Eventually a joint committee of the employers’ associations met the assistants and hammered away at the subject, quite unavailingly… The talks went on for nearly twelve months. The employers wanted a 56-hour week, rates only for efficient workers, commission only after wages had been earned, zonal rates and no overtime pay, fines for being late. They could not agree to an all-London rate as the City stuck out against it. However, though at that time nothing was agreed, the talks and ventilation of the subject prepared the way for the agreement which was reached after the great strike, the largest which has ever occurred in the hairdressing trade in this country, the story of which is now due for the telling.

By this time so strong were the hairdressers that they raised between them £1500 to open a club called “The Hairdressers’ Rendezvous” in Archer Street, Piccadilly Circus. All their activities became centred there whilst it lasted. There was a very good restaurant business done, as well as a flourishing bar and wine cellar, a reading-room, billiard saloon, and several meeting rooms.

On December 5th, 1918, a large meeting held at the Rendezvous decided unanimously to make an application to every saloon where the staff were members of the Union, for a 10s. increase to date from December 16th. The date was fixed because of the known procrastinating habits of the employers. The application was sent in to forty-four firms. By the time the strike was over, after seven weeks of exciting struggle, forty-six employers, including Bond Street firms like Hills, Trufitts, and Douglas, as well as Penhaligon of St. James’s Street, had agreed to the 10s. increase, four employers had come to special arrangements, leaving twenty firms covered by the close of the strike terms… Why did the strike have to occur ? Because the firms round Piccadilly Circus hated the Shop-Steward movement and were determined once more, as they put it, “to be masters in their own saloons” – and also, of course, because few could see further than their respective noses.

Only the West End of London and the City were concerned in the strike, the huge suburban areas were untouched, being as yet unorganised. The replies which came to hand by December 16th asked for a month to consider the matter, to which, at first, there was an inclination to agree. But it became abundantly clear that the interval was to be used to take steps to smash the Union. A general meeting agreed, if on the following Saturday the 10s. was not conceded, staffs would cease work; Shop Stewards would constitute the strike Committee and where 10s. was conceded it be paid into a dispute fund to aid strikers. This sum was not only cheerfully paid by those at work, but was subsequently increased to 20s.

Those on strike numbered 270 and remained about that figure to the end, for the situation was continually changing. As some firms gave way and their staffs went back, other firms did not give way and their staffs came out. Then there were the blacklegs. As fast as they brought them in we brought them out. They were waited for at the railway stations and at their homes and some violence was done. There were police court cases, quite a number of them, and one striker got a month in the second division. But as Victor Hugo puts it in Les Miserables, “there are depths below the depths, infamies which are too infamous for the infamous to touch.”  That bottom was reached when the half-dozen blacklegs working at Shipwright’s Saloon threatened to strike when one of the strikers, the only renegade there was, attended to work at that saloon where he was not employed before the stoppage.

It was a very popular strike. It was fair game for the reporters who were let loose on it, for hairdressers do not advertise and we furnished them with a continuous crop of stories. The Daily Mail called it “The Polite Strike. “This strike is not a method of barberism,” said the Star, “The Obliging Strikers” said the Daily Express. Most Papers carried cartoons usually about long beards and “Get yer ‘air cut.” The interest to the public was helped along by the turn and turn about, for the masters became assistants, the assistants became masters.

The masters donned aprons, grasped razors, perched combs in their hair and went to work at Shipwright’s Saloon, the largest gents’ saloon in the West End. The assistants got wind of it and arranged accordingly. Pickets massed outside, even as did customers. And such customers! The unshorn and unshaven of London were gathered there; from highways and hedges they were garnered and given money for shaves and haircuts and a solatium for any loss they would incur. Shipwright’s catered for the elite-generals, judges, Cabinet Ministers. That morning instead of the Upper Ten they got the lower eleven: men whose beards, where not patriarchal, were like wire, and the hair of the head, where it had not become matted, fell in waves even as a woman’s.

The assistants opened the Rendezvous as a saloon. The four billiard tables were taken down, the marble-topped tables from the restaurant upstairs were arranged down the centre of the basement, and the mirrors used in the academies were propped up on them in two rows. High-power electric lights were installed and an electric fan. Thirty chairs were arranged in front of the mirrors and lounges were set against the walls. Several of the upstairs rooms were converted into Ladies’ Saloons and one part of the basement was curtained off for the twelve manicurists. Magically, it seemed out of nowhere, appeared piles of towels, lotions, perfumes, oils, and all the mysterious and indispensable appurtenances of hairdressing which proclaim to all and sundry that you have been to the barbers. From morn to night in relays boys jerked huge cans of boiling hot water up and down the service lifts.

One of the Pressmen had lyrically written in his paper “Visit the Bevy of Beauties in the Barbers’ Hall” – and visit they did, all the hoi polloi. Fashionable London had got a new sensation. A Striking Shave by Striking Shavers! Visitors included Peers of the Realm, Generals, Service Officers, jockeys, Doctors of Science, Ambassadors and at least one Prime Minister – W. Hughes of Australia. All thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Stars of stage, screen and music-hall patronised the Ladies’ Saloons. No charges were made, because that would have brought them under the London County Council regulations, but a large trunk was placed open on a table by the entrance and patrons were asked to give what they liked. And they did like!

The first week’s takings in the Treasure Trunk were £273, 7s. 6d., and remained a steady £30 a day until the close.

A film of the Saloon in full working order was made and exhibited all over the country. Shipwright’s Saloon closed on Saturdays for the half-day. Franks, the next largest, closed on Thursdays, so the employers decided to transfer themselves to Franks on the Saturday afternoon, but so close was it picketed that the employers could not get through – there was only one entrance and that up some stairs. As a precautionary measure a series of itinerant musicians were sent in relays up the stairs to do a turn at the door of the saloon. It was a great joy when one burnt-cork minstrel, entering into the spirit of the thing, sang for half-an-hour on end ” Where is my wandering boy to night,” with banjo accompaniment.

All this time correspondence as well as conversations were going on to try and find a way out. But one could never pin the employers down. If an offer was secured from their representatives, as likely as not it would be repudiated by their rank and file.

Under the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act, 1918, the Minister of Labour had the power to fix a prescribed rate, or a substituted rate for the prescribed rate, where there was a dispute. We invoked (the first body ever so to do) the help of the Minister under that Act. This made the other side sit up. We met together on January 31st, when they offered us 45s. as a minimum for gents’ hands, as a basis of agreement to operate from return to work. On that resumption-of-work question we split. They asserted that some of the men were bad workmen, did not take enough money or were guilty of unprofessional conduct.

On February 7th terms were arranged as follows: Work to be resumed immediately; as a temporary arrangement commission to be raised to 15 per cent., and a committee to be appointed to go into the whole of working conditions which when agreed to shall be operated from March 1st ; the application under the Wages Act to be withdrawn. The terms as finally agreed in May, after meeting three times a week with what had by this time become the London Federation of Master Hairdressers, was as follows:

Gents’ Hands 45s.
Chiropody 2d. in is. extra.
Managers 45s. and overriding commission.
General Hands 52s. 6d.
Ladies’ Hands 70s.
Lady Assistants :
Plain Saloon Hands 30s.
General Saloon Hands 40s.
Commission 12 and a half per cent. on attendance charges after wages have been earned, 171 per cent. on employers’ own preparations, 10 per cent. on general sales, 21 per cent. on proprietary articles.
Manicurists 25s. and 15 per cent. on all takings.
Knotters 30s.
Experienced knotters 40s.
Counter Hands 37s. 6d.

Notes.-For an assistant who mixes, prepares and executes own hair orders, commission be paid over rates. Women taking men’s places and doing exactly the same work as men, to receive not less than the minimum rates laid down for men.

Shop Stewards – An. official spokesman shall act in any shop with four assistants when any difference arises, which if not settled either side can bring to the notice of his Association.’ No collection of contributions shall interfere with business.

[Hoffman’s later memories of the strikers wax lyrical here]…

Conjuring from out the faded years that struggle of the London hairdressers, there appears upon my mind as vividly as upon the silent screen a picture of those glorious but turbulent days. It is not right that what was then done to achieve freedom and justice among us should live only in the shadowing memories of those who played a modest if fruitful part. Their story has a right to live and to be a leading light to all who come after. There were splendid men inspiring that struggle, men of Britain as well as from various countries of Europe. They must have been more than ordinary to perform all they did, to organise as they did, and to achieve what they did. It would be invidious indeed to single out any one of them for special mention. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to do so, for once started there would hardly be an end. There were so many who gave all their experience, their ability, their enthusiasm, and sacrifice for the common cause. Yet I cannot refrain from recalling that splendid character, their chairman, C. S. Fildew. He was tall and slim with a slight moustache, and in conversation spoke like the line English gentleman he was. A gents’ hand at Carter’s in Fleet Street, under his skilled and nimble fingers sat the leading lights of bar and bench as well as innumerable Pressmen. They all respected him. It was largely due to him that we had such a good press, and the movement went forward on that inspiratory note. I wish I could be sure that time and their sacrifices had swept away that obscurantism of hairdressing employers which obstructed their onward march.

No Hairdressing Trade Board was set up. The movement, full of such splendid promise, gradually receded all over the country. The full aspirations of those formative years will some day be realised. The masters alone will not bring it about. The urge of artistry amongst hairdressing employees must, if it is to succeed, come from the workers themselves. There is no other way. If, therefore, this record of what was striven for and what was done helps in a small way to encourage those who are working to so useful an end, it will not have been written in vain. The industry, it is true, is small in numbers, the craft is a small one. It is because it is so small that it can become so great.

Following the London strike, in June 1918 the hairdressers of Greenock obtained a settlement which gave to male and female assistants of four years’ experience 63s., or alternatively at their option 50s. with 15 per cent. on gross takings.

In October another strike occurred, this time in Glasgow. Here negotiations for a 10s. increase had gone on for months and produced an offer to increase their rate from 45s. to 50s. Out came 174 men and women and stayed out with razors and scissors shut for two weeks, when a settlement was reached on the following basis: Rate 55s., with no commission until 70s. has been taken, when it is to be one penny in the shilling until gos., and thereafter fourpence in the shilling.

An agreement with employers in Aberdeen was closely followed by one in Manchester with the Hairdressers’ Federation. They obtained 45s. and commission, etc., with Trade Union membership a condition of employment. Then in August, 1920, an application to the Waldorf Saloons, who had nine branches in Manchester, for a 70S. minimum caused a strike. The employer referred the matter to the Manchester Hairdressers’ Federation. The Federation rejected the claim giving as reason that a Trade Board is to be set up for the industry… The Manchester Press supported the strikers and issued lively posters on their behalf. Newsboys entered into the spirit of the affair ; they went into such saloons as remained open, with the help of friends and relations to have manicures. A settlement was reached after three weeks, the commission payable on earnings being increased to 40 per cent; and that is a substantial percentage.

The lack of agreement on charges continued thirty years later. In March 1948, within 100 yards of Piccadilly Circus, the following prices were charged at different shops for shaving: 4d., 6d., 9d., 1s., 1s. 6d. This is the basic difficulty in the hairdressing profession: the margins are insufficient. The organised assistants, when threshing out their difficulties, knew this quite well. They were prepared to face realities much more soberly and with more foresight than the owners of saloons. There were those amongst the employers who knew what ought to be done, and said so and tried to get it done, but the bulk were unresponsive.

NB: Hoffman’s ‘They Also Serve’ contains many more interesting tales of unionising of shop assistants and other retail workers in the early 20th century. Hoffman himself became a typical quietist union bigwig, and later a Labour MP, keener to negotiate and send members back to work rather than see their struggles develop autonomously, sometimes ordering workers back to work against their own inclinations pending negotiations with employers… this may be why he incurred the wrath of a striker during the hairdressers strike:
“But a high spot of adventure came when a member, at the close of a meeting off Regent Street, suddenly drew a knife and made at me, and if it had not been for Alex Lyon, hairdresser at the National Reform Club, who threw himself at him and so diverted the blow, I might have been severely injured. As the gentleman of the knife insisted on following me, three of the members determined to escort me home, and in the crowded tube train I tried vainly to look indifferent while I was shouted at and bespattered with such epithets as ” Traitor ! ” “Labour Fakir! ” “Robber of the Workers!…”

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

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Today in London’s radical history: Suffragette attempt to burn posh Dulwich College fails, 1913.

“Dulwich College, the famous school in the southern suburb of London, was set on fire in two places at an early hour this morning, and suffragette literature pinned to trees in the neighbourhood with women’s hatpins is accepted as proof that a militant suffragette “arson squad” was responsible for the crime.”

In 1912-13 the militant campaign for women’s suffrage stepped up a gear.

Decade of legal agitation, several years of escalating direct action, harassment of politicians, window smashing and hunger-strikes in prison having failed to shift the weight of the male establishment, the Pankhurst-dominated leadership of the Women’s Social & Political Union prepared to turn to arson.

In July 1912, Christabel Pankhurst began organising a secret arson campaign. Attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. These attempts failed but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes.

One of the first arsonists was Mary Richardson. She later recalled the first time she set fire to a building: “I took the things from her and went on to the mansion. The putty of one of the ground-floor windows was old and broke away easily, and I had soon knocked out a large pane of the glass. When I climbed inside into the blackness it was a horrible moment. The place was frighteningly strange and pitch dark, smelling of damp and decay… A ghastly fear took possession of me; and, when my face wiped against a cobweb, I was momentarily stiff with fright. But I knew how to lay a fire – I had built many a camp fire in my young days -a nd that part of the work was simple and quickly done. I poured the inflammable liquid over everything; then I made a long fuse of twisted cotton wool, soaking that too as I unwound it and slowly made my way back to the window at which I had entered.”

Some leaders of the WSPU such as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, disagreed with this arson campaign. When Pethick-Lawrence objected, she was expelled from the organisation. Others like Elizabeth Robins, Jane Brailsford, Laura Ainsworth, Eveline Haverfield and Louisa Garrett Anderson showed their disapproval by ceasing to be active in the WSPU and Hertha Ayrton, Lilias Ashworth Hallett , Janie Allan and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson stopped providing much needed funds for the organization. Sylvia Pankhurst also made her final break with the WSPU and concentrated her efforts on helping the Labour Party build up its support in London.

In 1913 the WSPU arson campaign escalated and railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire. Slogans in favour of women’s suffrage were cut and burned into the turf. Suffragettes also cut telephone wires and destroyed letters by pouring chemicals into post boxes. The women responsible were often caught and once in prison they went on hunger-strike.

This is the context for the attempt to set fire to Dulwich College on September 5th 1913… for which no-one was ever arrested or convicted.

Is it possible there was a South London suffragette arson squad active in 1913…? St Catherine’s Church on Telegraph Hill, New Cross, had been set on fire in May – there were widespread rumours this was also a suffragette job, though nothing was ever proved. Before that Lilian Lenton and Olive Wharry had been arrested and convicted of setting fire to the tea gardens at Kew gardens in February 1913.

More on the suffragette arson campaign: http://spartacus-educational.com/Warson.htm

Founded in 1618 by actor (and Bankside brothel-owner) Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College is an independent school, which costs £6300 a term or £12-13,000 a term for boarders… If originally founded “to educate 12 poor scholars as the foundation of God’s Gift”, over the centuries it became one of the poshest schools in the London area. It provided a hefty contingent of students to scab during the 1926 General Strike…

It’s now the biggest independent school in the country, which selects boys from the brightest 20 per cent and spends almost £8,000 a year on each pupil. Dulwich College ensures that 95 per cent of its pupils get A-C passes at GCSE and sends 95 per cent of sixth-formers to top universities – 12 or so pupils go to Oxbridge each year.

It’s the preserve of the rich. Compared to local comprehensives it commands massive resources giving the rich kids who attend a leg up to maintaining the class system for another generation. It is funded by the Dulwich Estate, which owns a huge swathe of property over this part of South London, has massive playing fields and top class facilities, but luckily is a charity so avoids a lot of tax. The estate funds Dulwich College, Alleyn’s and James Allen’s Girls’ (or JAGS), which shared £5,815,840 of moneys from the Estate in the most recent year for which there are figures (to March 31, 2015). These are also registered charities.

Earlier this year a few hundred people gathered in Herne Hill, to demonstrate against the behaviour of the Dulwich Estate. The Estate owns 1,500 prime acres of Dulwich and the surrounding area, including the freeholds on 600 flats and maisonettes and the vast majority of the shops and pubs as well as local amenities. The focus of the demo was the closure of a much-loved toy shop, Just Williams, forced out of business by a 70% rent rise combined with a more general concern about the threat of similar rent rises forcing out other shops. They are likely to be replaced by ones which, to pay those increased rents, and will be prohibitively expensive to shop in. The Estate has also proposed selling off a piece of land used as a play area by children at the local Judith Kerr Primary school for flats, and left a popular pub, the Half Moon, closed and empty for over two years. Now that they finally have a proposal for the pub they seem set to accept, it does not include a live music room, which has been a part of it for decades and which locals want re-instated.

More at: http://www.jayrayner.co.uk/news/dulwichcollege/

Maybe we don’t burn it down… but we should definitely take it over… So much that could be cone to share out the resources a bit…

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

Today in parliamentary history: George Lansbury protests torture of jailed suffragettes & gets suspended from Parliament, 1912.

George Lansbury, Labour MP for Bow and Bromley, peace activist, opponent of the Boer War and World War 1, and probably the most leftwing leader the Labour Party ever had (without exception), was also a passionate supporter of the campaign for women to be win the right to vote.

His support sometimes got him into trouble…

Suffrage activists from the Women’s Social & Political Union had engaged in a campaign of direct action to press for votes for women. Smashing windows, attacking the odd politician… Their tactics had escalated to arson. In response to the increased fury of the movement the Liberal government had been jailing suffragettes, and force-feeding them when they went on hunger strike. Force-feeding was a brutal and dangerous procedure which left many women permanently injured.

On 25 June 1912 the Speaker suspended him from Parliament. The pacifist Lansbury, white with rage over the forcible feeding of imprisoned suffragettes, had shaken his fist in the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith’s face, shouting “You will go down to history as a man who tortured innocent women.”

In response to an appeal to release imprisoned suffragettes, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had replied they could leave prison that day of they would give an undertaking not to repeat their offences.

This enraged Lansbury, who shouted: “You know the women cannot give such an undertaking! It is ridiculous to ask them to give an undertaking!”

Shouts of “Order, Order cam from all over the house, but Lansbury continued, and came forward towards the prime minster… He “immediately launched himself at the Treasury Bench shaking his fist in the faces of Premier Asquith and the other ministers. With his face only a few inches from that of Mr Asquith, Mr Lansbury screamed:’ Why, you’re beneath contempt. You call yourself a gentleman, and you forcibly feed and murder women in this fashion. You ought to be driven out of office.”

Described as ‘almost choking with emotion and passion’, Lansbury carried on, despite the speaker telling him to leave, and other MPs shouting their disapproval.

“It is the most disgraceful thing that has happened in England. You are going to go down to history as the man who tortured innocent women. The government have tortured women. It is disgraceful, disgusting, contemptible. You are murdering these poor women. You cannot tell them they they have the opportunity of walking out of prison. You know they can’t do it.”

The house was quickly consumed in disorder. The Speaker finally secured quiet and “ordered Mr Lansbury to leave. He replied, ‘I am not going out while these contemptible thugs are torturing and murdering women.’ He yelled this in a loud voice and appeared to be much overwrought, but when the Speaker warned him that he would be forcibly thrown out unless he went of his own accord the Labour members gathered about their colleague and induced him to quit.”

Lansbury found little support in his fight for women’s suffrage from his parliamentary Labour colleagues, whom he dismissed as “a weak, flabby lot”. In parliament, he denounced the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, for the cruelties being inflicted on imprisoned suffragists: “You are beneath contempt … you ought to be driven from public life”. He was temporarily suspended from the House for “disorderly conduct”.

He was ordered to leave the chamber by the Speaker, or he’d be ejected.

Lansbury’s passion on the issue came not only from his fierce sense of principle. A number of the suffragists facing force-feeding were his friends and comrades.

Later that year, Lansbury resigned his seat, to re-stand as a ‘Votes for Women’ candidate, but lost. Support for women’s suffrage among Labour voters was mixed – many of Lansbury’s previous supporters refused to support his position.

Campaigning on the same issue in 1913, he refused to be bound over to ‘keep the peace’ and was sentenced to six months imprisonment, part of which was remitted after he went on hunger strike.

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

Today in London radical history: Anarchist Malatesta jailed for ‘libelling’ police spy Belleli, 1912

As mentioned on before on this blog, late-19th and early 20th 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. 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 active involvement of the exiles in supporting radical 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 does the police’s job in itself – sabotaging as much effective action as possible.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Italian police had a number of spies among the exile anarchist community in London. (See our entry for May 9th.)

In 1912, in a leaflet distributed to the Italian anarchist community in London, longtime Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta accused Enrico Belelli of being an informer of the Italian government, and challenged him to openly disclose the nature of his means of maintenance.

In April 1912, the Italian anarchists in London published a single issue to protest against Italy’s invasion of Libya: La Guerra Tripolina. Malatesta wrote the editorial for the one-off publication. Shortly after the appearance of this single issue, Enrico Ennio Belelli, a member of the anarchist colony, spread rumours that Malatesta was a Turkish spy. In reply, Malatesta issued a leaflet entitled Alla Colonia italiana di Londra (Per un fatto personale) and circulated it in the Italian colony. In that leaflet, Malatesta explained the reasons why he had ended all relations with Belelli, namely Belelli’s support of the Italian military invasion.

Malatesta challenged Belelli to attend a public meeting to explain where his funds came from and prove that he was not an agent of the Italian police. The publication of this leaflet represented the starting point of one of the most dangerous event that threatened Malatesta’s safety during the years of his long exile in London.

Initially Belelli issued a rebuttal to be printed by Giuseppe Pesci, who provided Malatesta with a copy of it. However, Belelli decided to withdraw the publication and not to distribute the leaflet in which he explicitly accused Malatesta to have taken part in the Houndsditch robbery. Instead, Belelli took proceedings against Malatesta for criminal libel. According to La Gogna, the single issue that exposed Belelli as a spy, Belelli reached that decision after consultation with Inspector Francis Powell of Scotland Yard.

Malatesta’s trial took place on 20 of May 1912 at the Old Bailey, in front of the Common Serjeant. Belelli’s interpreter was Enrico Bojada, the former informer of Inspector Prina. Belelli declared he was a bookseller and to have repudiated anarchist ideas a long time before the trial:

“…I am an Italian and have been trading in England about 10 years. Have known prisoner about 30 years, and have seen him many times since I have been in England… I was a personal friend of prisoner up to about six months ago, when the Italian-Turkish War started. I have sold a lot of books, some very ancient ones. I do not keep books of accounts as I pay in cash. I have no invoices or documents to show that I have sold any books, but I have sold many to various ladies and gentlemen. I make a profit of L250 to L300 a year. I have not banking account. I have not plate on my door showing I am a bookseller. I have two rooms and a Kitchen at my flat, and live there with my wife and six children, and carry on my business from there. I sell my books outside. I keep all my books in my flat. I have at present 700 or 800 francs worth. I may not have a large numbers of books as perhaps only one is a very valuable book…I did profess anarchy at one time, but after I saw that anarchist ideas were not fit for myself or others I gave up anarchy. That is … more than eight years ago, and I very seldom went to any other meetings. I did go to the International Anarchist Congress at Amsterdam in 1907 with prisoner’s brother, who is not an Anarchist, but only as a matter of curiosity… I have never been an Italian police spy, and have never received any money from the Minister of the Interior in Italy. I never sent money to the Anarchist Congress, and have only bought their newspapers; 15s. or 20s. is all I have ever paid towards anarchism in my life… I have never asserted that the defendant had sold himself to the Turkish Government as a Turkish spy. I did not write an article in reply to the challenge of defendant, and never gave such a thing to anyone to print for me… It may be that defendant and I have fallen out in consequence of the war, but my wife broke the friendship off at the time of the Houndsditch affair because the police were calling at my house asking me if I knew persons who participated in the murders… I take defendant’s circular to be an act of vengeance because I put him out of my house…six months ago because he said that whoever killed an Italian was his friend, and my wife would have given him some kicks if he had not gone…

Malatesta confirmed to have been close to Belelli; in fact, Malatesta used to visit him to give arithmetic lessons to his children. Malatesta added that Belelli posed as a bookseller, that in the previous five or six years he never saw him supply books and that Belelli owned only a few books for private use. In the cross-examination, Malatesta stated:

“When I published the circular I said that many people might think Bellili [sic] was an Italian police spy. When I say that he is not doing an honest trade as bookseller I mean to imply that he is getting his money as an Italian police spy. When I say he is a liar, I mean it. When I said I could show how I get every 6d. of my income I meant I was getting my living honestly. I challenged Bellili [sic] to do the same. I have been sentenced in Italy, but always for political offences – never to 30 years’ imprisonment or anything of the kind. I did not go to Bellili’s [sic] house on purpose to say that I disagreed with the Italian over the war. I did not say I was against all the Italians – I am an Italian myself. Bellili [sic] said at the Italian Colony that I wished all the Italian would get killed – or something of the kind – to influence the Italian Colony; but he has failed. Mrs. Bellili [sic] told me that she had a brother, who was a lieutenant in the Italian Army. I used no violent language, but Bellili [sic] was not ashamed to put his wife in the question. I do not like to quarrel with ladies. I did not say that everybody who murdered an Italian was a friend of mine, or that they should be crucified. I was a frequent visitor at Bellili’s [sic] house until his wife insulted me and then I went away. Afterwards I met Bellili [sic] at a shop kept by a friend of mine. I have seen Bellili [sic] on several occasions, but have had no conversation with him. It was in April I issued the circular and had it printed. It was printed in Paris. I had about 500 copies distributed.

Giuseppe Pesci, Giulio Rossi, Alfonso Spizzuoco, Pietro Gualducci, Romeo Tombolesi, Giorgio Antibando, and Enrico Defendi stood as witnesses in Malatesta’s favour, confuting Belelli’s statements. The Common Serjeant refused to accept as evidence a copy of Belelli’s reply to Malatesta. Pesci, nicknamed Bologna, the printer of many anarchist publications in London, stated that he had printed three proofs of the reply to Malatesta that Belelli had handed to him. Spizzuoco and Antibando testified to have been told by Belelli that Malatesta was a spy of the Turkish government. Defendi, Gualducci, Tombolesi, and Rossi denied that Belelli was a bookseller. All of them admitted to have been Belelli’s friends. Ludovico Brida and Giovanni Moroni, to whom Belelli declared to have sold books for a large amount of money, rectified the figure of the purchase to the value of few shillings. The Russian anarchist Chaikovsky testified in Malatesta’s favour as well.

The jury held Malatesta’s allegation against Belelli not substantiated by the evidence available. Therefore, they found Malatesta guilty of criminal libel.

In a contentious decision, the Common Serjeant allowed Inspector Powell of the Special Branch to give evidence after the delivery of the verdict.

“…Prisoner has been known to the police as an Anarchist of a very dangerous type for a great number of years. He has been imprisoned in his own country and has been expelled from France. He has visited Egypt, Spain, France, Portugal, and, I believe, America, in the interests of Anarchy, and wherever he went there was a great deal of trouble. He is known as the leader of militant Anarchists in this country – in fact, in the world. Many of his formers colleagues have passed through this court and had penal servitude for coining. Gardstein, one of the Houndsditch …had been using prisoner’s workshop, or working with him for 12 months. A tube of oxygen that was used on that occasion was traced to prisoner, who stated that he had sold it to Gardstein. That is all that was known. He has never been in the hands of the police in this country, but on one occasion was fined for assaulting a school teacher who chastised his son at school… I do not know much in his favour…”

Clearly opinion in the courtroom was swayed by Powell’s description of Malatesta as ‘an anarchist of a very dangerous type’, who had links with forgers and the police murderers of Houndsditch: his pronouncements also prejudiced the sentence issued to Malatesta by the Common Serjeant.

Three months’ imprisonment; recommended for expulsion under the Aliens Act; ordered to pay costs of prosecutions.

The Common Serjeant’s decision of considering Malatesta as an undesirable alien and to recommend him for expulsion at the expiration of his sentence aroused broad indignation. Articles against the punishment appeared in several newspapers: the Manchester Guardian, The Nation, the Daily Herald, the Star, the Daily News, and the Leader, as well as in Conservative newspapers. Malatesta’s sentence was seen as an attack against the tradition of political asylum, an attempt ‘to repudiate a principle to which all Liberals and most Conservatives are sincerely devoted’.

“An even greater scandal has arisen by the appearance in the court of a detective from the Political Department of Scotland Yard. This man was allowed to enter the witness box after the jury had given their verdict and make an attack upon Malatesta…Malatesta is the victim of the despicable international secret police who wish to destroy the RIGHT OF ASYLUM for political refugees which has hitherto been the glory of Britain. Their victory would be our dishonour. If this plot to deliver Malatesta into the hands of the Italian Government were successful, it would also strenghten [sic] the hands of the enemies of freedom in this country.”

Prince Kropotkin defended Malatesta in a long letter published in The Nation. Kropotkin argued that Malatesta’s case had to be considered in its political aspect. The challenge, an appeal to the judgement of comrades, as the one addressed by Malatesta to Belelli, was a defence against the system of agents-provocateurs that had ‘lately taken an immense development’. Malatesta’s condemnation for libel was dangerous because it rendered impossible any appeal to a jury of honour.

A Malatesta Release Committee was immediately established to launch a protest campaign against the sentence and to stop the deportation order. Initially, the secretary and treasurer was Jack Tanner, but was quickly replaced by Guy Aldred. The official address of the committee was Recchioni’s shop, in 37 Old Compton Street.

In the following weeks the Committee distributed 120,000 leaflets and 100,000 postcards to be sent to the Home Secretary. Rallies were held in Finsbury Park, Peckham Rye, and Regent’s Park ‘for arousing public interest in the dark and low–down tricks of continental political police agents’. A massive meeting was held on the 9 June, the day before the hearing of Malatesta’s appeal. According to The Anarchist at least 15,000 people joined the demonstration. Four processions with bands and banners convened on Trafalgar Square from Highbury, Mile End, Hammersmith and Harlesden. A large number of trade unions and labour organisations participated: dockers, tailors, gas workers, railwaymen, shop assistants, iron and tin-plate workers, etc. Banners of the Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party mixed with those of the anarchist groups. Many speeches were given from three platforms, among others by the secretary of the London Trades Council, James MacDonald, the editor of The Syndicalist, Guy Bowman, the Italo-Scottish anarchist James Tochatti, Guy Aldred, Mrs. Tom Mann, and Mrs. Agnes Henry.

The mobilisation demonstrated the deep esteem that Malatesta enjoyed, especially among the people of Islington, the area where he lived. Thousands signed the petition in Malatesta’s favour:

“Islington knows little and cares less about Malatesta’s “philosophical anarchism”. It only knows him as one who will give his last copper to the man who needs it, and who for more than twenty years has worked there, teaching useful trade to boys who would have drifted into hooliganism.”

Rudolf Rocker’s son, Fermin, retained a vivid memory of Malatesta in those years:

“Malatesta was one of the heroes of the movement, a veteran of many struggles on two continents, and his prestige, particularly among his countrymen, was equalled by very few. Oddly enough, there was little in his appearance and demeanour to suggest his exploits as a leader of strikes and insurrections, and to children in particular he seemed the very essence of benevolence… Despite his prominence in the movement, Malatesta lived a life of the utmost frugality, supporting himself as a machinist and metalworker, a calling he pursued in his own little workshop in Islington. Poor as he was, he invariably had a little gift for me whenever he would see me, either a little bag of sweets, a coin or a toy. In this regard he was not playing any favourites, for he had a way with children and was known and loved by all the youngsters in his neighbourhood.”

The Malatesta release campaign was a real tonic for the anarchist movement in London. Demonstrations were held in France as well. The anarchist newspaper, Les Temps Nouveaux, organised a successful meeting in Paris where ‘there was an overflow that would have filled the hall twice over’.The principal speakers were Charles Malato, M.Yvetot, and Dr. Pierro. Two hundred pounds were collected for the fund raised for the benefit of Malatesta. A large open-air meeting took place in Glasgow on Sunday 16 June.

On 10 of June, the appeal of Errico Malatesta against the sentence was heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Darling, and Mr Justice Avory. During the proceeding Malatesta ‘lent his bushy iron grey beard upon his white arm and gazed about the court with keen, penetrating eyes. Throughout the hearing he took apparently a deep interest in the proceeding’. Malatesta’s appeal was refused. The motivations for refusing the appeal, apart from the legal questions, demonstrated the judges’ particular perception of the Italian colony:

“He wrote and published in Italian, the native language of a number of people living together as a colony in this country, among them many anarchists… it held up Bellilli [sic] to the hatred of this society, a society of a very peculiar character. If a man in such a society was to be convicted of being a police spy… it followed that that man would be, in a society like that, in a very dangerous position… The Common Serjeant had made perfectly plain that he did not recommended that Malatesta should be deported as an undesirable alien simply because he was an Anarchist… His deportation was recommended on the ground that Bel[elli] being an anarchist, and being accused by Malatesta of being an Italian spy, the accusation was a danger to Bel[elli]. It was probable that in consequence of the libel some crime would be committed, and it was not going too far to say that some assassination might take place and that crime would be produced in this country. The Court, having taken in consideration all the circumstances, could therefore see no reason for revoking that part of the sentence relating to the deportation of Malatesta.

The Manchester Guardian underlined the judges’ contradictions at the Court of Appeal and rested its hopes in the Home Secretary.

On 18 June, the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, announced to the House of Commons that he: ‘had decided not to make an expulsion order against Malatesta but he saw no reasons to advise the remission of the sentence of imprisonment’.

Thanks to those mass demonstrations, Malatesta was therefore able to stay in England.

The trial put an end to Belelli’s career as a spy – he had for a while been suspected of being an infiltrator code-named Virgilio. Indeed, Malatesta’s allegations were sound. Belelli was born in the village of Novellara, near Reggio Emilia, on the 15 May 1860. The inaccessibility of prefettura and questura records held at the Archivio di Stato in Bologna, closed for building works for the last two years, made it impossible to consult further documents to determine when Belelli was recruited as an informer by Giolitti. The go-between Giolitti and Belelli was the police superintendent (questore), Vincenzo Neri. Neri had much experience in dealing with spies. It was in fact Neri, at that time a police inspector, who approached Domanico – a noted police spy among the anarchists – in Florence and put him in contact with the Ministry of Interior in 1892. Neri was appointed questore of Bologna in April 1896, but he took office only in the September of the following year. Belelli, after being a socialist, from 1892 became one of the leaders of the anarchist movement in Bologna. Although Belelli could have been a secret agent before Neri’s arrival in Bologna, it is possible to surmise that Belelli’s career as a spy began with Neri’s appointment in that city. Belelli was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for libel in September 1897. In May 1898, Belelli was suddenly released, a decision that completely surprised the prefect of Bologna. Belelli was granted pardon thanks to the good offices of a senator. It is therefore possible to make a conjecture that Neri contacted Belelli while in prison and released him in exchange for his services. In the middle of 1900, Belelli moved to Paris. He was expelled in September 1901, when the Tsar visited France.

Apparently, serious suspicions against Belelli were aroused by the solicitations of the anarchist Siegfried Nacht. Nacht had applied for a position at the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome; the position had been offered to him on condition of interrupting all his contacts with the anarchists. From Rome, Nacht sent 45 lire to Giovanni Spizzuoco, Alfonso’s brother, to clear a debt that he had previously contracted with him. Some time later, Nacht was questioned at the Ministry of Interior about this transfer of funds and was rebuked for continuing to maintain contacts with the anarchists. In consequence Nacht urged his comrades in London to investigate the leak. Spizzuoco claimed that the only person acquainted with the transaction was Belelli, who had changed the lire into pound sterlings. Moreover, Felice Vezzani, from Paris, reported that, according to Belelli’s sister-in-law, Belelli received registered letters from the Ministry of Interior monthly. In any case after Malatesta’s trial, Belelli went back to Reggio Emilia where he died in 1926.

With Belelli’s departure, Virgilio disappeared as well. In fact Belelli was the person who for twelve years signed his reports with that cover name. But although Belelli was in direct contact with the Ministry of Interior he left no traces of Virgilio’s real identity in his correspondence between the Ministry and the embassy or the consulate, which was different from what happened with other spies. However, evidence has since emerged to verify that Belelli and Virgilio were one and the same person.

Today in London’s radical history: London bus strike ends, 1917.

The May 1917 London Bus strike seems to have been sparked when the London General Omnibus Company refused to recognise the Vehicle Workers Union. I haven’t yet been able to find out much about it, but it looks like it lasted a few days, and was mostly solid. Out of a total of 1900 buses, only 20 were running on May 13th!

The day after, it was reported that

“The situation in the London bus strike today has undergone very little change. There was a repetition this morning of yesterday’s scenes as thousands of workers proceeded to business. Trams and tubes absorbed much possible the extra traffic thrown upon them.”

Services were resumed on May 15 pending negotiations – after discussion the strike was ended on the 18th.

The strike was part of a huge wave of strikes in 1917, building as prices raises and wage constraints during the war hit hard, as knuckling under ‘to support the war effort’ began to crumble under disillusion with the war aims, horror at the casualities – and the surge of hope inspired by the February Russian Revolution…

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

Today in radical history: National Conference of Women meets, Central Hall, to discuss basis for WW1 peace, 1915.

On 14th April the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) summoned a National Conference of Women to discuss the basis of a permanent peace settlement” at Central Hall in London.

This was designed to feed in to the Hague Women’s Peace Conference (set for April 28th). Read a previous blog post on British women’s involvement…

We haven’t yet found out much about this conference; but here’s a brief introduction to the Union of Democratic Control…

The Union of Democratic Control was formed at the outbreak of World War 1:
“At the end of July, 1914, it became clear to the British government that the country was on the verge of war with Germany. Four senior members of the government, David Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Charles Trevelyan (Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Education), John Burns (President of the Local Government Board) and John Morley (Secretary of State for India), were opposed to the country becoming involved in a European war. They informed the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, that they intended to resign over the issue. When war was declared on 4th August, three of the men, Trevelyan, Burns and Morley, resigned, but Asquith managed to persuade Lloyd George, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, to change his mind.

The day after war was declared, Trevelyan began contacting friends about a new political organisation he intended to form to oppose the war. This included two pacifist members of the Liberal Party, Norman Angell and E. D. Morel, and Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party.” This was the beginning of the Union of Democratic Control (UDC).

The four men agreed that one of the main reasons for the conflict was the secret diplomacy of people like Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. They set down three main objectives for the UDC: (1) that in future to prevent secret diplomacy there should be parliamentary control over foreign policy; (2) there should be negotiations after the war with other democratic European countries in an attempt to form an organisation to help prevent future conflicts; (3) that at the end of the war the peace terms should neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future wars.

The Union of Democratic Control issued a manifesto and invited people to support it. Over the next few weeks several leading figures joined the organisation. This included J. A. Hobson, Charles Buxton, Ottoline Morrell, Philip Morrell, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Arnold Rowntree, Morgan Philips Price, George Cadbury, Helena Swanwick, Fred Jowett, Tom Johnston, Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Ethel Snowden, David Kirkwood, William Anderson, Mary Sheepshanks, Isabella Ford, H. H. Brailsford, Eileen Power, Israel Zangwill, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Konni Zilliacus, Margaret Sackville and Olive Schreiner.
Trevelyan’s house (14 Great College Street, London) became the UDC’s headquarters. As the organisation expanded the organisation took larger premises at 37 Norfolk Street (1915) and 4-7 Lion Court, Fleet Street (1917). The UDC was mainly funded by prosperous Quaker businessmen such as George Cadbury and Arnold Rowntree.

The UDC was one of the first political groups to appoint women to senior positions in an organisation. Helena Swanwick was a member of the Executive Committee and twelve women were on the General Council. This included Isabella Ford, Margaret Llewelyn Davies and Margaret Sackville.
The UDC soon emerged at the most important of all the anti-war organizations in Britain and by 1915 had 300,000 members. E. D. Morel, as secretary and treasurer, became the dominant figure in the UDC. In August 1915, the UDC decided to pay Morel for his secretarial duties. Morel also wrote most of the UDC pamphlets published during the war. Others who wrote pamphlets included Ramsay MacDonald, Norman Angell, Arthur Ponsonby, J. A. Hobson, Charles Buxton, Norman Angell, Helena Swanwick, Richard Tawney and H. H. Brailsford. Members of the UDC also established a League of Nations Society.

Whereas the Manchester Guardian and The Nation were fairly sympathetic to the aims of the UDC, the majority of the press, consumed with patriotic fervour, were extremely hostile. Members of the UDC came under vitriolic attack for their opposition to the war. The Daily Express, edited by Ralph Blumenfeld, led the campaign against the UDC. In April 1915 it printed wanted posters of E. D. Morel, Ramsay MacDonald and Norman Angell. Under headings such as: ‘Who is E. D. Morel? And Who Pays for his Pro-German Union? it suggested that the UDC was working for the German government. On 1st October 1914, The Times published a leading article entitled Helping the Enemy, in which it wrote that “no paid agent of Germany had served her better” that MacDonald had done. Horatio Bottomley, argued in the John Bull Magazine that Ramsay MacDonald and James Keir Hardie, were the leaders of a “pro-German Campaign”. On 19th June 1915 the magazine claimed that MacDonald was a traitor and that: “We demand his trial by Court Martial, his condemnation as an aider and abetter of the King’s enemies, and that he be taken to the Tower and shot at dawn.” John Bull also made a big splash of the revelation that MacDonald was illegitimate.

The Daily Express listed details of future UDC meetings and provoked its readers to go and break-up them up. Although the UDC complained to the Home Secretary about what it called “an incitement to violence” by the newspaper, he refused to take any action. Over the next few months the police refuse to protect UDC speakers and they were often attacked by angry crowds. After one particularly violent event on 29th November, 1915, the newspaper proudly reported the “utter rout of the pro-Germans”.
The Daily Sketch joined the campaign against the UDC. It told its readers on 1st December, 1915, that to: “kill this conspiracy we must get hold of the arch-conspirator, E. D. Morel”. Over the next few months Morel was physically assaulted several times, but continued to run the organisation. By 1917 membership of the UDC and affiliated organizations had reached 650,000.

The government now saw Morel as an extremely dangerous political figure. Basil Thompson, head of the Criminal Investigation Division of Scotland Yard, and future head of Special Branch, was asked to investigate Morel and the UDC. Thompson reported that the UDC was not a revolutionary body and its funds came from the Society of Friends and “Messrs. Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree”. Given Thompson penchant for inciting attacks on opponents of the war and sending agent provocateurs to wreck leftwing groups, this suggests the UDC was relatively benign. Many radical anti-war activists in other organisations were also members of the UDC however.

Despite Thompson’s failure to find any evidence of criminal activity, the Home Secretary ordered Morel’s arrest. On the 22nd August, 1917 Morel’s house was searched and evidence was found that he had sent a UDC pamphlet to a friend living in Switzerland. This was a technical violation of the Defence of the Realm Act and Morel was sentenced to six months in prison. His health was already poor, and he never fully recovered from the harsh conditions of Pentonville Prison.
Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, formerly a leading supporter of the Womens Suffrage movement, was treasurer of the UDC, and in the spring of 1917 was chosen as the organisation’s candidate in the South Aberdeen by-election. Pethick-Lawrence got only 333 votes whereas the government representative won with 3,283 votes. Although he was forty-six years old, the government attempted to conscript Pethick-Lawrence in 1917. He refused but instead of being imprisoned he was assigned to a farm in Sussex until the end of the war.

In the 1918 General Election all the leading members of the Union lost their seats in Parliament. However, by 1924, they had returned and several, including Ramsay MacDonald (Prime Minister/Foreign Secretary), Philip Snowden (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Arthur Henderson (Home Secretary), Charles Trevelyan (Minister of Education) and Fred Jowett (Commissioner of Works) were all members of the new Labour Government. E. D. Morel was not given a Cabinet post but was MacDonald’s leading adviser at the Foreign Office.

Members of the Union of Democratic Control were strong opponents of the Versailles Treaty. Several senior army officers joined the UDC in protest against the treaty including General Hubert Gough, Brigadier-General C. B. Thompson, Commander Kenworthy and Colonel Bruce Kingsmill.
In the 1930s the UDC campaigned against fascism in Germany and Italy, supported China in its struggle with Japanese aggression and advocated Indian independence.

Mostly lifted from the Spartacus site

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

Today in London’s radical history: Mile End mass meeting celebrates Russian Revolution, 1917.

On 24th March 1917, 7000 people pack the Mile End Assembly Rooms in East London, for a mass meeting celebrating the February Revolution in Russia and the downfall of Tsarism. 1000s more were unable to get in. Called by the Russian Socialist Groups, the meeting was mainly attended by Russian refugees and socialists of various stripes.

The East End – Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Mile End in particular – was at this time teeming with Russian exiles, many of them socialists, and especially Jews. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had been forced to flee Russia by the violent anti-semitism of the Tsarist regime. Many other leftists, socialists, anarchists and others had also taken refuge during regular bouts of reactionary repression there – most notably after the defeated 1905 Russian Revolution. While always involved with politics in the area they settled in, many exiles kept one eye on events back in Russia. So the area was full of joy and hope when the hated regime was overthrown…

The impact of the February Revolution was huge, given the history of the Tsars as the most repressive regime in Europe. It wasn’t just widely welcomed among the exiles – Aneurin Bevan recalled in South Wales “the miners when they heard that the Tsarist tyranny had been overthrown, rushing to meet each other in the streets with tears streaming down their cheeks, shaking hands and saying: ‘At last it has happened!’ ” There was an upsurge of strikes in Britain, inspired by Russian events… Conscientious objectors in prisons also heard the news, and went on strike…

George Chicherin, a Russian refugee living in London, who was later to join the Soviet government and become its Foreign Minister, described the Mile End meeting:

“It was an unforgettable demonstration of enthusiasm, unbounded joy and revolutionary feeling. Over 7000 persons were present, and many thousands were unable to get in and had to go away… again and again delirious outbursts of boundless enthusiasm filled the immense hall.”

Many of the East End’s Jewish and socialist exiles were to return to Russia, to get involve in the struggle to push change further, which was to result in another revolution in October…

The Mile End Assembly Rooms were on Mile End Road, roughly where no 31 is now, just to the east of Cambridge Heath Road.

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

 

Today in London’s musical history: the ‘March of the Women’ premieres, Albert Hall, 1911.

“The March of the Women” was a song composed by Ethel Smyth in 1910, to words by Cicely Hamilton. It became the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and more widely the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Activists sang it not only at rallies but also in prison while they were on hunger strike. Smyth produced a number of different arrangements of the work.

Ethel Smyth composed the song in 1910, as a unison song with optional piano accompaniment, with words by Cicely Hamilton. Smyth based the melody for on a traditional tune she had heard in Abruzzo, Italy. She dedicated the song to the WSPU. In January 1911, the WSPU’s newspaper, Votes for Women, described the song as “at once a hymn and a call to battle”.

“The March of the Women” was first performed on 21 January 1911, by the Suffrage Choir, at a ceremony held on Pall Mall, London, to celebrate a release of activists from prison. Emmeline Pankhurst introduced the song as the WSPU’s official anthem, replacing “The Women’s Marseillaise”. The latter song was a setting of words by WSPU activist Florence Macaulay to the tune of the La Marseillaise.

On 23 March 1911 the song was performed at a rally in the Royal Albert Hall. Smyth was ceremonially presented with a baton by Emmeline Pankhurst, and proceeded to conduct the whole gathering in singing it. Smyth was active in promoting the performance of the song throughout the WSPU’s membership. It became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement throughout the United Kingdom.

The ‘March’ was sung by suffragettes in prison, most famously in 1912, at Holloway Prison, after many women activists were imprisoned as a result of a window-smashing campaign. Smyth had been arrested as part of this action, having broken the window of Lewis Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The conductor Thomas Beecham visited Smyth in prison and reported that he found the activists in the courtyard “…marching round it and singing lustily their war-chant while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush.”

While imprisoned in April 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst undertook a hunger strike which she did not expect to survive. She told Smyth that at night she would feebly sing “The March of the Women” and another of Smyth’s compositions, “Laggard Dawn”.

Words to The March of the Women

Under the title of the song is the subtitle,
“Dedicated to the Women’s Social and Political Union.”

Verse 1
Shout, shout, up with your song!
Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking;
March, march, swing you along,
Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking.
Song with its story, dreams with their glory
Lo! they call, and glad is their word!
Loud and louder it swells,
Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord!

Verse 2
Long, long—we in the past
Cowered in dread from the light of heaven,
Strong, strong—stand we at last,
Fearless in faith and with sight new given.
Strength with its beauty, Life with its duty,
(Hear the voice, oh hear and obey!)
These, these—beckon us on!
Open your eyes to the blaze of day.

Verse 3
Comrades—ye who have dared
First in the battle to strive and sorrow!
Scorned, spurned—nought have ye cared,
Raising your eyes to a wider morrow,
Ways that are weary, days that are dreary,
Toil and pain by faith ye have borne;
Hail, hail—victors ye stand,
Wearing the wreath that the brave have worn!

Verse 4
Life, strife—those two are one,
Naught can ye win but by faith and daring.
On, on—that ye have done
But for the work of today preparing.
Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance,
(Laugh in hope, for sure is the end)
March, march—many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.

Ethel Smyth was a prolific writer of both music and words. Born on April 23, 1858 in England in Rectory (Middlesex), London, or Foots Gray (Kent), depending on the source, she lived an exciting and productive life as an independent woman who actively pursued her many talents.
A prolific composer, Ethel Smyth composed a wide variety of music including chamber music, chorals, instrumental music, and operas, as well as orchestral, piano, and vocal pieces. She conducted much of her music and even broadcasted some of it. Ethel Smyth also wrote many books, plays, librettos (some in German), articles, and essays.

An activist in the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900’s, Smyth also composed the song used as the anthem for this suffrage movement, March of the Women. She developed deep friendships with many influential figures of her day including Virginia Woolf, Empress Eugenie, Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Vita Sackville-West.

More on Ethel and her music and life at:
http://www.sandscapepublications.com/intouch/ethelsmyth.html

Actress, writer, journalist, suffragist and feminist, Cicely Mary Hamilton supplied the lyrics of “The March of the Women”. She is now best known for the play How the Vote was Won.

Born in Paddington, London and educated in Malvern, Worcestershire. After a short spell in teaching she acted in a touring company, wrote drama, including feminist themes, and enjoyed a period of success in the commercial theatre.

In 1908 she and Bessie Hatton founded the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. This grew to around 400 members, including Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sarah Grand, Violet Hunt, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Alice Meynell, Olive Schreiner, Evelyn Sharp, May Sinclair and Margaret L. Woods. It produced campaigning literature, written by Sinclair amongst others, and recruited many prominent male supporters.
In the days before radio, one effective way to get a message out into society and to have it discussed was to produce short plays that could be performed around the country, and so suffrage drama was born. Elizabeth Robins’s Votes for Women and Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John’s How the Vote Was Won are two predominant examples of the genre. Hamilton also wrote A Pageant of Great Women, a highly successful women’s suffrage play based on the ideas of her friend, the theatre director Edith Craig. Hamilton played Woman while Craig played the painter Rosa Bonheur, one of the 50 or so great women in the play. It was produced all over the UK from 1909 until the First World War. Hamilton was a member of Craig’s theatre society, the Pioneer Players. Her play Jack and Jill and a Friend was one of the three plays in the Pioneer Players’ first production in May 1911.

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

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Today in London’s radical history: anti-war women’s meeting to plan Hague peace conference, 1915

The outbreak of World War 1 brought crisis and division in many of the movements struggling for a better world before the war. Socialists, anarchists, unions – many split bitterly as war propaganda and the frenzy of patriotism ratcheted up.

The suffragette movement faced similar angry divisions. All three of the main Suffragette groupings saw some support for the war effort, usually the majority, and a minority opposing the war, either on pacifist, or on internationalist grounds.

Controversies between the two clearly opposed groups within the National Union of Suffrage Societies, the largest, though not the best known or most prominent, suffragist organization, were sharpened by different notions concerning the preparations and proposals of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) congress in The Hague. NUWSS leader Fawcett unambiguously argued that talking of peace while the German soldiers were not driven back was betrayal. However, Catherine Marshall and Kathleen Courtney, influential members of the NUWSS, refused to follow the instructions of their president and in February 1915 they accepted an invitation from Aletta Jacobs to meet in Amsterdam. At this meeting, which also included the British Chrystal Macmillan, Emily Leaf and Theodora Wilson-Wilson, a Quaker, the Germans, Heymann and Augsburg, and some Belgian and Dutch members of IWSA, the programme of the congress to be summoned on April 28 1915 in The Hague was planned.

The inner clashes within the NUWSS culminated after the return of the British delegation from Amsterdam. Five enthusiastic British women came back from the Netherlands determined to do everything for the success of the congress. These women organized a women-only meeting in Caxton Hall for February 26th 1915. The meeting of the executive board of the NUWSS that took place on March 4 1915 launched a flood of resignations of many influential members. Courtney and Marshall resigned as secretaries and Royden as editor of the journal Common Cause. Courtney subsequently explained her decision: “I have some months felt strongly that the most vital work at this moment is the building up of public opinion on lines likely to promote a permanent peace and I am also convinced that such work is entirely in accordance with the principles underlying the suffrage movement [ … ] The Council, however, made it quite clear that they were not prepared to undertake work of this kind. They passed certain resolutions, it is true, but only on the understanding that they were not to be acted upon [ … ] To my mind, this refusal to do the work which the moment demands, it is also a refusal to recognise one of the fundamental principles of the Suffrage Movement.”

The atmosphere of the April meeting was very tense and even the usually reserved Fawcett expressed her bitter disappointment over the resignation of her co-workers; she was well aware that the successes of the NUWSS were largely a result of the hard work of these women. She particularly regretted the resignation of Marshall, whose delicate parliamentary and by-election work, where she achieved many successes due to her ability to come close to the members of Parliament, would not be easy to supersede.

In the following months the situation within the NUWSS became more acute because Fawcett and her co-workers – particularly Lady Balfour and Helena Auerbach – made an effort to prevent peace propaganda within the organization and to enforce a pro-war attitude. Their activities considerably aggravated the position of the internationalists who remained on the executive board of the NUWSS. The tense atmosphere within the NUWSS is well documented by the letter from Swanwick to Marshall on 22nd March:

“Mrs Fawcett wrote to offer to call on me here yesterday, so I invited her to tea and she came. I was absolutely blunt with her & told her that though we didn’t retaliate, she couldn’t expect us to sit under speeches like those she and Lady Frances had been lately dealing out to us – I tried to make her see that she couldn’t decently call her colleagues traitors & lunatics; but she just flushed & blinked & rambled away over all sorts of quite irrelevant things [ … ] just before she went I told her I intended to resign from the Executive & she implored me not to [ … ] I feel that so long as she dictates to the NU there is no place for me within it.”

According to the list compiled by Marshall at the meeting of internationalists of 9th May 1915, those who sharply refused to talk of peace were Fawcett, Lady Frances Balfour, Ray Strachey, Miss Palliser, Auerbach and Miss Atkinson. On the other hand, at this term resigned Ashton, Isabella Ford, Alice Clark, Courtney, Cary Schuster, Mrs Harley, Marshall, Leaf, Swanwick, Royden, Mrs Tanner and Mrs Stanbury

Organizing committees for the preparation of the Hague Women’s Peace Conference conference were formed not only in London, but the movement quickly expanded also to Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Dublin. The number of applications to the congress at The Hague reached 180 delegates, including the representatives of all possible British women’s organizations. The Hague congress aroused great interest among the British women activists and few organizations criticized it. Together with the nationalists of the NUWSS, the suffragettes of Emmeline Pankhurst stood against the peace activities and condemned the Hague conference, declaring that it is necessary to defend France and “to prevent her being crushed by the over-sexed, that is to say over-masculine [ … ] Germany. This terrible business, forced upon us, has to be properly finished to save us from the danger of another war perhaps in ten years’ time”. Sylvia Pankhurst, who enthusiastically supported the Hague congress with other members of the East London Federation, was rebuked by the wealthy Lady Astor (who became in 1919 the first female Member of Parliament). She told Pankhurst she would not have provided the Federation with her valuable patronage if she had known Sylvia would attend the congress.

The British government was also irritated by the notion of so many women setting out to the war-stricken continent. On 16th April 1915 the delegates were refused permission to travel to Holland by the Permit Office; moreover the Permit Office cancelled even those permissions already issued:

“His Majesty’s Government is of opinion that at the present moment there is much inconvenience in holding a large meeting of a political character so close to the seat of the war.”:

Marshall immediately appealed to the Home Office, which promised her permission for twenty-four chosen delegates.

The Admiralty then coincidentally closed the North Sea to shipping, however, the women found out that one more boat was sailing the following day from Tilbury. The delegates on the authorized list made every effort to board that boat; even Ashton and Royden arrived from remote parts of the country at dawn. However, the authorities continued to postpone the issue of permission until no boat was available. The disappointed women lodged at a hotel near the Tilbury dockside and waited there for ten days until the end of congress; only then did they decide to return home.

In spite of these setbacks, the British women were represented at the congress by three peace activists; Macmillan and Courtney were already in the Netherlands and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence arrived, despite danger and postponements, with the American contingent. Schwimmer (a Hungarian working for women’s organizations in London) travelled independently via Scandinavia. These women joined approximately 1,200 delegates from many countries, including Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Sweden, the United States, and predominantly, of course, from the Netherlands. German delegates were stopped at the border and only twenty-eight of them crossed.

The gathered delegates were welcomed by Aletta Jacobs. The most important decision of the congress was approved on the last day when Rosica Schwimmer proposed, instead of a written resolution, to elect envoys who would be sent personally with the resolutions of the congress to the heads of both belligerent and neutral countries. This proposal provoked strong resistance but the emotive speech by Schwimmer finally convinced the delegates to support it. Among other things she said: “lf brains have brought us to what we are in now, I think it is time to allow also our hearts to speak. When our sons are killed by the millions, let us, mothers, only try to do good by going to kings and emperors.”

From May 1915 two groups of envoys operated in Europe and America, appealing to the rulers of the leading world powers to stop the war and renew peace. The first group of women was led by Jane Addams and Aletta Jacobs. The second group, led by Schwimmer and Macmillan, negotiated with the Swedish foreign minister, who was willing to host a mediating conference if the women brought him notes from two governments, one on either side, announcing that such an initiative would not be unacceptable.

The envoys almost achieved their objective when the British and German foreign ministers agreed not to oppose such a conference. After Addam’s departure to the United States, Schwimmer also decided to sail to America where President Woodrow Wilson received them. Although it seemed the women’s envoys came near to achieving their purpose, no statesman dared to grasp their appeal and call a mediating conference.

In Britain, news from the congress arrived through a telegram sent by Courtney from The Hague; she announced that despite the absence of 180 British women the meeting was a great success. On 11th May a conference chaired by Marshall took place in London at Central Hall, where the delegates decided to found a new organization, which at its first annual general meeting in the autumn adopted the title Women’s International League (WIL). The society announced it would struggle for “linking together two movements felt to be vitally connected: the Women’s Movement and the Pacifist Movement”. WIL was founded particularly thanks to the support of the leading suffragists; Swanwick was elected as the chair, with Royden, Ashton and Courtney as her vice-chairs, Ford and Marshall became members

Of the executive committee. Yet the membership was much wider and was not confined just to the rebels of the NUWSS; within a year the membership of the WIL increased to 2,458 members affiliated in thirty-four branches.

This account is lifted from this great report on the British women’s peace movement in WW1

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

Today in London’s radical past: Hands Off Russia rally in the Albert Hall, 1919

On 8 February 1919, thousands packed the Albert Hall for the largest mass meeting in the Hands Off Russia campaign.

The British government, along with French and other western powers, was attempting to invade Russia, to try and overthrow the new Soviet state. British and French troops were already supporting anti-Soviet forces in Russia, and much larger intervention was planned. In resistance to this effort, British soldiers and sailors were already in revolt and mutiny against being forced to continue in arms (World War 1 having recently ended, partly as a result of mass refusal to fight any more). And workers in Britain were erupting in protest. The ‘allies’ campaign to destroy the Russian Revolution was destined to be irretrievably sabotaged by mutinies, strikes, and refusal to load arms and supplies by dockers in UK ports. The Revolution itself, of course, was also in the process of being sabotaged by the Bolshevik dictatorship…

The Hands Off Russia movement included members of the main left groups of the time – the Independent Labour Party, the British Socialist Party, Workers Socialist Federation, and the Herald League, who all wanted to show international workers’ solidarity with their Russian comrades. Unlike several other attempts at cross-factional unity, the Hands Off Russia! campaign served to unite British left-wing sympathisers. It really got going in January 1919 when a National Committee for the Hands off Russia! campaign was elected at a conference in London. Many of the groups and individuals who congregated under the umbrella of Hands Off Russia! later went on to form the Communist Party of Great Britain in August 1920.

Speakers at this, the largest of the Hands off Russia meetings, included Cathal O’Shannon (Irish TUC), left Labour MP George Lansbury, Israel Zangwill (author), WF Watson and Lady Warwick (a long-time left associate). Scottish socialist John Maclean, the ‘Bolshevik Consul in Glasgow’, was the star turn: “The climax…was reached when EC Fairchild announced John Maclean. Round on round of applause greeted his rising, the whole vast gathering breaking into song.” (The Call). The meeting was the end for the very active Billy Watson, a syndicalist, leading light of the London Workers Committee, an attempt to organise factory councils in London (similar to the Clyde Workers Committee). Watson was arrested for sedition under the DORA as a result of his speech. While serving his six month sentence it was revealed he was a paid informer. Although he seems to have been exploiting police gullibility rather than shopping his comrades (would they jail a really useful informer?) his left career was largely at an end.

This has to be seen in the context of the massive strike wave and social struggles erupting in the UK at this time. In 1919, 2.4 million workers went on strike, after weathering four years without trade union rights. Both the Labour Party and official trade unions had accepted the Munitions Act of 1915; ‘a system that was military-like in its restrictions and enforcement’. It made strikes illegal, controlled wages and made it impossible to leave a job without permission. Union membership grew during the war years, when the labour system was seen as undemocratic and damaging to working class interests. Then in 1919 and 1920, as Lloyd George’s promise of a land fit for heroes failed to materialise, industrial unrest grew. Those industries still largely under government control such as mining and railways were especially militant, while workers on Red Clydeside fought for a 40-hour week.
The Hands Off Russia! Movement gained rapid support amongst the rank and file in 1920, partly because many workers were angered at the prospect of another imperial intervention, and the possible extension of unjust policies disguised as emergency war measures.

“The coal heavers have refused to coal the SS Jolly George on May 10th 1920. They struck better than they knew!…The strike on the SS Jolly George has given a new inspiration to the whole working class movement. On May 15th, the munitions are unloaded back onto the dock side, and on the side of one case is a very familiar sticky-back, ‘Hands Off Russia!’ It is very small, but that day it was big enough to be read all over the world.”
(Harry Pollitt)
The London Dockers’ May 1920 refusal to load armaments onto the ship the SS Jolly George, destined to support the invasion, was the most tangible success of Hands Off Russia! – a campaign that had held meetings and demonstrations for many months. They resisted orders, and significantly, the District Secretary of the official Dockers’ Union, led by Fred Thompson, backed their action.

The Dockers’ powerful show of solidarity was not just a spontaneous act – Harry Pollitt, Sylvia Pankhurst and other East End socialists had done a lot of hard work among the dockers. Pankhurst was a prominent communist and led the Workers’ Socialist Federation of which Pollitt was a member. In the months before the SS Jolly George incident they undertook a campaign of relentless agitation: handing out pro-soviet literature, making links with unions, and radicalising the dock workers. Pankhurst reportedly handed out thousands of copies of Lenin’s Appeal to the Toiling Masses around the docklands for several months beforehand, at the risk of arrest, as the text was on the Home Office blacklist. A year later, in 1921, Pankhurst was arrested and imprisoned for stirring up anti-establishment feeling amongst the Dockers.

Defence of Soviet Russia began to be identified with defence of the trade unions against Lloyd George.’ Although it was highly unlikely that any allied intervention in Russia would have led to a full scale war, Pollitt really believed they had stopped a war, and so did many of his rank and file supporters. This illustrates the state of fear and mistrust of British military decision making at the time. The massive strike wave in the UK, though, was also inspiring fear of possible revolution here at home…

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