Today in London’s radical history, 1912: Great East/West End tailors strike 1912 ends in victory

London’s long history of tailoring work goes back centuries. By the 19th century clothes production expanded, as the capital’s population rocketed, and the increasing middle classes and workers created a mass market for new clothes. Working for low pay, often for long hours and in dismal conditions, London’s tailors also had a long history of getting together to fight for improvements in their working lives.

London had a long history of local production of garments for the capital’s inhabitants, usually focussed in small workshops. The West End, particularly Mayfair, (at its most famous, focused on Savile Row) became the centre for the high end of the tailoring trade: good quality clobber for the well to do, providing for the governing classes, the rich, and the growing middle classes as they achieved status, power and influence.

But the East End had a parallel tailoring trade. East London was well known for its secondhand trade in clothes since the 16th century at least, often through its rag markets. The eastern fringes of the city had built up a clothing and textile industry, notably in silk weaving; it relied on its proximity of the City and wealth districts, closeness to the centres of power and people who wanted fancy clothes. More and more this evolved into making clothes for those who wanted new clothes fast (of varying qualities). Silk production gradually gave way to tailoring workshops.

In the early 19th century, this end of the trade expanded into the cheap production of new clothes. The Industrial revolution had led to growth in factory tailoring, the production of cheap cloth and reduced production costs. East End tailoring had also always taken lots of subbed work from the West End: this increased as demand for new clothes rocketed. As the 19th century went on, gradual prosperity among the middle and emerging working classes led to a greater demand for consumer goods, including clothes. New clothes were a mark of having made something of yourself.

Separations and divisions among trade were multiple – between skilled and semi-skilled, English and foreign workers, male and female, factory worker and home/workshop hand worker… A complex web of prejudices and demarcations was aggravated by a growth in new technology, and older craft, male apprenticeship-based traditions built over centuries had been substantially challenged… The trade remained also wildly affected by trends and by seasonal demand.

Organising in the tailoring trade was as old as the trade. From the middle ages journeymen tailors had tilted at the control the masters of their guilds; in the eighteenth century, London’s tailors were such a trouble to their employers they were nick-named ‘the tailors’ republic’. Battles between workers and bosses almost always centred around long hours and low wages that afflicted the trade. Splits and tensions between groups of workers frustrated attempts to unite the journeymen; the most concerted effort at building a strong tailors union in the capital, contributing to the creation of the Owenite Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, ended in a disastrous strike in 1834 that caused the general union’s collapse.

Later in the century the trade revived, but gradually became divided between a self-selecting, highly skilled craft, high end, taking on few apprentices but recruiting from outside the capital, and the larger, lower paid, workshop or factory-based tailors, poorly treated and often precarious.

Separation between workers in the East End and the West End was further complicated by the large-scale Jewish migration into the area around Whitechapel and Stepney in the late nineteenth century.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to  introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth Street, 48 out of 85 shops were Jewish run by the 1890s.

Overwhelmingly the majority of the Jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End. Tailoring had long been associated with the Jewish diaspora. Partly this evolved from practicality – for long persecuted communities having to up and move often when facing violent attacks, this was a trade needing few tools and small space to operate but universally needed. Christian laws across Europe also banned Jews from many trades, forcing them to congregate in work like tailoring that was not proscribed. Another factor was orthodox religious tenets in judaism, which set out that observant Jews had to buy certain clothes from co-religionists.
A migrant workforce needing to survive moving into an area with a tradition of low-paid manufacture quickly led to a widespread Jewish presence in the East End tailoring trade.

But whether the masters were English or ‘aliens’ hours were long, working conditions bad and pay low; the seasonal nature of demand for new clothes also meant weeks or months when trade was slack and work was scarce. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry. Like the silkweavers before them, East London’s tailors struggled to survive, workers often having to hang out, ‘on call’ waiting for someone to offer them work. Both the social nature of this process and the quiet small scale organisation of the trade combined with crap conditions to create discontent and political radicalism.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

A powerful Yiddish speaking working class movement would also develop among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. This created Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s, and brought contact and alliances among the early English socialists, themselves inspired by continental migrants.

Organisation was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

As ever, this migrant community aroused racism and xenophobia from the existing settled and ‘native’ residents. In the East End, Jewish communities were the targets vicious ‘anti-alien’ campaigns (like Flemings and Irish before them, and Bengalis and others after) – orchestrated usually by nationalists of rightwing stripe, but often supported by elements of the working class, and usually a substantial proportion of the local trade union movement. ‘Alien’ cultures raking over our area, threatening our way of life, taking our jobs… Some trade unionists and even socialists  justified anti-semitism by labelling Jewish workers as scabs, who would undercut existing wages and work for less because they were desperate. On occasions such accusations could even be borne out, since some migrants would by skint enough to work for less, scab during disputes, and/or feel that solidarity with trade unionists who were attacking them and calling for their expulsion from the country was not rally an ideal they could afford to subscribe to. In any case scabbing was hardly limited to migrant workers…

Jewish trade unionists and socialists were keen to build bridges with the ‘native’ movements, and besides trying to build organisation and unionisation among the Jewish workers, encouraged support for other workers’ strikes and refusal to strike-break. But they faced not only hostility from English unionists, but also from the Jewish religious establishment and many religious Jews, opposed to co-operation as they feared it would lead to ‘assimilation’ and the loss of Jewish identity, and also feared and hated leftwing ideas. Tensions between different Jewish migrant groups also hampered their work. Though there was a constant effort to build tailoring trade unions, for example, tens of such unions were launched, but split, collapsed, or failed to gain ground. Short term success was often followed by frustration and having to rebuild. The largest tailoring union, the Associated Society of Tailors, dominated by craft traditions and based in Manchester had a habit of the executive settling strikes over the heads of the members actually on strike without consulting them; this caused further splits and divisions. While many of the union organisers were socialists and anarchists, with wider visions of how workers’ organising and strikes could build towards a social revolution, the most successful activity came from battling for pragmatic and immediate demands.

A large-scale tailors strike in 1889, partly inspired by the historic Dock Strike, and organised largely through the efforts of socialists and anarchists from the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, saw a highpoint, with 6000 tailors on strike in the East End. This eventually forced he master tailors to raise wages, reduce hours and improve conditions across the area, though the concessions (which were historic) were gradually eroded by connivery of the employers over the succeeding months.

The emergence of the anarchist Arbeter Fraint group around Rudolf Rocker, several of whom were working tailors, helped cement links between Jewish and English workers. The group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered.

By 1911-12, a general improvement in conditions of trade and employment was seeing Britain come out of a recession that had dominated the early part of the 1900s, when prices rose and wages fell in real terms. After 1910, the re-emergence of growth partly resulted in an increase in trade union action. There was also a rise in syndicalist ideas, partly under influence of the French CGT, and from the US from the de-Leonists/IWW. The theory of the General Strike as the method of workers taking over society gained some currency on the UK.
But syndicalism also proved attractive as a way of organising more immediate struggles, and also expressed trade unionists’ widespread disillusion with the business as usual union models and habits of compromise of union leaders. Syndicalism had influence in the East End – a Jewish Syndicalist Tailors Union was founded in 1908, and also developed among the Jewish anarchists.

Through 1911 a wave of strikes swept the UK – dockers, transport workers, miners, seamen struck for higher wages and better conditions, many winning improved deals. The struggle spread to many factory workers, among them people who had never unionised or gone on strike before (for instance the Bermondsey women workers who erupted in August 1911).

In 1912, the strike wave spread to London’s tailors. In April that year, 1500 tailors in the capital’s West End put in a demand for an increase in wages and better working conditions. Some were mainly members of the London Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, who backed their claim. Others, members of the larger Amalgamated Society of Tailors (and Tailoresses) West End branch, received no backing from their union. The West End master tailors rejected the workers’ demands with little consideration, resulting in an immediate strike call.

Unfinished garments in tailors workroom, due to tailors strike, Conduit Street, London, 7th May 1912.

In the East End, Rudolf Rocker saw an opportunity for Jewish tailors to not only show that Jewish workers could stand by their ‘native’ counterparts, but to fight for improvements in their own situation. The Arbeter Fraint published an editorial proposing the strike be extended to East London; following this a mass meeting of 8000 tailors, called by Rocker and Philip Kaplan secretary of the London Ladies tailors’ Union, met in the Mile End Assembly Hall, and voted for a general tailors’ strike. Two days later, over 13000 East End tailors were on strike; most of them not members of a union. “English, Jewish, Italian, French and Czech men’s tailors and mantle-makers in the bespoke, readymade, high quality and slop sectors of the industry had, for the first time, taken joint action in an attempt to increase wages and improve conditions in an industry renowned for its low pay and unhygienic workshops.” (Anne J. Kershen)

By this point in May, London dockers were also on strike, as the Port of London Authority had already reneged on its agreements after the dockers’ strike the year before. The striking tailors took in striking dockers’ children, and joint dockers and tailors strike meetings were held on Mile End Waste and at Tower Hill.

After three weeks on strike, the West end tailors and strikers in the men’s civil and military tailoring trades reached agreements with employers; leaving the East End tailors fighting alone, facing the decision as to whether they could also win…

Here’s Rudolf Rocker’s account of the 1912 strike:

“By 1912 we felt that the Jewish labour movement in England, and especially in the East  End of London, was strong enough to challenge the detested sweating system. The opportunity was provided by a strike of tailors in the West End of London in April 1912. It was called by the London Society of Tailors, and was soon actively supported by the members of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors. though the leaders of the Amalgamated were against the strike. It did not take them long however to realise that their members would do nothing against the strike.

There were about 1,500 tailors on strike, all highly-skilled craftsmen, doing the very best class of West End work. These tailors of the West End were an international crowd, Englishmen, Germans, French, Italians, Czech, and a few Jews. It was a completely different kind of work from the mass-produced sub divisional sweatshop tailoring of the East End Jewish workers. It soon became clear that strike-breaking work was being done in small East End tailoring workshops. There were so many of these that it was impossible to know of them all and to control them. The Jewish trades unions had never been able to accumulate enough funds to call a general strike. Their members didn’t earn enough to pay contributions large enough for strike pay. There was also a big mass of unorganised workers, some of whom were strike-breaking. We felt we must do something to remove the stigma of strike-breaking from the Jewish workers. lf the West End strike collapsed, the Jewish workers would be blamed for it. The entire British trade union movement would become hostile to the Jews. As it was, the English workers distrusted the Jewish immigrants, because of the sweatshop system, which they rightly saw as a danger to working class conditions. They couldn’t go into the reasons which had created the sweatshops. And it wouldn’t have altered the facts if they did.

It was therefore a point of honour with us to rouse the Jewish workers to abolish the sweatshops. It was even more Important morally than economically.

Our comrades in the Jewish trades unions brought up the question of the general strike in all of them. On 10th May I published a call in the Arbeter Fraint explaining to the workers what was at stake.

Our efforts got things moving. Over eight thousand Jewish workers packed the Assembly Hall for a meeting called by the United Jewish tailoring trades unions, which adopted the decision to strike. More than three thousand others stood outside, because the hall couldn’t hold more, waiting to hear what was decided. There was feverish excitement, and a real determination to act.

Kaplan opened the meeting. He was followed by MacDonald, the Secretary of the London Society of tailors and Chairman of the London Trades Council. The I spoke. I repeated more or less what I had already said in my call to the Jewish workers in the Arbeter Fraint. There was so much tension in the hall that no other speakers could get a hearing. The workers wanted a decision. When the vote was taken not one hand was lifted against the strike.

The strike was on. Eight thousand workers were out the first day. Another five thousand came out the day after. A small minority remained at work, but they were so few that it made little difference.   .           .

There was a strike committee of fifty members, representing all the tailoring trades unions in the East End. There were three sub-committees – finance, to raise funds for carrying on the strike; negotiations, to discuss agreements with employers prepare to accept the workers’ conditions, and one which set up the local strike committees, which were controlled by a committee of seven, to which Kaplan and I belonged.

We decided to issue the Arbeter Fraint for the duration of the strike as a four-page daily, to keep the workers informed of the progress of the strike.

Most of the strikers were not organised trade union members. Our problem was how they could get strike pay. Even the best organised trade unions in the strike, like the Mantle Makers, had no funds to meet anything like the call that was made on them. The other trades unions outside the tailoring industry had no funds with which to help. But the spirit of the workers was wonderful.

Except for the employers, who were interested parties, the whole East End was on the side of the strikers. The better-paid workers who had some savings refused to take strike pay. They even contributed to the strike fund. It didn’t swell our treasury very much. I was the Chairman of the Finance Committee, so I knew. We needed a lot of money to help the families of those strikers who were absolutely destitute. We opened canteens on the premises of all the trade unions in the East End. We were not able to provide much more than tea and bread and cheese.  But sometimes we also gave hot meals.

The Jewish Bakers Union supplied bread, and the cigarette makers provided cigarettes. All the Jewish trades unions put a levy on their members for the strike fund. Many who were not workers themselves and had no contact with the labour movement sent us money. The Yiddish theatre gave several performances to benefit the strikers. As a result we were ale to pay the strikers a few shillings during the first weeks.

The strike had started in sympathy with the West End tailoring workers. Now we had to draw up our own strike demands. What we wanted was to sweep away the whole sweating system. So our first demand was a normal working day. We asked for the abolition of overtime higher wages and above all, no more small workshops where decent hygienic conditions were impossible, and closed union workshops in all the rest. Without trade union labour there could be no guarantee that the better working conditions we obtained would last.

The employers association was as little prepared for the strike as the workers were. The Masters’ Association had about 300 members, which was only a fraction of the many hundreds who had small tailoring workshops in the East End. But the Masters’ Association had the backing of the big city firms for whom its members worked. The city firms had decided not to give any of their work to master tailors who accepted the workers’ conditions.

It was no secret that we had no funds. The Masters’ Association was therefore sure that we could not hold out more than a couple of weeks, and that sheer hunger would drive the workers back, ready to agree to anything. They had in answer to the strike retaliated with a three weeks’ lock-out. They had no doubt at all that before the end of the three weeks the workers would come begging to let them return.

The spokesman of the Master Tailors’ Association, a man named Samson, tried to create feeling against he strikers by alleging in statements to the English press that they had no real grievances, and were being used as tools in a pot by foreign anarchists to disrupt the industry. He produced false wage-sheets according to which the workers were earning anything between six pounds and ten pounds a week. Reading the reports he put out one got the impression that the infamous sweatshops of the East End were a paradise.

But the workers who slaved in those sweatshops knew what they were really like, and they were determined to stay out on strike whatever happened, in order to win better conditions. All our agitation would have been useless if the workers had not themselves stood firm. People often say the masses don’t know their own mind; this time they did. Attempts were made to play on the natural fears of the womenfolk, for who the strike meant literally no bread in the house. But the women too of the Jewish East End stood firm. There were big mass meetings of women at which they proclaimed their determination to stand by their menfolk in the strike until the end.

It so happened that the big London Dock Strike was on at the same time.

The common struggle brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together. Joint strike meetings were held, and the same speakers spoke at huge joint demonstrations on Tower Hill and on Mile End Waste.

I was busy attending all the meetings of the strike committee, acting as Chairman of the Finance Committee and editing the daily Arbeter Fraint. I worked on the paper from six in the morning till eleven. I addressed three or four strike meetings every day. I never go finished before two in he morning. Luckily I had a robust constitution. I wasn’t the only one who worked these hours. We were all at our posts day and night.

Three weeks after the strike started he workers and the employers in the West End reached a settlement. The result was that the East End workers employed in men’s tailoring, including uniforms, also went back to work, their employers having agreed to their most important demands – shorter hours, no piecework, better sanitary conditions and the employment of union labour only.

The strike in the women’s garment industry continued. This was the branch of the industry in which the East End Jews, masters and workers, were overwhelmingly engaged. Both sides were suffering badly. The master tailors had lost their season’s trade and were getting worried. The workers had no funds left, and were going hungry. The Masters’ Association decided to meet the men’s representatives, and said they would agree to shorter hours and higher wages, but not to closed union shops.

The strike committee called a meeting of the strikers in the Pavilion Theatre. It started at midnight, after the performance was over. The place was packed. Crowds who couldn’t get in stood outside waiting to hear the decision. Kaplan, as Chairman of the strike committee, opened the meeting. The strikers listened to him silently. There was no interruption, no opposition, no applause. A murmur ran round the building when I stood up as the first speaker. I saw those pale, pinched, hungry faces, those thousands of people who had come together at midnight to decide what to do about this strike for which they had sacrificed so much. I felt that I dare not conceal anything from them. I must tell them the whole truth. I explained the position to them. I said that if they held out a few more days I was sure they would win. lf they decided to go back now the masters would make them feel that they had lost. “But the decision,” I said,  “rests with you. I am not going to tell you what to do. You must decide for yourselves.” There was an outburst of applause, and from all sides came the cry: “The strike goes on!”

When the Chairman took the vote, not one single hand was raised against the decision to continuo the strike.

The Masters’ Association met the following morning. Samson insisted that they must hold out. But the great majority had had enough. They withdrew from the Association, leaving only a few members to continue the opposition to the workers’ demands. Negotiations started the same afternoon. We were astonished to find that Samson was one or the first who came to ask the trade union to let him reopen his workshop. Our answer was that we could not deal with him until we had settled with all the other master tailors. He had been the leader of the opposition to our demands and would therefore have to wait to the last. Even after he had signed the agreement nobody wanted to go to work for him.

I had played a leading part of course in the organisation and conduct of the strike, but legends began to grow around me as though I had been the sole organiser and architect of the victory. People ascribed to me things I had never done and had never even heard of. There were many others who had done as much as I did. But the popular mind and tongue insisted that I had done more, that I had done most of it. It was terribly exaggerated, it was fanstastic. It was most embarrassing. I couldn’t put my foot out in the street without becoming the object of a demonstration. One day as I was walking along a narrow Whitechapel street with Milly, an old Jew with a white beard stopped me outside his house, and said: ‘”May God bless You! You helped my children in their need. You are not a Jew, but you are a man!” This old man lived in a completely different world from mine. But the memory of the gratitude that shone in his eyes has remained with me all these years.

The London dock strike was still dragging on. A great many dockers families were suffering real want. The Jewish workers who had just won their own strike felt they must do something to help their fellow workers.

The Arbeter Fraint took it up; we started a campaign. We called a conference of the Jewish trades unions. A committee was set up, and our comrades Ploshansky and Sabelinsky were elected secretary and treasurer. It was decided to ask Jewish families in the East End to take some or the dockers’ children into their homes. Offers poured in. Unfortunately we couldn’t accept them all. Members of the committee always went first to see the house and too often the family couldn’t feed its own children properly. When we found a suitable home, Milly would go to the docks area with one or two other women to fetch the children. They were in a terribly undernourished state, barefoot, In rags. We placed over 500 dockers’ children in East End Jewish homes. Shopkeepers gave us shoes and clothing for them. Trade union leaders and social workers in the docks area spoke publicly of the kindness shown by the East End Jews. The docker parents used to come to the Jewish homes in Whitechapel and Stepney to see their children. It did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.”

Anne J Kershen identifies this strike as qualitatively different to many previous tailors’ strikes, achieving victory and inspiring a rapid increase in union membership in the various tailors’ societies. A number of factors had on this occasion combined to tilt the scales in favour of the workers, including the gradual assimilation and Anglicisation of Jewish workers which was breaking down prejudice and separation, a growing integration in various (previously quite separate) branches of the trade; the fact that it took place in May, always the busy season, when masters were most desperate for workers. The dedicated leadership of Rocker, Kaplan and the Arbeter Fraint group had also been crucial.

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The introduction to this post describing the London tailoring trade is a brief and very simplistic account; if you are interested in reading more on this, Anne J. Kershen’s ‘Uniting The Tailors’ is a brilliant write-up of tailoring and trade unionism in London and Leeds.

Rudolf Rockers account of the 1912 strike is taken from his autobiography, ‘The London Years’.

William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals is also a mesmerising read on this period.

Rent Strike Now? Inspiration from the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike

This blog normally concentrates on highlighting and discussing historical events in London. Only because we live here and this is where we mostly write about…

We’ve made an exception for this post, as we’re in exceptional times. But also times that illustrate starkly that the conditions we are currently facing are, in fact, concentrated secretions of the same old same old…

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There’s lots to be written about social changes that we are – voluntarily, or less voluntarily – undergoing as a result of the rapid spread and catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Mass deaths… horrific isolation for many… the lack of adequate protection for healthworkers, for people who live or work in care homes; for those who aren’t being paid if they don’t work, so have to carry on putting themselves and other at risk… the unequal distribution of deaths depending on your social class, ethnic background… underlying it all the unviability of a worldwide social system based on social division and economic exploitation, a society so precarious in its brutal rapaciousness that it totters when faced with a pandemic of these proportions. The horror of personal loss and fear for yourself and others; the devastation anger and pain…

People are writing that elsewhere… We might return to some of these aspects another time. Our approach is generally historical; we try where we can to link current events with struggles and movements of the past, to see what parallels and differences we can illustrate, to inspire, yes, inform, yes, but also just to throw up points for discussion which we think might be useful. (Others may disagree…)

The many economic measures hurriedly thrown up by the various nation states to support people unable to work while lockdowns and social distancing restrict our movement are not exactly unprecedented, if slightly unexpected when coming from a neo-liberal regime like the UK’s… But altruism is not suddenly the flavour of the month. After failing to convince even their own supporters that a eugenically-minded ‘herd immunity’ policy was scientifically unfeasible (as well as possibly dooming a future tory majority?) the massive ‘support’ program has been brought in to try to limit the inevitable anger and revolt that forcing people into lockdown poverty would provoke.

One way or another we’ll be paying for this for decades, and if experience is anything to go by, some of us will pay more than others; the classes with the most resources will be asked to pay less proportionally, and those who create the wealth, or can’t work, or have little or nothing, will again be squeezed as much as they will take. And more. Millions who cannot pay their way already can expect more holes in their pockets.

While millions cannot work, many of who aren’t getting paid, the bills keep coming in… Landlords are, unsurprisingly, not all cancelling rents, and the government is not even considering legislating to force them to – obviously, as the government is there to represent the interests of the propertied classes, and rent is one of the underlying pillars that keep propertied classes – well, propertied.

The new Government package lays down that landlords in England and Wales have to give three months’ notice before starting eviction proceedings. It’s worth noting though that this change won’t affect eviction proceedings already under way. Scotland’s emergency coronavirus legislation will also prevent private and social tenants being evicted for up to six months, by increasing the amount of notice the landlord needs to give before they can take steps to take over the property. In Northern Ireland no decision has yet been made (possibly the DUP will re-introduce the ducking-stool for tenants in arrears ?)

Beyond these three or six-month points, you’ll be expected to “work with your landlord to establish an affordable repayment plan which takes your circumstances into account”. Which for many tenants means – you might as well start packing.

The Government has also said that existing rules for social landlords dealing with rent arrears will be extended to also include private landlords. This is to “support engagement” between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes. It will ask landlords to be compassionate and allow tenants to stay in their homes wherever possible – while associations representing local government and housing associations have already said that no social renter should be evicted due to coronavirus. However – rent still has to be paid. If not now – later. Not getting paid now ‘cause you’re stuck at home? You MIGHT not have to any rent while the lockdown is over – but your arrears may well build up and your landlord will certainly come knocking down the line…

While private landlords are also now eligible for a three-month buy-to-let mortgage payment holiday if their tenants are ‘experiencing financial difficulties’ – no accompanying legislation lets tenants off paying the rent. There is no legal obligation for a landlord claiming a mortgage holiday to pass this on to their tenants. Relying on the moral sense of landlords to do so – like Captain Smith calling on the iceberg not to hole the Titanic below the waterline (except a government of landlords and property magnates knows for sure what non-regulation means… the monkey never pokes the organ grinders…)

None of this exactly SURPRISING. If you’ve been paying attention.

Across the world, people are starting to respond to this, with some rent strikes having already started, and many other folk are starting to discuss the idea. There are proposals for a mass collective rent strike to begin on May 1st, International Workers’ Day… That’s this week folks!
Read/download a guide to rent striking during the Covid-19 Crisis

Rent strikes historically have had some success, at some times, in some situations. Like most tactics for forcing concessions from the properties, working collectively tends to work better than fighting alone. Refusing to pay rent now might not result in immediate eviction in these extraordinary circumstances, but might also get individuals into hot water when ‘normal conditions’ are restored. For some people it won’t be a question of choice – no money coming in means no moolah for the landlord.
But collective action might produce a different result. As with any struggle, what people want and expect to get out of it is a good start. Abolition of rents until the end of the virus crisis? All sorts of possibilities beyond this exist, though it would seem a good start.

Whether it has a chance of succeeding, across the board or even in some places, depends on developed  – or the development of – levels of social solidarity and preparedness to act together, stand by each other and – without mincing words – break the law as it stands. This type of cohesiveness varies wildly from country to country and from city to town to neighbourhood in the UK. This country in particular (though not uniquely) has seen four and a half decades through which social solidarity has withered and been weakened; much of this process has been more or less deliberately engineered to push society towards certain economic conditions and to undermine the strength of working class communities and their ability or willingness to organise collectively. Hand in hand with the destruction of industries where workers’ autonomy an§d self-organisation was strong has gone the full-scale selling of the dream of home ownership and the selling off of social housing. Both workers’ organisation on their own behalf and widespread access to social housing had resulted from decades of struggle against the crap housing and bad conditions/low pay/exploitation and lack of control at work. Both high unionisation/autonomy at work and council housing were partial concessions won in the face of fierce resistance by the ruling elites, to prevent the whole of their wealth an control being taken away; as soon as conditions allowed, these concessions were reversed. To the point where social housing and control over your labour are a pipe dream for most of us.

Working class solidarity evolved over centuries was always partial (and subject to chasms of experience based on race, sex, and any number of prejudices), but has been decimated in many communities since the 1970s. Whether the solidarity being developed now through mutual aid groups being set up to support each other through the lockdown can be part of a rebuilding is an open question we can all supply the answer to; will some of them survive the ‘end’ of the crisis (assuming there is an ‘end’) ? Could they be the basis for ongoing mutual aid in our daily lives ?

Simply in terms of rent and rent strikes, there are interesting lessons to be learnt from previous struggles. We’ve decided to post up an account of the rent strikes that took places in Glasgow during World War 1, partly because the practical methods of organising are inspiring and useful, though may not be immediately applicable to many in our atomised and isolated semis; this is only a contribution. But technology available to us now enables connections the residents of 1915 Glasgow closes never dreamed of. On the flipside, the limitations of adhering to social distancing rules can make our old expressions of solidarity, like traditional demonstrations, etc, difficult. But there’s lots of creativity, out there… ways around restrictions…

Another reason to flag up Glasgow 1915 is the parallels, in terms of the location of the struggle in times of international crisis, and the ideology of national unity, sacrifice for the greater good that people of the time would have recognised echoes of in the calls for us all to do our bit, stay at home, protect the NHS etc. Leaving aside the toxic divisions between the tories over whether to push for global capitalism or national capitalism, its easy to see that patriotism is a sham designed to make us imagine We Are in It Together –
when we’re in the Shit and our rulers think they’re It…

During World War 1 millions fell for the national unity sell, and many died for that. Small minorities spoke up and pointed out that the working class of all countries have everything in common and we have nothing in common with our bosses. However – there were those who supported the war effort AND those who opposed it who worked to resist exploitation and crap pay and conditions, expand workers’ autonomy, and to seize as much in terms of concessions out of the state and the owners as they could. Not without massive fractures and contradictions, true. Normal economic and social relations were pushed aside to a limited extent during the war (and the second one…) and this not only opened up opportunities for change, but the pressure of war, death, fear, horror made many sit up and think – isn’t these another way? A different way of being not based on profit and slog but people and love?

The ideology of the Glasgow Rent Strike should be examined critically therefore, as much as their methods and tactics admired; it is also worth seeing it as part of an evolution of resistance to the war and the development of self-organisation and revolutionary potential, as well as a parallel stage in the creation of the social housing of the following century and other welfare developments.

There are some other links to other historical rent strikes and more, at the end… only a beginning towards places to read up.

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‘We Are Not Removing’

The Glasgow Rent Strikes During World War 1

In 1915 one of the largest rent strikes in urban history broke out in parts of Glasgow, in response to steep rent rises imposed by private landlords. Within months, after more than 20,000 joined the refusal to pay rent, organising a grassroots movement that physically resisted evictions and contested them in the courts, the upheaval forced the British government into passing emergency legislation to control rent levels.

Miserable Dwellings

From the late nineteenth century, Glasgow’s shipbuilding and naval engineering industries were booming, partly sparked by the demands of imperial expansion, and then by the growing expectation of a war amongst the great powers in Europe.

The growing demand for workers to man these industries led to a huge rise in the population. But housing did not keep pace with this increase. Much of Glasgow’s housing stock was severely overcrowded and in a terrible state; 70 per cent of the population lived in over- crowded one or two room flats, usually in tenement blocks. On top of this some 11 percent of accommodation was consistently empty, partly due to blatant speculation by landlords. The increase in demand worsened this situation, pushing rents up.

“The working people of Glasgow live in great many-storied barrack dwellings, in which are one roomed ‘houses’, two-roomed ‘houses’ three- roomed ‘houses and so on. In these ‘houses’ one finds a bed built into the wall of each room. In the kitchen, the bed is open to the view, though curtains are sometimes put up by the tenants. In the parlour, the bed is often hidden behind a wall and entered by what looks like an ordinary cupboard door which is only about a third of the bed’s length in width. The unhealthy stuffiness and darkness of such a bed and the difficulty of making it and keeping it clean may be imagined. The municipal authority do not allow any new cupboard beds to be built.

The overcrowding and the jerry buildings of Glasgow are proverbial, and for the miserable dwellings, very high rents are charged.” (Woman’s Dreadnought)

“In Clydeside there was more discontent about rents then elsewhere because the housing conditions were so much worse. There were streets and streets of one-room apartments, with whole families living in the one room and four or five families sharing one toilet on the stair. The tenement houses were all privately owned and there was a lot of opposition from the landlords to corporation housing. Rents were low because wages were low, but still they were difficult to collect. Rent arrears led to frequent moonlight flittings, which were possible because there was no shortage of dwellings in Glasgow before the war. The builders had even stopped building houses for rent because there was no profit in them.”

(Harry McShane)

Any kind of hovel

“There seemed to exist in the minds of the capitalist and exploiting class the idea that any kind of hovel was good enough for the working class; but an awakening was taking place throughout the country, and a demand was being made for a better standard of housing…” (Helen Crawfurd)

These pressures had led labour movement activists to put housing reform at the centre of their political programmes in Glasgow from the 1880s; immediately before the war socialist groups were pushing forward demands for municipal housing to be developed, and organising tenants associations to oppose rent increases. These demands were also linked to growing opposition to the high rates the working class had to pay for public services such as water, and gas.

But the outbreak of World War One was to sharpen the crisis in Glasgow’s housing and spark a revolt that would have long-term effects on social housing both in the city and nationwide.

Glasgow was a major centre for naval construction and munitions and arms factories. The war created massive demand in these industries, which was fed by a rapid influx of workers and their families into the city. Some 16,000 moved into the city and 4000 into its suburbs in 1914-15; as many as 60,000 new workers had by some accounts come to seek jobs in the city and its environs.

Private landlords seized the opportunity to jack up their profits: rents were increased some 23 percent, most notably in the industrial areas surrounding the shipyards where demand was highest.
With the war creating bad conditions for financial speculation many landlords saw that their ‘unearned income’ wasn’t accruing enough profit and so this had to be realized through rent increases. Rents increased steadily, as well as food prices during this period.

“When the war started all the unoccupied houses were taken up workers drafted into the workshops and shipyards for war production. The landlords immediately started to raise the rents and to apply for eviction orders against the old tenants who couldn’t pay. The hardest hit were the unemployed and the elderly, and the soldiers’ wives; but it even became difficult for the employed workers, despite increased wages, to meet the demands of the house-factors.
The struggle against rent increases and evictions became keenest in Govan and Partick, where most of the skilled workers in engineering and shipbuilding lived. New workers were moving into these areas all the time; everyone was looking for a house near his work because of the long hours of overtime.”
(Harry McShane)

Rent arrears or non-payment was treated very harshly – resulting in eviction, seizure of any possession to pay for the defaulted amounts…

Unrest was already boiling in the factories and shipyards. Glasgow, like many other cities, had seen a swelling of workers’ organising and strikes, as well as growth in socialist, anarchist and syndicalist ideas in the years before 1914; “the largest wave of working class struggle since Chartism.” These movements were to crystalise in the War years, producing the Clyde Workers Committee, the shop stewards movement, and would continue after WW1.

But while these developments were building in the workplace, the rent strike was mainly created and given its strength by the mass participation of women, in the community. Community organising was in fact somewhat disparaged by many of those who built the shop stewards movement, to start with; they saw the ‘point of production’, where workers were directly exploited by the bosses, as the crucial venue for class struggle. The rent strike was to prove that this was too narrow a view of exploitation and of resistance, and where it could be effective. It was also to cross the boundaries between ‘home’ and ‘workplace’, as workers came out on strike to support rent strikers. “What is inferred here is a short-sightedness typical of a political climate that sees industrial combat as a central and separate sector – the exploitative is seen as residing only around the workplace, a more male domain. But capitalist relations are secured and integrated in society at large; at the point of consumption as well as that of production, with both being regulated by government.”

Obviously, the war was used as an excuse to keep wages at a minimum. “so consequently the Rent Strikes can be seen in close relation to the industrial unrest on the Clyde of 1914-15, noted for the rise of militant ‘shop-stewards’ to echo a shop-floor distrust of
moderate union leaders who by 1916 were in collaboration with employers and government ministers. John MacLean, later jailed for opposing the war, saw in this conjunction of industrial and social strikes the first step “towards the political strike”. MacLean was also critical of
the TUC and Clyde Workers Committee for not becoming directly involved with the rent strike itself but remaining within the bounds of the workshop movement, itself later co-opted.”

The Role of the Independent Labour Party

“The housing conditions in Glasgow in 1914 were appalling and the Labour Party before the war initiated a Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. The two strongest sections of this Association were in Govan and Partick (the principal industrial areas of the city). Mrs Mary Barbour, afterwards a councillor and magistrate in Glasgow, was the leading woman in Govan, while Mrs Ferguson was the leader in Partick. Many women participated and were active in this organisation. They included Mrs Laird and Mrs Morrison of the Co-operative movement… The idea behind this movement was to bring women of all political parties into the agitation and drive for better housing in Glasgow.

Agitation against rent in- creases and evictions for non- payment of rent developed all through 1915. A Housing Conference, attended by 450 delegates, opposed rent increases and called for publicly funded and subsidised housing.

Although the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had called the conference, as was central to the propaganda against the landlords, it was a grassroots movement based on self-organised committees, springing up in the first months of the year, that led to the rent strike beginning in 1915.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“Mrs Mary Barbour organised the women in Govan to resist the rent increases. They got together to resist the sheriff officer when he came to evict anybody, and had processions two hundred strong against the house-factors. Mrs Barbour became a Govan legend; even now her name is still used by the Labour Party at election times…

Mary Barbour

Most of the women who led the fight on rents were in the Independent Labour Party. Andrew McBride was in the thick of it with them. Andrew was a little fellow, modest and not much of a speaker, but he was the Secretary of the Glasgow Labour Housing Association from before the war and really built it up… Andrew Hood played a big part. He was editor of the Partick Gazette and used it to publicise and used it to publicise the rent strike – later he became a Labour Lord Provost.” (Harry McShane)

While the Labour Party had a strong organisation on which a movement could be based, the movement had already to some extent autonomously organised, in many areas, into ‘Close Committees’. If Labour had hoped that solutions to the city’s housing problems could be achieved via petitions, representations, legal obstructions and not by Rent Strikes, the mainly working class women who formed the backbone of the strike had their own experience, their own ideas, and from the first found methods of defeating evictions gained strength from the particular geography of their housing.

Joseph Melling in his account of the rent strikes (which does emphasise the part played by the Labour Party) reports that there was a considerable amount of friction between the tenant committees and Labour councilors… As often happens. The party had pre-existing policies and an interest in a more legalistic solution, but also hoped to benefit electorally… the autonomous movement that was developing at the grassroots had its own interests, and undoubtedly it was the physical resistance to evictions that transformed the rent strike into the threat that it became.

Other left groupings were also involved, for instance the Women’s Labour League, also the Marxist British Socialist Party (formerly the SDF), of which John MacLean was a leading light.

We are Not Removing

The movement quickly became huge. From the start, as well as regular procession in the streets demanding the rent rises be withdrawn, and calling for a new housing policy, the campaign was based on refusal to pay the rent, legal defence in the courts and physical prevention of bailiffs eviction of non-payers.

“All day long in the streets, in the halls, in the houses, meetings were held. Kitchen meetings, street meetings, mass meetings, meetings of every kind. No halt, no rest for anyone, all in reparation for the sitting of the court when the test case came on…”

Some Dalmuir rent strikers

By October 1915 there were about 25,000 tenants on rent strike. From Govan and Partick, the strike had spread to Parkhead, Pollokshaws, Pollok, Cowcaddens, Kelvingrove, Ibrox, Parkhead, Govanhill, Shettleston, Richmond Park, Cathcart, Kinning Park, Dalmuir.

St. Rollox, Townhead, Springburn, Maryhill, Fairfield, Blackfriars and Woodside.
“The strikes were all against private landlords, as was always the case in Glasgow, and were helped by the fact that people had to take their rent to the house-factor (the solicitor who managed the rents for the landlord). They could see who was going into the house-factor’s office and knew who was paying and who wasn’t.” (Harry McShane)

“The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association took up this issue, and
in the working class districts, committees were formed, to resist these increases in rents. Cards, oblong in shape, were printed with the words

‘RENT STRIKE, WE ARE NOT REMOVING’ and placed in the windows of the houses where rent increase were demanded. When the increased rents were refused, the property owners immediately took legal action for the eviction of the tenants. The women then organised resistance to these evictions in the following way. In the Govan and Partick districts the working class houses were mainly tenements. One woman with a bell would sit in the close, or passage, watching while the other women living in the tenement went on with their household duties. Whenever the Bailiff ’s officer appeared to evict a tenant, the woman in the passage immediately rang the bell, and the women came from all parts of the building. Some with flour, baking, wet clothes, washing, and other missiles. Usually the Bailiff made off for his life, chased by a mob of angry women. The idea caught on, and it was a common experience to go through the working class districts, and find almost all the windows with these cards in them. In Govan, on one occasion, where a woman had been persuaded by the House Factor to pay the increase, having been told that the other tenants had paid, Mrs Barbour got the men from the shipyards in Govan to come out on the street where the House Factor’s office was, and then went up with the woman and demanded a return of the money. On the factor being shown the thousands of black-faced workers crowding the street he handed it over. This went on for months, with increasing
publicity and propaganda until every hall in the working class districts was packed. Rent Strike meetings gave the opportunity for anti-war and socialist propaganda from the platforms. I soon found myself in the thick of this fight, addressing meetings, always somewhat disgusted that the workers were asking so little when the whole world was theirs by right.”
(Helen Crawfurd)

Tactics adopted by the rent strikers also included: pulling down the bailiffs’ trousers to humiliate them! Without a doubt we should be reviving that… ‘Rough music’ played on pots, pans and other household implements was also used on the demonstrations, to alert people of impending evictions, and imply to intimidate the factors and sheriff ’s officers.


The Woman’s Dreadnought, a socialist-feminist paper run by Sylvia Pankhurst in London, reported on the Rent Strike in October 1915, in a report that illustrates that Glasgow was not alone – strikes has broken out in other cities:

“On Thursday, October 7th, a deputation accompanied by a procession of 15,000 people – mostly women – went in the midst of great enthusiasm to the City Council with banners inscribed:- ‘Our husbands, sons and brothers are fighting the Prussians of Germany. We are fighting the Prussians of Partick! Only alternative – municipal housing.’

Mr William Reid who introduced the deputation, said that rents had been raised since the valuations were confirmed so that the landlords might evade the payment of extra taxes. The increased costs of higher rates, bond interest and repairs was estimated at 5 per cent on a rental of £10, 10 shillings, 0 pence. But the rent of £10 houses has been raised by 15 shillings to 40 shillings.

Landlords were therefore making a profit out of the war at the expense of poor tenants.

The Town Clerk explained that the representations of the deputation could not be discussed until the next meeting of the council unless a majority of two thirds should decide to discuss them now.

Baillies Stewart, Mitchell and Izett urged that the matter must be dealt with at once to prevent the people being turned out, but as their motions failed to receive a two-thirds majority the matter was postponed.

On Tuesday, October 12th, the landlords applied to the Sheriff for nine eviction warrants. Six of the tenants were munitioneers, and as it was said that if munitions workers’ or soldiers’ wives were evicted rioting

would ensue, the Sheriff adjourned these cases for a week. In three other cases eviction notices were granted to take effect in four days.

Will the neighbours allow these people to be turned out? Strikes against increased rents are developing in many other places.

In Birmingham, registered letters were sent out by landlords, giving no- tice to quit, and stating that rents would be doubled. As soon as the rent strikers learnt the contents of the letters one of their scouts went round in front of the postman advising householders not to accept delivery of the landlords’ registered letters. The advice was accepted and when the rent collector called on Monday, he was accompanied by a policeman. The tenants tendered their rents minus the increase and it was accepted.

In a Northampton working class district, where an increase of 6 pence on a 6 shilling house rental has already been made since the beginning of the war, the tenants have met a demand for an additional 6 pence with a blank refusal.

Occupants of houses in working class districts in Dulwich have received notice of an increase of one shilling per week. One landlord has threatened an increase of another shilling before Christmas. The tenants in many streets have decided to refuse to pay any increase. In Bermondsey the landlords have given notice to raise rents and the tenants are organizing resistance.

In Tooting the 350 rent strikers have won the day, the landlords after a stiff fight, agreeing to withdraw the increase…

It should at least be possible for the government to appoint an impartial body who could decided whether or not the owners of the property were securing from the addition in rent any advantage from the national emergency.

In our view such a compromise would be absolutely futile. When food is taxed manufacturers and shop keepers raise the price and the poor consumer who lives by his or her own exertions has to pay. When rates, taxes, bond interest and so on go up, landlords raise rents and again the poor person living from hand to mouth by his or her own exertions has to pay. The rich and powerful always pass on the burden to those who are poorer. The poorest have no one to whom they can pass the burden on. What is to happen unless this sort of thing is stopped?”

(“Fight Against Grasping Landlords”, article from the Woman’s Dreadnought, 23rd October 1915.)

Apart from the areas mentioned by the Dreadnought, there were also reports of rent strikes in Aberdeen, Belfast, Birkenhead, and Dundee.

Down Tools

“By the end of the year strong feeling had built up about evictions of soldiers’ wives and widows and their children. The people’s attitude to the war had changed; the stories were coming back from the trenches,
it was plain that the war was lasting much more than six months, and they just weren’t prepared to go on suffering. The support for rent strikes and the rise in discontent and ill-feeling were so great that the government began to consider whether or not to bring in legislation on rents – although many in the government were completely opposed to limitation. Then, in November 1915, an industrial strike against the rent increases finished all the discussions.

In November 18 tenants were taken to court in an attempt by the factors to get rent deducted from their wages at source. One of them was an engineer in the Dalmuir shipyard called James Reid and all the shipyard workers from Dalmuir, Fairfield, Stephens and other yards and factories downed tools and marched to the court in support…”
(Harry McShane)

The notices to prosecute issued against Reid and other Dalmuir Rent Strikers ended with thousands congregating in George Square outside the Court House. Five major shipyards and one munitions plant came out in support of the defendants, and other plants sent deputies in support to threaten general strike action; despite the war- time regulations against industrial action. The threat of a crossover between industrial struggle and the rent strike made the situation highly volatile, especially given the state’s dependence on the munitions and shipbuilding industries.

“The men from the shipyards and engineering works in Govan, Partick and Clydebank came out in their thousands. I will never forget the sight and sound of those marching men with black faces. Thousands of them marched through the principal streets down to the Sheriff ’s Court and the surrounding streets were packed. John MacLean, afterwards imprisoned for his anti-war activity, and first consul for the USSR in Glasgow, was one of he speakers, who from barrels and upturned boxes addressed the crowds. Inside the court the judge and his attendants were attempting in a tense atmosphere to make decisions on the nine cases. The court was also packed.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“At the court-house there was a mass meeting in the street. Maclean, Gallacher, McBride and others spoke; the police pulled the platforms from under them they continued speaking, and the meeting demanded that the sheriff receive a deputation. To discuss a case with a deputation of workers before the proceedings opened was against all
the court rules, but once again Sheriff Lee was in charge and he agreed. After he had met the deputation he phoned Whitehall, who assured him that the rent restrictions legislation would be introduced in the next month. The house-factors still wouldn’t agree to an adjournment of the case, and Sheriff Lee decided it on his own responsibility.”

(Harry McShane)

The Birth of Public Housing?

After this confrontation all pending legal actions against striking tenants were dropped, and the Secretary of State for Scotland asked the Cabinet to order the freezing of rents at a pre-war level. Less than a week later, the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act was introduced into Parliament, and was law by the 25th of December.
It prevented the increase of rent on all homes whose rental did not exceed £90 a year. “This applied to the whole of Britain, so that the fight put up by those brave Glasgow women was crowned with success, and the working people of Britain reaped the benefit.” (Helen Crawfurd)


“When the Act came into force it pegged rents to the levels they were before the war broke out, and only allowed a 40 per cent increase if repairs were carried out. In the 1930s it was possible for the socialist movement to use that act and encourage tenants to with-hold rents until they got their repairs done… Even past the second world war there were some tenants in private homes that had been rent-controlled in 1915.”
(Harry McShane)

Later in 1919 the Housing and Town Planning Act was passed, mandating local authorities to build council housing and providing the cash… This is widely celebrated as the ‘Birth of public housing’; in which the memory of the Glasgow Rent Strike was a powerful influencing factor.

Obviously the legislation was implemented not through any sense of class justice, but “in the interest of the state as a whole.” The immediate and desperate needs of British Capital as a whole was threatened by the potential of the rent strike to spread to the industrial sphere.

Although municipal housing had been a labour movement demand for years, and although there were many factors in the creation of public housing, it was to some extent the extra-ordinary wartime conditions that allowed the tenants to triumph. The acclaimed climate of ‘national unity’, “we’re all in the same boat”, etc, was without doubt double-edged. It did allow the state to close out and repress some industrial and social struggles on the one hand, but did also create some space for those struggling from below to posit demands for social improvements, especially against interests seen as profiting from wartime conditions. Clearly workers and employers/the state were not ‘in the same boat’, but the rhetoric of sacrifice did sometimes cut both ways. Landlords raising rents where war work was leading to housing shortages, in this light, laid themselves open to charges of war-profiteering. The State found it difficult to side with profiteering landlords against munitions workers, and soldiers’ families.

One commentator on the rent strike and its significance identifies the difficult position the British state was put in, and the willingness of the ‘executive committee of the bourgeoisie’ to cut loose the landlords if the interest of the ‘national capital’ demanded it:

“The separate capitalist interest of the socially unproductive landlords during the first years of the war, upping rents to profit from the shortage of accommodation, and the increased spending power of the many workers, men and women, engaged in overtime on munitions production, threatened to undermine the effectiveness of the main British capitalist offensive. The object of this offensive, as we have already noted, was to increase the efficient investment of capital and the level and rate of productivity of the labour force, to intensify exploitation. But this offensive depended for its political effectiveness upon the state presenting it as a national mobilization of both capital and labour that would transcend all private interests or class divisions in a national partnership based upon the appeal for increased productivity for the war effort. The ‘selfishness’ of the landlords was undermining the state’s appeal to the national interest by producing working class resistance to rising rents and was threatening to tar the industrial capitalists with the same brush, despite the state propaganda about the control of industrial profits that was thrown as a sop to the working class. Already the working class in Glasgow in their slogans and posters, were identifying the landlords, ‘The Hun at Home’, as they were dubbed, with the ‘national enemy’, the Germans. Working class tenants were defending themselves against the bailiffs, starting with the defence of those worst hit by the rent rises and attempted evictions, the war widows on their miserable pensions and wives of soldiers serving in France who had young children to look after and so could not take advantage of the work to be had in the munitions factories. Since the class movement developing around the rent struggle threatened to spread to production and paralyse the ‘war effort’, the state was forced to ‘side’ with the tenants against the landlords and cut away the ‘parasitic’ capitalist interests of the landlords from the main body of ‘progressive’ capitalist interests it saw itself as the representative of.” (Steve Vahrman)

To some extent this pressure to adhere to a kind of ‘national unity moral economy’ survived until after the war (and could be observed even more after World War Two).

However just as it was the collective spirit of the rent strikers that made it imperative to settle the conflict quickly, after 1918, the situation was exacerbated by the high post-war workers militancy.

A growing unemployed movement and strike wave fed into by the expectations of ex-servicemen and the families, who took the loudly professed ideal of sacrifice and unity at face value (sometimes genuinely and sometimes tactically) and pushed for widespread social change. The mutinies and revolutions which contributed to the war’s end also struck fear of revolt into the minds of the more astute ruling class strategists who foresaw that public housing and other large-scale improvements in working class life would be likely to stave off more violent upheaval.

Was the rent strike implicitly backed by capital? It is suggested by Joseph Melling that the Clydeside industrialists in effect supported the demand for rent freezes and even for state-subsidised public housing, not only because it meant and end to instability that was threatening social peace and thus productivity, but also long-term because they thought it would do the same in the long term – pacify and integrate militant working class movements.

According to Manuel Castells: “The enemies of rent strikers were not the capitalists but the landlords, and individual speculators… Two- thirds of Glasgow housing was built by individual owners borrowing money from small bondholders who were charging increasingly high interest. This explains both the inadequacy of the housing production and the harshness of the landlords who had to collect their rents in order to pay their interest. As well as this class of wealthy urban rentiers, the strikers also had to fact the building industry, a very small business sector operating on an ad hoc basis under the control of the landlords.”

Thus defeat for the landlords was not as such a defeat for large capitalist enterprises. The big losers were the landlords, and the building industry; one result of the rent strike was a depression in the private building industry, which in fact stimulated the need and push towards municipal housing even more.

The Rent Strike and Class Composition

But to discuss the rent strike in terms of capital and its interests is in some ways to undervalue the positive aspects of the self-organisation and unity the rent strikers achieved. Given the high level of both legislation and social pressure against strikes, agitation, under war- time conditions, the rent strike movement reached an impressive level of solidarity. It is true that they were able to articulate the boundaries of the struggle in terms that did not in themselves oppose the war, even to cast the landlords as the ones sabotaging the patriotic consensus, stabbing soldiers in the back etc. Nevertheless they were more successful in winning substantial intervention from the state than other contemporary struggles, notably the Clyde shop stewards movement. Both these two upheavals, though, also formed part of a continuum of struggle in Glasgow that began before the war, and continued after it.

Some commentators have flagged up the 1915 rent strike as arising from the conflict around craft privileges, the breakdown of old strata of traditional skilled workers – especially in the context of the industrialists’ wartime need to break these down, in the interest of mass industrial production.

A hypothesis exists of the 1915 rent strike as a manifestation of old labour unionism; by some commentators it is contrasted with the shop stewards movement developing in the city at the same time, and in which a newer, more homogenous class movement was developing in opposition to old labour aristocracies and craft divisions. Although skilled artisan workers formed the backbone of the Independent Labour Party, which as we have seen was heavily involved in the movement…

But according to Castells, the strike provided a common ground for unity between different segments of the city’s working class, “at the very moment when workers were weakened within the factories both by the recomposition of the work process and by the dramatic altering of the procedures for unionisation and labour representation.”

However the strike was clearly only won by the support of the trade unions (Castells illustrates this by pointing out that a rent strike in nearby Clydebank in 1922 was defeated, despite again having 20,000 participants, when the local unions did not give their support.)

In terms of different strata of the working class and their involvement in the movement, Sean Damer noted the character of the areas where the rent strike was strongest: “What is interesting to note about these areas of the city is that they are markedly different: heavily industrial areas, more respectable artisanal areas, and slum areas.”

It may be that the struggle gained strength from its ability to forge unity between skilled artisanal areas and more unskilled, traditionally slum, neighbourhoods.

This is interesting, if you compare it to Quintin Bradley’s analysis on the Leeds rent strike (which began in January 1914 and ended in March, before WW1 had begun). In The Leeds Rent Strike of 1914, A reappraisal of the radical history of the tenants movement, he identifies the Leeds Strike as arising specifically from the aristocracy of labour, skilled craft workers, people who saw themselves as a cut above the slums, who were facing rent rises on their somewhat better quality housing and being forced to pay or told to move to the slums… They struck to defend themselves against being driven down wards socially, to distinguish themselves from the poorest. The Leeds rent strike was heavily defeated. Beyond this he goes on to question the twentieth century tenants movement’s view of itself and its history, suggesting that the movement’s birth had more to do with a respectable strata of the working class defending its precarious position above the slum-dweller/unskilled, that with an egalitarian vision of public housing for all.

It would be interesting to know if research bore this out for Glasgow, or even for parts of the city, in 1915. And how it compares to later rent strikes.

Quintin Bradley’s article is online here

Women led the Movement

All accounts agree women led the campaign – they were at the head of the mass demos, central to the structures that spread the strike and kept watch/alerted the closes and blocks to impending evictions; they were the ones who launched violent attacks on House factors and sheriff ’s officers attempting to evict people.

“The presence of women as the backbone and main co-ordinators of
the rent strikes is an obvious fact bearing in mind the rigidity of society at this time, but documentation of these ‘housewives’ only exists in the guise of those women who were particularly vociferous in the context of the Independent Labour Party. A certain silence descends on the motivations and thoughts of the “two women for each close” involved on committees in the Richmond Park Strike, and on the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association established in 1914. Joseph Melling mentions a Boilermaker telling a group of shipbuilding tradesmen that “The men laughed the idea of a rent strike to scorn.”

Some were widows, of soldiers, many were workers in factories and munitions works themselves… A number had been suffragettes pre- war. There had been a massive entry of women into the industrial workforce, to replace men away at war. It may have been important factor in women’s leadership of the struggle – they were the breadwinners in many families, already breaking down labour privileges in work previously restricted to men. Manuel Castells has suggested that this process had an impact on their autonomy, their ability to make decisions and take charge of the strike. But this fails to take into account previous history… women had a traditional role in asserting moral economy of the lower classes and imposing it on their ‘betters’; in bread riots and similar protests through the preceding centuries, women can be seen taking a central role.
While the rent strike may have seen women taking centre stage, ironically the end of the war had a negative impact on many women – not only as returning men expected their jobs back and there was mass unemployment as war economy was wound down, which affected women heavily as their position in the workplace was precarious. But, also, the ‘restoration of authority’ and normal relations was an important pressure in post-war Britain, and restoring the gender power relations that had been shaken by the war and by struggles like the rent strike was seen as part of this. Mass unemployment also contributed to this, forcing women on the defensive, back into customary roles.

Welfare and Class Warfare

To some extent the Rent Strike is an important struggle in the development of a welfare state, especially in terms of how organised workers imposed some of their needs and demands on the state and forced it to integrate some forms of recognition of them from the representatives of capitalist interests.

It also was a stage in the development of a political leadership in Glasgow that was to dominate politics there for decades, and play a part in transforming the city in to a stronghold of both Labour and the Communist Party; witness how both Mary Barbour and Andrew Hood rose to high positions in the City administration in later years.

Both of these two developments reflect the underlying social-democratic nature of the workers movement of the time, despite some of the syndicalist methods the Clyde Workers Committee had adopted and despite the autonomous elements that won the rent strike. Much of the welfare state, as it was gradually adopted between the early twentieth century and the late 1940s, was the result of pressure from below, working class movements pushing for far-reaching changes, but channeled through a political leadership via the Liberals, Labour and the Trade Unions.

Without getting into a complex and possibly sterile debate about whether this represented concessions granted to prevent a militant working class from taking more by force, it is undoubtedly true that capital internationally, and in the UK particularly, through the twentieth century, up to the 1970s at least, managed, or tried , to integrate working class aspirations to some extent. In the decades since, a great deal of the concessions won have been under threat, some has been dismantled, others have been slowly disintegrated or undermined, and much of what remains is now subject to a renewed onslaught under the banner of ‘austerity’, ‘sharing the burden of getting the national debt down’… Social housing is probably the sector of the social-democratic welfare state that has suffered the heaviest restructuring since the Thatcher government of the 1980s took aim at it. If Glasgow can be seen as an important point in its development, does the rent strike also have lessons for dealing with the problems of modern urban housing?

Changes in housing can hardly be gone into in great detail here. But in the decades after the World War 1, social housing, mostly run by local councils, expanded massively, to the point where 42 percent of the UK population lived in council housing in the late 1970s.

Since the 1980s, it has been both declining in size, firstly due to a massive increase in the tenant right to but schemes, and has been semi-privatised (in the form of being hived off to housing associations and more recently of arms length management organisations). New council housing hasn’t been built, in any significant amounts.

To some extent social housing’s decline has led to council housing, in many parts of the UK, being relegated to a safety net for people with no alternative, dismissed and despised by many as a last resort, rather than a collective aspiration with a shared positive ethos.
Right to Buy, the Thatcher government’s cleverest policy in many ways, has played a part in the almost total identification of home ownership with self-respect, achievement and respectability. If you can’t achieve it you aspire to it. Private rents have also soared, especially since laws restricting rent levels were abolished – again under the Thatcher government – in the Housing Act 1980 and in subsequent legislation through the 1980s.

The massive growth in owning your own gaff has been part of an undeniable atomisation of ideas of collectivity in Britain since the 1980s, which has had huge positive consequences for capital, for
its ability to reshape society in the interest of profit with very little chance of mass opposition. It also created a huge new internal potential for expansion in markets for moneylenders, builders, developers and so on. Hence, though, the spiralling madness of house prices, private rents, and the impossibility for many of social housing.

On top of this the whole idea of ‘working class areas’ has broken down in many places – for instance, in London, integration of ‘rich and poor areas’ has spiralled; people of many backgrounds now live cheek by jowl, even former council flats on estates having been sold off – in some cases whole blocks. Gentrification has accelerated this.

All this has many results – but one is undoubtedly that movements- like the Glasgow Rent Strike would be much harder to build now. Although tenants of private landlords built the first rent strikes, and won them successfully at times (not just in Glasgow, also London’s East End rent strikes in the later 1930s), in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, rent strikes became better known for taking place among council tenants. Being all tenants of the one big landlord, in the same boat, living in the same blocks, made it easier to organise. Physical geography may well also play a big part in social struggles around housing. The Glasgow and East End 1930s rent strikes worked best when organised around people living in blocks… making collective self-defence easier, to keep look out, and helping in the process of meeting other people and building solidarity with them, etc. It is more difficult in isolated housing… though not impossible…

Many private flats these days might be owned by someone who owns just one or two properties… it’s not just home ownership that has become integrated into the mindset, but also the aspiration to own somewhere to rent to others…

This diffuse and fragmented housing map seems then ideal to divide us from each other. However… if history tells us anything it’s that no barriers can stand against us when we’re cunning, and start making links outside the immediately obvious. In recent years London, for instance, has seen tentative steps towards the beginnings of a private tenants movement, with small local groups of ‘renters’ getting together to campaign and protest.

The adoption of the World War 1 rhetoric of national sacrifice, we’re all in it together, unity in the country’s interest, by the current administration, is striking. What is certain is that if working class people stop pushing forward the boundaries, imposing our needs and

desires on capital, then capital’s own class warriors will push back. As they have been very successful in the last 35 years, the question uppermost is – how fast can we get pushing?

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Sources

This episode by no means marks the end of Rent Struggles in Scotland, but the seed of more prolonged rent strike that took place between 1920 and 1927 in Clydebank, which employed widespread contestation in the courts as well s civil disobedience.

Sean Damer, Rent Strike! The Clydebank rent Strike of the 1920s (Clydeside District Council, District Library.)

Joseph Melling, Rent Strikes, People’s Struggle for housing in the West of Scot- land, 1890 – 1916. (Polygon Books, Edinburgh).

Steve Vahrman, 1973, introduction to John MacLean’s War After the War.

Harry McShane, No Mean Fighter (Pluto Press 1978). McShane was a long time Glasgow communist activist and trade unionist, sometime ally of John MacLean; a veteran of the Clyde Workers Committee, the unemployed struggles of the 1920s and ‘30s… After some thirty years in the Communist Party of Great Britain, he left in the early 1950s, remaining a committed Marxist.

Manuel Castells, The Industrial City and the Working Class, in The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements, 1983.

Helen Crawfurd was born in 1877 in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. She played an active role in the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association and was a member of the Independent Labour Party during this period. Preceding the rent strikes she was militant throughout Britain as part of the women’s suffragette movement, being arrested once in Glasgow and once in Perth, and twice going on hunger strike. Her account of the Rent Strike was taken from her unpublished memoirs that lie in the Marx Memorial Library.

Also worth a look:

Rent Strike 1960: An edited account of The St Pancras Rent Strike

The Barcelona Rent Strike of 1931.

1930s Rent strikes in London’s East End 
.
.. and another account that discusses this rent strike in comparison to later East End housing battles…

Watch a film about the East End strikes

The Struggle Against the 1972 Finance Act

A film about the 1972 Kirby Rent Strike in Liverpool

And it’s not just rent strikes – an account of 1930s mortgage strikes in South East London

We’ll add more here when we can… let us know of good links

 

Today in London radical herstory, 1914: International Womens Day march sees launch of newspaper the Woman’s Dreadnought

“The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and “The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and the procession joined the meeting in the square. …Miss Patterson exclaimed, ‘We feel that the time has come for action. Follow the flags. See if we can find something to do’ and proceeded towards Whitehall with strong contingent of men, women and boys …The arrest of Miss Patterson was a signal for wild disorder, many of her supporters throwing themselves on her captors. Eventually mounted police dispersed the crowd. Altogether ten persons were arrested”.  (Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1914, p.9.)

On 8 March 1914 the East London Federation of a Suffragette held an International Women’s Day demonstration in Trafalgar Square, to demand votes for women. The march saw launch of its newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought.

The march was met by mounted police who waded in to inflict considerable violence on the demonstrators. Five women and five men were brought to court the following day, where an angry magistrate complained “Half Scotland Yard had turned out to keep a lot of desperadoes in order!”


The East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS), had only two months before had formally split from the largest militant suffragette organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had engineered their expulsion, mistrustful of the ELFS’s emphasis on centring the campaign for the vote among working-class women in London’s East End.

Leading light in the ELFS was socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, whose political divergence from her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel was only past of the story. Sylvia had undertaken hunger strikes in prison to the point that the authorities temporarily released her to ensure she did not die in their custody, and was at constant risk of re-arrest and imprisonment (she was in fact re-arrested again on the 8th March demonstration).

Sylvia Pankhurst would later recall that the WSPU leader (who was also Sylvia’s older sister), Christabel Pankhurst, demanded that the ELFS form a separate organisation on the grounds that

‘a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. ‘Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!’ 

The ELFS completely rejected this view that richer women were more effective suffragettes, publishing an impassioned defence of the necessity of campaigning ‘from below’ in the first edition of the Dreadnought:

‘Some people tell us that it is neither specially important that working women should agitate for the Vote, nor specially important that they should have it. They forget that comparatively, the leisured comfortably situated women are but a little group, and the working-women a multitude.

‘Some people say that the lives of working-women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful force in winning the Vote, many though they are. Such people have forgotten their history. What sort of women were those women who marched to Versailles?

‘Those Suffragists who say that it is the duty of the richer and more fortunate women to win the Vote, and that their poorer sisters need not feel themselves called upon to aid in the struggle appear, in using such arguments, to forget that it is the Vote for which we are fighting. The essential principle of the vote is that each one of us shall have a share of power to help himself or herself and us all. It is in direct opposition to the idea that some few, who are more favoured, shall help and teach and patronise the others’.

The ELFS’s insistence on applying to the struggle the principle of self-representation that they saw embodied in the vote also entailed a rejection of Christabel Pankhurst’s assumption that all women shared the same interests and therefore richer women could fight on behalf of working-class women.

The ELFS had a strong alliance with East End socialists & workers in particular trades, especially the East End dockers. ELFS members had supported dock strikes in 1912, & the organisation continued to work closely with dockers. Many dockers wives became suffragettes. In March 1913, dockers had supported a march to Holloway, where suffragette Scott Troy was on hunger strike; Troy had organised support to help feed 1000s of dockers families during 1912 strike. ELFS had a branch which operated at the East India Dock Gate, the entrance to one of the biggest docks and a well-known speakers corner for trade unions and socialists. Every Sunday in spring & summer the ELFS staged processions that began or ended at the dock gates.

Sylvia Pankhurst speaks

The ELFS also distinguished themselves from the WSPU and other suffrage groups, in that they campaigned for universal adult suffrage – many working men also could not vote. This brought them closer to workers’ organisations, which remained suspicious of the WPSU in some ways.

Although Sylvia Pankhurst was the focus of EFLS activity, other leading women included Charlotte Drake, ex-barmaid, labourers wife & mother of 5; Melvina Walker, a one-time lady’s maid and dockers wife, whose tales of the high society she had served made her a popular speaker; Nellie Cressell mother of 6, who later became Mayor of Poplar; Annie Barnes and Julia Scurr, later councillors in Stepney & Poplar; Jennie MacKay, ex of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), also later a councillor; Louise Somerville, veteran of the Socialist League and Amy Hicks, also ex-SDF.

The 8 March was held to commemorate International Women’s Day, (initially called for at an international socialist conference in Copenhagen in 1910 by the German socialist Clara Zetkin, to draw attention to the struggles of working-class women). Choosing this day for their demonstration highlighted the working-class and internationalist politics that characterised the ELFS.

Melvina Walker

The demonstration was also notable, as it saw the launch of a new publication, the ELFS’s own newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia Pankhurst.

The paper was started by Pankhurst at the suggestion of Zelie Emerson, after Pankhurst had been expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union by her mother and sister.

On the drawing board it was titled Workers’ Mate, but appeared as The Woman’s Dreadnought, with a weekly circulation of anywhere between 10-20,000. It cost a penny; it was advertised by Graffiti campaigns around the East End. Police harassed the women and men who sold it on the streets.

Despite frequent violent re-arrests, imprisonments and hunger strikes, Sylvia Pankhurst ensured the newspaper came out each week; even a policeman arresting her in May 1914 asked her ‘how I found the time for it’. During Sylvia’s regular spells of imprisonment, Norah Smyth alternated as acting editor with Jack O’Sullivan. Smyth used her photography skills to provide pictures for the newspaper of East End life, particularly of women and children living in poverty.

East London Federation of Sufragettes street stall

Until World War 1 began, it covered London-based, mostly East End news: including women’s suffrage, battles with borough councils, fights with police, women’s lives… When WW1 began, it also began to voice opposition to the slaughter, resistance to conscription, and campaigns around the austerity and shortages the war brought. It was viewed by the authorities as having such a dangerous influence that its offices were subject to repeated police raids.

The Dreadnought would go through several incarnations over the next ten years, as the emphasis of the organisation around Sylvia would change and evolve, through suffrage campaigns, resistance to world war and austerity, support for revolution… In July 1917 the name was changed to Workers’ Dreadnought, which initially had a circulation of 10,000. Its slogan changed to “Socialism, Internationalism, Votes for All”, and then in July 1918 to “For International Socialism”, reflecting increasing opposition to Parliamentarism in the party.

Norah Smyth

On 19 June 1920 Workers’ Dreadnought was adopted as the official weekly organ of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). Pankhurst continued publishing the newspaper until 1924.

The first edition of the Dreadnought declared: ‘the chief duty of The Dreadnought will be to deal with the franchise question from the working women’s point of view’. ELFS members, for the most part women who worked in manual jobs, became the Dreadnought’s journalists, reporting on the concerns of their own communities and workplaces which, Sylvia Pankhurst later wrote, ‘produced far truer accounts than any Fleet Street journalist, for they knew what to ask and how to win the confidence of the sufferers.’ One of these members was Florence Buchan, a jam factory worker who had been sacked when her employers found out she was a suffragette, whose first article exposed the dangerous conditions in jam factories. Her interviews with local striking workers conveyed the sacrifices they made, but also their spirit and humour. Women workers at a preserves and tea packing factory told her that when they tried to go on strike the foreman had locked them in the workroom, and when the women told the male workers what had happened they gave the foreman ‘a good thrashing’; the women concluded ‘there are too many bosses’.

Hoping to engage widely with the local community, Sylvia Pankhurst initially wanted the Dreadnought to be free but this proved unaffordable so they charged a halfpenny for it (half the cost of most political publications) in the first four days after printing after which they distributed the remaining copies from the 20,000 print-run house to house around the East End free of charge.

Going door to door also helped the ELFS to in its aim to connect their political campaign with the economic and social issues of the local community. ELFS members would knock on every door in a particular street, ask the women at home about their lives and then report the conversations they had with the women in the Dreadnought, revealing the problems of ordinary people’s lives. In one such report one woman told of the domestic abuse she was habitually subjected to when her husband discovered they had run out of money – ‘they ask you what you’ve done with it all, and then they start on you’, while others spoke of unemployment, hunger and extortionate rents. The ELFS reporter then summarised her political conclusions from the conversations:

‘Denial to the Government which calls these women unoccupied.

‘One came face to face with the unemployed problem.

‘With Poverty. – Housing Question. – Women as Slaves. – Sweating of Women. – Insurance Act as a failure. – Great faith in women. Suffragettes to be found in slums.’

The Dreadnought gained a reputation for amplifying the voices of people that the establishment did not want to hear. The fact that the Dreadnought carried stories which it received from people writing into paper about injustices they wanted publicised demonstrates the trust and credibility the publication had built up.

During World War 1, the East London Federation of Suffragettes opposed the war, (unlike the leading suffrage organisations, the WPSU and the NUWSS). Sylvia insisted on the Fed and the paper taking this view, which did lead to some ‘pro-war’ ELFS activists leaving, and lost the ELFS much support; initially, as the war was popular and opposition considered traitorous. Several well-off backers who had funded the organisation pulled out, outraged at its anti-war stance.

The Mothers’ Arms toy making workshop

However, as the war went on, and deaths mounted, conscription was introduced, and shortages and privations started to it, the ELFS started to regain support. Gradually, the group evolved from a political organisation into a feminist social welfare movement, focusing on the daily needs of East End women. From this they developed political and social demands reflecting the impact the war was having on the poor: for control of food so people wouldn’t go hungry; against rent rises and wage cuts. A rent strike was attempted in August 1914. At this time some East End women were taking direct action – seizing food from shops without paying. At their Bow HQ, a former pub renamed the ‘Mother’s Arms’, the ELFs set up two cost-price restaurants to feed those with little money, and workshops where women could make items to sell to get by.

Cost price eating at the Mothers’ Arms

In the First World War the Dreadnought also exposed the way in which imprisoned Conscientious Objectors were being deported to the warzone in France where, under army jurisdiction, they could be shot. Its front pages reported the dangers of the chemicals women war workers were exposed to in the factories, something that was down-played and denied by their employers. Despite the establishment’s attempts to suppress all information about the mutiny in the British army at the notorious army camp at Étaples in France in late September 1917, the Dreadnought was able to report this news on its front page because a soldier wrote in:

‘The men out here are fed up with the whole b___y lot.

‘About four weeks ago about 10,000 men had a big racket in Etaples, and they cleared the place from one end to the other, and when the General asked what was wrong, they said they wanted the war stopped. That was never in the papers.’

Throughout its existence the Dreadnought sought to represent the most radical section of contemporary social movements. Formed to give expression to the working women’s campaign for the vote, it opposed the First World War from the moment it broke out and in 1914 it became the first English publication to print the anti-war speech of the German socialist Karl Liebknecht.

In June 1917 The Woman’s Dreadnought changed its name to The Workers’ Dreadnought, reflecting the increasing breadth of the campaigns it was taking up. The newspaper championed the Bolshevik Revolution and printed the writings of leading revolutionaries across Europe. In 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst became the first newspaper editor in Britain to employ a black journalist when she invited the Jamaican poet Claude McKay to work on the Dreadnought.

The Dreadnought consistently opposed racism and imperialism and sent its reporters to Ireland to expose atrocities committed by British troops. The paper also (uniquely among the UK left at the time) opposed colonialism, and attacked racism among some East End workers – explicitly linking socialism to anti-racism & anti-colonial struggles. In contrast, other contemporary left papers like the Daily Herald were overtly racist.

Influenced by the Russian Revolution, the ELFS transformed itself into the Workers Socialist Federation, reflecting a change in orientation: towards revolutionary socialism. In a marked change of course from their origins in the suffrage movement, the WSF adopted an anti-parliamentary communist stance, and opposed participation in elections as a bourgeois distraction from the class struggle. They also rejected affiliation to the Labour Party, in contrast to large parts of the Communist scene in the UK (and in contradiction to Lenin’s advice).  The WDF did not forget conflicts with the Labour hierarchy during the war. The Workers’ Dreadnought now advocated soviets and workers control of production, and promoted the forming of workers committees in several London factories; it also flirted with syndicalism/industrial unionism, which was seeing a revival as part of a new post-war upsurge in industrial militancy in 1918-19, which saw a plethora of strikes. Billy Watson, who attempted to set up a London Workers Committee to unite workers’ struggles from below, wrote a regular industrial column for the Dreadnought in 1917.

Pankhurst developed her own theory of ‘social soviets’: councils of working class inside AND outside workplaces, to include people not in work, eg housewives, unemployed, elderly, children… This was an advanced position for a leftist of the times (where the workplace was generally considered the only place for class struggle to take place). He vision was of a local & decentralised form of socialism, under workers’ control. This all reflected Sylvia’s interest in practical problems of how socialism would run on a local level, food, welfare etc – all of which arose from the ELFS practical experience during WW1.

The WSF were the first communist group to make contact with the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 Revolution; over the next few years the group’s relationship to the situation in Russia would in many ways define its trajectory. The WSF affiliated to the communist Third international in 1919. But in the same year, Sylvia Pankhurst went to Italy, Germany, Holland, making contacts with the left fractions of the communist movement, with whose positions she clearly agreed, on elections, parliamentary participation, in particular. This would get the WSF denounced by Lenin in 1920 in his ‘Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’. While the WSF was heavily involved in struggles in London against the UK plan for military intervention in Soviet Russia, news coming from the USSR increased Sylvia’s distrust of the directions the Soviet revolution was taking. Nevertheless, the WSF reformed (in alliance with Aberdeen, Holt & Croydon Communist groups, Stepney Communist League, Gorton Socialist Society, the Labour Abstentionist Party, & the Manchester Soviet) into the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in 1920: the first UK Communist Party. Lenin also thought this move premature.

After many raids during the war, the Dreadnought’s spreading of communism was guaranteed to attract more police attention. The Dreadnought offices were raided again under the draconian Defence of the Realm Act, for publication of articles which referred to discontent in the navy: the CP(BSTI) had some contacts among rebel sailors, eg black sailor Reuben Samuels, and Dave Springhall.

Claude Mackay

It was through Jamaican-born Claude Mackay that these contacts had been made. Though later better known as a poet and writer, a crucial figure in the Harlem Renaissance, in 1919-20, McKay was living in London, and had become a communist. He fused communist ideas with anti-colonial and anti-racist thinking, and bridged the black nationalist and socialist scenes, critical of where both fell short from within. As well as writing for the Dreadnought (at times during Sylvia’s imprisonment he virtually edited several issues), he also frequented a mostly black soldiers’ club in Drury Lane, and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch (successor to the 19th century old Communist Club  A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. During this period that his commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji SaklatvalaA. J. CookGuy AldredJack TannerArthur McManusWilliam Gallacher, and George Lansbury. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In April 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled “Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine“, it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general. Lansbury refused to print McKay’s response. This response then appeared in Workers’ Dreadnought. In response to the “Black Horror on the Rhine” stories that the Daily Herald was running, McKay wrote:

“Why this obscene maniacal outburst about the sex vitality of black men in a proletarian paper?” Rape is rape; the colour of the skin doesn’t make it different. Negroes are no more over-sexed than Caucasians; mulatto children in the West Indies and America were not the result of parthenogenesis. If Negro troops had syphilis, they contracted it from the white and yellow races. As for German women, in their economic plight they were selling themselves to anyone. I do not protest because I happen to be a Negro … I write because I feel that the ultimate result of your propaganda will be further strife and blood-spilling between whites and the many members of my race … who have been dumped down on the English docks since the ending of the European war … Bourbons of the United States will thank you, and the proletarian underworld of London will certainly gloat over the scoop of the Christian-Socialist pacifist Daily Herald.”

The Dreadnought office was raided in October 1920, after the paper published the articles about discontent among sailors, and Sylvia Pankhurst was charged under DORA for publishing these articles. Mackay, in a room at the top of the building, was warned by Pankhurst’s secretary, Mackay smuggled the original letters from which they derived out of the building, and burned them. He escaped arrest, but Sylvia was sent to prison for six months in 1921 for publishing them. At her trial she defiantly called for the overthrow of capitalism, telling the court: ‘this is a wrong system, and has got to be smashed.’ 

Mackay left Britain shortly after, feeling things were getting too hot for him. He later spent time in the Soviet Union, though he distanced himself from communism in later life.

The Dreadnought was in the news again only a few weeks later, after a crowd attacked women working there who had disrupted the first November 11th Armistice Day commemorations.

The CP(BSTI) entered into negotiations with other socialist groups to form a united Communist Party, including the British Socialist Party (BSP) – the anti-war majority of the old Social Democratic Federation – and the mainly Scottish-based Socialist Labour Party. Throughout the protracted discussions, the ‘communist left’ attempted to form a left bloc in or allied to any new Communist Party, which many had realised would be dominated by more right wing members of the BSP. The 21 theses laid down by the Communist International caused some debate, as they included stipulations Pankhurst and the left communists had serious issues with. 4 CP(BSTI) branches refused to agree to them & left. Although the majority of the CP(BSTI) did unite with the new Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in January 1921, by this time problems had led to division between Pankhurst & others, and she was in immediate conflict with the new party hierarchy. All CP publications were supposed (under the 21 Theses) to be subordinated to party control, and the Workers’ Dreadnought was not accepted as a party paper; Sylvia was ordered to cease publication. The new party also did little to support her while she was in jail. Though she joined the CPGB on her release, she maintained contact with the European left communists – the KAPD, left factions & the Workers Opposition. She was ordered to give up the Dreadnought, and refusing to do so, was expelled from the CPGB in September 1921.

After her expulsion, Pankhurst & a few others (including Melvina Walker & Nora Smythe) formed a Communist Workers Party (CWP), but this was only ever a small propaganda sect. They attempted to revive their old speaking places and links in the East End but the group never really took off. Sylvia also refused to unite with another left communist grouping in Britain, the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, mainly due to personality differences…

Sylvia carried on publishing the Dreadnought, and allied herself and the CWP to the Fourth International of left wing communist groups, including the KAPD, & Belgian, Dutch, Bulgarian, Czech left communists (known as International of Opposition Parties). They shared their criticisms of developments in Russia, and built up links also to the Workers Opposition in the USSR.

But being excluded from the CPGB pushed Sylvia and her group to the margins, and movements they had built up were declining or divided. CWP-backed alternatives to the mainstream communist-backed union movements or the National Unemployed Workers Movement were either small and weak or short-lived. Revolutionary Growing more out of touch, the CWP collapsed by 1924. Lack of support, money and energy led Sylvia to halt publication of the Workers’ Dreadnought in July 1924.

Although Sylvia eventually moved out of the East End, she remained active politically, and would go on to be an early campaigner against the rise of fascism, as well as outspokenly fighting for international solidarity with Ethiopia when it was invaded by fascist Italy. She died in Ethiopia in 1960. The ELFS and its successors had done some amazing work in the East End, from agitating among working class women and men over the vote, through grassroots day to day solidarity in the face of war and repression, resisting the war effort, supporting revolution and correctly criticising the USSR’s turn to authoritarianism and the western communist parties’ slavish falling into line and opportunism. Like many another suffragette, her health was irrevocably damaged by hunger strikes in prison; but she never stopped trying to change the world for the better…

Read Copies of the Women’s/Workers’ Dreadnought in the British Newspaper Archive

Worth a read: Sylvia’s accounts of her activism, in The Suffragette Movement, and The Home Front (about the ELFS in WW1).
Also Barbara Wilmslow, Sylvia Pankhurst, a good account of the various phases of Sylvia’s political journey.

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