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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words to The March of the Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Today in London radical history: compositors locked out, 1911

Compositors (type-setters) working on London newspapers were locked out by employers in January and February 1911, after demanding a 48 hour working week. The printers’ union, the London Society of Compositors (LSC), had in December 1910 begun an industrial struggle to establish a 48-hour week and started a daily strike bulletin called The World. Will Dyson, an Australian artist in London, contributed a cartoon. From 25 January 1911 it was renamed the Daily Herald and was published until the end of the strike in April 1911. At its peak it had daily sales of 25,000.

At the present time we are still trying to find out how the strike and lockout went down… more soon…

The Daily Herald was later re-founded as a new socialist daily paper. After the lockout a committee including dockers’ leader Ben Tillett and TE Naylor of the London Society of Compositors took it over in an attempt to create a permanent socialist daily newspaper and the Daily Herald emerged in April 1912 with a working capital of £200. “It saw itself as a forum for the whole range of radical causes, from industrial unionism to the women’s movement, and it attracted to itself support from activists within all these fields.” It covered strikes, union issues, the fight for women’s suffrage, the campaign for Irish home rule and much more.

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