Today in London housing history: Elsy Borders goes to court in West Wickham mortgage strike, 1938.

Elsy Borders changed the course of legal and political history in the field of owner-occupied housing mortgages. The campaigns around rent control and investment in council housing that the Communist Party was noted for in the 1930s were extended by the Borders to home-owners who went on mortgage strike in protest at shoddy workmanship in the building of new homes.

A Communist Party member, Elsy played a prominent role in all this by taking her building society to court over its failure to ensure good building standards. Many homeowners were deeply concerned over the complicity of the building societies in accepting the low standards of construction from speculative builders and the campaign was successful in contributing to legislative change.

In the 1930s a ring of new built estates sprang up on the edges of London. Many were built by local councils, but there were a number of private developments too.

“Here was revealed one of the greatest rackets operating between the wars. The Conservative Governments were not prepared to grant assistance to the local authorities in order that they could build houses for the working class, to be let at reasonable rents. In fact, they deliberately cut down grants for slum clearance, slashed the housing programmes, and consciously encouraged building societies. There was therefore no competition, or very little, with the jerry-builders. What was their racket? Had they built houses to let, within a few years those houses, as the slums which many of them became, would never have been .. letable ” at the rents which the owners expected to receive in order to make them a profitable proposition. So developed the greatest racket of the time: … Own your own Homes “: … The Briton is an individualist.” Wonderful pictures were drawn and millions spent on advertising to show how glorious it was to be the complete master in your own home. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, lapped this up, bought their homes on … the never-never “, £50 down, 17s. 6d. a week. After a few years not only normal decorations but serious repairs were urgently needed for these houses were falling to pieces. The working-class folk who proudly inhabited these homes in the suburbs of London and other cities, and who could only make ends meet by account- ing for every penny, found themselves faced with the alternative of dilapidation, or of paying heavy repair costs. Meanwhile the payments to the building society had to continue or else. . . . I remember the time when working-class rent-payers of Stepney would envy the dwellers in these jerry-built suburban houses, and, of course, many of these people valiantly tried to keep up appearances. “

The 1930’s building boom – along with the rise of new consumer industries – was a vital initial factor in shifting Britain’s sluggish economy upwards (until pre-war rearmament came along).  But not all of the new buildings were well-built. Many of the new homes leaked, creaked, and crumbled. Building societies tended to be highly authoritarian towards borrowers and could even be considered beset with corruption and snobbery. A situation tantamount to renting emerged as societies employed weekly collectors of the mortgage to try to prevent mass mortgage default as more and more fairly ordinary working class people with secure jobs turned to mortgage-holding.

“As the tenure of owner-occupation opened up in the 1930s, building societies tried to create a situation very close to renting so that they could control their mortgagors. On the Coney Hall estate, as on many, the builders employed weekly collectors of the mortgage to try to prevent mass mortgage default…”

In March 1934, Elsy and husband Jim, a London cabby, bought a house on Coney Hall estate, twelve miles from Charing Cross in West Wickham, today firmly in the London Borough of Bromley but then thought of as being beyond and into the green belt of Kent. They moved in with their three-year-old daughter, Pamela, and, having a keen sense of humour, named their home “Insanity”. So, their address became, “Borders of Insanity”, Coney Hall Estate, West Wickham, Kent!! More formally and much later it was to become 81, Kingsway, Coney Hall, West Wickham, Kent.

Coney Hall estate was less than ten years old. One of many owner-occupied estates arising during the inter-War housing boom, it was built in the 1930s on hilly farmland south of West Wickham bought by the developers, Morrell Brothers, from Coney Hall Farm.

Following the death of lord of the manor Sir Henry Lennard in 1928, much of his Wickham Court estate was sold to building firm Morrell’s, which was also building on the western side of Petts Wood. Construction work on the estate’s 1,000 homes began in 1933 and the shops of Kingsway Parade were built on the south side of Croydon Road.

In the previous decade, opposition to road developments adjacent to West Wickham Common and Hayes Common had left the area accessible only by steep and narrow lanes. In Coney Hall’s early days. London Transport refused to provide a bus service, and a free private coach service connected the estate to the nearest railway station, Hayes. Many of the houses were in a standard style, with polygonal bay windows and half-timbered gables, and were priced more affordably than elsewhere in West Wickham, although this distinction has since diminished.

The Borders purchased the house, which was built by Messrs E. Morrell, through the Bradford Third Equitable Building Society. As a down payment, they paid £37 in cash – a considerable sum – and signed a mortgage for the remaining £693. The building society, in accordance with their usual practice, paid only £650 to the builders, keeping the rest as part of a pool to pay losses from defaulted mortgages.

Hardly were the Borders installed when they noticed cracks in the ceiling, squeaks in the floors. Soon plaster began to fall, dampness oozed through the walls, the roof sagged and leaked. Later, it was stated in court by Jim Borders that “…the house was in a bad condition.  The whole front … was damp, and the wallpaper fell off the walls by its own weight. The foundations were narrow and did not look strong enough to support the house.  There were cracks in the outer walls and windows in front did not fit.  Two of the windows would not shut and had been in that state for at least two years. The ceilings were cracked and the roof leaked.  The electric wiring was never safe, and the front of the house was cracked in several places and the eaves were open.  The glass on the front door has collapsed, the bath had dropped from its original place, and the fireplace had come away from the walls.  The chimneys were defective and the woodwork was infected by a small insect.  The party wall did not go up to the full height, and he had shaken hands over it with his next door neighbour. That was all he could think of for the moment, he added.” 

While the Borders grumblingly met their monthly four guineas payments, Elsy busied herself helping form first a local and then a national Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Association. Some 1,200 residents organised themselves into the Coney Hall District Residents Association and, as a result of the struggle, Elsy Borders later became a leading figure in the FTRA, along with Michael Shapiro as Secretary.

When, in a blaze of local publicity during 1937, the Borders began withholding mortgage payments until some remedy was provided about the building flaws, this prompted as many as five hundred of her neighbours on the estate to also intentionally defaulting on their payments to building societies. After three months, the Bradford Society brought a claim against Jim and Elsy, seeking repossession of the house on the simple grounds that the Borders were three months in arrears with their mortgage repayments.

In turn, the Borders hit back with a massive compensation claim of £500 to cover the accumulated costs of repairs already effected by the couple over the previous three years, a sum approaching the cost of the whole house. Their claim charged misrepresentation of the value of the house, questioned the legality of holding back part of the cost in a pool, while at the same time charging interest on the full amount, and charged the society that it had lent money on an insufficient security and had “wilfully and fraudulently” misled the couple into believing that the house was built of good materials and in efficient manner.

Unable to afford a lawyer, Elsy Borders spent several months reading law in the London School of Economics, and handled the case herself, winning national fame in the mainstream press as “the housewife Portia – the tenants’ KC”. [KC=King’s Counsel, today a QC, Queen’s Counsel.] The case began on 13 January 1938 and focused the attention of the whole nation upon the plight in which hundreds of thousands of house purchasers had found themselves.

Dubbing Elsy `the modern Portia’ was a nod towards Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and it was the strength of character that Portia displays on stage that made it a role always highly attractive to many notable actresses.  Elsy’s persona in court recalled such memorable stage performances. Portia’s role stresses that, irrespective of its formal legal merits or moral authority, an argument can be won through the employment of eloquence, loopholes and technicalities and the term had often been employed to denote a strong female advocate of sometime uncertain legal arguments. The term was made popular following the 1908 foundation of the New England School of Law, popularly known as the Portia Law School, and a women-only law school. The school’s nick-name was still in general currency until as late as 1969.

For 18 days at the beginning of 1938, the legal battle was fought out in the Chancery Court, which was permanently packed with crowds who came to see the “Portia, the tenants’ KC” in action. Elsy spoke for a stunning eight hours but, despite a great deal of fuss that made it seem as if they had achieved total victory, in fact, the Borders actually won only a part of their case, in so far as the Court’s judgment dismissing both actions gave them clear title to their house, without having to pay any more instalments, but rejected other claims.

The Bradford Building Society’s case failed, Mr Justice Bennett ruled, because it was unable to prove that the mortgage deed it produced as evidence was the one that the Borders had actually signed. But the Borders’ counter-claim failed too, because Elsy couldn’t prove that the building society was responsible for misrepresentation. She appealed, saying the case pitted the purchaser against the jerry-builder, the rogue who throws up a good-looking but poor-quality house and tries to sell it through a building society. Backed by a fighting fund – sympathisers subscribed the significant sum of 10 shillings a head – the Borders’ crusade gathered momentum with a packed public meeting on the Coney Hall estate. Jim Borders warned that their legal struggle might last as long as five years, involving as many as 40 building societies.

Indeed, following the first case, the Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations prepared writs against 24 “jerry” building societies, including Halifax and Abbey Road, the two biggest. “Portia” Borders now became the heroine for many Britons and aided the movement to found `Tenants’ or Residents’ Defence Leagues’, which were typically led by Communists. As many as 70,000 families were on rent or mortgage strike at one point. Mortgage strikes occurred in all parts of the country, including many suburbs of London, such as Hayes, Felton, Earlswood, Queensbury, Whitton, and Twickenham, and in scores of other places.

In 1939, on the centenary of the great working class Chartist Convention that demanded reforms such as universal suffrage and annual Parliaments, representatives of the 200,000 members of the booming Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations met for its first national convention.

Birmingham, the recent scene of a victorious strike by 46,000 families living in a municipal housing, was the convention city. The purpose of the meeting was to weld the scattered defence leagues into a national pressure group with a program of slum clearance, Government rent control, increased legal responsibilities for landlords. Although the Labour Party lawyers’ group, the Haldane Society, supplied the movement with free legal advice, no political party other than the Communist Party supported the Federation. Yet the NFTRA had 45 branches and membership of 45,000.

This was all a big deal; Britain had some one thousand building societies, with assets totalling £750,000,000. But the judgement had left all the major issues unresolved, whereupon in February 1939 some 3,000 owner occupiers in outer London went on mortgage strike, causing many houses to be repaired. A measure was rushed through Parliament to legalise the established practice of the building societies in respect of this collateral. Also, whilst it is true that the Borders’ ultimately lost their specific case, the endeavour did truly expose abuses of the building society system and was one of the factors leading to its regulation by an amendment in 1939 to the 1874 Building Societies Act. It was former Communist and left MP, Ellen Wilkinson, who introduced a bill in Parliament to reshape the Act. The 1939 Building Societies Act was passed with the co-operation of the Building Societies’ Association and the Government and it restricted the mortgage security that building societies could accept.

The “Tenants’ KC” was to return to court in March 1939 with a libel suit taken out by her husband Jim against the builders of the Coney Hall estate, Morrell Brothers, for describing him to his building society as “definitely a bad egg”.

Elsy’s opponent in this was Norman Birkett KC, no mean opponent in the least. At this point in time, pince-nezzed Birkett was mostly known as the man who got Wallis Warfield Simpson her divorce so that she could marry Edward VIII but he was also considered as Britain’s top criminal lawyer.  Described as “one of the most prominent barristers of the first half of the 20th century”, and “the Lord Chancellor that never was”, he was later to become Baron Birkett, a Court of Appeal judge and a member of the House of Lords. Birkett was noted for his skill as a speaker, which helped him defend clients with almost watertight cases against them. Birkett’s legal opinion helped shape the final judgment at Nuremberg Trial of the Nazi leaders in 1945.

Yet Birkett found himself more than matched for guile by Elsy, who won the case hands down, with the court awarding Jim Borders £150! Said Elsy, as Norman Birkett KC withdrew from an attempt to cut and thrust which was well parried by her: “I wiped the floor with him! He was bloody wild.” Elsy was described by one newspaper as “a brilliant and resourceful leader. She has insight, a cool head and, above all, a fervour which inspires her colleagues.”  Birkett’s opening observation on cross-examining Elsy was that she was “getting quite accustomed to litigation”. This drew a lightning response from her, widely and approvingly quoted in the newspapers: “This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr Birkett”, as laughter drowned the court.

Birkett sought to suggest to Jim Borders that he had only been put up to take the case to court by his domineering wife. “I put it to you,” he declared, “that Mr and Mrs Borders are one and the same person and that person is Mrs Borders.” In response, as Jim’s counsel, Elsy retorted: “There may not be any difference between Mr and Mrs Birkett but there is a difference between Mr and Mrs Borders.”  Birkett’s wife was widely portrayed by high society gossip columnists as a domineering woman, so even the judge burst out laughing and the court dissolved into momentary anarchy.

The Borders’ crusade against the power of the building societies was only finally extinguished as the phony war was began to turn to blitz.  The case was dragged to the House of Lords in 1940 by Bradford Third Equitable. There, the following year when judgement was handed down, predictably, the honour of building societies was redeemed and Bradford totally exonerated. The mortgage strikes promptly fizzled out. Nonetheless, this had been a moment of serious challenge to the conception of the property-owning democracy that was at the heart of Tory and Liberal thinking on housing – mass mortgage ownership would only be kick-started again in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Even though the legal outcome as regards collateral security, responsibility for the condition of mortgaged property, and for builders’ descriptions of new houses favoured building societies, remedies had to be found. In the short term, the campaign – and the associated struggles of rental tenants –  shook the very foundations of the political and economic basis of housing policy in Britain. As Claud Cockburn later wrote: “The whole freewheeling apparatus of the boom, the ramshackle financial machine which powered the productivity and profit of it, appeared to be in danger.”

Sadly, the Borders lost possession of their home through these crafty legal moves by the building society. In late 1940, as the blitz progressed, Elsy evacuated with daughter Pamela to Exeter, where she died in 1971. Her marriage to Jim ultimately failed, and neither ever owned a house again. Jim trained as a barrister, but died almost penniless in 1966.

He was uncertain about the long-term value of the struggle he and Elsy had gone through. When the people of Coney Hall presented him with a clock, he chose as an inscription lines from Southey which were intended in the circumstances to be ironic, although few appreciated this:

And everybody praised the Duke,
Who this great fight did win.
‘But what good came of it at last?’
Quoth little Peterkin.
‘Why that I cannot tell,’ said he,
‘But ’twas a famous victory.’

Elsy’s lasting legacy in the world of law is to be the by-word for what constitutes a fraud. In the case of Bradford Third Equitable Benefit Building Society v. Borders [1941], Viscount Maugham’s explanations of his view of what establishes the tort, or civil wrong, of deceit or fraud were not only accepted by the court, they have been used as precedent in countless cases from that time to this very day to establish liability or not.  Arguably, had Elsy not been previously so eloquent, the Viscount may not have been wheeled out by Bradford’s solicitors to issue his fine definition of fraud. Of course, the ultimate in judge-made law is the House of Lords and it was its judgement in 1941 that provides this `legacy’ of Elsy’s.

It is today taught in legal training that it was held in Bradford v Borders (1941) that the maker of a false statement must have intended for the claimant to have relied upon the statement if a tort is to be established. Moreover, the main difference between suing in deceit and in negligence was addressed by reference to the caps on remoteness of damages. In deceit, to mark the law’s disapproval of fraud, the defendant (in Elsy’s case the building society) is liable for all losses flowing directly from the tort, whether they were foreseeable or not.

But, Maugham’s definition also establishes that a common law action of deceit requires a representation of fact (her expectation that the home she was paying a mortgage on was sound) made by words, or conduct – but not silence or omission – made with a knowledge that it is wilfully false and with the intention that it should be acted upon so as to result in damage sustained by acting on a false statement. In other words, that it was necessary all along in English law to prove that Bradford Third knew that they were funding an unsound home. Effectively, the Borders’ claim that Bradford had “wilfully and fraudulently misled” them, was ruled by the House of Lords as something that could virtually never be established in the business of mortgage lending.

Elsy did not ultimately fail in her campaign, as some have suggested, but the British establishment did simply change the rules to favour themselves. Restrictions were put on the ability of the developers to sell badly built homes – though this is a struggle new homeowners are still going through today. Mortgage strike anyone?

This post was partially nicked from Graham Stevenson’s excellent site

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Paul Robeson stars as black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in CLR James play, 1936

“I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited.” (CLR James)

“James’s treatment of ‘the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in world history’ will remain an inspiration, because of its universal theme, for the foreseeable future.” (Christian Hogsbjerg)

In 1791, inspired both by the ideals of the French Revolution and the horrors and toil of their existence, slaves on the Caribbean island of San Domingo rose in revolt. For twelve years they fought off the white French masters, and armies from France, Spain and Britain, ultimately founding the independent black republic of Haiti. A number of outstanding military leaders masterminded the war for Haiti’s freedom: most famously, Toussaint L’ouverture, who emerged from the struggle as its most clear thinker and general, though he was betrayed into the hands of the French before the final victory and died in a French prison.

Hollywood, the socialist Paul Foot once noted, ‘made a film about Spartacus, the leader of the Roman slave revolt, because Spartacus was beaten. Toussaint L’Ouverture was victorious, so they haven’t made a film about him’. His being black may have something to do with it…

There may be no Hollywood blockbuster (I’m guessing it’d end up with Matt Damon in blackface anyway), but there is a French TV movie

And there was once a ground-breaking play…

In 1934 the fantastic Trinidadian Marxist polymath CLR James, then living in London, finished writing his play Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The playscript was long presumed lost, (although James did revise the text in the 1960s), until the rediscovery of a draft copy in 2005. James was to go on to write the classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938.

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James was to become a marxist activist and theorist, leading pan-Africanist, cricket commentator, and cultural thistorian. He had arrived in England in 1932, and became engaged not only in literary challenges to racism, in revolutionary politics and the African and West Indian independence movements, in resistance to fascism… James’s play about a revolutionary leader defeating brutal oppressors was both a historical drama and a response to the news of the day.

Toussaint Louverture was staged on March 15th and 16th 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre; another black communist, the incredible Paul Robeson, starring in the title role, one of the world’s most famous actors and singers– making it an event of international interest. The League of Coloured Peoples (discussed on this blog the other day), of which James was an active member, helped sponsor the performance. This was the first time black professional actors had starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright, and interestingly despite his long acting career and lifelong anti-racist stance, was to be the only time Robeson starred in a play by a writer of African descent. Just the idea of a meeting of the work these two giants of the twentieth century is enough to send shivers down the spine…

James wrote the play in 1934, but it remained unproduced until 1936, when the script came into the hands of Robeson, who had been looking for a chance to portray the Haitian leader on stage. Back in 1926, Robeson had told an interviewer that he dreamed “of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes . . . of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates.” In 1935 Robeson had even discussed the idea of a film about the Haitian revolt with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had become fascinated with the Haitian story. Sadly this film never happened (is there an alternative universe where Eisenstein filmed Robeson in James’s play! – imagine…)

For an interesting and detailed description of the plot, themes and staging of he play, it’s worth reading Christian Hogsbjerg’s introduction to his published edition of Toussaint Louverture.

“The cast assembled around Robeson was remarkable, featuring as it did other black professional actors from throughout the African diaspora, including Robert Adams, who played Dessalines. Adams, born in British Guiana, had, like James, been a distinguished schoolteacher who produced and acted in amateur productions before coming to Britain. He had worked with Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River and Midshipman Easy, and in 1935 he made his London stage debut in Stevedore. Also recruited from Stevedore was the Nigerian Orlando Martins, who played the role of Boukman. Black amateur actors—including other veterans of Stevedore, such as John Ahuma, Rufus E. Fennell, and Charles Johnson—were included, while the remaining cast was recruited through the Stage Society itself, many of whom were experienced professional actors or rising stars such as Harry Andrews.

The play was staged at the 730- seat Westminster Theatre, on the fringes of London’s West End in Palace Street. The owner of the Westminster Theatre during this period was A. B. Horne, and it was managed by Anmer Hall. Michael Sidnell notes that Hall learnt that “Sunday performances were a way of getting a hearing for new or neglected plays without going to great expense.” With its quite liberal management, it is not surprising that the Westminster Theatre was a home for the radical Group Theatre, and James’s Toussaint Louverture had followed a series of plays by “the Auden Group,” most notably Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin. The famous theatre critic Herbert Farjeon noted at the end of the 1930s that “the Westminster Theatre has probably housed during the present decade a higher percentage of interesting plays than any other theatre north of the Thames.” In 1955, the Westminster Theatre produced an all- African play, Freedom, which toured Europe and was filmed in Nigeria in 1956 with a cast of thousands.

Those wishing to see the performance had to pay at least one guinea, the basic annual membership subscription to the Stage Society. As well as the Sunday evening performance on 15 March, there was a matinee the next day, and for this final performance James himself was called upon to step in for Rufus E. Fennell, the actor playing the “small part” of Macoya. “I was in it by accident. . . . I wanted to sit in the back and watch the play . . . not to be mixed up in it. But I dressed myself up and played it.” Overall, though the production went well, James would always remember it was Paul Robeson who stole the show.” As James, interviewed in November 1983, recalled, “The moment he came onto the stage, the whole damn thing changed. It’s not a question of acting . . . the physique and the voice, the spirit behind him—you could see it when he was on stage.”

Reviews were said to be mixed (twould be interesting to know on what grounds – the explicit radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperial message may have coloured the artistic opinions of white reviewers), but by all accounts Robeson’s performance was typically outstanding. The first performance received an ovation. Broadway made noises of interest, and a couple of critics suggested the play would adapt well to screen, though in the end neither a Broadway run or a film materialised.

James was, according to Christian Høgsbjerg, (who discovered the manuscript in the papers of the former trotskyist Jock Haston, a sometime comrade of James in 2005), “acutely conscious of the need to challenge the mythological British nationalist narrative of abolition, one that glorified the role played by British parliamentarians such as Wilberforce. Indeed, in the original version of the playscript C.L.R. James mentioned Wilberforce himself in passing, but then later in a handwritten revision… decided to remove the explicit mention of the abolitionist Tory MP… to help bring home the essential truth about abolition — that it was the enslaved who abolished slavery themselves — to a British audience who would almost certainly be hearing such a truth for the first time.”

The play mingled elements of classic theatre (eg the use of the rebellious slave army as a kind of chorus, in the ancient Greek tradition) – though radically subverted “the final scene of revolutionary history sees what James would in 1963 describe as “the entry of the chorus, of the ex- slaves themselves, as the arbiters of their own fate,” making for an ending to a drama that no Greek tragedian or even someone with the far- reaching imagination of Shakespeare could have envisaged” – with modern alternative theatrical ideas and ideals. The mix of music dance and drama evokes the latest methods in European theatre, like the work of Brecht, while also deliberately echoing African culture.

James portrayal of Toussaint is of a tragic hero, as a revolutionary leader who ends his days in prison, having failed in the end to follow through the struggle to complete independence for Haiti (a task his lieutenants were left to finish), and paid the price for it. Having not begun the slave revolt, but emerged from it and been shaped by it, he became its outstanding strategist and thinker, but didn’t have enough faith in the black rebels’ ability to make their own future. Believing they should make a semi-colonial peace with revolutionary France, in the end he contrasted this with too much faith in the European enlightenment, and was betrayed, captured and imprisoned by the French republic. James was again bringing past, present and theory together in his raw discussion of the ideas of revolutionary leadership, charismatic thinkers and hero-figures, and the ability of the oppressed to shape their own destiny: vital questions then, as in the 1790s, as now…

The story of Haiti’s successful slave revolt is inspiring at any time, but in the 1930s, with almost all of Africa still under the colonial control of white European powers, putting on the play in the heart of what was then the most powerful empire of all was a bold move. The context of the times is crucial – fascism, based securely in the idea of racial hierarchies and white superiority, was rising; Italy had Just invaded Ethiopia (James was also a founder of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called, and the parallels of Haiti with Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion were obvious and stark); but also political opposition and revolt against the colonial powers across Africa was beginning to coalesce. This could not ever be seen only as a play about incidents from the past; it was also a clarion call for massive social change from below for in the present and the future. It’s worth noting that the audience very likely included a range of vital figures in the future development of black self-determination across three (if not more) continents, with Pan-African figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eric Williams being part of James’ immediate circle.

As Christian Hogsbjerg points out, the staging of the play also illustrates “the radical counterculture that has always existed in the “dark heart” of the British Empire”, and forms a brief bright illustration of the black radical traditions, leftwing ferment and literary bohemianism which all met and flowered so productively in both James and Robeson. James’ background in the Caribbean added a specific motivation for telling Toussaint’s story (which he had been researching for several years, spurred on by inadequate and racist accounts of Haiti and dismissals of black people as inferior to whites). If the project was “fundamentally inspired by James earlier environment, the colonial Caribbean society in which he was born and grew to intellectual maturity,” (Hogsbjerg) it also reflected how James had evolved politically since he left the West Indies – moving from “a continuing identification with imperial Britain” to a Pan-Africanist viewpoint and then on to Marxism.

But Christian Hogsbjerg also discusses how the staging of the play itself, not just the subject matter, formed both a break and a link with theatre traditions. A link to black West Indian theatre: “Although James’s play has been celebrated as a pioneering production in the history of black British theatre, and an important moment in the history of African and Caribbean theatre, Toussaint Louverture also stands as an outstanding contribution to what the late Trinidadian dramatist and scholar Errol Hill once described as “the revolutionary tradition in black drama,” a “tradition of writing and producing plays that deal directly with black liberation.” This revolutionary tradition dates at least as far back as the Haitian Revolution itself, for after Toussaint seized the power to rule as black Consul in Saint- Domingue, James noted in The Black Jacobins that “the theatres began to play again, and some of the Negro players showed a remarkable talent.”

But also a defiant two fingers to the racially dubious portrayals of black people on the British stage – of ‘nigger minstrels’, or credulous childlike figures needing a white authority figure.

Interestingly, nearly 30 years later, James also adapted his account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, into a play:

“James felt the victory of many national liberation movements internationally in the postwar world meant that, as he later recalled, “the idea I was expressing should be differently expressed . . . writing about the struggle for independence in 1956 or 1960 was very different from what it was in 1936.” As James told Reinhard Sander, “After twenty- five years the colonial revolution had made great strides so about that time I began to rewrite it [the play] in view of the new historical happenings.” The play version of The Black Jacobins was first performed at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1967, directed by Lyndersay amid the tumult of civil war to an enthusiastic reception. It has since been staged numerous times, and this later script has necessarily formed the basis of scholarly discussion of “James’s play.” The later play essentially followed the same chronological structure as Toussaint Louverture. There is the same humour, the lively music, drumming ebbing and flowing into the action, and there are still moments of rare dramatic power. Yet by the 1960s James had experienced for himself, in Trinidad with Eric Williams and in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, both the excitement and the disappointment generated by movements for colonial liberation in the Caribbean and in Africa. If Toussaint Louverture was about the vindication of national liberation struggles written in the age of colonialism, in The Black Jacobins James and Lyndersay explored what lessons the Haitian Revolution might hold for national liberation struggles in the age of decolonisation.”

Christian Hobsbjerg’s book, which includes the full script of the play, the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, is published by Duke University Press. Tis a bit expensive however… 

Have a look at Hogsbjerg’s blog

And you can watch an abridged performance of the play put on by Bowdoin College (Maine, USA) students in November 2014.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s anti-racist history: the League of Coloured Peoples formed, 1931.

The League was a British civil-rights organisation, founded in 1931 to work for racial equality around the world, though in practice its primary focus was black rights in Britain. However it also was involved in other civil-rights issues, such as the persecution of the Jews in Germany.

Harold Moody, a physician and devout Christian, was frustrated with the prejudice he experienced in Britain, from finding employment to simply obtaining a residence. Moody, had moved to London from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1904 to study medicine at King’s College, but met prejudice and exclusion, had trouble finding anywhere to live, and was refused a post in a hospital because a matron “refused to have a coloured doctor working in the hospital… the poor people would not have a nigger to attend them”. Nothing like blaming the poor for your own prejudices. In February 1913, he started his own medical practice in Peckham, South London.

For 30 years Dr Moody helped hundreds of black people who came to him in distress, having experienced at first hand a degrading, or humiliating aspect of the colour bar: finding it hard to get lodgings, or work. Moody would confront the employers and plead powerfully on behalf of those victimised.

He was instrumental in overturning the Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925, a discriminatory measure which sought to restrict subsidies to merchant shipping employing only British nationals and required alien seamen to register with their local police. Many Black and Asian British nationals worked as sailors, but often had no proof of identity and were at risk of being laid off and arrested. Through his involvement with London Christian Endeavour Federation, Moody began to confront employers who were refusing jobs to black Britons.

On 13 March 1931, in a YMCA in Tottenham Court Road, London, Moody called a meeting with the contacts he had made over the years. On this night, they formed The League of Coloured Peoples.

The League had four main aims:

(1) To promote and protect the social, educational, economic and political interests.

(2) To interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world.

(3) To improve relations between the races.

(4) To cooperate and affiliate with organizations sympathetic to coloured people.

In 1937, a fifth aim was added:

  • To render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity.

It was notable, in contrast with some earlier organisations concerned with black civil rights, for its deliberate attempts to become a multi-racial organisation. At the founding meeting Moody stated that he found himself in a position to ‘make representations to government authorities, hospital managements, medical faculties, commercial concerns, factory proprietors, hotel and boarding house keepers and a host of others, not only in his own name and on the basis of his own status and reputation, but in the name of all the coloured peoples in Britain’ . Moody attempted to work at a high level, corresponding with, lobbying and meeting with Colonial Secretaries to push the League’s campaigns.

The League’s inaugural executive committee of included:

  • C. Belfield Clark of Barbados
  • George Roberts of Trinidad
  • Sam Morris of Grenada
  • Robert Adams of British Guiana
  • Desmond Buckle of The Gold Coast

Also present at the inaugural meeting was Stella Thomas, who would go on to become the first woman magistrate in West Africa.

Other prominent members included West Indian Marxist  C. L. R. James, Jomo Kenyatta (later first president of Kenya) and Jamaican writer, feminist, activist, (and first black woman producer at the BBC) Una Marson.

In 1933, the League began publication of the civil-rights journal The Keys.

The League worked in alliance with a wide variety of people – pan-Africanists, race rights groups, the Colonial Office, and pressure groups in the various colonies.

From the League’s founding, its main focus was eliminating the colour bar in the British workplace, in social life, and in housing. Throughout Britain in the 1930s, black people found it extremely difficult to find a job in many industries, and were refused service or access in many restaurants, hotels, and lodging houses, and also. During the 1930s, The League of Coloured Peoples struck many blows for blacks in the workplace. Given Moody’s own experiences racial discrimination in the medical profession in particular drew the attention of the league. By 1935, a branch of the league focusing on equality in the shipping industry had grown to over 80 members.

During the Second World War the LCP continued to highlight discrimination. For instance, authorities organising the evacuation of children from big cities towns struggled to find families who would accept to take in coloured children, and the LCP lobbied against this sort of discrimination.

While relatively small – the organisation never exceeded 500 members, and in 1936 it only had 262 – it was able to command press attention and exposure.

But apart from the opposition the Moody encountered from those who considered whites superior to other races, he also had his critics from other directions… Most notably he came under fire for his initial policy of refusing black people from Asia from joining the League of Coloured Peoples – despite the fact that he did allow white people to join (though they were barred from the executive committee). Moody and a number of other League members felt that ‘coloured peoples’ meant ‘the Negro Race, particularly those in Africa and the West Indies and under the rule of Great Britain. However, others, including some members of the League executive, asserted that the organisation should accept Indians as members and ‘engage in conflict with the British Government on their behalf’. This issue became hotly debated, especially given the League’s particular links to and activity around Britain’s West Indian colonies, since the Caribbean islands had a large Asian population – 43% of the population of British Guiana were Indian, for example. Eventually the policy changed.

But others criticised Moody’s work from a leftwing perspective, as pandering to imperialism. Moody’s campaigning was very much oriented to a ‘loyal’ perspective to the British Empire, reflecting his middle class background in colonial Jamaica. Education was very much aimed at infusing a cultural imperialism, a respect for British culture and a sense of black West Indians as British subjects, with deep affiliation to the Empire’s institutions. While Moody’s and the League’s conceptions of British identity, racial equality, challenged the dominant idea that ‘true’ Britons were, by definition, white, their worldview was firmly based in a vision of a British identity, “invoking an imperial British identity that drew on widely accepted elements of Britishness, namely respectability and imperial pride.”

Its undoubtedly true that by framing their work this way the League was able to gain support from black colonials and white English people in its fight for equality that a more radical or anti-imperialist perspective would have threatened. But it has also been suggested that merely challenging the assumption of the British identity as being white was in itself a challenge to the very idea of this identity. The racial superiority of ‘whites’ was a crucial plank in the imperial project, central to the administration and suppression of the colonies; compounded by both class and gender hierarchies that effectively defined “the true Briton as white, male and middle-class.”

Opposed to this the League put up a conception of Britishness rooted in common cultural values, based on the ideas of equality, fair play and justice: concepts that great numbers of middle-class white folk liked to see in themselves and liked to believe lay at the core of the British Empire.

Moody was himself staunchly opposed to socialism and communism, overtly expressing the idea that black poor would turn to communism unless there were concessions on the colour bar and racism… Left-wing political groups criticised Moody as an “Uncle Tom” and under the control of his “imperialist masters”; Pan-Africanists, many influenced by Marxism, noted the absence of any analysis of class from the League (while co-operating with it on its equal rights campaigns).

Dr Moody died in 1947 at the age of 64, somewhat worn out by his efforts with the League. The League of Coloured Peoples dissolved four years later, in 1951.

Read more:
Reversing the Gaze: Wasu, The Keys and The Black Man on Europe and Western Civilization in the Interwar Years, 1933-1937, an interesting study of The Keys, the league’s journal, with other black publications coming out of London in the same period.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in parliamentary history: hunger marchers occupy House of Commons, 1934.

In the sharp recession following World War 1, hundreds of thousands of working people were thrown into unemployment, including many who had taken part in strikes and industrial unrest before and during the war. As thousands of soldiers were demobilised from the army, and the war economy was suddenly wound down, struggles over rights to relief, and facilities for the unemployed, broke out all over the UK. Initially organised through local committees of the unemployed, most federated by 1921 into the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement (usually known as the NUWM), which was to be the main vehicle for unemployed organising for 20 years.

One of the tactics the NUWM became well-known for was organising national hunger marches. Groups of the unemployed would assemble in different towns and converge in contingents on London, to protest unemployment and the restrictions, rules and hardships those on the dole had to face. Hunger marches took place in 1922, 1927, 1930,1932, 1934 and alongside the Jarrow Crusade in 1936. Often the marches would last over a month with thousands marching in bitter winter conditions.

The hunger marches drew the public’s attention to the plight of areas that the politicians and capitalists wished to ignore. Successive Tory, Labour and National Government prime ministers refused to meet deputations of the hunger marchers.

In 1922, over one million people were unemployed and those out of work were confronted with a 19th century poor relief system. It was in these conditions that the first hunger march took place.

The second hunger march from the South Wales coalfield to London concluded a nine month strike following the 1926 General Strike. The march was supported by miners’ leader A.J Cook and by the South Wales Miners Federation but denounced by right wing trade union leaders.

In the midst of the early 1930s Great Depression, unemployment rose to three million with hundreds of thousands even in the ‘prosperous, non-distressed’ south east and midlands joining the dole queues. Successive governments were determined that as much as possible working people should bear the brunt of the recession, and that as little as possible be spent on benefits to those out of work and their families. Savage regulations imposed on claimants made receiving any benefits a humiliating and vicious process. The ‘Not genuinely Seeking Work’ clause was used to cut off dole from anyone deemed not to be looking hard enough for work; the Means Test forced people to sell everything they had before receiving benefits and forced the unwaged to undergo humiliating examinations to prove they were virtually destitute before they could get the benefits.

The 1930 hunger march was organised as unemployment was rapidly increasing in the aftermath of the 1929 economic crisis. The bosses made ‘rationalisation’ agreements with the union leaders that were leading to speed ups in production and many skilled workers being thrown onto the dole queues. The minority Labour government increased attacks on the unemployed.

Again the march struggled to receive support from the official trade union movement. This was partly due to the right wing in the unions but also was a result of the Communist Party and NUWM leaders’ ultra-left policy of denouncing the Labour Party as ‘social fascist’. The Labour government ordered that the 1,000 marchers were to be treated as vagrants.

Of all the hunger marches, the 1932 march, which carried a one million strong petition against the means test (to qualify for the dole), was the most brutally treated, facing constant police harassment. Mass uprisings against the means test in Birkenhead and Belfast in 1932 resulted in confrontations with the police and won concessions from local authorities on poor relief.

The betrayal of Labour leader Ramsay McDonald in joining a national government with the Tories added fuel to the fire. The hunger marchers were met with a police riot in London and the NUWM leadership was jailed. But the march won concessions as benefits were raised.

In 1934 another hunger march against the means test took place, protesting cuts in unemployment benefit, the means test, and demanding decent levels of ‘relief’. A women’s contingent was also organised and demands for maternity benefit were raised.

When the marchers arrived in London, they and the NUWM leadership pressed for the government to meet them to discuss their demands, or allow them to speak in the House of Commons; the government initially refused. However, Ramsay MacDonald, then prime minster, heading a National (coalition government) suggested they lobby their MPs. The marchers decided to take them at their word, and infiltrated themselves into parliament in small groups on 28th February, singing and chanting.

The next day they returned to Parliament:

“The marchers again went to the House on Thursday 1st March. Three hundred succeeded in getting into the outer lobby and twenty-four into the public gallery. The suddenly a cry rang out from the gallery: “Meet the hunger marchers!” “We refuse to starve in silence!” “Down with the National Government!” The House was startled; police rushed to the spot from which the disturbance had come, and when they attempted to evict the marchers struggles ensued. Members of Parliament, looking up, saw what probably few of them had seen before – uniformed police being used in the public gallery in addition to plain-clothes-men. Suddenly, at the other end of the chamber in the ladies gallery, above the Speaker’s chair, a woman was heard shouting, “Don’t knock those men about!” She was removed by the police.

When the news reached the central lobby that fighting had broken out in the gallery, the 300 marchers who had succeeded in gaining admission started vigorously singing the “internationale”. Police reinforcements were rushed from all parts of the House and fighting took place in the lobby. The marchers were eventually ejected and the police thought that they had put an end to the disturn=bances, but there were still marchers in various parts of the House, and three times during the evening scenes broke out in the gallery and in the lobby.”

London was filled with marchers and their supporters; large demonstrations took place virtually daily, and massive pressure was put on the government. In the end, this had some effect: in the 1934 budget, ten per cent cuts to benefit rates were reversed, which had been one of the main demands of the march.

Some aid was also announced for some of the most distressed areas of the country, and to suspend the brutal assessment of benefit claimants by the Unemployed Assistance Board.

The hunger marches did form part of the pressure that was able to win concessions from successive governments. To some extent, however, analysing the history of the NUWM and the unemployed movement of the 1920s/30s, the hunger marches stand out the most, mobilizing thousands and receiving national attention. It is true however that the unemployed movement was more effective when its activities were concentrated locally around practical targets, as in the early 1920s. The increased centralisation of the NUWM, its domination by activists from the Communist Party (reflected in its policies) and its narrowing of focus to high profile stunts like the hunger marches, reduced its innovative early impact somewhat.

It has been speculated that the NUWM’s most important effects were not necessarily in the benefit rates or regulations altered. Bringing a collective approach to unemployment, getting people together and resisting their individual situation as a movement, counters the atomisation that signing on tends to impose. The solidarity, feeling like you are not alone, is a powerful weapon in the face of despair and hardship. NUWM leaders also said later that they believed that the movements’ domination of unemployed politics was a factor in the failure of British fascist groups to seriously recruit the unemployed on a large scale, as happened in Germany and Italy.

For more on the the unemployed struggles of the 1920s-40s, it’s worth reading Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, by Richard Croucher.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s radical history: 150,000 oppose British Union of Fascists rally, Hyde Park, 1934.

In 1934 Oswald Mosley’s small but active British Union of Fascists was increasing its activities. Mosley, an aristocratic ex-Tory MP, then Labour Party minister who had fallen under the spell of Mussolini and Hitler and was determined to rise to a similar power in Britain. He recruited ground-level support from rightwing elements in the middle and working classes, but garnered much financial backing among the aristocracy and capitalist classes. As in Germany and Italy, these elements saw the potential need for fascist organisation to be nurtured, in case it should be required as a bulwark to defend capitalism and class rule against any growing working class movement. Famously newspaper baron Lord Rothermere was an early backer, prompting his Daily Mail to headline with ‘hurrah for the Blackshirts’ (he owned the Daily Mirror at this time too, which also went through a Mosley-adoring phase).

Mosley’s fascism was initially not specifically anti-semitic, but anti-jewish rhetoric grew within the Union after 1933, as nazi sympathisers increased their influence with it. White working class anti-migrant support for the BUF was notable in parts of East London But Mosley’s would-be beer-hall putschists found themselves opposed wherever they reared their head. The anti-fascist movement of the time, centred around (though not exclusive to) the Communist Party, became very active and defeated the BUF on a number of occasions.

A British Union rally at Kensington’s ‘Olympia’ in June had been successfully disrupted by anti-fascists, many of who marched from the East End. Despite a heavy police cordon and violent stewarding from fascist goons, so many managed to get into the hall and sabotage the rally that Mosley was unable to make himself heard. However extreme violence from the BUF stewards used against protesters alienated a number of Mosley’s more genteel supporters; the Olympia rally is often quoted as the beginning of a decline in the fortunes of the crap fuhrer. Rothermere and the Daily Mail hastily backed away from their earlier enthusiasm for a fascist takeover.

Following this, the BUF announced a rally to Hyde Park on 9th September 1934… Anti-fascists determined immediately to “Turn the Fascist Rally into an Anti-Fascist Triumph”. Determined to build on the successful disruption of the Olympia fuhrerfest, the call went out to rally in Hyde Park in opposition to the BUF. On his part, with his supporters increasing their street presence, but also being confronted (and usually routed) wherever they gathered, Mosley threatened to “deal with’ any opposition…

Many trade union organisations and other groups mobilised to bring contingents to oppose the rally. However, the Labour Party and TUC issued a statement calling on workers to stay away from the rally instead of confronting the fash.

In reply the CP pointed to the effects of nazi rule in Germany and suggested that you had to oppose fascism on the street or it would grow to smash all working class organisations (including the Labour and the TUC)…

A well-organised publicity campaign spread the word about the upcoming anti-fascist mobilisation: huge banners announcing the event were hung from scaffolding on the Royal Courts of Justice in Fleet Street, another banner unfurled from the top of the BBC building in Portland Place, showers of leaflets thrown from the roof of Selfridges in Oxford Street and the Post Office in Newgate Street… Live broadcasts by the BBC were interrupted by small groups who grabbed microphones and made short announcements telling people to rally to oppose fascism (before the broadcasts were shut off).

This guerilla publicity and other mobilising brought some 150,000 people out on the day, who marched to Hyde Park. The fascist rally was a fiasco. The BUF marched in at 6pm and out again at 7pm, protected by a vast force of police, their speakers in the park having been drowned out by the crowd of antis.

The violence of the Olympia shindig may have alienated a chunk of the upper class support for Mosley, but the BUF’s support would rise again in the later 1930s. They had to be more decisively beaten at the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, and at a number of other rallies. However, it has be to be speculated that some of the need for a strong fascist movement to be kept in the wings was declining. Although the ‘30s saw mass poverty and much working class anger, it was clear that there was little immediate prospect of a revolutionary upsurge in Britain. Also, Mosley had proved himself somewhat inept; scheming would-be backers can put up with a successful Strong Man who uses violence to keep the plebs down, but a Weak Strong Man is just embarrassing.

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

Today in anti-monarchist history: Bermondsey Council refuse to waste public money on king George V jubilee, 1935.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey, in South London, was controlled by a leftwing Labour party group; their aim was implementing municipal socialism in behalf of the area’s largely working class population. Progressive measures were pioneered in housing, education, health, the environment; the councilors had as a rule been activists in the area, involved in the many struggles of the late 19th and early 20th century, notably the dock strikes, etc.

When king George VI’s silver jubilee came around in 1935, the Labour mayor of Bermondsey refused to participate in the celebrations, considering it a waste of public money. He was supported by Dr Alfred Salter, the local MP, an early member of the Independent Labour Party, and a longtime pacifist and anti-monarchist.

The mayor may not only have objected to the waste of money, but also been embarrassed to take part in the Jubilee ceremonies London mayors were expected to attend. As Dr Salter wrote: “Look at the ridiculous orders issued to Mayors and others who were to meet the king. They had to wear special gloves, hold their hats in a special way, bow and walk backwards in a particular manner… in an absurd and uncomfortable garb of black silk stockings, knee breeches, silver buckled shoes and other buffoonery…”

The Borough council’s decision infuriated both monarchists and the rabid press. The local tories besieged the Mayor’s house one morning, battering at his door and graffiting the walls with insulting slogans. Posters and leaflets were also issued by the Bermondsey Constitutional Club, calling on people to sign a Loyal Address to the king. The press denounced the Mayor and MP as an affront to the royal family and the nation…

Although the working class locally had a record of support for Labour, there was also a strong patriotic and pro-royal feeling. The area was festooned with flags, bunting and banners reading ‘God Save the King’ (although one banner in Alscot Road loudly proclaimed ‘God Save the People’).

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

Today in London’s housing history: rent strikes start in the East End, 1938…

2016: housing in London spirals into a morass of high rents, inflated property prices, homelessness and housing benefit cuts… Resistance is growing…

A time to remember that those who face this before us didn’t just take it lying down… To remember some of the many tenants who organised rent strikes against greedy landlords charging exorbitant rents for run-down and over crowded housing, back in the 1930s…

In the 1930s and the terrible housing conditions in the area began to ignite discontent and collective action. Much of the grassroots work organizing tenants at this time was alter claimed to originate with members of the Communist Party (CP), who were strong and active in the area at the time – but members of the Labour Party and other activists were also involved.

In 1938-9 the struggle became huge, as mass rent strikes were organized in the borough of Stepney, which then included this area. The CP were heavily involved, and a useful short account of the rent strikes can be found in Phil Piratin’s book, Our Flag Stays Red. Piratin was a local CP member, who later became a CP councillor and MP. Two years of organizing among tenants in various streets and blocks came to fruition with rent strikes that erupted in 1938. Between August 1938 and mid-1939, tenants organized, refused to pay rent, and physically resisted violent eviction attempts.

“Locally there were rent strikes during 1938-39 in Hogarth mansions, Brunswick Buildings, Pelham Street, Montague House, Hawkins, Estate, Langdale Mansions, Brady Street Mansions, Juniper Street, Commercial Mansions, Lydia Street, Fieldgate Mansions, Duckett Street, Ocean Street, Philchurch Street, Eileen mansions, Bromehead Square, Fenton Street, Mariner Street, Anthony Street, Settles Street, Flower and Dean Street and Golding Street… The rent strikes though, spread further afield, and soon there similar outbreaks in Bethnal Green, Clapham, Willesden, Finsbury, Poplar, Bermondsey, Paddington, Battersea, Highgate, Norwood and Shoreditch… And in Birmingham, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Sunderland Oxford and Sheffield…

In the autumn of 1937 the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League was established… and began to deal with the individual rent and repair problems of hundreds of tenants… Tenants’ Committees were set up in blocks of buildings and streets. The individual issues of the tenants were dealt with by the Tenants’ Committee, acting as a kind of shop stewards’ committee and dealing direct with the landlord. The tenants were gradually gaining confidence and organisational ability ready for the big struggles ahead.

The actions varied. The tenants were organised and formulated their demands. All kinds of repairs and decorations were specified, and reductions in rents were demanded. The rents varied considerably, particularly between controlled and decontrolled houses. The law defining controlled houses was incomprehensible to the tenants, and the landlords did not hesitate to take advantage of this to defraud them. Irrespective, however, of the law, demands were made for reductions of the decontrolled to the level of the controlled rents.

In some cases… the fight was bitter. The Brunswick Buildings tenants were out on strike for eleven weeks. Langdale Street Buildings and Brady Street Mansions, both owned by slum landlords, were on strike for five months. These latter battles were particularly fierce. The landlords were firm and brazen. They refused to negotiate and after a while issued eviction orders to some of the most active tenants. The battle now began in earnest. Barbed-wire barricades were placed around the entire blocks. Pickets were on duty day and night. Only those who lived in the buildings, or could give reason for entering, or who were known tradesmen, were allowed to enter.
One day in June the bailiffs, with the police, decided to act. They managed to gain access into Langdale Mansions. The alarm was sounded. The police drew their truncheons. The men and women of the buildings defended themselves with saucepans, rolling-pins, sticks, and shovels. The police were brutal, particularly in their treatment of the women. A cordon was placed round the building. More police, a score of them mounted, were called up. They broke open the doors and forcibly removed the tenants. By the end of the morning the news had spread throughout Stepney. The police, using the dirty tactics not unknown in Stepney, waited until the men had gone to work, and then attacked the women…. The men-folk left their work to come home… Some workshops closed down. Thousands of angry Stepney people gathered round Langdale Mansions. The police. sensing the feeling. withdrew. Immediately. the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League loudspeaker van toured the area. calling a meeting… When the meeting ended they marched to the Leman Street Police Station to protest… There was some rough scuffling. A number of arrests were made… the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, immediately issued a statement that the 7500 members of the League would join in a solidarity strike with the Langdale Mansions and Brady Street Mansions tenants, unless their demands were met. The tenants themselves were now filled with indignation, bitterness, and hatred of all who supported the landlords. Messages of sympathy came from many prominent citizens and leaders of the Labour movement… by Friday of the same week the landlords had caved in: £1,000 worth of reductions were obtained; £10.000 worth of arrears were ignored; £2.500 to he spent on repairs immediately. £1,500 each succeeding year. The twenty-one weeks’ rent strike, bitter, bloody, had been won. Other landlords wishing to avoid trouble now became quite amenable. They, too, had learnt the lesson of Langdale Mansions.

These struggles became front-page news. In March a conference had been held in Stepney of representatives of London organisations and delegates from the Labour movement to decide on the co-ordination of the London tenants’ struggles. Now the National Tenants’ Federation began to organise a nation-wide convention. It was to be held in Birmingham in July, when representatives of every town and city in the country were to demand a new code for tenants and residents, a new Rent Act, and new standards of conditions to be provided by the landlords. A ” Housing Charter” was drawn up, and a campaign begun. Labour leaders were drawn into the struggle. At the great demonstration held in Hyde Park late in July the speakers included Aneurin Bevan and Ellen Wilkinson of the Labour Party, and Elsie Borders. Michael Shapiro. and Tubby Rosen of the Communist Party. It was the latter who had done the work and the organisation, who had faced the bailiffs and the batons. Bevan and Wilkinson, as usual, were responding to the mood of the masses. The campaign was reaching its height, even during these menacing pre-war days and weeks. but then came the war and new problems had to be faced.

At the very commencement of the war the Government immediately introduced legislation to ensure rent control. Rents were frozen at the levels obtaining on 1 September 1939. The Government undoubtedly learned from the great Clydeside rent struggles in 1915, but a much nearer warning were the great rent struggles which were taking place during the months preceding the war.” (Phil Piratin)

Further reading:

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red. Read a PDF online

Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto.

Henry Srebrnik, Class, Ethnicity and Gender Intertwined: Jewish women and the East London Rent Strikes, 1935-1940 (Women’s History Review, Volume 4, Number 3, 1995)

Sarah Glynn, East End Immigrants and the Battle for Housing: a comparative study of political mobilisation in the Jewish and Bengali communities (Journal of Historical Geography 31 pp 528545) (2005)

More very interesting stuff on rent strikes can be found at www.sarahglynn.net

A past tense pamphlet on an earlier rent strike, in Glasgow during World War 1, can be found online at http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past tense publications.html

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

 

 

 

Today in London’s rebel past: Rent Strike Begins, Flower and Dean Street, 1939.

2016: housing in London spirals into a morass of high rents, inflated property prices, homelessness and housing benefit cuts… Resistance is growing…

A time to remember that those who face this before us didn’t just take it lying down… To remember some of the many tenants who organised rent strikes against greedy landlords charging exorbitant rents for run-down and over crowded housing, back in the 1930s…

77 years ago today, one such rent strike started, in Flower and Dean Street, in London’s East End.

Flower & Dean Street, just off Commercial Street in Spitalfields, was long notorious for the poverty of its residents. A remnant of the old rookery, largely cleared in the 1840s by the building of Commercial Street (an early experiment with driving wide new roads through poor areas to break up neighbourhoods considered dangerous to public order and morals…)

In the 1880s, the Flower and Dean Street area was still a ‘rookery’, “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders of course.

Partly to revive the moral middle class campaign to improve (ie clear and reduce the treat from) areas of endemic poverty, blocks of model dwellings were erected by early housing charities. Although there was genuine desire to improve the working class, there was also a feeling that the deserving and the undeserving poor needed to be separated, to prevent moral contamination of the former by the latter.

However, housing here remained in many ways grim – overcrowded, unsanitary and not that cheap. The private landlords who owned much of the area charged high rents for crap conditions. Not that THAT dynamic still exists in London, oh no (in the week attempts to impose controls on landlords’ ability to rent out sub-standard housing was defeated, with the help of 73 landlord MPs).

Into the 1930s and the terrible housing conditions in the area began to ignite discontent and collective action. Much of the grassroots work organizing tenants at this time was alter claimed to originate with members of the Communist Party (CP), who were strong and active in the area at the time – but members of the Labour party and other activists were also involved.

In June 1933, a mass demo successfully defended family in Flower and Dean Street against eviction.

But it was in 1938-9 that the struggle became huge, as mass rent strikes were organized in the borough of Stepney, which then included this area. The CP were heavily involved, and a useful short account of the rent strikes can be found in Phil Piratin’s book, Our Flag Stays Red. Piratin was a local CP member, who later became a CP councillor and MP. Two years of organizing among tenants in various streets and blocks came to fruition with rent strikes that erupted in 1938. Between August 1938 and mid-1939, tenants organized, refused to pay rent, and physically resisted violent eviction attempts.

In the Flower and Dean Street tenements, most of the tenants were Jewish. Their tenants’ committee was led by a woman, Clara Garrett (women were often to the fore in the rent strikes, in the East End as elsewhere). The tenants decided to strike on January 16, and turned their building into a ‘fortress’. Demonstrations and picketing went on for weeks, all entrances were guarded, and there were even street marches publicizing the tenants’ demands for lower rents and repairs. One weekend, 38 children from this East End slum dwelling demonstrated in front of the landlord’s home, in fashionable and far-off Golders Green, a well-to-do London suburb. The owner finally caved in five weeks after the strike began; this struggle served as a prototype for many other actions.

Locally, apart from Flower and Dean Street, there were rent strikes during 1938-39 in Hogarth mansions, Brunswick Buildings, Pelham Street, Montague House, Hawkins, Estate, Langdale Mansions, Brady Street Mansions, Juniper Street, Commercial Mansions, Lydia Street, Fieldgate Mansions, Duckett Street, Ocean Street, Philchurch Street, Eileen mansions, Bromehead Square, Fenton Street, Mariner Street, Anthony Street, Settles Street, and Golding Street… The rent strikes though, spread further afield, and soon there similar outbreaks in Bethnal Green, Clapham, Willesden, Finsbury, Poplar, Bermondsey, Paddington, Battersea, Highgate, Norwood and Shoreditch… And in Birmingham, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Sunderland Oxford and Sheffield…

More rent strikes were also to break out in the East end during World War 2. And later, in the 1970s, many of the model dwellings built to improve working class housing in Spitalfields and Stepney had decayed themselves and become slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. Tenants resistance would again change the outcome… (but that’s for another day).

Further reading:

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red.

Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto.

Henry Srebrnik, Class, Ethnicity and Gender Intertwined: Jewish women and the East London Rent Strikes, 1935-1940 (Women’s History Review, Volume 4, Number 3, 1995).
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/pdf/East%20End%20Immigrants%20and%20the%20Battle%20for%20Housing.pdf

Sarah Glynn, East End Immigrants and the Battle for Housing: a comparative study of political mobilisation in the Jewish and Bengali communities (Journal of Historical Geography 31 pp 528545) (2005).

More very interesting stuff on rent strikes can be found at www.sarahglynn.net

A past tense pamphlet on an earlier rent strike, in Glasgow during World War 1, can be found online at http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past tense publications.html

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

More on Flower & Dean Street, the old rookery, housing and ‘regeneration’, will hopefully appear in a past tense pamphlet on Spitalfields and Brick Lane, soon…