Today in London radical history, 1957: St Pancras councillors block government Civil Defence plans.

In 1957, leftwing Labour councillors who had taken control over St Pancras Borough council, North London (now part of the London borough of Camden) refused to co-operate with the Conservative government over measures for civil defence – routine preparations for local measures to be taken in the event of a (then presumed to be nuclear) war. Led by longtime communist John Lawrence, the council opposed civil defence on the grounds that nuclear war was not survivable and thus the preparations were a waste of time and money.

Tensions between the US and the Soviet Union had produced a hysterical arms race, with nuclear weaponry being stockpiled and deployed on a massive scale around the world. The potential of the rival camps’ destructive arsenals threatened casualties on a scale which would dwarf the death toll of World War 2. Opposition to nuclear armament was just really beginning in the mid-1950s, but was given a boost by the development of the hydrogen bomb in the late 1950s. A general sense began to develop that a nuclear war would be largely unsurvivable, especially for people living in large cities which would be heavily targeted by missiles from ‘the other side’.

St Pancras as a borough was generally run by Labour, although the Conservatives gained power between 1949-53 and again 1959-62. In the mid-1950s, the Labour council became dominated by a leftwing group, led by John Lawrence, who had previously been a member of the Communist Party and then of several small Trotskyist groups, and remained a committed leftwinger with some sympathies towards the Soviet Union. His political career was to follow many and diverse turns and oscillations, but he was to achieve national notoriety in 1956-58 as he led the council in the adoption of leftwing policies, as well as staging high profile stunts which attracted media controversy…

Lawrence had been elected a Labour councillor in 1952, and was elected leader of the majority Labour group in 1956. From the start the group took a leftwing stand that alarmed not only the conservatives and rightwing press, but also the ‘moderate’ elements of the Labour Party. Under Lawrence’s leadership the Labour controlled administration fought the Conservative government’s legislation of 1955-56 which ordered the restoration to the private sector of any remaining housing requisitioned by councils for the homeless during and after World War 2 and imposed a means test for rent subsidies. The council defied this, cut rents for all council tenants, and refused to apply the means test to subsidies. As a delegate at the 1957 Labour Party conference, Lawrence spoke passionately against the 1957 Rent Act which decontrolled the private sector. Lawrence also negotiated a hundred per cent trade union membership agreement for municipal employees, and slashed the mayor’s allowance, confiscated the mayor’s council car and told him to travel to functions by bus.

The next action by St Pancras Labour Group to hit the headlines was the decision at a council meeting on 1 May 1957 to repudiate the local authority’s statutory obligation to organise Civil Defence.

Since 1948, local councils had been under a duty to organise for the provision of civil defence in the event of an attack. With the huge destructive power of the hydrogen bomb, many in local councils had begun to wonder what the point of civil defence was, as there would be very little left to defend after a nuclear exchange. Training a Civil Defence Corps in emergency procedures and basic first aid techniques was both a waste of money and a conscious attempt to deceive the civilian population as to the horrific consequences and chances of living through a nuclear attack.

Labour-controlled Coventry City Council had refused to implement Civil Defence (CD) for these reasons in 1954, though they backed down in the face of councillors being threatened with being personally surcharged for the cost of the  government stepping in to administer CD in the borough.

That same year, growing apprehension about resolutions calling for St Pancras Borough Council to follow the example of Coventry had been passed by the general management committees of both the North and South St Pancras Labour parties. But because a majority of the then Labour Group was opposed to this, the decision had never been carried out.

In 1956, St Pancras councillors together with local trade unionists and some churchmen, organised a conference around the issue of the H-Bomb. Even under the most conservative under-estimates, all of St Pancras was likely to be completely flattened in the event of a nuclear strike on central London. The conference resolved to refuse to put on a ‘Civil Defence Week’ planned nationally by the Home Office. John Lawrence articulated the general feeling: the exercise would be ‘a complete waste of time and money’; fellow councillor Clive Jenkins: ‘in the sort of world we are going to be living in after a nuclear attack, there won’t be many people left to rescue’. The conference was rapidly followed by a decision to abandon all Civil Defence in the borough completely. While opting out of the CD Week was one thing, refusing to organise any CD at all put the councillors beyond the law. At the debate on the issue, the Town Clerk issued a formal warning that the resolution was effectively illegal.

However, the councillors quoted the government’s own White Paper, ‘Defence: Outline of Future Policy’, just recently published in Spring 1957, which openly admitted that ‘It must be frankly recognised that there is at present no means of adequate protection for the people of this country against the consequences of an attack with nuclear weapons’ (while insisting that measures should be taken ‘to minimise the effect of a nuclear attack’). The widely ridiculed contradictions in this White paper provided St Pancras councillors with ammunition for their decision, which they hoped would lead the way for other local authorities to follow suit and discredit Civil Defence, with the longer term aim of forcing a rethink on nuclear weapons…

The national press seized on the story immediately. Meanwhile a lengthy correspondence between Home Office officials and the council failed to bring the two any closer, as government insistence on the necessity of CD as the hope for holding the framework of society together in the event of a nuclear strike met with scepticism and determination from councillors. A second debate in the Council re-affirmed the resolution. The councillors moved on from non-cooperation with CD to a critique of government defence policy as a whole:

‘When you state that the only means of preventing war is by a race to create thermo-nuclear deterrents we must register a profound disagreement. The last two major wars were each preceded by a fierce competition in arms manufacture accompanied by protestations on all sides that the object was simply to deter aggression and prevent war. Thus were people deceived, and millions of dead in all countries bear witness to the futility of such a policy. As public representatives of the people we have no tight to believe, or cause others to believe, that an arms race in this nuclear age would have any other result – except that the scale of mass slaughter and suffering will be even greater.’

The letter went on to argue that British aggression in Egypt over Suez the year before had brought the world close to the brink of another war, and that the British government’s agreement to stationing Us missiles in the UK meant the whole country would be targeted by The Soviet Union in the event of conflict with the US… The council argued for a separate neutral defence stance and an abandonment of any involvement in nuclear proliferation.

There was local opposition to the Labour group’s stand, from both Conservative councillors, and from the civil defence volunteers on the ground, (who coincidentally were led to a tory councillor). Bit attempts by the tory group to overturn the decision and restore Civil Defence failed at another debate in May 1957.

At the end of May, the Home Secretary responded to the St Pancras decision, as it had in Coventry, by appointing a commissioner to take over the organisation of Civil Defence. This led to protests from the Labour Group, who had announced that they were going to convert the Civil Defence headquarters in Camden High Street into flats in order to provide housing for the homeless; they hoped to leave the commissioner with no office to move into. The government then requisitioned the building under emergency powers left over from the war.

On 4 June, when the commissioner was due to arrive, the Labour Group held a demonstration outside the building, and John Lawrence chained himself to the gates in an attempt to prevent the commissioner entering the premises. Anti-nuclear campaigner and local resident & councillor Peggy Duff, who was ill with jaundice at the time, recalls that she was dragged out of bed by a telephone call asking her to organise press coverage of the event:

‘So I arrived in the High Street to find a small group of John’s supporters, including several councillors, parading up and down outside the CD HQ with suitable banners: “Ban the Bomb”, “Destroy the Bomb or it will Destroy You”, “Stop the Tests”. It was, of course, 1957, and the British tests at Christmas Island were imminent. After some time a policeman arrived and plodded up and down the street beside the paraders. Now and again a very disapproving member of the WVS, who shared the building with Civil Defence, pushed her way through the gate. Then, when the copper was standing, half asleep, some way up the road, John produced a rather large and ostentatious padlock and chain and attached himself to the bars of the gate. For a time nothing happened. Nobody noticed. Shoppers hurried by and never turned to look. The policemen went on plodding up and down. Buses passed to and fro. No press arrived. There was the leader of the council chained to the CD gates – and nobody had turned to look. I had a horrible feeling that nobody ever would.

‘Then at last the policeman as he passed saw that something was amiss. He stopped. He stared. “Why, sir”, he said, “who did that to you?” “Nobody”, said John. “I did it myself.” “But why did you do that, sir?” the simple copper asked. “I did it as a protest against nuclear weapons”, John simply replied. The policemen hurried off to telephone a higher authority. Shoppers continued to pass by, unconcerned. Then, at last, a press photographer. Then another. Then a police car with more important, peak-capped coppers. Then gradually a crowd, at last.

‘Lawrence shouted to the crowd: “We want these premises for housing, not for useless Civil Defence purposes. There is no defence against the H-bomb. There are 6,000 people on our housing list and we want to provide homes for four families to live here.” The police, however, produced a large pair of bolt-cutters and released Lawrence from his chains. They forced the crowd to disperse and took the names of the demonstrators, though no arrests were made. Eventually the police car drove off, unwittingly bearing a “Ban the Bomb” placard which had been stuck behind its back number plate.’

On 14 June the Labour Group held a public meeting to explain its case against Civil Defence. First the audience watched a 20-minute film, Shadow of Hiroshima, which revealed what had happened to those who had survived the nuclear attack on the Japanese city in 1945. The meeting was chaired by Councillor Jack Redman who, evidently undaunted by the prospect of travelling on a 68 bus, had recently succeeded Alfred Hurst as mayor. Introducing John Lawrence, who was the main speaker, Redman stated: ‘I have never met a young councillor with so much pluck, so much guts and so much fighting spirit. It is a pleasure to serve under him’.

Lawrence spoke for an hour justifying the council’s stand. He told the meeting: ‘Normally the borough council is a very homely body of people, a very practical body of people who spend most of their time cleaning your dustbins, getting rid of your bugs and building your houses. Now we are asked to carry out the government’s essential defence policy and we say that is a complete waste of ratepayers’ money.’ He continued: ’Our Civil Defence Corps consists of wardens with whistles and one telephone box. It is clear that if an H-bomb dropped here, most of London would be destroyed. Even if you can patch up a broken leg, the amount of radioactivity floating around the area is such that people will go on dying for years and no CD Corps will be able to stop that. CD is a deception of the people and we want no part of it.’

The North London Press reported: ‘Councillor Lawrence pointed out, in answer to a question, that CD in the past had cost the council just under £2,000. The government had paid the rest of the cost – about £5,000. “The bill will be at least £7,000”, he said. “It might be very much more.” He paused, chuckled, and said: “But we haven’t paid it yet.” A voice at the front of the hall: “What happens if you don’t pay?” Councillor Lawrence: “If we don’t pay it, the government comes and takes it out of us somehow. But as we haven’t got much which can be taken from us, presumably we will go to the Scrubs or Pentonville. What I want to know is – if we don’t pay, will you back us up?” There were cries of “Yes” and for more than two minutes the audience cheered their approval of this suggestion. Said Councillor Lawrence: “That’s all I wanted to know”.’

However, the hope of the group around Lawrence that the protest would arouse widespread support in the Labour party and trade union movement was soon dashed. Labour was widely divided on the issue of defence, as it has remained, and even leftwing leaders in the end preferred to not rock the boat on defence in the interests of party unity.

Lawrence’s colourful career in pursuit of socialism in one borough climaxed in the spring of 1958. Lawrence declared 1 May a holiday in St Pancras, and gave council workers the day off. Early that May day morning, he ran down the Union Jack and raised the Red Flag over the Town Hall. At lunchtime he was arrested by the police when he refused to close a trades council public meeting at which he was speaking which was under attack by local fascists who were enraged at the new emblem of socialist St Pancras.

The Red Flag incident sparked a small social panic. It became a cause célèbre, broadcast across the media, and Lawrence became briefly a national figure of renown or notoriety, according to your political persuasion. But it represented a turning point. The Labour Party apparatus which had been monitoring Lawrence now moved decisively against him. The right wing finally organised, and some on the left backed away from supporting him. In late May, after he had survived an attempt to expel him by the St Pancras South constituency, Lawrence was suspended from membership by Labour’s national executive, and was subsequently removed as leader of the council. Despite a vigorous campaign and production of a pamphlet, The St Pancras Story, his expulsion was upheld at the Labour Party conference that autumn.

The Red Flag incident finally resulted in Lawrence being expelled from the Labour Party and, on 17th October 1958, applied to join the Communist Party with around ten of his supporters, stating that he had been seriously considering joining the CP for three or four years.

In 1959, together with 22 other councillors who had supported the decision not to pass on to tenants the increases required under the 1957 Rent Act, he was surcharged £200 by the District Auditor.

However, this issue was to erupt again locally very shortly. In January 1960, the tenants of St Pancras implemented a mass withholding of rent increases imposed by St Pancras Council, now controlled by the Conservatives. This was met by firm action from the Council, who immediately issued notices to quit. On 28 June, eviction notices were granted in the Bloomsbury County Court against three tenants.

On 21 September 1960, the day before the evictions were scheduled, 500 tenants demonstrated outside the Town Hall where the Housing Committee was meeting. They were told to move along and then charged by mounted police and protesters forcibly dispersed. John Lawrence, who had been heavily involved in the Rent Strike, was jailed for three months arising from charges coming out of the melee.

Lawrence’s mercurial political wanderings were to take him back out of the Communist party in 1964, and eventually to become a syndicalist. He died in 2002. A good short account of his life is here

And here’s a longer account

And here’s a more detailed account of Lawrence’s expulsion from Labour over the red flag incident.


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s bureaucratic history: Clarence Willcock refuses to show his ID card, 1952.

During both the first and second world wars the government introduced compulsory ID cards as part of their emergency measures. ID cards were withdrawn within a year of the end of the First World War; however it was not until seven years after the Second World War that ID cards were finally withdrawn. Clarence Willcock was instrumental in this process; his refusal to show his ID card when stopped by the police in North London raised questions about their use in peacetime Britain and contributed to the withdrawal of the cards in 1952.

The coming of the Second World War provided the impetus for the reintroduction of ID cards and a national register as a temporary emergency measure.

ID cards and the national register were bought in under the National Registration Act 1939. Registration of the whole population was held on September 29th 1939 and heads of households had to provide information on each member of the household, including children.

The Register comprised ‘all persons in the United Kingdom at the appointed time’ and ‘all persons entering or born in the United Kingdom after that time’. A Schedule to the Act listed ‘matters with respect to which particulars are to be entered in Register’.

These were:
1 .Names
2. Sex,
3. Age,
4. Occupation, profession, trade or employment,
5. Residence,
6. Condition as to marriage,
7. Membership of Naval, Military or Air Force Reserves or Auxiliary Forces or of Civil Defence Services or Reserves.

The introduction of the ID card and register bought with it a whole new range of criminal offences. Section 6, Sub-section 4, of the Act stated:

‘A constable in uniform, or any person authorised for the purpose under the said regulations, may require a person who under the regulations is for the time being responsible for the custody of an Identity card, to produce the card to him or, if the person so required fails to produce it when the requirement is made, to produce it within such time, to such person and at such place as may be prescribed’.

Offences under the Act included giving false information, impersonation, forgery of an identity card, and unauthorised disclosure of information. For these offences, maximum penalties on summary conviction were a £50 fine and/ or three months in prison, and on conviction on indictment a £100 fine and/or two years in prison. It was also an offence to fail to comply with any other requirement duly made under the Act, or with any regulation made under it, and the maximum penalty was a £5 fine or one month in prison or both. The Act applied to the whole of the United Kingdom and was to remain in force until a date which ‘His Majesty may be Order in Council declare to be the date on which the emergency that was the occasion of the passing of this Act came to an end’.

Three major reasons were given for the introduction of ID cards and a national register:

  1. The need for complete manpower control and planning, in order to maximise the efficiency of the war economy.
  2. The introduction of rationing required a system of standardised registration. Rationing was introduced from January 1940.
  3. To have up to date information and statistics about the population, the last census had taken place in 1931.

In addition to the rationing of food and clothes ID cards were required for all post office transactions. By the time they were withdrawn in 1952, 38 government departments used the ID card and the national register. It was the police who consistently used the card in their day-to-day dealings with the public; a demand to see an ID card became a routine event. C.H. Rolph, an ex-policeman, said:

“The police, who had by now got used to the exhilarating new belief that they could get anyone’s name and address for the asking, went on calling for their production with increasing frequency. If you picked up a fountain pen in the street and handed it to a constable, he would ask to see your identity card in order that he might record your name as that of an honest citizen. You seldom carried it, and this meant that he had to give you a little pencilled slip requiring you to produce it at a police station within two days”

Each year, Parliament passed an Emergency Laws (Transitional Provisions) Act, continuing the effect of selected wartime laws, in 1947 when the registration system came up for renewal opposition was evident in parliament. During the debate W S Morrison, a conservative MP, said:

“Now that more than two years have passed since the end of the war, we ought seriously to consider whether the time is not overdue to get rid of what was an innovation introduced in order to meet a temporary set of conditions. There is no doubt that they are troublesome documents to some people. They frequently get lost, involving the owner in difficulties of one kind or another simply because he has not got a certain piece of paper. Law-abiding citizens who live in one community are particularly prone to lose them because they are known by all their neighbours and do not carry the cards. The dishonest man – the spiv, as he has been called – is generally possessed, I am told, of five or six different identity cards which he produces at his pleasure to meet the changing exigencies of his adventurous career. So in the detection and prevention of crime no case can be made out for the identity card. “

And later in the debate, Morrison went on:

“The argument advanced on second reading – I conceive it to be the main argument for the retention of these troublesome documents – was that as long as rationing persists they are necessary. I do not believe it. We were told in the House the other day that there are 20, 000 deserters still at large. How have these 20, 000 persons contrived to equip themselves with food and clothing? Ex hypothesis they cannot be possessed of valid honest identity cards, but that has not prevented them from sustaining themselves with food and clothing themselves with raiment without these documents. Therefore, as a deterrent to the evasion of the rationing arrangements the case is proved that they are of little or, at the best, of speculative value.”

Although this attack did not succeed in getting the system abolished it did draw a denunciation of identity cards from the Government’s spokesman, Aneurin Bevan:

“I believe that the requirement of an internal passport is more objectionable than an external passport, and that citizens ought to be allowed to move about freely without running the risk of being accosted by a policeman or anyone else, and asked to produce proof of identity.”

On the 7th December 1950, Clarence Willcock – the manager of a dry cleaning service – was stopped whilst driving down Ballards Lane in Finchley: some accounts say he was speeding, some that he was driving ‘erratically’. He was prosecuted for speeding. The police officer, PC Harold Muckle, demanded to see Willcock’s ID card. Willcock refused to show PC Muckle his card and is quoted as saying “I am a liberal, and I am against this sort of thing.” Willcock was presented with a form to produce his card at a police station within two days; he refused to accept this too and was subsequently summonsed to appear at Hornsey Magistrates Court (now Hornsey Coroners Court) and charged under Section 6 sub section 4 of the act.

In the magistrates court Willcock argued that the ’emergency’ legislation introducing ID cards was now redundant because the ’emergency’ was now clearly at an end. His counsel urged the magistrate to “say with pleasure and with pride that we need not be governed with restrictive rules any longer.”

The magistrate, Lieutenant Colonel WE Pringle, found Willcock guilty of not producing his ID card and of speeding; Willcock was fined 30 shillings and given an absolute discharge. Pringle disagreed with Willcock’s interpretation of the law but encouraged him to appeal.

In June 1951 the appeal went to the high court and was heard by seven high court judges including the Chief Justice Lord Goddard (later to become infamous for hanging Derek Bentley) and the Master of the Rolls. Willcock’s defence team comprised of several leading liberals of the time including AP Marshall KC, Emrys Roberts MP and Basil Widoger who offered their services pro bono.

The Attorney General, Sir Frank Soskice, appeared as amicus curiae and argued that Parliament had legislated in 1939 to deal with several manifestations of the same emergency, or even several overlapping emergencies, and a declaration that ‘the emergency’ had ended in relation to one piece of legislation did not affect the continuance of other emergency powers. The High Court agreed and Willcock’s conviction was upheld. Lord Goddard was damning of the legislation however, in his summing up he said:

“Because the police have powers, it does not follow that they ought to exercise them on all occasions as a matter of routine. From what we have been told it is obvious that the police now, as a matter of routine, demand the production of national registration indemnity cards whenever they stop or interrogate a motorist for whatever cause. Of course, if they are looking for a stolen car or have reason to believe that a particular motorist is engaged in committing a crime, that is one thing, but to demand a national registration identity card from all and sundry, for instance, from a lady who may leave her car outside a shop longer than she should, or some trivial matter of that sort, is wholly unreasonable. This Act was passed for security purposes, and not for the purposes for which, apparently, it is now sought to be used. To use Acts of Parliament, passed for particular purposes during war, in times when the war is past, except that technically a state of war exists, tends to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers, which is a most undesirable state of affairs. Further, in this country we have always prided ourselves on the good feeling that exists between the police and the public and such action tends to make the people resentful of the acts of the police and inclines them to obstruct the police instead of to assist them… They ought not to use a Security Act, which was passed for a particular purpose, as they have done in this case. For these reasons, although the court dismisses the appeal, it gives no costs against the appellant.”

The case gave Willcock a public profile that he used to start a campaign against ID cards. He formed the Freedom Defence Association which was launched, outside the National Liberal Club, where he ceremonially destroyed his ID card. There was a well attended public meeting in Hyde Park in August 1951 to launch a petition to parliament to withdraw the 68 ’emergency’ measure that had remained on the statute books since the end of the war. The campaign did not develop and the withdrawal of ID cards did not appear in the Liberal party manifesto for the 1952 election. There is, however, a record of four members of the British Housewives Association staging a card burning protest outside parliament in April 1951, though the protest was primarily against the continuation of rationing. Apparently due to high winds and rain only one of the cards was burnt.

On the 21st February 1952 the Secretary of State for health, H Crookshank, announced that the ID cards and the national register were to be withdrawn.

The reason Crookshank gave for their withdrawal was a financial one; the government would save £1 million. It’s doubtful whether the ID card scheme would have remained if the Labour party has succeeded in the 1951 election, in 1944 while the war was still on, the Registrar General, Sir Ernest Holderness, had said he did “not believe that public opinion would stand for the retention of national registration in it’s present form.” He knew that as rationing was phased out any public support for the ID card would dwindle.

The Willcock case did have an effect on police behaviour. Statistics are not available for the war time period but in 1949, 521 people were convicted of offences against the national registration act. In 1950, 470 (409 men, 61 women) were charged, 436 were convicted, 19 cases were otherwise disposed of, and 15 were dismissed. In 1951, 273 (232 men, 41 women) were charged, 235 were convicted, 16 otherwise disposed of, and 22 dismissed. In 1952 only 8 people were charged, of whom 3 were convicted.

This account is an excerpt from a longer text (originally given as a talk by David King at the Radical History Network of North East London, and later published by past tense as a pamphlet). The text can be read here.


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

Today in London’s history: White crowds launch Notting Hill race riots, 1958.

“There was a battle, a pitched battle, in Powis Terrace where I lived. I looked through the fifth floor window where I was, and there was a battle between black men, policemen, white yobbos and Teddy Boys. I mean, the street was alight, except for fires and that – Molotov cocktails and so on. And blood was everywhere and it was awful.”

As the ‘biggest street party in Europe’, the Notting Hill Carnival, comes round again, it’s always worth remembering its origins… With the myth of British tolerance and a somewhat blinkered view of our past as rosy and open, the Carnival is often held up as an example of the best in multi-cultural Britain, evidence of how easily and warmly the UK welcomes incomers. It’s essential even for tory leaders to turn up, parade, or at least pretend to approve. The friendliest police are wheeled out. It’s even sometimes mentioned (though not on the bbc news) that Carnival was born after the race riots of 1958, when white gangs, inspired at least if not organized by rightwing groups, launched racist attacks on Afro-Caribbean migrants in Notting Hill.

Carnival evolved in the West Indies from a heady mix of Spanish and French catholic religious traditions, mixing with dances and parades from the culture of the African slaves shipped to the Caribbean in their thousands…

West Indians migrating to Britain in the 1950s, created Carnival in its west London incarnation, however, in 1959-60 as a way of both bringing white and black communities together, and celebrating the migrant Caribbean culture that was to some extent under siege by racism from whites in Notting Hill, West London.

Notting Hill was one of the areas where the first generation of West Indians moving to Britain after World War 2 had begun to build a community.

The initial migrants from the West Indies faced a wall of racism, hostility and discrimination in many arenas in those first years; housing was one. Many landlords wouldn’t rent houses or flats to black people (the infamous sign in the front window of houses to rent being: ‘No Irish No Blacks no Dogs’). In some neighbourhoods such restrictions were less rigidly applied. Often the poorest places, the slums, where vicious landlords were willing to let run-down, rat-infested housing at inflated rents to people who had nowhere else to go…

Notting Hill had been home to the poorest for a century – migrants, casual workers, the lowest paid. West Indians found homes here…

They also found prejudice: resentment from poor white working class locals, xenophobia and fear of the other and economic competition, all fanned by a jumble of fascist groups – the White Defence League, Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, the National Labour Party and more… all active in the area, stirring it up, provoking hatred where fear already was… For instance, from January 1958 the Union Movement held regular street corner meetings in Notting Hill, outside Kensington Park Road synagogue. “When Mosley came down to Notting Dale some people were sympathetic to his cause, that can’t be denied. He recruited some workers from the Thames Gas Board coal and coke wharf near Ladbroke Grove and local Teddy boys. Some of these were little stinkers, but we were living in uncertain times and Mosley provided people with instant solutions; scapegoating the blacks and Irish, telling people that it was their fault that we had poor housing and that they would take all the jobs.” (‘The Story Of Notting Dale’, Ron Greenwood)… Colin Jordan’s White Defence League had its base on Tavistock Road, from where a swastika flag was flown, loud militaristic music played and ‘The Black and White News’ distributed… fascists also had a base in Princedale Road.

Teddyboys proved a fertile recruiting ground for the fash; young white working class teens, a growing subculture, already well-known for violence, both between teds from different areas, against the police and authority in general, but easily also slipping into racist attacks.

Racist attitudes increased turning into violent attacks on black people through the summer of 1958: coming to a head in the last week of August. On the 24th ten white youths committed serious assaults on six West Indian men in four separate incidents. Just prior to the Notting Hill riots, there was racial unrest in Nottingham, which began on 23 August, and continued intermittently for two weeks.

The rioting was triggered by an assault against Majbritt Morrison, a white Swedish woman, on 29 August. Morrison was arguing with her Jamaican husband Raymond Morrison at the Latimer Road tube station. A group of various white people attempted to intervene in the argument and a small fight broke out between the intervening people and some of Raymond Morrison’s friends.

The following day, August 30th, Majbritt was verbally and physically attacked by a gang of white youths who threw milk bottles at Morrison and called her racial slurs such as “Black man’s trollop”, she was also struck in the back with an iron bar.

Later that night a mob of 300 to 400 white people, many of them Teddy Boys, were seen on Bramley Road attacking the houses of West Indian residents. The disturbances, rioting and attacks continued every night until 5 September, although the worst of the aggro was over by the 3rd

Crowds of white youths roamed the area every night for days, attacking any black people in the street, attacking houses where black people were living, with bricks, petrol bombs… After repeated warning from the community had failed to rouse the police to take any action against the white mobs, local blacks got together to resist the racists by force… “black men used to come from surrounding areas, like Paddington and Brixton and Shepherd’s Bush, knowing they’re going to hit this particular street, knowing the whites were going to hit this particular street, this particular night. They would come in solidarity, to fight. In other words, many black people felt, In for a penny, in for a pound.”

“lt’s decided to make a stand at Totobag’s cafe at 9 Blenheim Crescent, between Portobello and Kensington Park Road… As the tension mounts the rest of the afternoon is spent amassing an armoury of weapons, including milk bottles, petrol and sand for Molotov cocktails. Then they wait. An estimated 300 in all, men in ‘The Fortress’ at No. 9, women across the road in No. 6, with lights out and curtain’s drawn. At 10pm a white mob starts sniffing around and there’s shouts of “Let’s burn the niggers out.” At which point the top floor windows of No. 9 are opened and Molotov cocktails rain down, scattering the whites. Baron Baker says he ironically shouts, “Get back to where you come from!” and everybody charges out of Totobag’s waving machetes and cleavers. Only a few of the white rioters stick around to throw missiles back. Then a Black Maria hurtles onto Blenheim Crescent and rams the front door of No. 9. Michael de Freitas, Baron Baker, 6 other blacks and 3 whites are subsequently arrested for causing affray. With Jamaican reinforcements coming in from Brixton to counter the white attacks, the police finally get their act together. Just before things develop into out and out race war. On the Monday night they mount one of the biggest co-ordinated policing operations of the 50s. 11 radio-cars and a few Black Marias are soon in the vicinity of Blenheim Crescent. While, at the same time, a house in Bard Road, back on Latimer Road, is attacked by 50 or more white youths, in retaliation for a fire-bomb attack on Mosley’s Portobello HQ, other side of Westway. A paraffin lamp is thrown through the ground floor window setting light to a bed. Then a big black woman runs out into the street brandishing an axe and shouting ‘I’ll murder you for this!’ Whereupon the white rioters turn and run.”

The West Indian resistance finally prompted the police (who had been widely accused of turning a blind eye to the violence if not actively condoning it) to make an attempt to get to grips with the situation. They couldn’t have people organising their own self-defence – where would it end? When a large crowd of would be white rioters marched down looking for trouble, this time the police dispersed them and made 50 arrests. The night of Tuesday 2nd was said to be relatively quiet’.

Sporadic incidents continued until September 5th, and black people, who had been avoiding going out, started to venture from their homes…

‘Only a few frightened faces were to be seen among the debris of bricks, broken glass and traces of blood that littered west London. Notting Hill was deathly quiet and unnaturally deserted and police kept a low profile. Pubs, which had been packed during the riot weekend, were now almost empty…’ A month after the riots some still kept their lights out at night and whites are also wary of going out after dark.

More than 140 people were nicked during the disturbances, mostly white youths but also many black people found carrying weapons to defend themselves. A report to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner stated that of the 108 people charged with crimes such as grievous bodily harm, affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were black.

In 2002, files were released that revealed that senior police officers at the time had assured the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, that there was little or no racial motivation behind the disturbance, despite testimony from individual police officers to the contrary.

In January 1959, five months after the riot, the first carnival was held indoors at St Pancras town hall in central London as an act of solidarity and defiance in response to the racist events. Black radical Claudia Jones among others, was central to organising the event which in 1965 became an annual outdoor parade in Notting Hill. But the tensions that led to the riot had one more act to play out – in May 1959, a carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, was stabbed to death in Kensal Rise by a gang of white men. More than 1,200 people, both black and white, attended his funeral, which, in some ways more than the riots, began the process of reversing the racist feeling…


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

Today in sporting history: West Indies cricket victory over England sparks victory demo through West End, 1950.

‘Calypso at Lords! The Turkey Trot on the hallowed turf! “outrageous sir”, said an old member, “Just outrageous.”’

When the West Indies first beat England at cricket at Lords in 1950, hundreds of West Indians living in Britain had obviously turned up to support them…

Their numbers at Lord’s in June were relatively small, not more than 100. But they made more of an impression than this statistic would suggest:

“The West Indian supporters created an atmosphere of joy such as Lord’s had never known before”. The Times, snooty as ever, described West Indian supporters as providing “a loud commentary on every ball” and, after the last English wicket had fallen, invading the field armed with “guitar-like instruments.” In Jamaica’s Gleaner, the match report noted that West Indian fans had been “beating out time on dustbin lids” and that “one enthusiast scraped away on a cheesegrater with a carving knife.” Not surprisingly, “bottles of rum were produced like magic,” reported the Gleaner, while England’s Daily Telegraph and Morning Post ran a story under the headline “Calypsos sung at Lord’s”. When the final English wicket fell, the Windies supporters rushed onto the pitch to party. Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), a famous Trinidadian calypso artist, led them in singing victory songs:

‘”I went there, with a guitar. And we won the match. After we won the match, I took my guitar and I call a few West Indians, and I went around the cricket field, singing. And I had an answering chorus behind me, and we went around the field singing and dancing. That was a song that I made up. So, while we’re dancing, up come a policeman and arrested me. And while he was taking me out of the field, the English people boo him, they said, “Leave him alone! Let him enjoy himself! They won the match, let him enjoy himself.” And he had to let me loose, because he was embarrassed. So I took the crowd with me, singing and dancing, from Lords, into Piccadilly in the heart of London. And while we’re singing and dancing and going to Piccadilly, the people opened their windows wondering what’s happening. I think it was the first time they’d ever seen such a thing in England. And we’re dancing in Trinidad style, like mas,” and dance right down Piccadilly and dance around Eros. The police told me we are crazy. So, we went a couple of rounds of Eros. And from there, we went to the Paramount, a place where they always had a lot of dancing. And we spend the afternoon there, dancing and having a good time.”

You can imagine what the stuffed shirts of the MCC made of it: one diarist sniffed it was “unnecessary”. Generally the British press congratulated the West Indies side with generous condescension. Only the Evening Standard managed to come up with its usual lovely turn of phrase (consciously racist or just stupidly ignorant?) “the blackest day for English cricket”. 

Written later that day, the Victory Calypso immortalised the spin bowling pair of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine:

Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Yardley tried his best
But Goddard won the Test.
They gave the crowd plenty fun;
Second Test and West Indies won….

Chorus: With those two little pals of mine
Ramadhin and Valentine.

Walcott, Weekes and Worrell held up their name
With wonder shots throughout the game
But England was beaten clean out of time
With the spin bowling of Ramadhin and Valentine.

West Indies was feeling homely,
Their audience had them happy,
When Washbrook’s century had ended,
West Indies voices all blended…
Hats went in the air,
People shout and jump without fear,
So at Lord’s was the scenery,
It bound to go down in history

There’s a dispute about whether Lord Kitchener or fellow calypsonian Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore) wrote the song. Lord Beginner certainly later recorded it and had the hit, but some present on the day remember Kitchener coming up with some of the lines.

The occasion could not help but have enormous significance. All the Caribbean islands from which the Windies team were drawn were British colonies, and the prevailing opinion in the UK, from Labour government, the press, to vast sections of the population of whatever class, felt that this the way things should be and would remain.

But pressure for change had been building in the Caribbean. Nationalist movements had been developing since the 1920s and 30s; black trade unions had been increasingly active in many parts of the region. ‘Moderate’ politicians, taking tentative steps towards possible independence, were being jostled from below by more radical voices.

Also significant was the nature of many of the West Indian spectators, present in London at the time, early movers at the start of the process of migration that would bring thousands of Afro-Caribbeans to the UK and change society here forever. A number of them – including both Kitchener and Beginner – had come over on the Empire Windrush in 1948, widely seen as heralding the birth of that change.

By the time the 1950 touring side arrived, there were around 5,000 Caribbean-born people in the country. The victory was celebrated enthusiastically both here and in the West Indies. In the Caribbean, the victory sparked scenes of delirium with public holidays in Barbados and Jamaica. Undoubtedly it had an impact on self-confidence which influenced the increasingly unstoppable momentum towards independence from British rule. Ironically, as with all West Indies sides until the 1960s, the team was captained by a white cricketer, John Goddard, and dominated by a white clique. Goddard himself was known for anti-black comments. Its also true that although to some extent cricket played an integrating force in West Indian region, there were also intense rivalries and resentments between the islands over the make-up of the team.

I was also always told that of old a number of the West Indies cricket team would always come down and hang at the Coach and Horses in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, the first black-owned pub in modern Britain, in the heart of one the first areas afro-caribbeans first settled in, and still an area with a strong black community – also that some of the crowd that day ended up there that evening. Though I lived over the road, and used to drink there (in its last incarnation with a West Indian landlady before it was closed for several years and translated into a succession of soulless hipster shite-spots), I have never found out whether this is myth or truth.


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

Today in London’s radical history: Black communist Paul Robeson speaks & sings at anti-nuclear rally, Trafalgar Square, 1959.

“Shall we have atom bombs and hydrogen bombs… the hellish destruction of men, women and children… or shall we have peace in the world?”
Paul Robeson, Trafalgar Square, 1959.

On 28th June 1959, 10,000 demonstrators marched to Trafalgar Square from Hyde Park for a rally against the use and development of nuclear weapons. The procession was made up of groups and trade unionists and peace organizations and left-wing political groups.

There were a number of speakers: the most famous was Paul Robeson, the black American singer and actor, internationally renowned, a campaigner for civil rights and international peace. He was confined to the US in 1950, so that he would not be able to speak out abroad about civil rights issues in the United States and his passport was not returned to him until 1958. He ended his speech with a song, “delighting the demonstrators by ending with his beautiful singing voice rolling out across the hushed crowd and passers-by.”

We aren’t generally into Soviet nostalgia, and have many reservations about many Communist Party fellow travellers, being anti-state communists or thereabouts. However Robeson, like Woody Guthrie, transcended the genre into a whole different stratosphere. A favourite evocative image related to him is when he sang at an outdoor concert for more than 25,000 people (estimates range as high as 45,000) gathered on both sides of the United States/Canadian border at Peace Arch Park in Blaine, when he was banned from travelling outside the States. An anti-racist rendering literally rendering nations and their borders irrelevant, if only for a moment… thinking about it makes my fingers tingle and my heart soar. Worth a mention this week, post-Brexit vote, with racism and nationalism on the rise, and borders going up in many hearts.

“The extraordinarily multitalented Robeson was not only a world-famous singer and actor, but became a political activist during his peak performing years. Robeson’s father, a runaway slave who became a minister in Princeton, New Jersey, exerted a strong influence on the young Robeson, instilling in him a quiet dignity, a love for African-American culture, and an all-embracing humanism.

An outstanding scholar-athlete at Rutgers University in 1915-19, Robeson went on to become one of the world’s leading concert singers, stage actors, and film stars in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. During the period 1927-39, when he was based in London, his artistic growth led him to study world cultures and to support social and political movements. He sang concerts to benefit trade unions, especially the Welsh coal-miners’ union, and he came to see the connection between the struggles of the British working class and those of the oppressed colonial peoples. Robeson was introduced to socialist ideas through his friendship with George Bernard Shaw and his acquaintanceship with several leaders of the British Labour Party. As a result, Robeson studied the classic Marxist writings and became attracted to the basic premises of communism.

In the early 1930s Robeson met many African students in London and developed a deep appreciation of the close links between the African and African-American cultures, learning several African languages. He also met Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru of India, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Prompted by the desire to extend his artistic range, Robeson studied many other languages and cultures throughout the 1930s and 1940s, mastering Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, and most European languages. This focus on the centrality of culture went hand-in-hand with Robeson’s increasing radicalism – a duality that continued for the remainder of his career.

Robeson responded to the rise of German fascism by becoming one of the world’s leading antifascists. Invited to the Soviet Union in 1934 by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Robeson was almost assaulted by Nazi storm troopers in Berlin as he changed trains on his way to Moscow. In the USSR he was deeply impressed by the lack of racial prejudice and by flourishing diverse cultures in the Soviet republics. These experiences and the communist leadership of the worldwide antifascist and anti-colonialist struggles were the basis of his unwavering support for the Soviet people in their attempts to build socialism. The fact that Robeson viewed the Soviet Union and the world communist movement as reliable allies of the colonial liberation movements led him to form a close alliance with Communists despite his private misgivings about the Stalinist purges of 1936-38 and his disagreement with the Communist Left’s exaggerated emphasis on class priorities over “nationalist” priorities in the Third World.

In 1938 Robeson demonstrated his commitment to the fight against fascism by going to Spain to sing and speak in support of the Spanish Republic in its civil war against General Francisco Franco’s fascist rebellion. The profound effect this experience had on Robeson’s radicalisation was reflected in his dramatic statement at that lime: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice; I had no alternative.” By 1939, Robeson was a key figure symbolising on a world scale the unity of the antifascist and anti-colonial struggles.

In the fall of 1939 Robeson returned from England to the United States, where he continued his highly successful concert and theatre career while simultaneously becoming a leader of the civil rights movement and a spokesman for left-wing causes. He was the first major performing artist to refuse to perform for segregated audiences and to lead voter registration campaigns in the Deep South. Robeson also played an important role in support of the union-organising drive of the CIO in the early 1940s, and in bringing black workers into the unions.

In 1946 Robeson challenged President Harry S Truman’s refusal to sponsor legislation against lynching by telling him that in the absence of federal protection blacks would exercise their right of armed self-defence. An opponent of the Cold War from its inception, Robeson attended a world peace conference in Paris in 1949 and expressed the view that black Americans should not fight an aggressive war against the Soviet Union on behalf of their own oppressors. In the wake of those remarks, the U.S. government and the media launched an attack of unprecedented ferocity against Robeson that lasted for nine years.

Robeson’s passport was revoked in 1950 and was not restored until 1958. Inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and numerous other U.S. government agencies compiled tens of thousands of documents on Robeson and illegally harassed him over a period of more than twenty years. Robeson was also blacklisted in the entertainment industry and prevented from appearing in professional engagements until 1957. Despite this persecution, Robeson continued to sing and speak in black churches and in the halls of the few surviving left-wing trade unions. He also wrote a book titled Here I Stand in collaboration with the black writer and journalist Lloyd I. Brown in which he outlined the program and strategy subsequently adopted by the civil rights movement and foretold the advent of the movement for economic justice.

During the anticommunist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and the 1950s, Robeson defended the rights of Communists and defied congressional committees when they compelled him to testify before them. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party, he refused on constitutional grounds to answer any questions concerning Party membership or affiliation.

Robeson remained publicly neutral concerning the USSR-China rift that began in the late 1950s, maintaining his cordial relations with both countries, and expressed no opinion about Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes However, Robeson’s political attitude on these issues was conveyed indirectly by his personal friendship with Khrushchev and his enthusiastic support of Khrushchev’s domestic and foreign-policy reforms.

In 1958 Robeson’s passport was restored on the basis of a Supreme Court decision, and he traveled abroad for five years to reestablish his artistic career. After a successful comeback, Robeson became ill with circulatory disease, and in 1963 he returned to the United States to retire. Contrary to the claims of the media, Robeson was not disillusioned or embittered. As he put it in 1973, three years before his death from a stroke: “Though ill health has compelled my retirement, you can be sure that in my heart I go on singing.” Drawing upon lyrics he had made world famous, he continued, “I must keep laughing instead of crying, I must keep fighting until I’m dying, and Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rolling along.”

We stole this from here

Sometimes we nick things because they say we wanted to say, better than we could, and to be honest sometimes because we just run out of energy. Posting (nearly) every day is a bit exhausting, when you have to get the kids out of bed and to school and slope off to work as well. We’re not historians, just talentless amateurs. So if we aren’t always totally original, we apologise…


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

Today in London radical history: Expulsions of strike leaders from TGWU sparks dock strike, 1950.

‘The principles of our policy are based on the brotherhood of man.’ said Labour leader Clem Atlee on July 26th 1945, the day before Labour took office after its historic landslide in the khaki election. The received wisdom runs thus: the generation that had been through World War II, following on from the desperate times of the 1930s, elects a radical Labour majority which resolves to act on behalf of the working class and transform society in the interests of the producers of the wealth… Among the gains that follow, the NHS is born, the skeleton of the welfare state is built into protection for all, from cradle to grave, crucial industries are nationalized.

Of course there is a kernel of truth here. But as much as some of what was created then has become a vital part of our lives, the radicalism of the ’45 Labour government very much had its limits. They were determined that the reforms they were set on implementing would go only so far; and that they would set the pace, change would be undertaken FOR the workers, not BY them. Those groups who pushed for things to be taken too far would be reined in. Many of the Labour leadership had been part of the wartime coalition government, and were well accustomed to using the apparatus of state repression when necessary. It didn’t take them very long to begin using it against the workers they claimed to be acting on behalf of, when demands for a tiny bit more of the pie didn’t fit their plans.

Not long at all – less than a week, in fact. Within a few days of being elected the Labour government sent troops in to the Surrey Docks, London, to help break a dockers’ ‘go-slow’ which had been going
 on for ten weeks. In the following six years the army was to be used to break strikes tens of times – often in the docks, a major venue of struggle in the late ‘40s.

At the same time, the hierarchy of the Transport & General Workers Union were attempting to keep down militancy, keep men at work, and control activists and unofficial leaders it considered as too radical. Often an alliance of union leadership, employers and government representatives would be mustered against the dockers. But when the T&G leaders proved incapable of controlling the workers and keeping their demands to a ‘reasonable’ level, the soldiers would be wheeled in. This hardened the union leadership’s resolve to expel ‘troublemakers’, as a union that can’t guarantee control over its membership starts to become redundant in the eyes of capital and the state.

MAY 1949 saw the most vicious piece of strike breaking in the whole history of the Labour Government. The Canadian Seamen’s Union was involved in a strike against wage cuts. On May 14. the ‘Montreal City’, which had been worked across the Atlantic by a blackleg crew provided by the International Seafarers’ Union, (an organization affiliated to the American Federation of Labour and having very few members on Canada’s Eastern seaboard.)arrived at Avonmouth. Dockers refused to unload the ‘black’ ship. On May 16 the employers threatened to penalise the dockers for this refusal. This brought out all Avonmouth dockers, in a lightning strike. The employers then said they would hire no labour for other ships until the dockers hand-led the ‘black’ ship. The strike had become a lock-out.

On May 22, 600 Bristol dockers came out in solidarity with the Avonmouth men. Three days later lockgate men and tugmen in Avonmouth also came out in support, refusing to handle ships until the Avonmouth dockers were allowed to work again. They were promptly suspended. On May 27, the Labour Government sent troops to unload a banana ship in Avonmouth. Crane drivers promptly refused to work alongside the troops.

The same day a ‘black’ ship was diverted from Avonmouth to Liver-pool. Merseyside dockers refused to handle her and 45 of them were suspended. One thousand Liverpool dockers then joined the strike. On May 30, 1,400 more dockers in Liverpool came out. The Avonmouth men instructed their ‘lock-out Committee’ to seek support from other ports.

On June 2, troops began unloading all the ships lying in Avonmouth dock. About 11,000 dockers had by now joined the strike. On June 6, merchant seamen manning the ‘Trojan Star’ refused to sail her out of Avonmouth because the lockgates were manned by troops. Other seamen also joined in. On June 14, the Avonmouth dockers returned to work. But the struggle had meanwhile flared up in London where employers refused to hire labour for newly arrived ships unless the ‘black’ Canadian ships ‘Argomont’ and ‘Beaverbrae’ were unloaded. By July 5, over 8,000 London dockers were on strike.

On July 7, troops were moved into various London docks to unload ships. Drivers of meat haulage firms and fruit and vegetable firms said they would not carry goods unloaded by troops.

On July 8, the Labour Government announced it would proclaim a State of Emergency on July 11. The only effect was to ensure that Watermen, Lightermen, Tugmen and Bargemen also joined in. Over 10,000 dockers were now on strike. On July 12 the Government started pouring blackleg troops into the docks. Another 3,000 dockers came out. The Executive of the Lightermen’s Union told their members not work alongside the troops.

The Labour Government had got itself into a thorough mess. It now started issuing Emergency Regulations. It set up an Emergency Committee, headed by a former Permanent Under-secretary at the Home Office, Sir Arthur Maxwell, to run the docks. It is not known if Sir Arthur was later issued with an honorary membership card from Transport House … for services rendered.

By July 20, over 15,000 men were on strike. They only returned to work on July 22 when the Canadian Seamen’s Union, having obtained certain concessions, withdrew their pickets from certain ships and announced that they were terminating their dispute, so far as Britain was concerned.

When the strike was over, the T&G hierarchy determined to discipline some of the unofficial leaders of the strike.

In MARCH 1950, the Transport & General Workers Union bureaucrats expelled three dockers from the union because of the active part they had played in the Canadian Seamen’s strike a few months earlier. A mass meeting of dockers was called by the Portworkers Defence Committee, an ‘unofficial’ rank-and-file body. On March 26, a ban on overtime was decided. The ban was temporarily withdrawn on April 3, but when, on April 18, the appeals of the three expelled men were rejected a protest strike started in the Royal Group. By April 21, 9,000 dockers were out. Mass meetings called for a ballot of portworkers to decide whether the action of the union leaders should be upheld. On April 24, the Labour Government moved troops into the docks. This worked like a charm: a further 4,500 dockers joined the strike.

The London Dock Labour Board then made threatening noises. All those who didn’t report for work by May 1st would ‘have their registrations cancelled’ (i.e. would be expelled from the industry). On April 29, a mass meeting decided to return to work and to fight the expulsions through the branches.

Well worth a read: The Labour Government vs. The Dockers 1945-1951.


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

First Today in London radical history: first Aldermaston march against nuclear weapons sets off, 1958

On 2nd November, 1957, the New Statesman published an article by J. B. Priestley entitled Russia, the Atom and the West. In the article Priestley attacked the decision by Aneurin Bevan to abandon his policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. The article resulted in a large number of people writing letters to the journal supporting Priestley’s views. As Canon John Collins pointed out: “Whether other events may have contributed to the emergence of CND, J. B. Priestley’s article exposing the utter folly and wickedness of the whole nuclear strategy was the real catalyst.”

Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, organised a meeting of people inspired by Priestley and as result they formed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Early members of this group included J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Wilfred Wellock, Ernest Bader, Frank Allaun, Donald Soper, Vera Brittain, E. P. Thompson, Sydney Silverman, James Cameron, Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Konni Zilliacus, Richard Acland, Stuart Hall, Ralph Miliband, Frank Cousins, A. J. P. Taylor, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot.

In November 1957, Hugh Brock suggested that the Direct Action Committee (DAC) should organise a march to Aldermaston. The first Aldermaston march took place the following Easter when 4000 people left Trafalgar Square on the four day journey to the atomic weapons establishment.

The first major Aldermaston march at Easter (4–7 April), 1958, was organised by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) and supported by the recently formed CND. Several thousand people marched for four days from Trafalgar Square, London, to the Atomic Weapons Establishment to demonstrate their opposition to nuclear weapons.Hugh Brock, one of the organisers, records that he was one of thirty-five people to have marched to Aldermaston six years before in 1952 as part of Operation Gandhi.

A phenomenally patronizing article of the time from the Guardian (some things have not changed entirely!) covered some of the marchers and their motivations:

“Some five hundred men, women, and children were spreading out sleeping-bags and thankfully washing their feet in various church halls in Hounslow last night after marching the eleven miles from Trafalgar Square on the first lap of their descent upon Aldermaston. About a thousand more had returned to their homes in London, perhaps to march again to-day. A lamplight meeting in the well-named Treaty Road, Hounslow, had evoked the first really lusty cheers of the day as Mr Michael Foot denounced the recent Defence White Paper as “the most shameful statement ever made by a British Government.”
It was Mr Foot who had cried from the plinth on Nelson’s Column in the morning, as a cold sun played on some four thousand faces: “This can be the greatest march in English history.” Whatever the march may turn out to be, it had already by then called out a splendid array of English faces, most of them intent on making clear their conviction that nuclear weapons are evil and should be controlled or done away with.
It was a happy crowd, a London holiday crowd, in benign mood – as benign as the weather that favoured it until the afternoon grey chill came down, no more combative than the empty London streets through which the long procession made its way across Trafalgar Square to the Albert Memorial and then to Chiswick and Hounslow, the first stop in the four-day march to the Atomic Energy Authority’s weapons establishment at Aldermaston. The nearest thing to an incident was the cheerful booing as a policeman stopped a troop of folk-dancers from entertaining the lunch-time picnickers with an eightsome reel in front of Albert’s statue.
The march bore the signs of careful planning. The column with its banners – “Which is to be banned, the H-bomb or the human race?” – got off on time, and the long snake that slid down Piccadilly, Kensington High Street, and Chiswick High Road, managed with only discreet help from the police, not to obstruct what little traffic there was. Mothers wheeled children in prams, while Mr Kenneth Tynan, cigarette authoritatively held at the ready, towered above his neighbours. Behind came a troop of some fifty cars and coaches, one of them bearing that essential morale builder, the tea-urn. “We’ve got 500 mattresses behind there,” said Miss Pat Arrowsmith, a pretty large-eyed girl in a white pea-jacket and carrying a rucksack, the organiser of the whole well-mannered outing.
In the morning, though, the march was supposed to be silent, so as not to break in on religious thoughts. Somewhere in Knightsbridge this proved too much for a gay band of young people from Bermondsey, the boys in bowlers and camouflaged jackets and jeans, the girls in pony-tails and high heels and men’s bright shirts hanging over their skirts. They struck up “Tannenbaum” on a handy trumpet and banjo.
Miss Arrowsmith dropped back and explained about the silence. “We should be delighted to have any sort of music after lunch, but meanwhile we should be obliged if you would conform with us.” “Never mind, never mind,” cried one of the elegant ones in bowler hats. “The music’s in our hearts.” They were there, it turned out, as fans of the jazz band which was going to play the march through Kensington and Chiswick.
Sticking it out all the way to Aldermaston, or so she hoped, was Mrs Anne Collins, of Gillingham, encumbered with a pack and with her small daughter in a push-chair. “I’ve been thinking about this for ten years,” she said, a humble yet fixed light in her eye. “If I become a grandmother I don’t want a bomb to drop on her and her children – I don’t want to drop bombs on the Russians, either. I’d rather let the Communists take over.” A trifle falteringly she walked on. The same sentiment came, gently and tentatively from Miss Jean King, a doe-eyed sixth-former from Enfield with a pack on her back, and bubblingly from Mrs Frank Manning, of Barnet, a housewife with a white angora beret on her head, a firm intention of marching all the way in her heart, and a husband and two small children in a car behind. They had all seen some revelation, it seemed-some two years ago. Miss King only on Tuesday. “Normally I’m very lazy; I stay in and read,” she said apologetically. “We feel nothing else matters,” proclaimed Mrs Manning, who is secretary of the Barnet Committee for Nuclear Disarmament and was surrounded by three other purposeful women, all of whom had been seen off by their friends that morning from Barnet car-park.
Yet others had a more carefully shaded view of things. A King’s College lecturer in geography thought we should merely offer to renounce the bomb and use this as a means of inducing other nations to do so. He was non-violently contradicted in this by the young conscientious objector who squatted next to him at Chiswick, but upheld by a passing group that chanted, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want war; five, six, seven, eight, Negotiate.” “One two, three, four, we don’t want war,” echoed two urchins up in a tree.
By the time the marchers had left Chiswick they numbered less than two thousand. Above them bobbed the signs of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a sort of formalised white butterfly which, it appeared, was the semaphore sign for “N.D.” Skiffle groups burst here and there. At Hyde Park Corner a counter-service, held by a Lutheran minister (a former inmate of a Russian prison camp) by the Artillery war memorial, had drawn only some thirty people, and his words never reached the marchers at all. More successful was a passing car driver in Chiswick who leaned out and cried “Ostriches! Ostriches!”
The political complexion of the march was clearly mixed. Some declared themselves Labour supporters, and much in evidence were some well known ex-Communists, among them the friends of Mr Peter Fryer, the journalist. On the grass of Kensington Gardens lay sprawled a young man reading from “Further Studies in a Dying Culture.” Obvious Communists were few – if any.”

A more recent Grauniad article has an interesting slant on the links between the Aldermaston marches and the English folk revival.

On the 1963 Aldermaston march, a group calling itself Spies for Peace distributed leaflets as the March assembled about a secret government establishment, RSG 6, that the march was passing. A large group left the march, much against the wishes of the CND leadership, to demonstrate at RSG 6. Later, when the march reached London, there were disorderly demonstrations in which anarchists were prominent. No Aldermaston March took place in 1964, partly because of the events of 1963 and partly because the logistics of the march, which had grown beyond all expectation, had exhausted the organisers. It was resumed in 1965. In later years there were revivals in 1972 and in 2004.


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

Today in London’s shameful history: ‘Go Down, You murderer, Go Down’. Tim Evans hangs, 1950

The case of Timothy Evans was the first major post-war miscarriage of justice to capture public attention. Of low intelligence, Evans was damned by his own, false “confession” that he had murdered his wife and daughter. The trial and – rightful – conviction of John Christie for one of these murders three years later, did not, however, bring about a pardon for Evans. It was to be many years before the judiciary and the government were to finally allow the late Timothy Evans a pardon.

Evans, 25, a Welsh van driver with an IQ of 70, was executed in 1950 for strangling his wife Beryl and his 14-month-old daughter, Geraldine, the previous year.
The bodies of the mother and child were found buried in a washroom at their flat in Notting Hill, west London, shortly after Beryl had told friends that she wanted to undergo an illegal abortion.
Three years after Mr Evans was hanged, John Christie, a neighbour in the house at 10 Rillington Place, confessed to strangling eight female victims – including Beryl and her baby daughter. He too was executed.

Evans was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1924. It was not an easy childhood; shortly before Timothy was born his father ran off and left the family to cope by themselves. His mother remarried in 1929 and the family soon consisted of Timothy, his elder sister Eileen and a younger half sister called Maureen.
The young boy was slow in nearly all his developmental milestones and, as the victim of a tubercular sore on his right foot – something that never totally healed – he was often away from school for long periods. As a consequence, when he left school Timothy Evans was virtually illiterate and could barely read and write his own name.
The family moved to London and Evans began work as a painter and decorator for a while. He tried moving back to Merthyr Tydfil in 1937, working in the coal mines around the town, but found the job too difficult because of his foot.

By 1946 he was again living in London, in the Notting Hill area, and on 20 September 1947 he married Beryl Thorley. Within months she was pregnant, and Geraldine Evans was born on 10 October 1948.
Soon after their marriage the young couple moved into a top floor flat at 10 Rillington Place, close to Ladbroke Grove. Living in the ground floor flat of the house were John Christie and his wife Ethel.
The relationship between Timothy and Beryl was not easy: angry quarrels and occasional physical violence were part of their life together. When, late in 1949, Beryl announced that she was pregnant again, their financial situation was so fraught that an abortion – illegal in those days – was considered the only option.
On 30 November Evans turned up at Merthyr Tydfil police station, stating that his wife had died after he had given her some mixture to abort the baby. He had disposed of the body, he claimed, in a drain outside the house.

No body was ever found and Timothy Evans changed his story. John Christie, he said, had agreed to perform the abortion and Beryl had died during the procedure. The Evanses’ daughter Geraldine had been given to someone to look after but Christie, Evans claimed, would not let him see her.
A police search of 10 Rillington Place found Beryl’s body wrapped in a cloth in the wash house at the back, and alongside her was the body of Geraldine. Both had been strangled.

Clearly under stress, Timothy Evans was asked if he had killed his wife and child. He replied “Yes”. It was later revealed that much of his confession was actually dictated to Evans by police investigators, who bullied him till he confessed, and there was an almost total lack of forensic evidence. Builders who said there were no bodies when they worked in the room where the bodies were found were prevented from giving evidence.
The trial – according to the legal procedure of the day, for the murder of Geraldine, not his wife – began on 11 January, with Timothy Evans now claiming that Christie had committed the murders. Christie gave evidence against Evans. The trial lasted three days and the jury took only 40 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Evans was hanged in Pentomnville Prison, on 9 March 1950.

Three years later police uncovered a number of bodies at 10 Rillington Place, all of them women and all the victims of John Christie. At least six of the bodies were hidden under floorboards and in the wash house – Christie even used the thigh bone of one woman to prop up his garden fence. And yet the police, in their searches three years earlier, had totally missed this vital piece of evidence, just as they had missed the bodies lying almost casually around the house. It was evidence that might have saved Timothy Evans.
The motive behind the killings was certainly sexually driven, with Christie abusing the bodies after death. He admitted to the crimes and was hanged on 15 July 1953.

Amazingly, in the wake of Christie’s conviction, an inquiry into what was termed a “possible miscarriage of justice” upheld the guilt of Timothy Evans. Intense debate and a long-standing campaign by Evans’ sister – not to mention a hugely powerful exposé by journalist and writer Ludovic Kennedy – forced another inquiry in 1965.
The findings this time were clear that Evans had not killed his daughter – the death of Beryl remained a mystery and, since by now both Evans and Christie had already gone to the gallows, it was impossible to come to a firm conclusion.

As a result of the second inquiry Timothy Evans was given a royal pardon in October 1966. His conviction and execution were tragic, a man of limited intelligence being brow beaten into a series of confessions that could, ultimately, lead only to the death cell.

In January 2003, the Home Office awarded Timothy Evans’s half-sister, Mary Westlake, and his sister, Eileen Ashby, ex gratia payments as compensation for the miscarriage of justice in Evans’s trial. The independent assessor for the Home Office, Lord Brennan QC, accepted that “the conviction and execution of Timothy Evans for the murder of his child was wrongful and a miscarriage of justice” and that “there is no evidence to implicate Timothy Evans in the murder of his wife. She was most probably murdered by Christie.” Lord Brennan believed that the Brabin Report’s conclusion that Evans probably murdered his wife should be rejected given Christie’s confessions and conviction.

On 16 November 2004, Westlake began an appeal in the High Court to overturn a decision by the Criminal Cases Review Commission not to refer Evans’s case to the Court of Appeal to have his conviction formally quashed. She argued that Evans’s pardon had not formally expunged his conviction of murdering his daughter, and although the Brabin report had concluded that Evans probably did not kill his daughter, it had not declared him innocent. The report also contained the “devastating” conclusion that Evans had probably killed his wife.
The request to refer the case was dismissed on 19 November 2004, with the judges saying that the cost and resources of quashing the conviction could not be justified, although they did accept that Evans did not murder either his wife or his child.

This case is dealt with at length in “Timothy Evans” by Bob Woffinden in his 1987 book Miscarriages of Justice. A PDF of this can be found here


Ewan MacColl wrote a song about the case:
The Ballad of Tim Evans

Tim Evans was a prisoner,
Fast in his prison cell
And those who read about his crimes,
They damned his soul to hell,
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

For the murder of his own dear wife
And the killing of his own child
The jury found him guilty
And the hangin’ judge, he smiled.   
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

Tim Evans pleaded innocent
And he swore by Him on high,
That he never killed his own dear wife
Nor caused his child to die.   
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

The governor came in one day
And the chaplain by his side,
Said, “Your appeal has been turned down,
Prepare yourself to die.”   
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

They moved him out of C-block
To his final flowery dell,
And day and night two screws were there
And they never left his cell.   
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

Sometimes they played draughts with him
And solo and pontoon,
To stop him brooding on the rope
That was to be his doom.    
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

They brought his grub in on a tray,
There was eggs and meat and ham,
And all the snout that he could smoke
Was there at his command.    
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

Tim Evans walked in the prison yard
And the screws, they walked behind;
And he saw the sky above the wall
But he knew no peace of mind.   
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

They came for him at eight o’clock
And the chaplain read a prayer
And then they marched him to that place
Where the hangman did prepare.   
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

The rope was fixed around his neck
And a washer behind his ear.
The prison bell was tolling
But Tim Evans did not hear.   
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

A thousand lags were cursing
And a-banging on the doors;
But Evans couldn’t hear them,
He was deaf for ever more.    
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderer,
go down.”  

They sent Tim Evans to the drop
For a crime he did not do.
It was Christy was the murderer
And the judge and jury too.   
Sayin’, “Go down, you murderers,
go down.”



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

Today in London’s past: Derek Bentley hanged, 1953.

19-year-old Derek Bentley was executed at Wandsworth Prison on 28 January 1953 for the murder of PC Sidney Miles, despite not firing the shot. Last-minute appeals for clemency were rejected. He was granted a posthumous pardon in July 1998.

Bentley had been sentenced to death on 11 December the previous year, for ‘killing’ PC Miles during a bungled break-in at a warehouse in Croydon – although his co-defendant, Christopher Craig, fired the fatal shot. As Craig was still a juvenile in the eyes of the law he escaped the death sentence and was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

On the night of 2 November 1952, Christopher Craig, 16, and Derek Bentley, 19, tried to break into the warehouse of confectionery manufacturers and wholesalers Barlow & Parker on Tamworth Road, Croydon, England. When police turned up, the two youths hid behind the lift-housing. One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax, climbed the drain pipe onto the roof and grabbed hold of Bentley. Bentley broke free and was alleged by a number of police witnesses to have shouted the words “Let him have it, Chris”. Both Craig and Bentley denied that those words were ever spoken.

Craig, who was armed with a revolver, opened fire, grazing Fairfax’s shoulder. Nevertheless, Fairfax arrested Bentley. In his pocket Bentley had a knife and a spiked knuckle-duster, though he never used either. Craig had made the knuckle-duster himself and had recently given both weapons to Bentley.

More officers turned up, a group was sent onto the roof. The first to reach the roof was Police Constable Sidney Miles, who was immediately killed by a shot to the head. After exhausting his ammunition and being cornered, Craig jumped some thirty feet from the roof, fracturing his spine and left wrist when he landed on a greenhouse. At this point, he was arrested.

The trial took place before the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Goddard, at the Old Bailey in London between 9 December 1952 and 11 December 1952. Craig was under 18, and so could not face the death penalty. But a cop had died, and the pressure was on for someone to pay… Bentley was illiterate, had learning difficulties and was easily influenced; Craig had been the instigator of the robbery.

Bentley’s defence was that he was effectively under arrest when PC Miles was killed; however, this was only after an attempt to escape, during which a police officer had been wounded. As the trial progressed the jury had more details to consider. The prosecution was unsure how many shots were fired and by whom and a ballistics expert cast doubt on whether Craig could have hit Miles if he had shot at him deliberately: the fatal bullet was not found.

English law at the time did not recognise the concept of diminished responsibility due to retarded development, though it existed in Scottish law (it was introduced to England by the Homicide Act 1957). Criminal insanity – where the accused is unable to distinguish right from wrong – was then the only medical defence to murder. Bentley, while suffering severe debilitation, was not insane. Under joint enterprise law, the decision to rob the factory together made Bentley guilty of the killing as well, whether or not he had made any decision to kill anyone or fired any shot himself.

Bentley was convicted on the basis of police evidence. Three officers told the court they had heard him encourage Craig to shoot by shouting “Let him have it”, though both Bentley and Craig denied this. Pressure was likely put on Bentley to confess, as leaning on the vulnerable is a fine old police tradition.

After just 75 minutes deliberation, the jury found both Bentley and Craig guilty of PC Miles’s murder. Bentley was sentenced to death with a plea for mercy on 11 December 1952, while Craig was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure (he was released in 1963).

There were protests against Bentley’s execution: there was said to be big public support for a reprieve. A crowd of up to 300 gathered outside the Houses of Parliament the night before, chanting “Bentley must not die!” The demonstrators then marched to the Home Office and later to Downing Street. A large crowd gathered outside Wandsworth jail on the day of the hanging. Some sang hymns; others booed when a prison warder came out carrying a glass-covered board containing the execution notice. Two people were arrested and later fined for damage to property.The crowd eventually dispersed in the early hours of this morning after handing in a petition at Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s home.

A deputation of some 200 MPs had petitioned the home secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, but Fyfe said he could not see any reason for intervening in the case.

Derek Bentley’s family, mostly driven by his sister Iris, campaigned for more than 40 years for a pardon. Questions about the ballistics evidence had always been raised. The bullet that killed PC Miles may not have been fired by Craig at all; it possibly even came from an armed policeman’s weapon.

Eventually, on 30 July 1998, the Court of Appeal set aside Bentley’s conviction for murder 45 years earlier. Though Bentley had not been accused of attacking any of the police officers being shot at by Craig, for him to be convicted of murder as an accessory in a joint enterprise it was necessary for the prosecution to prove that he knew that Craig had a deadly weapon when they began the break-in. Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham of Cornhill ruled that Lord Goddard had not made it clear to the jury that the prosecution was required to have proved Bentley had known that Craig was armed. He further ruled that Lord Goddard had failed to raise the question of Bentley’s withdrawal from their joint enterprise. This would require the prosecution to prove the absence of any attempt by Bentley to signal to Craig that he wanted Craig to surrender his weapons to the police. Lord Bingham ruled that Bentley’s trial had been unfair, in that the judge had misdirected the jury and, in his summing-up, had put unfair pressure on the jury to convict. It is possible that Lord Goddard may have been under pressure while summing up since much of the evidence was not directly relevant to Bentley’s defence. It is important to note that Lord Bingham did not rule that Bentley was innocent, merely that there had been defects in the trial process. Had Bentley been alive in July 1998 or had been convicted of the offence in more recent years, it would have been likely that he would have faced a retrial.

Another factor in the posthumous defence was that a “confession” recorded by Bentley, which was claimed by the prosecution to be a “verbatim record of dictated monologue”, was shown by forensic linguistics methods to have been largely edited by policemen. Linguist Malcolm Coulthard showed that certain patterns, such as the frequency of the word “then”, and the grammatical use of “then” after the grammatical subject (“I then” rather than “then I”), was not consistent with Bentley’s use of language, as evidenced in court testimony. These patterns fitted better the recorded testimony of the policemen involved.

British Justice. Makes you proud eh?


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