All this month? in London riotous history, 1826: gangs commit mass robbery, Bethnal Green

In 1826, a series of robberies by a large gang were the cause of great fear and loathing in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields. Camping out on Spicer Street, off Brick Lane, they were allegedly engaged in collective attacks on herds of animals being driven to market through the East End, to thieve and use for food, as well as mugging the wealthy in the area. These ‘outrages’ apparently occurred every night at this point. Deputations of angry local residents petitioned the magistrates and Home Secretary Robert Peel for some official intervention – Peel assigned 40 of the Horse Patrol to the area.

The contemporary reports actually obscure as much as they shed light on:

“Last Monday forenoon, at 12 o’clock, pursuant to appointment, Messrs. Millingfield and Marsden, the two Churchwardens of St. Mathew, Bethnal-green, and Mr. Brutton, the Vestry Clerk, waited upon the Secretary of State at the Home-office, where they were met by Mr. Osborne and Mr. Twyford, the magistrates of Worship-street Police-office. The object of the meeting was to devise some measures to suppress the dreadful riots and outrages that take place every night in the parish, by a lawless gang of thieves, consisting of 500 or 600, whose exploits have caused such alarming sensations in the minds of the inhabitants, that they have actually found it necessary to shut up their shops at an early hour, to protect their property from the ruffians.

In order to give some idea of the outrages that have been, and are hourly committed, we merely give the following instances, and the disciplined manner in which the ruffians go to work:-

The gang rendezvous in a brick-field at the top of Spicer-street, Spitalfields, and out-posts are stationed to give an alarm should any of the civil power approach, and their cry is “Warhawk,” as a signal for retreat. On the brick-kilns in this field they cook whatever meat and potatoes they plunder from the various shops in the neighbourhood, in the open day, and in the face of the shopkeeper.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, being market days, (Monday and Friday at Smithfield, and Wednesday at Barnet,) they sally out into the suburbs, and wait in ambush till a drove of beasts passes; they then attack the drovers, and take a beast from the drove, and convey it into the marshes till night; when they hunt it through the metropolis, and whilst the passengers and inhabitants are in the utmost state of alarm, they plunder, and in many instances nearly murder, every person that they meet; there are now no less than five individuals lying in the London infirmary, without hopes of recovery, that have fallen into the hands of the gang. Within the last fortnight, upwards of 50 persons have been robbed, and cruelly beaten, and one of the gang was seen one day last week to produce, amongst some of his associates, nearly half a hat-full of watches…”

The attacks attributed to this gang had mounted up: “On Friday, being market day at Smithfield, the gang were on the look out for beasts, and we hear that, as early as six in the morning, two bullocks were taken from a drove. On Wednesday a bullock was rescued from them in the Kingsland-road, and after being secured in Clement’s barn till the gang had been dispersed, it was conveyed home to its owner, MR. ALEXANDER, in Whitechapel market. It was reported, that MR. SYKES, the proprietor of the ham and beef shop in Winchester-street, Hare-street-fields, had died on Friday in the London Hospital, of the dreadful injuries he received from the gang, but we are happy to say he is still alive. It seems that MR. SYKES had only set up in business a few days, when about eight o’clock in the evening, about twenty fellows came round his shop, armed with sticks; he suspected they intended an attack, and for security got behind the counter, when the whole gang came in, and seizing a buttock of beef and a ham, ran out of the shop. He endeavoured to prevent them by putting out his arm, when one of them, with a hatchet or hammer, stuck him a tremendous blow which broke it in a dreadful manner; it has been since amputated, and he now lies in a very bad state. The gang then went into a baker’s shop and helped themselves to bread, and afterwards adjourned to the brick-field, and ate the provisions in a very short time.”

Additionally: “On Wednesday se’nnight the gang attacked a lady and gentleman that were in a chaise in the Bethnal-green-road, and after robbing and beating them most inhumanly, they cut the reins and traces to prevent a pursuit.”

Pressure mounted on the authorities to do something effective to clamp down on the robberies:

“The Secretary of State on Saturday had an interview with the magistrates of the district, respecting the state of that part of the metropolis, and anxiously inquired if the robbers were distressed weavers? We understand that an answer was given in the negative; but that they were a set of idle and disorderly fellows that have been long known to the police as reputed thieves.

The deputation remained with Mr. Peel till one o’clock, and explained to him the necessity of a strong body of men (in addition to those already stationed there) being sent into the neighbourhood, as they felt confident that the robbers, who were well armed, would boldly attack (as they have done before) the civil power.

The Right Hon. Secretary assured the deputation, that immediate means should be adopted to rid the parish of the intruders.”

Peel responded quickly; he “gave immediate orders for a detachment of Horse Patrol to be stationed day and night in the neighbourhood; and on Friday morning a party of forty men, to be under the jurisdiction of the Magistrates of Worship-street Police-office, were mounted; they are a party of able-bodied men who have held situations in the army, accoutred with cutlasses, pistols, and blunderbusses. – They will be in constant communication with forty of the dismounted patrol. The dismounted are divided into parties, and are stationed at the following posts, viz.:- Cambridge Heath Gate, Mile-end Gate, Whitechapel Church, London Apprentice Gate, and near the Regent’s Canal in the Mile End-road. Both parties are to remain on duty till five o’clock in the morning.”

The prompt manner in which the Right Hon. Secretary of State attended to the application of the parochial authorities of Bethnal-green, respecting the riots in that neighbourhood, has afforded great gratification to the parishioners, and by the formidable appearance of the detachment of Horse Patrol that were parading the thoroughfares in the parish the whole of Monday, the gang was deterred from coming forth. Three fellows were taken up on Monday night. One is supposed to be of the gang that so inhumanly attacked and robbed Mr. Fuller, the surgeon, at Cambridge-heath, for which three fellows are now awaiting their trials at the Old Bailey. Mr. Peel has given authority to the magistrates of Worship-street, to establish a Horse Patrol, under their own jurisdiction, and the expenses to be paid out of the hands of the office.”

It seems likely that diverse crimes may have been lumped together in reports; also that the numbers given for the size of the ‘gangs’ involved may have been exaggerated. Rumour, panic and outrage combined to inflate events…

The court case mentioned above, for the attack on ‘Mr Fuller’, had, though, it seemed taken place at the Old Bailey on 14th September (three days after the crime? Possibly a dating error? Really summary justice? Like Kier Starmer making sure courts sat all night after the 2011 riots to get conviction as quick as possible?)

Here is a transcript of the trial:

“GEORGE HOUGHTON, JAMES BOYCE, HENRY BOYCE.

Violent Thefthighway robbery.

14th September 1826

Before Mr. Justice Littledale.

GEORGE HOUGHTON , JAMES BOYCE , and HENRY BOYCE were indicted for feloniously assaulting Henry Fuller, on the King’s highway, on the 11th of September , at St. Matthew Bethnal-green , putting him in fear, and taking from his person, and against his will, 1 case of surgical instruments, value 40s.; 2 cases of lancets, value 20s.; 1 hat, value 20s.; 1 handkerchief, value 1s.; 1 pen-knife, value 1s.; 1 pin-cushion, value 1d.; 2 sovereigns, 3 shillings, and 1 sixpence, his property .

ALLEY conducted the prosecution.

Mr. HENRY FULLER. I am a surgeon , and live in Suffolk-place, Hackney-road. On the evening of the 11th of September, about half-past seven o’clock, or a few minutes later, I was returning home from visiting a patient, and when I arrived on a place called Fleet-street-hill , I heard footsteps behind me, and the word “Now,” and immediately after a loud whistle – about twenty persons surrounded me all in a moment; my arms were immediately pinioned; several of them had sticks, and stood in front of me; the prisoner James Boyce is the person who seized my right arm; I could not observe the person who seized the other; my elbows were tied behind me with a rope; one of them said, “If the b-g-r speaks knock his bl-y brains out;” I do not know who that was. The prisoner, James Boyce, immediately said, “We won’t hurt you – we will have what you have got;” I begged of them not to hurt me, and they might take whatever I had got; James Boyce said, “We won’t hurt you – we will have what you have got;” James Boyce then took from my right-hand trousers pocket a case of surgical instruments, and two cases of lancets, and from my right-hand waistcoat pocket three keys, and a piece of ass’s skin – my left-hand pockets were rifled by the person on the other side – from my trousers pocket he took two sovereigns, three shillings, a sixpence, and a pen-knife, which had a broken point – one of them took my hat off – that was neither of the prisoners; my cravat was then taken off; as soon as the man had taken my hat he said, “Now, give the b-g-r a rum one” – James Boyce said, “No, don’t hurt the poor b-g-r,” and they did not do me any personal injury. I am quite certain of James Boyce – Houghton came up to me, and felt my fob pocket; he unbuttoned the flap of my breeches, and felt to see if I had a watch, but James Boyce, who had examined it before, said, “The b-g-r has got no toy;” I had no watch. As they were about to leave me I asked James Boyce to give me my keys, as they would be of no service to them – he returned one key, and they all ran away immediately. On the following morning I went to the Police-office, and got Garton, Gleed, Armstrong, Hanley, and other officers, and after the prisoners were apprehended three persons called and told me I could recover my instruments – I communicated that to the officers, and the two cases of lancets were restored to me by Garton – I went with him to Dutton’s, in Brook-street, Spital-square.

Cross-examined by MR. LAW. Q. Nobody but yourself was witness to the transaction? A. One or two women say they were passing, and I believe, one of them is here. I was certainly alarmed – my attention was not much distracted till they threatened to give me a rum one – I then felt more alarmed; I think it impossible I can be mistaken in James Boyce’s person; the parties were all strangers to me before. I am sure I am not mistaken – it lasted about two minutes or more.

  1. Was there much noise or conversation? A. Among themselves; I had plenty of light to see them. I heard voices behind me as well as before – persons were in front and behind; I was not alarmed till one of them took my hat and said, “Give the b-r a rum one;” as Boyce said I should not be hurt.
  2. If Boyce is the individual be interfered to protect you from injury? A. He did.
  3. Does it frequently occur to you to make mistakes in persons, or are you pretty accurate? A. I generally am – I could not speak to the whole twenty, but I observed several of them, so closely as to speak with confidence. I never made a mistake in the identity of a person to my knowledge; there were not twenty persons in my view; I observed several in front, who I can identify; I should know the one who took my hat in a moment if I saw him. – Boyce was apprehended on the Wednesday or Thursday following.

Cross-examined by Mr. PRENDERGAST. Q. You were much frightened? A. When I was threatened – I saw Houghton previously to the threat – he had searched my pockets while they were releasing my arms.

Mr. ALLEY. Q. Had you abundant opportunity of seeing them? A. Yes, and have not the slightest doubt of them all; Henry Boyce was present, but not active – it happened in the parish of Bethnal-green.

JOHN NORRIS . I am an inspector of the dismounted patrol. I apprehended Houghton on the Wednesday morning after the robbery, about six hours after I received the information – I took him in his bed; I told him he must get up and go with me; I asked where he had been on the Monday night before; he said he had had but 2 1/2d. in his pocket, and that he had been to the Angel and Crown public-house, opposite the church in the road (opposite Whitechapel church), spent it, and returned home;

the Angel and Crown is about three quarters of a mile from where the robbery was committed.

[NB: The Angel and Crown was probably on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.]

  1. When he was at the office, but not before the Magistrate, did he say any thing to you? A. He told me afterwards that he had been to the Angel and Trumpet public-house, at Stepney, on the Monday evening.

Cross-examined by MR. PRENDERGAST. Q. You said at first it was in Whitechapel-road. I understood? A. He said the Angel and Crown in the road, opposite the church.

  1. How came you to say “Whitechapel-road?” A. It is in Whitechapel-road; he said he went up Brick-lane to the Angel and Crown, opposite the church in the road, and spent it – he said nothing more on that subject – he said, “in the road,” not Mile-end-road; Mile-end-road and Whitechapel-road are in a line – I cannot tell the difference. I swear he did not say the Angel and Trumpet – he said “in the road, opposite the church” but did not say what church.
  2. ALLEY. Q. Is it called both Mile-end and Whitechapel road? A. I call it both; the Angel and Trumpet is a mile from the other house, and not opposite a church.
  3. PRENDERGAST. Q. When did he say it was the Angel and Trumpet? A. Not till after Mr. Fullerhad seen him, about an hour and a half afterwards – he said full an hour and a half afterwards that he was at the Angel and Crown, and then contradicted himself, and said it was the Angel and Trumpet – he had spoken to nobody but Mr. Fullerand the officers.

THOMAS GARTON . I am an officer of Worship-street, I accompanied the prosecutor last Saturday to a girl, named Houghton, and she produced these two cases of lancets out of her bosom; Mr. Fuller claimed them; I do not know who she lived with myself.

THOMAS GOODING . I am an officer. I apprehended James Boyce in Brick-lane on the Wednesday night after the robbery; I apprehended Henry Boyce at his mother’s door.

Cross-examined by Mr. LAW. Q. Where did you find James Boyce? A. In Brick-lane, about one hundred yards from where he lives.

WILLIAM DICKENSON . I assisted in apprehending both the Boyces.

  1. FULLER. These are my instruments.
  2. PRENDERGAST. Q. Do you recollect a woman, named Moore, coming to you that night? A. No; I saw her not the next day, but the day following; I have not the slightest doubt of any of the prisoners.

HOUGHTON’S Defence. I have witnesses to prove where I was at the time; I told Norris I was at the Angel and Trumpet, and there remained till I went home to bed.

JAMES BOYCE’S Defence. I have witnesses to say where I was.

HENRY BOYCE’S Defence. I can prove where I was.

MATILDA MOORE . I live at No. 3, Stevens’-buildings. Bethnal-green, at the top of Fleet-street-hill. On Monday, the 11th, about a quarter or ten minutes after eight o’clock, as I came out of my house I saw two young fellows following Mr. Fuller; there was a whistle given, and the word “Now;” then about a dozen surrounded him, and he was robbed; I staid there about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, and was within about fourteen yards of Mr. Fuller; I did not see Houghton there; I cannot take upon myself to say he was not there, as there were so many; there might be thirty; Mr. Fuller did not fall, for I sat with my baby in my arms, and after the robbery was done, I went up, and saw Mr. Fuller, he was very weak and low, and was taken into a chandler’s shop – I did not speak to him; I did not see his hat taken, but, as they ran from the gentleman, I saw a man, named Norton, come under our shop window with his hat in his hand; I had seen them hustling his pockets behind; I did not see either of the prisoners there; they said, “If you offer to resist, or make an alarm, we will knock your b-y brains out.”

WILLIAM ADEY . I live at No. 15, Mead-street, near Shoreditch, in the parish of Bethnal-green, and am a journeyman shoemaker. I know Houghton. On Monday, the 11th of September, I was at the Angel and Trumpet with him; we started to go there at half-past six, and remained there till half-past ten; I will take my oath that he was not out of my sight five minutes during all that time; Sidebottom went with me and Houghton to the house; I do not remember seeing one Hawes there.

  1. ALLEY. Q. Who do you work for now? A. Mr. Pollock, of Shoreditch, near the church on the left hand side – I worked for him at the time of the robbery; I do the work at home with my father; I generally work till eight or nine, but sometimes leave off at dark; on Monday we generally do not get our work ready – we get it prepared – I generally go out earlier on a Monday; my uncle lives with us – neither he or my father are here.
  2. Did Sidebottom fall into a misfortune that night? A. Not that I know of – he was taken on suspicion of a robbery – I heard it was committed that night; I do not know whether he was taken that night; when I left the house I left him in company with a young woman at the door; I left the house at half-past ten o’clock; I know Hawes – I did not see him that evening; I know Fleet-street-hill; I was not there that night – I could go that way home, but I did not – I got home near upon a quarter past eleven o’clock; I saw no robbery that night – I never said I saw the robbery committed as I was going home – I swear that.
  3. Were you never taken up yourself charged with any offence? A. I was taken for a slight offence – they took me for going down a turning, and said I was hunting a bullock – I was fined – I was never in custody for any other offence – the bullock hunt was six weeks or two months ago – I have not seen the landlord of the public-house here – he was not in the house when I went in, but the servant was, and she knows I came in, but her master would not let her come.

COURT. Q. The landlord was not there? A. I did not see him for an hour or two – I did not see the landlady – I saw the female servant – she served us with what we drank, which was porter – we had no brandy or gin – we had two or three pots of porter – Houghton and Sidebottom drank with me – we each paid our own part – it came to 15d. – it was 5d. a pot – I went out on the opposite side of the way, and got some bacon and bread from a shop – I do not know who keeps the shop – I am not often at the Angel and Trumpet – I have been there six or eight times – we each paid 5d. – I changed a sixpence – I cannot say whether Houghton and Sidebottom paid in silver or copper; when I went in I dare say there were ten people in the room, and more came in; I dare say there were fifteen or twenty there when I came away.

  1. Did Houghton call for you to go with him? A. No, I went from my residence at nearly a quarter past six o’clock, and met him down Brick-lane – we met Sidebottom at Hanbury’s brewhouse, about one hundred and fifty yards from where I met Houghton – we went into the public-house together; I got the bread and bacon soon after I went in.

THOMAS SIDEBOTTOM . I am a weaver, and live in Cheshire-street, Hare-street-fields. On Monday week I was in Houghton’s company; I met him in Brick-lane about a quarter to seven o’clock in the evening. with Adey, and we went to the Angel and Trumpet, at Stepney; we remained there till the publican would not draw us any more beer; he said it was time to be going – I was the last who asked him for beer, but not the last in the house – I went away first, and bid Houghton and Adey good night; they were in my company from a quarter to seven o’clock till half-past ten; Houghton did not leave our company all that time – not to my recollection; if he was out it was not for more than five minutes I am sure.

  1. ALLEY. Q. You have stated that you went away first; then Adey could not have left you behind talking to a woman? A. I went out of the house first – he did not leave me behind; I was taken up that night on suspicion – they said it was for stealing some pork; I was put into the watch-house, and discharged the next day; I know Fleet-street-hill – I went down Brick-lane that night about a quarter to seven o’clock; I do not know whether you call that passing Fleet-street-hill – it is at the end of the street – it was not a quarter past seven.

COURT. Q. Were you in company with any woman that night? A. I was speaking with a young woman at the door when I left the house; Houghton and Adey came out just after me, and left me at the door talking to the young woman.

  1. Who drank with you? A. Houghton and Adey, and another young man, who was in the house when I went in; we had two or three pots of beer; I will not be certain how many; I know what I paid for; I paid 2 1/2d. for a pint; Adey paid for the first pot himself; I think he gave a 6d.; he went out after asking for a newspaper,(which he could not get), and fetched some bread and bacon – the servant of the house served us with beer; I saw the landlord, but not when I first went in; I do not know whether the young woman who brought the beer was the landlady or servant; I had met them in Brick-lane.
  2. What makes you certain this was the 11th of September? A. I cannot be certain of the date, but it was on Monday – last Monday week; I had been ino the City about work.
  3. PRENDERGAST. Q. You say there was another man at the house? A. Yes; he was not in our company at first, but drank with us; I do not know his name – I never saw him before.

JAMES BARRATT . I am a bricklayer, and live at Stepney. Last Monday week I was in company with Houghton and Adey, at the Angel and Trumpet, Stepney, kept by Smith; I went there a quarter before eight o’clock, and staid till half-past ten.

  1. Was Houghton there when you went in? A. Yes; we all went in together, and never went outside the door, not for three minutes, except for a necessary purpose.
  2. Do you mean you went in in company or at the same time? A. I went in at the same time as they did – they asked me to drink out of two or three pots of beer; I did not know them before – the two last witnesses were with him – we all went out together – the landlord would not draw any more beer.
  3. Who applied for more beer, which was refused to be drawn? (the witness Sidebottom here said “It was me.”) A. It was that person (pointing to Sidebottom).
  4. ALLEY. Q. How lately have you been at work as a bricklayer? A. Yesterday; I do not know Fleet-street-hill – it was a quarter to eight o’clock when I went into the public-house.
  5. Can you run two miles in a quarter of an hour? A. I do not know; I saw no robbery that night.
  6. Did you happen to be taken up for stealing pork? A. No. I will take my oath, since I have been out of the country, I have not stolen a thing; I was never in custody.

Two witnesses gave Houghton a good character.

WILLIAM NICHOLS . On Monday night, the 11th of September, I saw James Boyce at the corner of King-street; it might be ten minutes past seven o’clock, but I will swear it was not later; I remained in his company till a quarter-past nine, by Hanbury’s brewhouse clock; we stood talking there all that time; Chandler came up about a quarter-past seven, and remained with us till we went away, and during that time two other men came up – we were talking about the business at Bow – we are all silk weavers; I had left my work at dark, and was talking about the state of the business. I live in George-street.

  1. ALLEY. Q. What distance is King-street from Fleet-street-hill – close by – is it not? A. Not very close – I dare say it is four or five hundred yards; I will take my oath he was a yard from me all that time – both him and his brother were there; and about five or ten minutes after eight, two Bow-street patrols, one named Skilling, came up and saw up talking.

JOHN CHANDLER . I was in Boyce’s company on the 11th of September – I fell in company with them, about a quarter past seven o’clock, at the corner of St. John’s-street; the two Boyces stood there with two or three more men; I crossed over to them, to hear about the trade, and remained in their company till after nine o’clock.

  1. ALLEY. Q. When did you get up? A. At a quarter-past seven o’clock; I went with them down St. John-street, to go and have a pint of beer – they left me at the corner of St. John-street – I crossed over to an old lady, named Lowing, and heard of the robbery.

BENJAMIN WEEDON . On the night of the 11th I was going up Hare-street, and about five minutes to eight o’clock, I saw both the Boyces at the corner of King-street, and stopped talking there for three-quarters of an hour – I left them at a quarter-past eight.

GEORGE NICHOLS . On the night of the 11th of September I joined the Boyces, as near as I can say, about seven or eight o’clock – it was before eight – at the corner of King-street; I stopped there a quarter of an hour, or hardly so much, in conversation with them. Chandler and Nichols were with them – Wheedon and I went up together to them.

COURT. Q. How far is this from Fleet-street-hill? A. About three or four hundred yards, and about thirty yards from their own house.

Four witnesses gave James Boyce a good character.

HOUGHTON – GUILTY – DEATH . Aged 17.

  1. BOYCE – GUILTY – DEATH . Aged 25.
  2. BOYCE – NOT GUILTY .

James Boyce was recommended to mercy by the Jury and Prosecutor, having protected him from personal injury. – (Vide Ninth Day’s proceedings.)

Houghton’s sentence was commuted: he was sentenced to be transported for twenty one years on 9th January 1827 (aged 18) He was sent to Van Diemens Land.

James Boyce was executed on 29th November 1826, aged 25.

The Context ?

The collective expropriation described 1826 was year of poverty in this part of the East End: in Spitalfields, for instance, the silkweavers (working in the area’s major area of employment) had recently suffered the repeal of the Spitalfields Acts, which to some extent guaranteed their wage levels and defended against excessive exploitation by their masters… The trade was lunged into depression as a result and declined rapidly thereafter. What impact did this have on local poverty, and what impact might it have had on the emergence of the mass social crime on September 1826?

Today in London healthcare history, 1978: Bethnal Green Hospital staff launch Work-in

The Bethnal Green Hospital in East London served the local population as a community hospital valued for its continuity of care and accessibility to local residents. Hospital staff at Bethnal Green were told in October 1977 that the local Area Health Authority wanted to reduce services at the hospital to just care of the elderly. A campaign was mounted to safeguard its future.

In the early-mid 1970s, with pressures on the NHS mounting as life expectancy became longer, but global economic meltdown having a sharp effect on resources, successive UK governments made decisions which would have a long term effect on hospital building and closures. This would have a particular impact in London, considered to have a disproportionately high number of acute hospital services compare to the rest of the country, especially the north of England. The Labour government elected in 1974 adopted a policy of relocation of resources from the southeast to the north of Britain; in NHS terms this was focused through the Resource Allocation Working Party, set up in July 1975.

In reality, however, RAWP represented not a massive increase in resources to other regions of the UK – in the context of the recession, it meant merely that these areas were being cut slightly less severely than in London.

And cuts in London were to become very harsh.

The Bethnal Green Infirmary in London’s East End opened in 1900, built on land purchased from the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.  The 4.5 acre site had previously contained a chapel – the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel – and had been known as Palestine Place.  The clock from the demolished Chapel was installed on the tower of the administration block.

The three-storey red brick building was designed to accommodate 669 patients and was intended mainly for the chronically ill (by 1901 it had 619 in-patients) and this remained so until WW1.

In 1915 civilian in-patients were moved to St George-in-the-East Hospital or to the workhouse in Waterloo Road and the military authorities took over the building for wounded soldiers – it became the Bethnal Green Military Hospital under the London District Command.  It had 709 beds for wounded and sick servicemen.  During this time a pathology laboratory was installed.

Only in 1920 did all the patients and staff return.  A wider range of services were added, including an Orthopaedic Clinic, established at the request of the Ministry of Pensions, to provide treatment for ex-servicemen with damaged joints. By 1929 Casualty and X-ray Departments and admission wards had been opened and an operating theatre was being constructed.  There was also a VD clinic (which closed in 1952).

The LCC took control of the administration in 1930, when the Hospital had 650 beds, of which 551 were occupied.

During WW2 the Hospital suffered minor bomb damage. In 1948 it joined the NHS as the Bethnal Green Hospital and came under the control of the Central Group of the North East Metropolitan Region.  By this time it had considerably fewer beds, just over 300.

In 1953 there were 313 beds, with an average occupancy of 260.

A geriatric unit was established in 1954.  In the same year the Group Pathology Laboratory was sited here and served the Central Group hospitals – Mile End Hospital, St Leonard’s Hospital, East End Maternity Hospital, St Matthew’s Hospital, Mildmay Mission Hospital, the London Jewish Hospital and the Metropolitan Hospital(all of which have now also closed).

During the 1960s a new dental hospital, a pathology institute and a School of Nursing and Midwifery were established.  In 1966 the Postgraduate Medical Education Centre opened.  In the same year the Central Group was dissolved and the Hospital joined the East London Group.

The Obstetrics Department closed in 1972.  In yet another NHS reorganisation in 1974, during the first wave of cutbacks in the NHS, the Hospital passed to the control of Tower Hamlets District, under the auspices of the City & East London Area Health Authority.  In the same year the Gynaecology department closed.

From 1977 the role of the Hospital changed from acute to geriatric care, with 167 acute beds closing and being replaced by 120 geriatric beds for the patients transferred from St Matthew’s Hospital.

When plans to heavily cut the hospital services were announced in 1977, a campaign to defend them and try to overturn the decision was launched. The hospital was still working to capacity, and its patients would have nowhere to go if its facilities were withdrawn, except to extend already over-long waiting lists.

As socialist doctor David Widgery noted, the cuts took “no account of social deprivation or incidence of disease in awarding resources, relying simply on out-of-date mortality rates. The result is a geographical interpretation rather than a class one, generating the lunacy of designating areas like Tower Hamlets, hackney and Brent as possessing more than their fare share of resources, which are therefore deemed suitable for siphoning off to East Anglia.” Widgery, a junior casualty officer in the hospital, was elected hair of the Save Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign.

A Tower Hamlets Action Committee was established with over 700 people attending the first meeting held on 24th November 1977. The campaign included support from GPs, regular picketing of the hospital, huge meetings and strikes and stoppages across East London…

On the 28th January 1978 over 500 attended a march from Weavers Field to the London Hospital to protest at the closures.

In March it was agreed that a regular picketing of the hospital should take place to highlight the plight of the hospital

On the 16th March 1978 at another huge meeting Bethnal Green Hospital was declared unanimously a “protected hospital”

A planned march against hospital closures in East London arranged by Plaistow Hospital campaign on 18th March was banned by the police due to events at the anti-fascist protest in Lewisham in August 1977.

10th March a 2 hour stoppage was staged in five East London hospital’s in opposition to the health cuts

30th March 1978: East London Hospital unions called strike action in nine hospitals for between six and twenty four hours, the Royal London and Mile End hospitals stop all routine work for 24 hours. Strikes had spread to local brewery workers, posties and printers. 800 campaigners marched to the Health Authority headquarters to protest.

102 East End GPs had signed a letter objecting to the cuts.

Meanwhile, the staff decided to ‘occupy’ the hospital.

On 1st July 1978 at 8pm, the time of the official closure, the hospital staff, applauded by a large crowd of local people and filmed by the News at Ten (ITV) put up a notice announcing the occupation of the casualty unit at Bethnal Green hospital. Detailed arrangements are made with medical staff, GP’s , the Emergency Bed Service (EBS) to guarantee admissions and safety. The first hospital casualty work-in in history began, with patients arriving at 8:02.

The only people to move out of the hospital were the administrators. Doctors, nurses and other staff continued to perform their duties, GP’s continued to refer patients, locals continued to attend the casualty department and ambulance drivers continued to respond to emergency calls.

While patients remained at the hospital, the health authority had a duty to pay staff salaries – and so the occupation took effect.

On the 30th July managers arrived at the hospital threatening staff with legal action, nursing staff instruct under threat of dismissal to move, medical staff who refuse to do so were “harangued” and threatened. The Bethnal Green Hospital work-in was called off on 30th July 1978 having treated over one thousand local patients.

An account of the campaign written shortly after the smashing of the occupation:

“The Green is a medium sized general hospital in a part of East London with notoriouly high incidence of illness and a community health service which is only now emerging from decades of neglect. It has about 280 in-patient beds and sees nearly 48,000 cases each year in its casualty and outpatient clinics.

It is no medical derelict; from the specialist hip replacement unit, its patients’ kitchens, reputed to be the best in East London to its excellent postgraduate Medical Centre it’s a busy working hospital with high medical standards and unusually good relations with general practitioners.

But, Enter The Cuts. The Tower Hamlets District not only have the national nil-growth ceiling now strictly enforced by the cash limit which was introduced as part of the IMF’s loan terms. It also has the RAWP (Regional Allocation Working Party) tax to pay.

RAWP is a classical social-democratic cock-up; designed to level up the regionally uneven levels of medical spending noted by socialist critics in the 1960s. Now in the 1970s it has become a formula for rationalising cuts. RAWP shifts still more money out of the Thames regions, long overdue fireproofing and internally financed pay increases for junior doctors further reduce the Tower Hamlets District coffers already ravaged by the rocketing supply costs, especially of drugs.

It’s a national story but East London is feeling the full impact first and hardest. The Tower Hamlets Health District are attempting to ‘save’ £2 million or 300 beds (beds aren’t strictly the things with mattresses on but a unit of medical currency). This abolishes at a stroke, 1 in every 3 acute bed in the district although last winter the existing beds were frequently chock-a-bloc.

The scheme was to smother the Green quietly, under the guise of a conversion, labelled temporary but likely to be permanent, to an all geriatric ghetto. This would achieve the rquired acute beds cut without involving the other better organised hospitals and care.

But the plan blew up in their face and the battle to save the Green has achieved the widest working class action against the cuts so far in London this year.

An increasingly vicious management succeeded in smashing the 24-hour casualty work-in which had run throughout July on 1 August by withdrawing staff and threatening senior medical staff involved with legal action. But it has proved a Pyrrhic victory and at the Council, the Community Health Council, the hospital and general unions against them and the East London public in angry mood.

There is now no chance of conversion to the all-geriatric unit unless at least some of the demands of the Campaign – retention of medical beds, open X-ray services, the Postgraduate Centre, a 9-5 Casualty Station – are met.

What is important to realise is the very slender basis from which the campaign was nursed. The Green has an unhappy trade union past and was clearly seen by management as a push over, especially since the all-geriatric future gave the impression that jobs would be safe.

For months a tiny committee of staff who wanted to make a stand, and local people, did careful groundwork, sat through visiting know-alls who would monopolise a meeting and not be seen again, petitioned GPs, tried to change the pessimistic mood inside the hospital. Only two years ago when the Metropolitan, a Hackney hospital opened in 1886, was closed, its secretary said, ‘The staff have been incredibly loyal and have steadfastly refused to strike and now it is us who face the chop’. The Green could easily have had the same obituary.

Carefully argued critiques of the plans were put into the complicated ritual of paper shifting called ‘consultation’ but at the same time Green campaigners knocked, wrote, and implored the entire local trade union movement to rise to the issue.

After two highly successful public meetings, the biggest the York Hall could recall, the Campaign called its first two hours stoppage on 10 March and in much trepidation. Myrna Shaw, NALGO shop steward remembers:

‘We stepped out of this hospital yesterday to give two hours to the community and in the true spirit of the East End we found the community waiting for us.

‘Anyone who could not be stirred by the sight must be dead. There were the massed banners of the trades councils and the trade unions. The Ambulance men were there and the Tenants’ Associations. St. Bartholomew’s turned up and St. Leonards, St. Mathew’s and St. Clement’s.

‘We picked up contingents from Mile End Hospital and The London on the way. Hospital chaplains marched – so did doctors, nurses, social workers, town hall staff, GLC staff, people from the breweries, local industries and teachers. Apologies to anyone left out.

‘If you lost your place in the procession it was hard to find anyone you knew when you went back. Best of all our own staff marched – from every Department in the Hospital’.

Behind that unity lay careful groundwork. 103 local GPs had been canvassed and stated that the closure was ‘a disastrous mistake’. The local community nurses stated ‘it would be difficult for us to cope with a large increase in our work load even if our staffing levels were increased’.

The social workers stated ‘The hospital has greatly enhanced the service we are able to give, its loss would greatly diminish it’. But the 1974 re-organisation scheme has established a pattern of medical autocracy which is virtually impossible to dent with reason and damned hard to affect with force.

After a three month reprieve which was clearly designed to defuse rather than encourage the supporters, instructions were issued for closure of the Casualty, the first step in the change of use, on 1 August at 8.00 p.m.

Once a closure date had been stated, down to the hour the phoney war was over. A Joint Trade Union Co-ordinating Committee elected by the East London Health Shop Stewards had been arguing out the implications of the Green’s closure for the general patterns of cuts in East London and tightening up its own organisation and communications.

When it called strike action, even at notice of days rather than weeks, the response was splendid. The day before the attempted closure nine local hospitals stopped simultaneous, St Barts and The London were solid for 24 hours, and many industrial supporters came out spontaneously too. 300 locals were outside the hospital gates as 8.00 p.m. arrived and at 8.01 a sign went up ‘Casualty OPEN under staff control’. Within minutes, long planned agreements with the ambulance and emergency bed service unions went into action.

Over the next few weeks, the Casualty, which the administration still insisted was closed, saw and treated more patients than in the same month the previous year. And the pickets outside the hospital now really had something to defend. The six point motion moved by Mrs Henrietta Cox of NUPE had done its work in each respect:

The staff of Bethnal Green Hospital declare that the Casualty Department will stay open. We declare we have no confidence in the DMT. We resolve to elect a committee representing all the staff to make sure casualty runs as usual. We call on ambulance staff, the BBS and local GPs to support us. We call on workers in other London hospitals to take any action necessary to support us. We call on our unions to organise supportative action. We ask the people of East London to support us!

It took the management a full month to break the Casualty work in. After early attempts to withdraw staff and victimise the other hospitals and ambulance men who defied their official instruction that the Green was closed, direct and legal pressure was put on the rebel consultants and nursing staff forcibly transferred within the district.

It is important to realise that a work-in is not a universal panacea. Its remarkable success at the EGA depends on the special cases of consultants in the very specialised women-treating-women field, for which no real equivalent alternative can be offered. But in most hospitals, consultants can be only too easily bought off with promises of new, perhaps better, facilities in other hospitals in the districts.

And such is the independent power of the consultant in the NHS structure that medical work simply cannot continue without their approval, even though they are are only on the premises for a small part of the time. Management, too, are learning from the EGA, especially in finding ways to pressurise nursing staff who are most vulnerable to hospital discipline.

The Bethnal Green work-in could never have worked without the very remarkable devotion of a consultant physician John Thomason and the hospital’s casualty officer, Kutty Divakaran.

But the Health Authority still hold the trump card: the ability to transfer staff. Short of running an alternative private health service, paid for by collection, within the hospital there was little to do but protest when an ‘Invisible Hounslow’ took place.

There was further strike and public protest on the day of the final forced closure. But the battle has now moved into a second phase, to prevent the conversion to the all-geriatric dumping ground so many staff and locals oppose because its notorious effect on morale and nursing and medical standards by insisting the remaining medical, postgraduate, X-ray, ECG and outpatient services stay put.

This time round it will be that much more simple to convince the Community Health Council, the Council and the statutory bodies who found the initial package plausible, of the real intent of the management; quite savage cuts in a area which is crying out for more resources. And to prevent the destruction of an excellent community-based hospital with no planned alternative.

Already there are ‘lessons’ galore. DMPs all over the country are finding increasing resistance to their attempts to enforce cuts. Not only are older community hospitals like St Nicks and The Green (which do need change but, with imagination, could find an important inner city role) being forced into closure, but completed new hospitals are unstaffed, and long promised and long needed facilities, such at Hemel Hempstead are postponed. 30 threatened hospitals joined a torchlit vigil on the 30th Birthday of the NHS in London alone.

Despite the BMA and Ennals, medical staff and unions are finding common cause and using sophisticated types of industrial action to force their case – at a time when the rest of the labour movement has its fists firmly in the pocket. Occupations live, it seems, in the NHS, if they have been forgotten in Clydeside. For the Bethnal Green battle and that of the EGA and Hounslow before it, will have to be repeated all over Britain as we descend further, further down the course established by Ennals, who is to British hospitals what Henry the Eighth was to British monasteries.

Here in East London the particular emotional significance of the hospital, and the genuine gratitude felt to the NHS, has given the campaign a moral pungency and unity which have done something to revive the flagging fortunes of East London labour whose greatest days seemed all to be in the Museum. With the steadfastness of the young Bengalis in Brick Lane, the limbering up of the docks unofficial committee and the fightback on the hospital cuts, the sleeping lion of East London labour is stirring.

If hospital workers just plead for passive support, it’s simply a case of wishing them well. But once the hospital unions take strike action or mount a work-in, the question becomes active. We are doing something, what are you going to do? Suddenly the all powerful authorities can look extremely isolated.

As for the politics of the situation, the weakness of the Communist Party is quite startling. Even ten years ago they would have delivered a formidable industrial punch but now their support is well-meaning, inexperienced and a bit airy fairy.

The left of the Labour Party, especially ousted councillors, have been excellent but must face the fact that it is a Labour minister, Roland Moyle who gave the Green the Ministerial Kick in the teeth. Even Mikardo, who has taken up The Green like the fighter he is, may oppose cuts in his constituency but voted for the package nationally. On the ground it has been independent trade union activists, local socialist feminist groups and the SWP who have run the campaign.

The lack of response from the hospital unions at a London level or nationally has been truly scandalous. Reviewing the annual conferences this year, it’s clear that the bureaucracy considers cuts were last year’s thing. It seems even possible that NUPE and the DHSS have an agreement, off the record, to let certain hospitals go without a fight.

Fisher has made not one visit to a hospital where his members are putting their necks on the block against the very cuts that he used to establish his own credibility as a campaigning union leader. The informal networks, Hospital Worker, and now the excellent Fightback co-ordinating committee based on the shell of Hounslow Hospital have been worth 100 times more than another Alan Fisher TV appearance.

The success of the cuts is not just a financial saving and a worse service. It is a code word for a social counter-revolution, a crueller, harsher Britain. The hospital service planned for us will consist of highly centralised (and incidentally absurdly expensive) units run more and more like factories to achieve maximum efficiency in ‘through-put’ and a few sub-hospitals for geriatrics and sub-normality practicing third world third-class custodial medicine. The sick who fall between those two stools will have to trust its luck to something called the community’ which is itself busy being destroyed.

It is this Dismal New World every cuts battles faces head on. And because of the degree to which the Labour Party has become the agent of financial capitalist orthodoxy, that even the most minor closure has to be fought up to cabinet level. The battle against the cuts, like the battle for the right to work, are part of a bigger battle to reshape the priorities of modern Britain. If it seems at times unrewarding, it is where real socialists should be building.

(taken from International Socialism, June 1977)

In the end, the surgical beds closed in 1978 and the remaining medical beds in 1979.

The Bethnal Green work-in may have been defeated in the most immediate terms. However, as the first occupation of a casualty ward, it received a huge amount of publicity, and encouraged a succession of hospital occupations and work-ins, from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson work-in onwards.

In 1990 the Hospital closed entirely.  Patients and staff were transferred to the newly opened Bancroft Unit for the Care of the Elderly at the Royal London Hospital (Mile End).

Here’s a short film on the later campaign to keep the rest of the Bethnal Green Hospital open, dating from 1984

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in queer history: acid-drag queen commune Bethnal Rouge opens, Bethnal Green, 1973

Bethnal Rouge was a gay bookshop/commune opened in 1973 by a group of ‘radical femme acid queens’ – a group of gender-nonconformist queers, who emerged from the London Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

The Bethnal Rouge collective had to some extent evolved from the loose group of radical drag queens that had coagulated as members of the GLF, some of who had been living communally since early 1972 in various parts of London.

London Gay Liberation Front had been born in late 1970 (inspired by GLF’s birth in New York) and had rapidly become a large and brilliantly confrontational movement in the capital, which spread throughout the country in the next couple of years. But it was always a diverse and to some extent fractious alliance. If gay men and lesbians had initially been united in fighting the massive social prejudice and violence against them all, divisions soon opened up, as the women’s liberation movement blossomed, and the male dominance in the ‘liberation’ front became a major issue. But other bones of contention was whether a class-based evolution was the first priority, as an immediate need that would help sort everyone’s sexual oppression out (er, eventually), and if liberation was what people were fighting for – for many was it acceptance and assimilation into straight society, recognised as gay but equal?

The GLF became gradually fragmented, between a number of fractions – groups aligned for a while who in time discovered political and social differences that in the end led them in different directions. Lesbians eventually got pissed off with male dominance in GLF; varying left, Marxist and anarchist influences produced their own splinters. The movement as a whole had also always united political action with a massive personal and sexual flowering that attracted both people interested only in their own sexual adventures and those who thought sexual adventures and living arrangements could be the basis of an overturning of heterosexual and homophobic social structures.

The queens who founded Bethnal Rouge had been among the faction called ‘Radical Feminists’ in frustration by their GLF critics, (confusingly this label was applied to the men in drag, and should not be confused with the more usual use of Radical Feminists). They had broadly allied with lesbians in GLF in opposition to the more ‘straight’ gay activists who dominated GLF meetings in the early days, but as GLF grew, sections split off and local groups proliferated, the ‘Radical Feminist’ drag queens came to be one of the most vocal and eventually dominant factions in GLF in London, though their confrontational all-out assault on hetero-capitalist society was not universally popular in the gay movement and could freak newcomers and tentative young gay folk somewhat…

“We didn’t take the label radfems. It got thrown at us one night in an argument … ‘You radical femme acid queens!’ … it was something from outside. We never used words like that. We would say ‘get a frock on dear’ whenever they were ranting away”. (Bette Bourne)”.

“It started with jellabas and kaftans and long hair and flowers … then we discovered glitter … and then nail varnish. Later, some of of us – a quarter of the men, I’d say, at some time or other – would get a nice new frock for the next Gay Lib dance. Then a few people began wearing it to meetings. It just evolved.” (Michael James)”.

It then became street theatre, notably the Miss Trial demo outside the Old Bailey in support of the women who were on trial for disrupting the Miss World contest, and then the disruption of the 1971 Christian Festival of Light. Some GLF queens wore drag because it felt right, some for fun and some for political reasons.

Generally the queens were living in communal squats and in poverty in Brixton and in Notting Hill, and wore drag all day every day. They aligned themselves with lesbians against the masculine gay men who were dominating the GLF meetings. When the women finally split from GLF in February 1972, the Rad Fems began to dominate at the All-London meetings at All Saints Hall in Powis Square.

However the RadFems also demonstrated against the launch of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, (mostly on the basis of what they saw as the middle class nature of the Spare Rib collective) which allowed The Sunday Times to run an article on the irony of feminist men telling women how they should behave. The fledging Gay News used this to disassociate from what they referred to as ‘fascists in frocks’. The initial issues of Gay News were hostile to GLF in general and even more so to the queens.

In July 1972 a group of the most radical drag queens were renting a house in Athlone Road, off Tulse Hill in Brixton, and got into a barney with some local somewhat homophobic kids from Tulse Hill School, who had attacked their house. This resulted in about 30 of the queens and friends ‘invading’ the school to hand out leaflets. Julian Hows, later a leading light of Bethnal Rouge, was an already out pupil, who had been suspended from Tulse Hill and had got involved with the commune.

From Brixton, the commune moved to the then slightly more gay-friendly Notting Hill, to set up in Colville Terrace and then nearby Colville Houses. The main GLF meetings had started to fall apart as various factions argued and moved off in different political directions. The queens had clashed with other groupings over their insistence on personal liberation, with a lifestyle-oriented, but confrontational, all out, in your face. This ended in head-on clashes with those who saw themselves as more practical, such as the GLF office collective.

“There was a very strong movement against monogamy, couples were really uncool. Because everybody wanted to have sex with everybody! But politically, we were breaking up the nuclear family and we were not going to have any ersatz nuclear families and 1 can’t bear gay weddings. 1 think it’s disgusting! All these silly queens imitating their oppressors. Please, do something original, what is this contract, is this a business? It’s like doing a deal with someone. I think it’s really naff. Really naff. One of the great things in the commune was, it was so taboo because it was so fatal. I mean, I’ve got an eighteen‑year relationship now and it’s very different from living with a group of people. It’s very powerful, but it’s not good in a group.” (Bette Bourne)

In March, the Colville commune moved into a new home – Bethnal Rouge.

A communique announcing the birth of Bethnal Rouge was written in red pen by someone with gorgeous handwriting and ended with a kiss in a similar coloured lipstick):

‘Dear Brothers + Sisters,

Bethnal Rouge, a commune of gay people, have taken over the former Agitprop bookshop. The shop will continue with the emphasis on gay’s, women’s + children’s books and periodicals. We open up on March 1st, our hours are Mon-Sat 11am-7pm. There’s plenty of room here for people to relax, chat and have coffee, so come on round.

Love Bethnal Rouge Collective

P.S. Tube: Bethnal Green (Central) Bus: No. 8″

The radical Agitprop bookshop had moved around various parts of London for a couple of years, most recently in Bethnal Green:

“… it was this bookshop cum warehouse and you walked into a kitchen which went into open plan East End camp with a built-in bar in tacky plastic. The place had originally been owned by one of the Krays’ bankers, who was serving twenty-five years in Maidstone, and Agitprop had been very nice to his wife, who they thought got a rough deal. It was the first house I ever lived with a wall safe and we kept looking at various places for hidden money, under the floorboards and so on.” (Julian Hows)

Agitprop had faced increasing police harassment and raids, as cops more and more cracked down on the capital’s underground, anarchist and fringe left scenes in the hunt for the group of bombers who used the name the Angry Brigade. Agitprop had been raided repeatedly, two of the collective members had been arrested on firearms charges and accused of being part of the Angry Brigade, two more were threatened with deportation. The collective decided to call it a day.

“Bethnal Rouge came about through Andrew Lumsden, Richard Chappell and Steven Bradbury, who hung around together. The three of them got the building from Agitprop, in the spring of 1973. Agitprop were giving up the lease on the building and wrote to various groups offering the premises. I brought the letter back to the commune and after we decided not to move there we passed it on to Andrew and Richard. The people who went to Bethnal Rouge included Steven, Matthew Dallaway, Michael Kennedy and Margaret.”(Stuart Feather).

Andrew Lumsden recalls: “The bathroom was filled with Peanuts cartoons from the Observer. It seemed rather endearing, this in the revolutionary Agitprop premises. They were rather large, we had a bookshop on the ground floor and the publishers were very easy going about supplying books on credit. We had a till by the door and we sold some, though it never made any particular profit. We were supposed to take it in turns to run the bookshop. We painted a mural at the far end of the ground floor and upstairs we turned the living room into the same as 7a (the previous commune at Colville Houses) – drapes and hangings everywhere, mattresses strewn around the floor, and various people came to live there and visit. We used to go to the local pub which was staggered by these drag queens turning up, but it was a standard cockney pub, they had a piano and they liked to have a singsong and quite a lot of the people in the commune were very good at sing songs, so that made us reasonably popular and we spent quite a lot of dole money on there, so that was all right… We even took the door off the loo because we didn’t believe in privacy, everything had to be done in public. I left eventually because of the heavy drug use in there. Lots of heavy straight men began coming round…”

The Bethnal Rougers lost little time ‘integrating’ into local life: “I managed the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop in Bethnal Green under a false name. I went along for a part-time job and became the manager in weeks because it was two queens who were brothers who were running it and took a shine to me. So we managed it and the rest of the staff left because they couldn’t cope with me, and the whole of Bethnal Rouge tried to manage it. We were making an awful lot of money because we were going across the road to Tesco’s and buying cases of chicken, cutting them up and using Colonel Sanders names to pull the punters.” (Julian Hows)

[Bethnal Rouge could clearly teach KFC of 2018 a bit about management and ensuring chicken supplies… Ed].

Life in the commune was generally chaotic, by all accounts, with people arriving and hanging around and departing constantly, and (presumably, though not mentioned) a fair amount of sex going on.

A special Bethnal Rouge issue of the GLF new-sheet in June 1973 contained a spoof, but clearly not completely inaccurate, diary of life in the commune-bookshop:

Doin’ the Bethnal Rouge

6am – we go to bed; except Nicole who gets up and Geoffrey who rises for his bath.

9am – forget to put the dustbins out, Michael turns off central heating. Open door to sunroof – going to be blazing hot day.

10am – 33 unknowns appear from bed for breakfast. Matthew makes station hotel breakfast for 85.

11am – man turns on hot water system; Lydia looks for her giro; Andrew can’t find the Wall Street Journal.

12am – forgotten to open the shop; huge queue – oh they’re waiting for the bus. Lydia quieter.

1.00– cocktails and California beachwear on roof; social security visitor expected; gramophone red hot.

2.00 – shop opened; thermostat mad for 4th week: can only have jot water if central heating at full blast; fat visitor melts.

3.00- we’ve forgotten to buy food for supper. Remember its early closing. [For you young’uns, in the 1970s Wednesday used to be early closing day, when shops would shut early. Like all shops. You were buggered if you had run out of milk.]

4.00- Michael turns off central heating. Lydia turns off SS visitor.

5.00- everybody awake. Man puts on hot water & accordingly central heating.

5.30 – the party continues. Somebody steals £50. Richard starts getting supper together from somewhere – Michael makes salad from unpaid bills.

6.00 – cocktails on the sun roof. Someone steals £40 & the green shield stamps. Gramophone explodes.

7.00 – guests arrive. Full meeting of commune efficiently deals in quarter of an hour with all practical and emotional problems.

8.00 – do bookstall at GLF meeting. The men state thinking about sex. Central heating explodes. One million for supper.

10.00 – somebody steals the furniture; we get thrown out of Tricky Dicky’s disco.

12pm – somebody steals Bethnal Rouge; we go to sleep in the dustbins’

(the following week somebody slyly added a missing footnote:

‘8pm – Margaret also thinks about sex – then does the washing up.’

If, like your editor here, you have spent time in the fun hinterland where squat lifestyle rebellion meets activism, you may fondly recognise the dynamics here… There’s no denying the fun to be had, but if you have also been there trying to run an anarchist bookshop with chaos, partying and infuriating dithering going off (and yes, also combined with the kind of technical issues with power, heating etc… if only we had had fucking central heating at our place however… some days it was too cold to open and we held meetings in the pub up Railton Road.)

The setting up of Bethnal Rouge coincided with the fragmentation of the main London Gay Liberation Front group, which had been slowly drifting apart for months, but now imploded. The queens, of whom Bethnal Rouge might be said to be the focal point, and the GLF office collective, based at the Housmans Bookshop, 5a Caledonian Road, represented two increasingly at odds poles in the gay activist scene.

The office collective felt they did all the real work and were ignored or unappreciated; some of he other folk hanging on in GLF thought the office collective were too allied to what they called ‘straight gays’, activists in name, but aspiring for a kind of respectable equality and a niche in hierarchical fucked-up old society. The queens didn’t want ‘equality’ and acceptance, they wanted to tear the whole structure down and were out to provoke and experiment with new forms of living. Bethnal Rouge and the office collective fought constantly in the weekly meetings (by now held at Conway Hall), through leaflets and the pages of the GLF newssheet. In August 1973, a leaflet was issued denouncing the office collective:

“It’s happened again. The MEN have: formed a GROUP…. Took over the CAPITOL (our office) – started to make rules for others than themselves… printed PROPAGANDA on a newssheet… took complete control of PUBLIC property… THE SAME OLD RITUAL… wot next? Forms in triplicate, secretaries, candidates for parliament???? … The office collective say ‘ALMOST’ anyone can join. I don’t want to ‘join’ anything, so apparently I can no longer use ‘our’ office… and of course ALL the GLF mail and expressed opinion is now to be answered by the MEN from the Stone Age, men who don’t sue their own minds, but copy all the mistakes MEN have made since the world began. I don’t want to stop them using OUR office, but I and perhaps others expect to be able to sue it as well without ‘joining’ anything.”

Whether this leaflet issued from a Bethnal Rouger or not, shortly after this, a proposal to move the GLF office to Bethnal Rouge was discussed at the end of September 1973, but nothing decided. The next morning the Bethnal Rougers took direct action, staging a raid on the office in Housmans, attempting to seize as much GLF material as they could, and a physical struggle ensued. Julian Hows, Stuart Feather and Richard Chappell of Bethnal Rouge were involved. Office collective worker (and longtime Housmans Bookshop worker) David ‘Max’ McLellan, (RIP you mad old tankie!), summed it up thus: “I remember fighting with Julian Hows over a pile of [GLF] manifestos. Julian lost.” However, the Rougers did apparently depart with lots of the office bumf…

The office collective’s view of the raid summed up the now crevassic difference of opinion now polarising gay activism; but also starkly illustrates two views of how you change the world. Which if we’re honest, both have something going for them:

‘And on the Third Day They Came’

Last Wednesday morning, Stuart Feather, Richard and half a dozen others arrived at the elegant and well appointed 5 Caledonian Road and loaded everything into a truck, including the worldly possessions of some of the members of the office collective, tore everything off the walls and generally caused as much indigestion as can be caused by that number of people at that time of the morning. Cherubim, hearken unto your fairy godmother, the place looked like Cinderella’s coach at two after midnight.

That, apart with getting foot and fist heavy with odd peaceful people standing around or offering oral objection, was what happened. Why is a much more difficult question to answer. At the all London meeting at the Conway Hall the previous evening the possibility of moving the office from 5 Caledonian Road had been discussed, but naturally, the all London meeting being the all London meeting, no decision had been taken. And indeed, 5 Caledonian Road does not exist only for the benefit of London, so presumably the forty five other GLFs should have had some say in the matter, but a small group of people in GLF have got themselves so liberated that they have now gone a complete circle and adopted the methods of our flat-footed brothers. [The cops, ed]. This incident is merely the cumulation of two months of bickering, internecine warfare, and general nastiness which has driven people away from the meetings at Conway Hall, wasted the efforts of the offive collective and of the Bethnal Rouge Commune so that nothing has been done to further the liberation of London at all, with the exception of two demos. Well you may ask brothers, where our communal head is at, I’ll tell you – it’s stuck between our legs, fist fucking.

In the middle of all this, why have an office at all? The process of liberation is a long and painful one which never finishes; there are people all over the country who are in various stages of the process. They need pamphlets, badges, information, contact, speakers, assurance and a voice to fill fantasies while they wank off into a public telephone booth. Laugh not, brother, for there you go. In addition, in London, there needs to be somewhere where posters can be made and stored, demos got together, and something done about turning London on. Finally there needs to be somewhere central for people all over the world to drop into when they find themselves in this big wicked city.

By whom can this function be filled? Bethnal Rouge commune is on London and has plenty of space; it has someone there almost all the time and has gay people who are trying to make a go of a totally new life style… On the other hand they are… so liberated that they can’t communicate with most of the human race, and most of the human race can’t communicate with them.

Unfortunately most gays are still members of the human race; you must remain within shouting distance of those you want to relate to. On the other hand, the office collective has been able to answer all mail, provide a reliable service as promised, pay off a lot of the debts, build up a certain amount of confidence, and pay the rent. …”

Not long after this the GLF office collective announced its effective divorce from London GLF and its re-organisation as the Gay Switchboard, which went on to do sterling work as a point of contact for gay folk from all over the place, and continues today…

Bethnal Rouge, in the meantime, claiming to be the true voice of the movement, in a ‘Court Circular’ dated October 3rd-9th, responded they had ‘not taken over the office but merely liberated it from the grip of male oppression’, branding the GLF Office Collective an ‘obscene parody of straight middleclass liberal do-gooders.’

Bethnal Rouge continued for a few months after these events.

In February 1974 Bethnal Rouge was invited by Goldsmiths College Gay Society to give a talk before their regular disco. “They were dressed for the occasion in their best Disco Diva Drag.” Whilst enjoying a pre-talk drink they were attacked by Group 4 Total Security, who worked for the College, and badly beaten up. When Lewisham police arrived sthe security told that Bethnal Rouge had come to the disco to cause trouble. One queen needed hospital treatment; another who was head butted and lost two front teeth. One was arrested and later that night thrown through a glass door in the police station. The rest escaped.

Shortly afterwards the commune was evicted from 248 Bethnal Green Road.

“And we got evicted from Bethnal Rouge and lived in Parfitt Street, in one of the few back to backs left in the East End.” (Julian Hows)

Parfett Street was one of the early streets that became fully squatted in London’s East End: some of its history can be read here

The Bethnal Rouge queens continued their struggle against ‘heteronormativity’ in their own many ways… Stuart Feather, Bette Bourne and Michael James became performers (Stuart later became a painter). Andrew Lumsden later became a tour guide and a painter. Julian Hows achieved minor celebrity when he insisted on wearing female uniform when working for London Underground. He is now an Aids survivor. Stephen Bradbury and Richard Chappell died of Aids in the early 1990s.

Some of the fundamental arguments that produced Bethnal Rouge continue today, and have, if anything, gained topicality. The question of an acceptable gay culture that is benignly tolerated and smiled upon by ‘straight’ capitalist society, versus a subversive sexuality that undermines not only imposed gender roles and toxic and oppressive masculinity, but exists as part of wide movements to radically alter social and economic relations – today we live with the result of the victory of the former tendency. The influence of the radical queens who created Bethnal Rouge, as with much of the most starkly innovative theorising and experimenting of the era, has become sidelined, somewhat, in comparison to the ‘straight’ gay activism that the queens railed against. Ironically though, much of what passes for mainstream gay culture has become completely de-politicised, bound up with consumerism and craving for ‘acceptance’ and ‘normality’, when compared to the GLF era. This is of course to some extent inevitable, for social movements fighting for change: that the early flowering against hostile ‘norms’ produced radical positions, which tend to slowly fade as wider society is actually forced to accommodate the change. GLF and its ilk helped create the change that made their protests less urgent, over decades. But its also true that movements are rarely homogenous, and common interests can unite people with widely varying views or needs, which break under stress, or sometimes split as some achieve partial victories, while others in the wide movement do not. Before the Bethnal Rouge/office collective split, the first divisions in GLF emerged as lesbians protested against domination of the organisation by gay men who they saw as fundamentally seeking gains for themselves without really caring about gay women much.

Drag, of course, was as old as the hills – but even the subversive political drag had mostly dissipated in its impact by the 1990s, reclaimed by the old music hall dynamic: fun, in itself, but hardly threatening socially.

Now, with the strange permutations of queer culture and the resolution-based posturing of much of post-millennial politics, men dressing as women is often labelled as ‘cultural appropriation’ – unless you are declaring yourself as transgender, men shouldn’t be dressing in dresses. Student Unions have denounced and passed resolutions against the very idea.

For those of us coming into radical movements in the 1980s, influenced by 70s feminism, gay liberation, as well as class, race, and our own backgrounds, many of those I grew to work with felt most at home with the ideas of the radical feminists – both the drag queens and the lesbians. Gender, the expectations of behaviour and the social relations that it implied, were a social construct, born and reinforced in the power relations of men over women, but with the layered complications of class, masculinity and femininity, sexuality mixed in… we fell in behind the aim of the Bethnal Rouge queens – we wanted to help dismantle the whole social structure that imposed gender on us all. Freeing us all from power of men over women, but also from the stereotypes and narratives of what men and women do, look like, behave like, and ARE. Most of us still do (from the fleeting conversations I still have with old mates). Among other aims.

Times have moved on, as they tend to do.

These days, men who dressed and acted as the radical queens did would, like as not, be expected to be part of the transgender movement, in one form or another. Though this might or might not in reality reflect their actual aims. There is a strand of historical looking back that retrospectively classes many gay rebels and especially transvestites as effectively transgender… in some cases there’s a basis for that, in others without real historical justification. Often making modern assumptions for social situations that are utterly unlike our own, seeking ancestors in the past who reflect out own experience in our own times. This is a basic misunderstanding of both the nature of social change, and the vitality of the DIFFERENCE between us and those who we look to/inspire us in history. Our experiences and views are different partly BECAUSE of them and their struggles.

Transgender politics is obviously central to current hot debate. Major questions exist as to whether gender is either an inherent trait in us, fundamental to us as a person, despite the biological sex we are born into – or a socially conditioned set of attitudes, reflexes and assumptions, based in the power relations of patriarchy, capitalism and race supremacy, which we have imposed on us, more or less successfully, and which we resist and subvert…

Some of the GLF queens reputedly did transition and become women – others remained fiercely gay men, who dressed in drag to undermine the whole hetero-normative caboodle. Which represents the true tradition? Does such a thing exist?

Like the Mormons, you can try to baptise you ancestors in your image – they may refuse to stay dead and co-operative, however.

I would have liked to write more on these issues and how the history intersects with the now – but at some point you have to just post (time’s tight, and I’m supposed to be doing Proper Work etc), but comments and angry denunciations welcome. On a postcard.

Much of this post was taken from No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power. But other sources are out there.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London’s radical history: Bethnal Green Chartists in court, for assembling, illegally, armed, 1840.

In 1839-40, the Chartist movement reached its first great peak of strength. Building on decades of agitation for constitutional and political reform, emerging from the ruins of earlier political groupings, but adding in the massive experience of the struggle against the stamp tax on the cheap press, the beginnings of large-scale trade unionism, and the birth of the co-operative movement, Chartism was bringing together millions of working class people to demand a voice in the decision making processes – the vote. Monster rallies took place of thousands, mass agitation was drawing in recruit and spreading ideas in the cities and countryside, a huge petitioning effort was underway to show Parliament the strength of the feeling across the country. To many the pressure for change seemed unstoppable.

But in the wake of the rejection of the first Chartist petition by Parliament in July 1839, the outright refusal of the ruling elites to consider further reform, pressure began to build within Chartism for achieving results by other means. Chartism had inherited from earlier reform movements an inherent division, between those who thought campaigning and mass demonstrations, petitions and ‘moral pressure’ from below could bring change – and others who felt their rulers based their control of society of force, and would not give up even a share of it without being forced themselves. The latter, a substantial minority, were strengthened by the refusal of the state to compromise with polite Chartist petitioning, and also by the rhetoric of Chartist leaders who talked a good fight when they really were not prepared to rise in arms…

After the petition was rejected, plans were set in motion for a Sacred Month, the ‘Grand National Holiday’ of William Benbow revived – a General Strike, in effect. Although agreed and even launched, many Chartist leaders were scared by the implications of leading such a movement, and back-pedalled. The strike fizzled out. In the wake of this the ‘physical force’ Chartists began working in earnest to plan for uprisings to overthrow the government that held them down, going beyond demanding a the vote to conceiving of a working class that could take power itself, in its own interests, dispossessing the classes that lived on their backs. This manifested in the Newport Rising of November 1839, when South Wales Chartists launched a revolt, intended to be part of a wider revolutionary attempt. The revolt was put down and its leaders tried for treason.

But even as the trial of John Frost and the other Newport leaders ended with sentences of death and transportation, in early January 1840, plans for uprising were still being hatched in the north of England. Revolts were planned in Sheffield, Dewsbury and Bradford, but were either foiled by the authorities (often with the help of spies) or failed to gather the support needed. And there were spirits abroad in London, too, willing to arm with the aim of overthrowing the hated government:

“In the metropolis, too, the work of disaffection was apparent. Repeated meetings took place, and schemes of the very worst character were devised; and, on Tuesday the 13th of January, the government received private information that an insurrection was to break out on that night or on the following morning, and that the firing of London in various parts was to be the signal for a general rising throughout the country. Orders were in consequence instantly transmitted to the Horse Guards, for the preparation of a sufficient force to repel any treasonable attack which might be made; and here, as well as at all the barracks in the vicinity of the metropolis, and at the Tower, the whole of the men were put under arms. The metropolitan police-force and the city constables received orders to be ready for immediate action, and the London Fire-engine Establishment — a body of most enterprising and active officers — formed into a fire-police, was placed in readiness to employ their exertions to assist the municipal authorities to suppress the supposed intended conflagration.

            The alarm, which was necessarily spread through the metropolis in consequence of these warlike preparations, however, turned out to be without cause; for although on that night a very large meeting of Chartists took place at the Hall of Trades, in Abbey-street, Bethnal-green, there was no attempt at violence. The conduct of the speakers at this assemblage, indeed, sufficiently showed the extremes to which they desired their followers to go; and a subsequent meeting on the following Thursday proved that they were not quite so harmless as their apologists would have had it supposed. At this convention, held, as it was announced, for the purpose of discussing the existing state of the working-classes throughout the country, upwards of seven hundred persons attended, the majority of whom seemed to be individuals of low rank. At nine o’clock the committee came upon the platform, when Mr. Neesom was called to the chair. After the chairman had detailed the objects for which the meeting had been called, Mr. Spurr, who had on a former occasion taken an active part in the discussions, rose to propose the first resolution. After a few preliminary observations, he contended that the only way to preserve the peace was to be prepared to wage war; and in support of such an assertion he thought it would be well deserving the attention of the meeting to bear in mind the words of a celebrated person, “to put their trust in God, and keep their powder dry,” which was received with loud cheering. On silence being restored, the speaker was about to proceed, but a body of police appearing at the door with drawn sabres, caused the greatest possible confusion. The chairman entreated the meeting not to be disturbed, as it was held on constitutional principles, but in order not to give their enemies an opportunity of succeeding, he hoped there would be no breach of the peace committed. The police then, having blocked up every avenue leading to the room, prevented all present from retiring, and proceeded to search their persons. Daggers, knives, sabres, pistols primed and loaded, and other weapons of an offensive character, were taken from many of them, while upon the floor were discovered others of a like description, evidently thrown away by their owners in order to enable them to escape detection. Twenty-one of the persons who were taken into custody on this occasion unarmed, were detained in the Trades Hall, and eleven others, upon whom pistols and daggers had been found, were removed to safe custody, in order to await their examination before the magistrates. Upon subsequent inquiries taking place, several of them were discharged, while, however, others, with new prisoners subsequently secured and identified as parties to the meeting, were tried and convicted at the Old Bailey Sessions, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.” (The Newgate Calendar).

Chartists would of course continue to agitate, strike and plot revolution for several more years… But if 1848 has often been seen as the highpoint, the moment when radical change could have come, it is possible that in 1839-40 the moment was in reality even closer. Sadly, general strikes, insurrections, plots for uprisings, armed meetings, failed to achieve a working class seizure of power 176 years ago…

But hey, there’s still time…

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