Virtue Among Equals: Bloomsbury Radical Herstory, (Walk Two)

Start: Euston Square underground station

This follows on a bit from our earlier Bloomsbury radical history walk. We didn’t really want to split the walk up, but it was so long it became unwieldy, so we divided it thematically. This walk tends to focus on two threads: feminism or feminists who lived or worked in Bloomsbury, and radicals of one stripe or another whose focus was on education and self-improvement. These two criss and cross and sometimes intertwine. You could do this and our previous Bloomsbury radical walk together, mix and match, although it might take you all day to physically walk all of it!

Walk down to the front of University College London

University College London (UCL) was opened in 1826, originally created in the early 19th century by a group of relative freethinkers. At the time London had no university, and Oxford and Cambridge still excluded anyone who was not an orthodox Anglican, or from the ‘right’ background. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham, a number of non-conformists, Catholics, Jews and others, got together and set up UCL as a University open to all regardless of faith and at a reasonably moderate expense. Critics called it the “Godless College”, and the “Cockney College”,  outraged at the idea that not only people of dubious religious ideas might get higher education, but also sons of businessmen and merchants (lowlife).
This furore was mocked by the poet Winthrop Mackworth Praed, clearly a total snob:
“Come, make opposition, by vote and petition,
To the radical infidel college…
Let them not babble of Greek to the rabble,
Nor teach the mechanics their letters…”

A cartoon satirising UCL and the ‘March Of intellect’ – the idea that education. science and progress were the way forward

Reactionary opponents, including the ultra-rightwing Duke of Wellington, set up Kings College in the Strand as a more orthodox rival. Later UCL also broke new ground in women’s education, being the first university in Britain to grant degrees to women on equal terms with men.

Ironically, not only is UCL these days pretty elitist (with a third of students coming from private schools), but in recent times the student union’s Atheist and Humanist Society has faced repression by the student union over its displaying of pretty mild and dull cartoons mocking religion on its facebook page… About time the Godless was put back into the College!

All my Life I’ve Been Benth Out of Shape

Jeremy Bentham is generally revered as having inspired the creation of UCL… Bentham was a complex character, developing both humanistic philosophy on the one hand and inhuman designs for repressive institutions on the other…

Bentham had a massive influence on Bloomsbury liberals and activists that followed, many that lived here and also through his disciples like John Stuart Mill, who in turn was guru to many of the Christian Socialists and suffragettes, and through the educational approach of UCL (whose founders were Bentham’s acolytes), and other institutions founded here.

Jeremy Bentham is often regarded as the founder of classical utilitarianism, designing  “the principle of utility”, which states that any action is right insofar as it increases happiness, and wrong insofar as it increases pain. He rejected the idea of inalienable natural rights—rights that exist independent of their enforcement by any government—as “nonsense on stilts”, opposing it with the proposal that the principle of utility to law and government should be the basis of legal rights, and that the right end of government is the maximisation of happiness (hilarious). During his lifetime, he attempted to create a “utilitarian pannomion”—a complete body of law based on the utility principle. The Scottish historian John Hill Burton was able to trace twenty-six legal reforms to Bentham’s arguments, and Bentham continued to exercise considerable influence on British public life.

Bentham held many views considered radical in Georgian and Victorian Britain. His writings on homosexuality were so liberal that his editor hid them from the public after his death. Bentham suggested the decriminalisation of homosexuality, as the severity of punishment was totally out of proportion to the ‘harm’ inflicted by the ‘crime’. He was also an early advocate of animal welfare, as beasts’ capacity to feel suffering gives us reason to care for their wellbeing: “The question is not can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?”. Bentham supported women’s rights (including the right to divorce), the abolition of slavery, the abolition of capital punishment, the abolition of corporal punishment, prison reform and economic liberalisation.

Holding that greater education would lead people to more accurately discern their long-term interests, and seeing progress in education within his own society, he supported democratic reforms such as the extension of the suffrage. He also advocated for greater freedom of speech, transparency and publicity of officials as accountability mechanisms. A committed atheist, he argued in favour of the separation of church and state.

On the other hand – Bentham also had a ludicrously mechanistic mind: he listed the 12 pains and 14 pleasures on his pleasure/pain axis, in order to illustrate his ‘felicific calculus’, a way of estimating the moral status of an action.

Bentham’s plan for the Panopticon

In many ways he was totally out of step with the radical traditions that derived from the ferment thrown up around the American and French Revolutions, and the reform movements in Britain that took inspiration from them. He wrote tracts in the late 18th century mocking the American struggle for independence. As noted above, he decried the tenet of ‘natural rights’. His conviction that government could be, should be, the instrument of forging a moral and just society, derived from his mechanistic approach to ‘the greater good’, led him deeper into the dark side, to theories of how to ensure people behaved themselves… Influenced by John Howard’s ideas on prison reform (see Great Ormond St, below), Bentham tried to apply utilitarianism to the design of penal institutions… This led to his infamous proposal for the Panopticon, a modern prison arranged so inmates were constantly under surveillance by their jailers, separate and silent, and their morals and behaviour controlled so as to enforce passivity and obedience. The Panopticon itself was never fully put into actual practice (the disregard of this big idea, given that he had spent 16 years working on it, made Jezza very bitter, and possibly led to his growing idea that interests of the powerful could and were combining and conspiring against wider public interest, as evidenced by their failure to listen to HIM…!) However, Bentham’s ideas did permeate into penal policy, and he co-operated with Patrick Colquhoun in designing early modern policing methods. The Panopticon idea had some impact on the layout of mid-late Victorian prisons such as Pentonville.

But Bentham didn’t just see the Panopticon as only being a blueprint for prisons; he though the surveillance/control model could also be applied to all sorts of other institutions, like schools… He merged the ideal of the all-embracing all-seeing supposedly benevolent authority with his penchant for ingenious mechanickery with his horrific ideas about the best way to train/educate/care for pauper children – literally using their movement to power machinery, so that their energy was used to ‘pay back’ the social expense of bringing them up?! (There’s a really interesting post on this here, suggesting Bentham was being both literal and metaphorical here…)

The architects of the vicious New Poor Law introduced in 1834 were his acolytes and disciples, taking much of the more authoritarian side of his thinking and turning it into an inhuman system of workhouses, featuring imprisonment in brutal conditions, moral cruelty, forced labour and family separation to operate as the welfare system for the needy poor.

His Panopticon did foreshadow much of our modern social structure, increasingly watched, scrutinised, and monitored…

Bloomsbury’s liberal-utilitarian axis has often thrown up such split personalities – radicals concerned with real practical change on one hand, but determined to reinforce class and control on the other. The many and contradictory emphases on the nature of education and its role in social change, as we shall see, express this over and over. Bentham’s panopticon maybe the most extreme: Knowledge can be spread, the ignorant/prisoner can be informed/reformed, but under vicious control and conditioning…

Is Bentham’s pickled head still stored in a UCL vault? Bentham requested in his Will that his body should be dissected by UCL students, preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet and called this his “Auto-Icon”. His disciple Dr. Southwood Smith reassembled his skeleton, and UCL acquired his body in 1850, keeping it on public display ever since, but with a wax head.

“Auto-Icon” of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

For some years his head, with glass eyes, reposed on the floor of the Auto-Icon, between Bentham’s legs. However, it proved an irresistible target for students, especially from UCL’s rival, King’s College London, who stole the head in 1975 and demanded a ransom of £100 to be paid to the charity Shelter. UCL finally agreed to pay a ransom of £10 and the head was returned. On another occasion, according to legend, the head, again stolen by students, was eventually found in a luggage locker at a Scottish Station (possibly Aberdeen). The last straw (so runs yet another story) came when it was discovered in the front quadrangle being used for football practice (allegedly again by Kings College students), and the head was henceforth placed in secure storage. There’s still time for a game of ‘football with the severed head’ up Gower street.

NB: if you want walk to go in to see head, then enter the UCL grounds at Porter’s Lodge (between Grafton Way and University Street). You arrive at an open courtyard. Head for the right hand corner, furthest away, and there’s a ramp entrance to the South Cloisters, Wilkins Building. The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon is just inside.

The University now dominates Bloomsbury: a material manifestation, if you will, of the role education has played in the development of ideas, politics, philosophy in this area. As we shall see in this walk, Bloomsbury has been a fertile ground for discussion of education and theories of education as the path to a freer or fairer society have been rife through the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, the growth of UCL, the Society for Useful Knowledge and the Mechanics Institute, the Workingmen’s College and the Working Women’s College, the work of the Victoria Press (coming from the Society for promoting the Employment of Women), down to Mary Ward’s work and beyond… What part of the development of possible freer futures would be played by education? and how to expand of access to education and knowledge to people denied it? The student occupations of UCL in 2010-2011 continued this debate, as, in opposition to the work of 150 years in WC1, access to higher education could well be about to contract and shrink, and come with a guaranteed monkey of tens of thousands of £££ on your back.

Walk up Gower Street to Gower Place

William Godwin

Libertarian philosopher William Godwin lived here, late in his life, from 1825 to 1833. His important work though was written when he lived nearby, in Somers Town, in the 1790s. By the time he moved to Gower Place, the heady days of his fame and influence were in the past, and he was pretty skint.
Godwin’s association with Bloomsbury in fact dates back to 1787, when he unsuccessfully applied for a post at the British Museum.

Though largely forgotten now, Godwin’s ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, was very widely read and hugely influential when it appeared in 1793, raising philosophical arguments aroused by the French Revolution to whole new levels. Involved in the late 1780s-early 1790s in reforming circles, around groups both inspired by the French Revolution and working for radical reform in Britain, (such as the Revolution Society, the circles around Thomas Paine and the London Corresponding Society), Godwin took a different radical and philosphical direction. Though his solid belief in education and its power to free people, chimed with strong theme in Bloomsbury radicalism, he came to doubt the use of organisations and oppose all government, or political effort of any kind! “A man surrenders too much of himself” in political organisations or associations… In some ways he foreshadows anarchism and extreme laissez faire capitalism… though there’s no evidence he influenced any later thinkers of the 19th Century libertarian movement. Historians and Godwin: AL Morton said that Political Justice “concentrated all the typical ideas of the time into a single work permeated with utopian feeling” – though in fact he was widely at variance with many of his contemporaries.

Godwin’s background was in hardline Calvinism, and though he discarded the Calvinist doctrine, he retained the way of thinking: logical, deductive, disdaining of sentiment and experience; he also took from this upbringing his ardent belief in the perfectability of humankind. Its obvious too that the history of persecution of dissenters influenced his view on links between state and church… Many of the central ideas of Political Justice as coming from Godwin’s background in the rational Dissenting movement, to the point where disagreeing with the traditional view of Godwin, he places his ideas in that context, rather than that of the philosophical debate arising from the French Revolution. (Also, though, in some of his philosophical cul-de-sacs, like that concerts and theatrical performances would die out in a free rational society, etc, for allegedly opposite motives he arrives at very similar conclusions to puritans…).

After a failed early career as a dissenting minister, Godwin became a journalist and writer; while he was immersed in the ideas and way of life of the Rationalist Dissenters, he also came under the influence of french philosophers.

Godwin was on the fringes of movements for electoral and social reform at home, as well as groups in sympathy with the ideals of the French Revolution. While his inclinations were not really towards activism, but to discussion and change through development of ideas, his close friends like Thomas Holcroft and Joseph Gerrard were targeted by government repression of the reformers. He intervened in the trials of London Corresponding Society leaders Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and others, arrested and on trial for treason (basically for their political activities), with a powerful article in the Morning Chronicle which exposed the attempt to widen the high treason charge to mean any attempt to change society; an article credited by many with influencing the jury’s decision to acquit all those charged: a heavy defeat for the authorities.

‘Political Justice’ was begun in 1791, and finished in January 1793, changing as Godwin’s ideas evolved. The book is a hymn to progress, opposition to war, despotism, monarchy, religion, penal laws, patriotism, class inequality; in its place he exhorts the “human will to embark with a conscious and social resolve on the adventure of perfection.” He argues for absolute freedom in political and speculative discussion, against prosecutions for blasphemy or sedition; for abolition of established religion; and dismisses monarchy, aristocracy, elective dictatorship in the US style (new then). The book also condemned the pursuit of luxury, ostentation, wealth which corrupt virtue and degrade others, and thus ourselves; those who live in luxury are parasiting on the labour of others, and claiming that property is bequeathed by their ancestors as a justification is a “mouldy patent”. It is immoral for one man to have power to dispose of produce of another’s toil, and wrong for one to live in ease unless it’s available to all. Godwin opposed colonialism, advocating universal free trade in its place. Economics was his achilles heel though, he lacked any analysis of economics, or its role in social change. Holding that on the one hand it’s wrong for one man to have superfluous wealth while others go hungry, but equally wrong for anyone to deprive anyone of their property or wealth, takes no account of how wealth is acquired. Godwin thought property should remain sacred, not only so as to emphasise the personal virtue of giving it away, but also because for the poor to take the property of the rich by force would infringe THEIR self-determination.

In opposition to then widely held theories that people are determined by factors such as heredity, social position and environment, and can’t change themselves, Godwin asserted that man IS a creature of ‘his’ environment, but of conditions ‘he’ can change – education, religion, government and social prejudice. Godwin recognised that social inequalities and hierarchies ‘poison our minds’ from birth; these ideas he saw as the result of political and social institutions. He elevated education to supreme importance. Education and its possibilities dominating enlightened thinking then; but in contrast to other reforming thinkers of the time, eg the French philosophers, he argued against national standards of education: state-regulated institutions would stereotype knowledge and lead to beliefs that cease to be perceptions and become prejudices… No government should be entrusted with power to create and regulate opinions.

Godwin saw the malign influence of government everywhere, and thought its abolition would open up exciting chances… Government was wrong as a concept. Out of step with 18th century philosophers, or even the beginnings of 19th century liberalism in Condorcet’s plan for a national education scheme, and Paine’s ideas for pensions; Godwin dismisses all such schemes as infringement and constraint of the individuals’ will and virtue.

Godwin thought authority would gradually decay as education and reason triumphed. He was opposed to seizures of power or revolutionary upheavals. Change must be based on informed consensus and desire. He thought it ‘wrong’ to incite an ‘ill-informed’ mass to revolt – better to wait for virtuous ideas to spread than risk uncertain bloody uprising by ‘non-perfect’ people. There was a moral hierarchy in his world-view; those with essentially virtuous, ‘valuable’ minds are more worthy people.

His individualism was taken to fantastic levels: there was no room in the early editions for personal affection (though he softened on this later); he almost opposes performances of music or theatre because the co-operation of musicians, like all co-operation, was an offence against one’s own sincerity!

Read more on ‘Political Justice’

His opposition to state action did, “excuse him from attempting the more dangerous exploits of civic courage”: he escaped the repression that bore down on more active radicals. Although his attacks on monarchy were just as uncompromising as Tom Paine’s, tory Prime Minister William Pitt said Godwin should be left alone as “a 3 guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not 3 shillings to spare.” Though in fact ‘Political Justice’ sold for less than three guineas, this was truly damning: it was still a learned book for the educated, in contrast to the electric effect that Paine’s book had among the nascent working and artisan classes. In fact 4000 copies of Political Justice sold, a fair amount, a testament to the middle class eagerness for revolutionary and philosophical ideas at that time.

When Willie met Mary: Godwin’s relationship with Mary Wollstoncraft seems to have been a meeting of equal minds, according to his both own account, and others’; neither dominated the other, they experienced “friendship melting into love”, respecting each others minds and intellects and regarding each other with reverence and pride. They lived together unmarried (daringly unconventional then), in accordance with their principles in house in the Polygon, Somers Town, leading partly separate lives, as they frequented different social circles and friends, but overlapping, as they met on occasion by chance at the same social events! Only when Mary became pregnant did they reluctantly marry in March 1797. Tragically Mary then died giving birth to their daughter. Around this time Godwin did revise his idea of universal benevolence slightly, putting care for your family first… THEN others, as being the most effective way of securing general good.

Mary W hadn’t had much time for ‘universal benevolence’ – she more practically claimed that “Few have much affection for mankind, who first did not love their parents, their brothers, sisters and the domestic brutes who they first played with.” In other words, radical ideas come from love close to home, from emotional ties; in total contrast to Godwin.

After Mary’s death Godwin became personally unhappy – his ideas were also increasingly attacked and silenced, or became irrelevant, as reaction triumphed. Many of his associates had been transported, jailed, persecuted, others drifted to the right. In later years he ran a publishing firm and library that went eventually bust and ended up relying on the charity of friends and sympathisers, especially his son-in-law, the poet Shelley.

Political Justice’ did for a few decades from the 1790s influence a younger generation, most famous among them the romantic poets, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth (for a while), and most of all Shelley. They were inspired by his vision of a “free community from which laws and coercion had been eliminated, and in which property was in a continual flux actuated by the stream of universal benevolence.”

But by Godwin’s death in 1836 the book’s initial fame had already declined and he was almost forgotten.

Read more on Shelley’s ideas when we get to Marchmont Street, below…

Walk along Gower Place to the Katherine Lonsdale Building

Kathleen Lonsdale

UCL’s first woman professor was Katherine Lonsdale (1903-71), a highly distinguished crystallographer, one of the first two women Fellows of the Royal Society in 1945, first women President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. She was also a Quaker, and pacifist war-resister, who was sent to jail in 1943 for refusing to register for civil defence or war duties, or to pay a fine imposed for her defiance. UCL Kathleen Lonsdale Building in Gower Place is named after her.

Walk back to Gower Street, turn left and walk down Gower Street to Chenies Street

Anna Jameson

Anna Jameson (born Anna Brownell Murphy) 1794-1880, lived here in the 1820s.  Born in Dublin, she married a Mr Jameson, but separated from him – a daringly radical act then. She became a writer and art critic to support herself,  got involved in philanthropy, then in anti-slavery campaigns and women’s rights activism. She was very influential on a younger group of feminist activists active in the mid-Victorian women’s rights circles centred on the Langham Place Group, from which emerged projects such as the English Womens Journal (the first regular English feminist publication), particularly Emily Faithfully and Barbara Leigh Bodichon. See Coram Street, below…

Read More on Anna Jameson 

Walk southwest down Gower Street to Store Street, wander down a bit

In 1791-2, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft lived somewhere here, shortly after she wrote her influential book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, held by many to be the founding literature of feminist theory. Largely self-educated, she wrote other several books and essays, including A Vindication of the Rights of Man, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and History and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution. All her works emphasised education for women, companionship with, rather than subservience to, men, and employment for single women.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 to a middle‐​class family in England. Her father Edward squandered his money on disastrous projects and became an abusive drunk who violently beat his wife Elizabeth. Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her, and her father’s violence and domination had a strong impact on her ideas.

To escape her troubled home life and make money to survive, Wollstonecraft became an attendant to a widower and then a governess to a rich Anglo‐​Irish family (a traditional role for ‘distressed gentlewomen’). She also ran a short-lived school for girls in Newington Green. But Wollstonecraft dreamed of becoming an author, and took up the pen, to powerful effect.

Mary Wollstoncraft

Mary became part of intellectual and radicals literary circles in London, meeting with varied writers ,thinkers, philosophers and activists, including Richard Price, Thomas Paine, William Godwin and others. Many had their origins in Dissenting and non-conformist sects of Protestantism, especially the Rational Dissenters, who believed in the primacy of reason in tandem with scripture, instead of tradition and what they believed to be superstition, and argued for the separation of church and state, the rejection of church hierarchies and even the denial of the doctrine of original sin.

The primary focus of Wollstonecraft’s writings was to challenge the existing order, where women were relegated to being second class citizens, and to oppose it with a theory of society in which women were treated as rational, autonomous beings, capable of independence and virtue.

Women were specifically treated as lesser beings in Mary’s time, legally, socially, and economically. This was backed up with philosophical justifications in religious and historical texts going back to Greek philosophers. Women were viewed as irrational and intellectually hollow beings who merely existed for the sake of beauty and procreation, based on their supposed lack of rationality and their physical and emotional frailty.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft articulated an account of the natural equality and liberty that all women deserved. Most of the piece is focused on the education of women. For Wollstonecraft, education was the key to women’s liberation.

Wollstonecraft stressed education as crucial to the free development of any individual, based on the Lockean idea of people as born without any prior knowledge, and that everything we become is a result of our upbringing and education. Wollstonecraft suggested that “the effect of an early association of ideas” has a vital influence on who we grow up to become. This idea of humanity as a creation of nurture not nature, led Wollstonecraft to believe that there is no justification for hierarchies and that “God has made all things right.”

During Wollstonecraft’s life, women’s education was starkly different from men’s. Lower class women (like most lower class men) received little or no education at all; some middle and upper class women were taught ‘womanly’ skills like sewing, singing, and conversation, for the amusement of men. Mary Wollstonecraft rejected this narrow view of what a woman could and should learn: “the most perfect education…is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attach such habits of virtue as will render it independent.” As we are born knowing nothing, and the mind is shaped by education, women’s oppression was not natural but completely arbitrary; women had not been given a chance to pursue the same goals as men.

In her A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft replied to Edmund Burke’s famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, rejecting Burke’s view that social and political progress could only be achieved slowly with rigid adherence to tradition, and maintaining institutions like monarchy, hereditary aristocracy and class divisions. Wollstonecraft instead rejected monarchy and hereditary privileges as upheld by the Ancien Regime, proposing that France should adopt a republican form of government. By abolishing hereditary privileges, a fairer society in which all compete on an equal footing would be born.

Humans, with their capacity for reason, elevate themselves above animals. Reason allows for thoughtful reflection and, most importantly, self‐​improvement. Wollstonecraft described reason as “the simple power of improvement, or more properly speaking the discerning of truth.” Reason allows us to pursue and maintain virtue, which was, for Wollstonecraft, the primary goal of life: the adherence to reason unhindered by passions, coercion, or the opinions of others. Someone cannot be forced to become virtuous, they must be free to make use of their faculties without external coercion.

Virtue can only be achieved by those who enjoy freedom, so “political associations are intended only for the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man”, ie, the foremost urgent concern for any political being is to create and maintain a society that allows for the moral flourishing of independent individuals, a society of equals. Our nature as rational beings entitles us to liberty, “the birthright of every man.”

Arbitrary power, servitude, domination of some people by others, creates dependence and subordination, slavish behaviour on the part of the dominated, while freedom from arbitrary power cultivates independence and equality. Wollstonecraft’s often compared women’s situation to slavery. Dominated individuals are not in control of their own destiny, and therefore cannot achieve a semblance of virtue, even in the best of circumstances.

She took the view that marriage was hardly better than slavery, leading women to behave slavishly; “whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands, woman will be cunning, mean and selfish.” Wollstonecraft thought that it was “vain to expect virtue from women until they are in some degree independent of men.”

In contrast, Wollstonecraft advocated personal independence, “the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue.” both independence of mind – the power to think freely and unhindered by others – and civil independence – the power to survive economically and freedom to make their own way in the world.

Education for women was the key to this change. If Women were educated “like a fanciful kind of half being,” taught to care about their looks, charm, and manners instead of learning how to discern truth, formulate ideas and arguments, and become resilient people, then men would always be able to maintain their own positions of power, and women would remain inferior beings. Women needed education to enable them to free themselves, and while they remained subjugated, anyone who condoned this inequality could not achieve virtue and freedom either: “virtue can only flourish amongst equals…among unequals there can be no society”. This wasted women’s potential: “Many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry”.

Wollstonecraft argued both for women’s right to own property, as well as the ability to make contracts, in order to have the option to earn an income separate from their husbands, all of which the law then did not allow, and for women play a role in government, both as representatives and voters.

Her stress on education was rooted in her own experience: she had to educate herself, while coping with a brutal drunken father who she had to defend herself and her mother against, and also working to support herself and her sister. But the Vindication was very much of its time, firmly based in the ideas of late 19th Century philosophy and radicalism – reason and education are seen as the basis for change to a freer and more equal society. Mary had been active in radical circles in London since the late 1780s, and associated with the radical democratic circle of writers and activists that included Thomas Paine, from the late 1780s. Her ideas of equality arose from ideals of perfect companionship, and fellowship (in contrast to the individualism of Godwin and even of Thomas Paine), but based on freethinking and clearheaded beings who had agency. But though some of the ideas contained within the Vindication had been suggested before, (eg Baron d’Holbach had written of the necessity of education for women), it’s lasting importance lies in the conscious articulation of these ideas by a woman, for women, in print, for the first time.

After living in Store Street, she spent two and a half years in revolutionary France. She had supported the French Revolution from the start, linking question of women’s subjugation to the revolutionary movement, even pushing the French convention to explain lack of recognition of the rights of women…

In August 1796 she began a free unmarried relationship with William Godwin, proto-libertarian writer and historian (see above, Gower Place), who she had first met at a dinner while living here in 1791. When she found herself pregnant in 1797, she married him, against her principles and better judgement, and they moved into The Polygon building, in nearby Somers Town. But the same year she died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, better known later as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft’s vision of a world in which women are treated as rational and autonomous beings inspired a wide variety of thinkers within the early feminist movement. many 19th century feminists and suffragists read and admired Wollstonecraft’s work. But her revolutionary, republican and egalitarian beliefs, and her staunch personal freethinking and lifestyle led more moderate women activists to downplay her. Early British suffrage activists thought her beliefs n free love, having a child unmarried, etc, were dangerously radical and reference to her ideas would leave them open to attack by male opponents, and by aristocratic women for who felt equality was for some women, but not all. For decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, feminists tried to ignore Mary W’s legacy, though she was increasingly celebrated in the 20th century.

In another of the many local feminist resonances, women’s publishers Pandora Press was started in Store Street in 1983…

Walk back up to Gower Street, and torn right; walk on down the east side, stop at no 2

Millicent Garret Fawcett speaks

Millicent Garrett Fawcett lived at no. 2. Daughter of a businessman, she worked for women’s suffrage for over 50 years; joining the Langham Place Circle, and was a founder member of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1867, and later becoming president of the National union of Womens Suffrage Societies, 1907-1919.  Fawcett consistently led the wing of the late 19th Century feminist movement that not only rejected alliance with specific political parties (contrasting with Emmeline Pankhurst’s early position, see above); she also supported the campaign for ‘social purity’ that many late nineteenth century suffragists advocated. She campaigned together with much of the women’s movement for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which forced examination for sexually transmitted diseases onto prostitutes (who could be jailed if found to have passed on STDs, or refusing to be tested), but not their male customers. The Acts were eventually repealed.

Though initially supportive of the militancy of the Women’s Social & Political Union, including prison hunger strikes Fawcett increasingly disagreed with the Pankhursts over their ‘violent’ tactics, especially deliberate property damage, which she thought were alienating MPs and the ‘voting public’. She favoured lobbying, education and gradual winning people over by persuasion, and focused efforts on Bills in Parliament, such as the 1912 attempt to give votes to all heads of households.

However, in common with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, she supported the War effort in World War 1, believing suffragette support for the War would lead a grateful granting of the vote for women in response. The NUWSS contained probably more pacifist feminists than the WSPU; as a result the organisation’s support for the War was less strident, and unlike the WSPU they continued to campaign for the vote throughout the slaughter. [Note here: many pacifists were kicked out, though, when they tried to push the NUWSS towards an anti-war position: in April 1915, Ray Strachey, a leading acolyte of Millicent Garret, wrote to her mother:We have succeeded in throwing all the pacifists out… They wanted us to send a delegate to the Women’s Peace Conference at the Hague, & we refused. Then they resigned in a body – and they included the majority of our senior officers and committees! It is a marvellous triumph that it was they who had to go out and not us – and shows that there is some advantage in internal democracy, for we only did it by having the bulk of the stodgy members behind us.”]

After the granting of the franchise for women under 30 in 1919, the NUWSS became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, working mainly for a lowering of women’s voting age to 21 to match men. But Millicent Fawcett (who gave up the presidency in 1919) gradually grew disillusioned with other NUSEC demands and resigned from its Board. She died in 1929 in her house here.

Walk back up Gower Street, cross over to west side, continue up then turn right down Keppel Street, left into Malet Street, then down to Birkbeck College:

The London Mechanics Institution was founded in 1823. (now Birkbeck College)

The Mechanics Institution movement was an early attempt to create widespread learning opportunities for workers looking to learn about the scientific and technical principles on which their work was based. Many of the institutions had their own libraries and artisans and workers could pursue specifically designed vocational courses through lectures and other programmes of study.

George Birkbeck, then Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Anderson’s Institution in Glasgow founded the movement in 1800. Following the creation of the London Mechanics’ Institution in 1823, institutions were quickly established in towns and cities across Britain including Aberdeen, Dundee, Leeds, Lancaster, Newcastle and Sheffield, Birmingham, Devonport,  Liverpool, Manchester, Norwich, Portsmouth, and Bristol. By the mid 19th century there were over 700 institutions in Britain.

At the start of its existence the membership numbered over a thousand, each paying a subscription of five shillings every three months.

Birkbeck and the Mechanics Institutions movement were supported by individuals and organisations who could believed in the importance of work-based education; many were influential figures in the Liberal Utilitarian scene strong in Bloomsbury, (which also gave birth to University College) including Lord Brougham and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. which promoted and actively supported the Institution movement through its publications.

The movement had its critics – it was roundly attacked by both Tories, who distrusted the idea of educating workers at all (where would it all lead?) and denounced the Institutions as hotbeds of radicalism (“I had rather see my servants dead drunk than I would see them going to the Mechanics’ Institution” wrote one critic.) but also from below, by radicals who saw the institutions as merely paternalistic attempts to further exploit or bamboozle the workers.

The Institutions did make an impact on the development of technical education, but it was widely perceived that it hadn’t quite hit the market it was aiming for; partly, like the Working Men’s College, it was felt that the class attending them was socially slightly out of kilter with the name. An 1858 report noted that “Mechanics Institutes are no longer Institutions for mechanics; some enrol a small number of artisans, whilst others register none… though they are still called Mechanics Institutes, they are places for the resort of shop men and the middle class.”

Lack of elementary education to base their work on, shortness of cash (the Institutions had no state support), and other factors hindered their effect. Some Institutions went on to become libraries, reading clubs, providing occasional popular lectures and locations for literary pursuits frequented by the middle and upper classes, or Working Men’s Colleges. The London Mechanics’ Institution here later transformed into Birkbeck College, now part of the London University and still provides part-time higher education to mainly working adults. Other Mechanics’ Institutions evolved into  Technology Colleges or continued to offer evening classes in art, commerce and the sciences until they were eventually absorbed into the emerging technical education system that occurred in the later stages of the 19th century.

Walk north down Malet Street to the front of ULU

The University of London Student Union building here was occupied January 27 1969, by students protesting against the closure of the London School of Economics, saying they want to establish an LSE in exile until their own college was reopened.

Three days before, students with pickaxes, crowbars and sledgehammers, had smashed several sets of steel gates at LSE which had only just been installed, saying they made the place feel like a concentration camp… LSE Director Walter Adams, who ordered the gates to ‘improve security’, closed the school and announced it would remain shut until he was satisfied order can be maintained.

Relocating to ULU, the LSE rebels barred the entrances, and stuck posters on the doors and walls, with slogans like “Occupied for Student Action” and “LSE in exile”.

One student, who refused to be identified by the cameras, said: “It is very difficult to say how long we are going to be here. We need a base from which to work and this is why this base was taken in the first place.” He said so far only sociology lectures had been held in the ULU. Another rebel student blamed Dr Adams and the governors for closing the school: “They hold the power, not the revolutionary students of LSE. They closed LSE, we would like to open it.” He accused Dr Adams of trying to restrict their academic freedom by putting up the security gates.

A statement from the Occupation:

“The facilities can be used by anyone joining us. We are using the duplication facilities in the Union office on the ground floor, and they can be used by anyone wishes to circulate any kind of document. There is no control over free expression. This goes for the rest of the building  so far only partly explored. The only thing which needs to be organised in common is defence and basic survival  food and sleep. Inside the building, we are all responsible for resisting any bureaucratic organisation of activities: discussion, decoration, planning for agitation, music.

Remember there is a swimming pool. If anyone tells you what to do, report them to the security committee. IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED. The Security Committee”

According to Dick Pountain, then active in pro-Situationist provocateur-group, King Mob: “When King Mob was going at full blast, after the LSE sit-in there was a sit-in at the University of London Union and we got involved in that. It lasted several days. Everyone was sleeping on the floor and all that. The New Left crowd tried to run it. We gave Robin Blackburn [lefty academic, New Left theorist and then member of the trotskyist International Marxist Group] a really bad time, howled him down, told him he was a wanker. They were very worried this, we might damage things, don’t scratch the paintwork, so a bunch of people went and bust open the swimming pool and had this huge swimming party. The whole thing was very fraught because you’d got this mass of students, the New Left people telling them to be serious and responsible, and King Mob telling them to get their rocks off, let it all hang out, etc. It was very iffy, because the great mass in the middle were swaying both ways. Only a minority supported us; the majority wanted to be quiet and respectable, but these two guys came out of the crowd and joined in with us and said, ‘We’re with you.’ They were a couple of art students from Goldsmith’s and one was called Fred Vermorel and the other was called Malcolm Edwards. They both had long, dirty khaki macs, a couple of impoverished art students. And of course Malcolm went on to finer things and became Malcolm McLaren, and in a lot of ways the whole Sex Pistols scam was the putting into practice of a lot of Situationist theories. It was a betrayal of it in the sense that it became part of the ‘Spectacle’, but he did really shock the bourgeoisie of the whole country, which is something that King Mob never did.” (Days in the Life’)

According to McLaren: “When we took over the ULU building, Chris Gray and the Situationist mob decided that the only interesting part of the student union was the kitchen, which they took over immediately and rifled the fridge. He just thought it was fantastic that he could fry all these steaks simultaneously. I remember them all cooking and thinking this was brilliant.”

Walk to Byng Place, turn right into Gordon Square, down to no 55-59:

Bertrand Russell lived here (probably after August 1916 to at least 1918), see more on him below…

Walk down to no 51 Gordon Square

Lady Jane Strachey, painted by fellow Bloomsburyite Dora Carrington

Lady Jane Strachey, posh suffragette, lived here. Between 1900 and 1910, she was immersed in feminist activities, particularly in the workings of National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies of which she was a Committee member. She recruited her daughters into suffrage activities and leading the female members of her family in the 1907 ‘Mud March, the first of the big demonstrations demanding votes for women (“a very wet and dreary day… three thousand women made [their] way from Hyde Park Corner to Exeter Hall… long skirts trailing on the ground…”) The march was organised by her daughter Pippa, who followed closely in her mother’s footsteps (becoming the secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1907). Lady Jane and her husband were both from aristocratic families heavily involved in British imperialist rule in India, in which she and her daughters saw no contradiction, and her suffragette and feminist work sat side by side with class prejudice and racial conservatism.

Her daughter-in-law, Ray Strachey wrote what has been regarded as a classic account of the mid-19th/early 20th Century British women’s movement, The Cause, published in 1928. (Illustrating the incestuousness of Bloomsbury aristo-political relations, Ray’s aunt, US feminist Alys Pearsall was also at one time married to philosopher and anti-war campaigner Bertrand Russell, a descendant of the dukes of Bedford.)

Strachey’s book is interesting, as much for the way it writes about 19th Century feminism and what it prioritises, as anything else. Following her own biases she heavily edits her history of the Women’s movement, barely mentioning Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, (and not locating her ideas at all in the context of their time), while lauding liberal thinker John Stuart Mill, who she portrays as the architect of much of the activity of mid-late nineteenth century feminism, as well as concentrating almost exclusively on political and philanthropic action, while almost ignoring women whose activity was in the arena of sexual freedom (more coverage is given to those whose campaigning veered towards sexual puritanism). Its possible that part of the reason for this comes from her own background – her mother pretty much abandoned her and her siblings to move to Italy with a new lover, and lived a bohemian ‘romantic’ existence; Ray rejected this influence and maybe took a dim view of feminists she saw as belonging to a romantic strand or, like Mary W, lived as sexual rebels against the conventions of the time. Possibly as a reaction against her mother’s way of life, she admired above all Millicent Garrett’s “lack of passion or enthusiasm, the constant emphasis on reason which others found so daunting…”

Her book also stops short of mentioning the debates of the feminists of the 1920s, post-suffrage, in which issues of challenging the daily social economic and cultural oppression of women were being brought to the fore… Her elevating of JS Mill is part of an attempt to firmly locate the women’s movement in a liberal, pragmatic tradition, with an emphasis on political activity, realism, and moderation, as well as devotion to the family… She also makes a clear decision to dwell on the acts of middle and upper class women, justifying this by explicitly dismissing working women. After a passage on the struggle to pass factory acts limiting hours and improving conditions, she states that “The sufferings of the industrial and labouring classes had no direct effect upon the Women’s Movement. The working women whose lot was so harsh had no thought that they themselves ought to be able to change and control their conditions.” Meaning as women, not just workers… and lathers on more condescension: “They did not know a new social conscience was awakening to their needs… Sanitation, Education, Factory Inspection, and Old Age Pensions… were far beyond the range off their ideas.” Working class people and especially women, just aren’t clever enough, my dears, we, their betters, need to act on their behalf. In fact large numbers of the WSPU were working class women… although I’m not sure about the ratio within the NUWSS, which Strachey adhered to.

Walk back down, to the southeast corner of Gordon Square, turn left, the right down Woburn Place, and walk down to Coram St, turn left & walk down to the Holiday Inn.

Emily Faithfull

no 9 Coram Street once stood on this spot. Another feminist publishing centre in the area; in 1860, Emily Faithfull founded the Victoria Press, a women’s printers & publishers, here.

Emily Faithfull was associated with the Langham Place circle, the first real grouping of the 19th Century Women’s movement. From this group emerged (among many other projects) the English Women’s Journal, later the English Women’s Review, England’s first women’s rights magazine and the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, of which Emily was a member. The Society aimed to open up trades to women at a time when women of all classes were routinely blocked from many jobs. The Langham Place group was mainly composed of, and broadly aimed to represent, middle class women attempting to break out of male control of their lives. Emily learned type-setting, and founded the Victoria Press in March 1860, training and hiring other women as compositors. This however aroused hostility from the male-dominated Printer’s Union in London, which barred women from access to compositor’s work, claiming they lacked the mechanical ability and the intelligence for the job. Faithfull however persevered, and her press continued for years. All the staff were women – printers, compositors, writers etc, which was pioneering then. The Press produced not only the Englishwomen’s Journal, but also published the weekly ‘Friend of the People’ in 1864, and Victoria Magazine, 1863-80 (which also promoted the employment of women). Both the Press’s success, and the respectability sought by some of these early feminist projects, was acknowledged by Emily Faithfull being appointed Printer and Publisher in Ordinary to queen Victoria in 1862.

Women printers and typesetters at the Victoria Press

Emily though had to distance herself from the Press in 1867, after she was cited in a divorce case and suspected of being a lesbian (shock horror! Shouldn’t have done her any harm with queen Vicky though, who famously pressed for laws against gay men but refused to believe lesbians existed.) She continued to be active in women’s publishing and printing, helping found the Women’s Printing Society in 1874, and in trade unionism. She was one of the first women to join the Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1875.

The Victoria Press later moved to Farringdon Street.

After suffering for many years with asthma and bronchitis, Emily died on 31 May 1895 in Manchester aged sixty.

Read copies of the Englishwoman’s Journal 

Walk down to Herbrand St, turn right, left into Bernard St, walk down to no 32

Sophia Jex-Blake, pioneering medical woman and feminist, lived here 1874-7. A founder of the London School of medicine for Women (see below, Hunter Street), she had been influenced early on, as had many of her feminist contemporaries, by the ideas and practices of the Christian Socialists. As a child she was ‘stormy, tumultuous, and unmanageable’ (Strachey, 1928), qualities which stood her in good stead for the struggles she later faced against the medical establishment. Her parents were evangelical Anglicans with traditional views on education, who took some persuading to let her to study at college, and only gave their approval to her becoming a maths tutor if she agreed to work for free!

Sophia Jex-Blake

Teaching in the United States, Sophia had met Dr. Lucy Sewell, the resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women, and decided she would rather be a doctor rather than a teacher. British medical schools refused to accept women students, but she finally persuaded Edinburgh University to allow her and her friend, Edith Pechy, to attend medical lectures. Although reactionary male students tried to physically prevent them attending lectures or examinations, Jex-Blake and Pechy passed their examinations, but university regulations only allowed medical degrees to be given to men, so the British Medical Association refused to register the women as doctors. The case attracted widespread publicity, which prompted Russell Gurney, a pro-women’s rights MP, to push through Parliament a bill empowering medical training bodies to educate and graduate women on equal terms to men. Sophia qualified as a doctor in 1877.
 Sophia then joined with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in getting the Medical School for Women set up: she hoped to head the school but when someone else got the job, Sophia moved to Edinburgh where she established a successful practice and played an active role in the local Women’s Suffrage Society.

Down Bernard Street to the corner of Russell Square, turn left

On your left is the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel (previously the Hotel Russell; but it changes its name reg’lar, so may be called summat else by now!)

Nos 1-8 Russell Square used to occupy the northeast corner of the Square, where the hotel now stands. In the mid-19th Century no 5 was home to Frederick Denison Maurice, a leading Christian Socialist, and Chaplain of nearby Lincolns Inn. Broadly speaking  the Christian Socialists of the mid-late 19th Century worked for a fairer and more equal society; the ‘movement’ included individuals such as the novelist Charles Kingsley. Their motives are slightly open to question, though; while they believed society should be organised more fairly and justly, they were also concerned to divert working class energies away from collective revolt and self-organisation, and towards more individual self-improvement through education. And the to what extent they saw society really changing is also debateable: to Maurice, proposing a new economic structure based on a fair distribution of wealth, his social democracy would inevitably retain a Church, a monarch and a gentry: the class structure would largely remain the same.

Kingsley and other early Christian Socialists had been involved in the moderate wing of Chartism, though the more rowdy elements of this movement scared them quite considerably. They also (like many another reformer) saw immorality and lack of virtue as holding the poor back; Kingsley criticised the Chartists thus: “Will the Charter make you free? Will it free you from slavery to ten-pound bribes? Slavery to beer and gin? Slavery to every spouter…? That I guess is real slavery, to be a slave to one’s own stomach, one’s own pocket, one’s own temper… there can be no true freedom without virtue… be wise and you must be free, for you will be fit to be free.”

As Stuart Christie pointed out, some of this may be broadly true, but it’s “insufferably patronising”; no that’s not REAL slavery, mate. Plus the middle class had the vote, the power, and many of the wealthy were bigger “slaves” to their stomachs and  their pockets – having bigger pockets (and usually bigger stomachs). Kingsley could only see a ‘free society’ as a reward or privilege for good behaviour, bestowed on the deserving by, well, the proper authorities.

JM Ludlow is credited with originating the term ‘Christian Socialism’, he said Socialism would have to be Christianised, or it would topple Christianity: however the label was not universally approved even by those broadly part of the Christian Socialist ‘movement’: E. Van-Sittart Neale opposed its use, believing the socialist reference would alienate Christians who distrusted socialism, and the Christian bit would put off non-religious socialists.

Several early Christian Socialists, for example Maurice, Kingsley, JM Ludlow, Thomas Hughes, Van-Sittart Neale, got involved in the Co-operative movement, in fact Maurice’s socialism seems to have meant solely Co-operation:

“Anyone who recognises the principle of co-operation as a stronger and truer principle than that of competition has a right to the honour of being called a socialist.” To him, Socialism was “the assertion of God’s Order.”

The influx of middle class Christians into the Co-operative movement reached the point where the pioneer Co-operator GH Holyoake, a long-time secularist, was complaining in 1880 that Christians had “captured” the movement, and suggested that he had been gradually forced out of his leading position because of his atheism, which embarrassed the new Co-operative leadership… Realistically however, his gradual freezing out was probably as much to do with his more social and communal vision of how the movement should develop. The original (essentially secular, it’s true) Co-operative movement ethos was that Co-operation was “the gateway to the communal state”, but by the 1850s commercial aspects had gradually come to overshadow the moral and social aims. (Though these survived to some extent in some areas well into the 20th Century) In fact the early Christian socialists would probably have agreed with Holyoake; their vision of the movement, like his, aimed at co-operation at the point of production, but this gradually fell second best to equal shares in the profits from distribution. E. Van-Sittart Neale had devoted much effort to the Society for Promoting Working Men’s Associations, which worked to create workers’ or craftsmen’s co-ops; but by 1854 it had collapsed. (According Walter Sylvester Smith, “as a socially Utopian movement, co-operation was all but abandoned in 1854.”)

FD Maurice’s theology was, for the time, slightly more radical than his social views: he was repelled by the doctrine of damnation and rejected the orthodox idea of humanity as basically depraved. He saw heaven and hell as being co-existing states, meaning unity with, or separation from, Christ. His refusal to believe in hell-fire and damnation got him dismissed in 1846 from his post as professor of English Literature and History at Kings College, London. He later became Professor of Moral theology at Cambridge, a very successful teacher by all accounts, where his influence on pupils such as Stewart Headlam and others led to a revival of Christian Socialist ideas and the idea of a socially conscious church in the 1870s, to greater effect (at least on the Anglican Church’s conception of Christianity) than Maurice’s own direct efforts.

Frederick Denison Maurice

Maurice issued a series of ‘Tracts on Christian Socialism’ in the 1840s, which seemed to have little impact at the time; but in the next two decades his ideas permeated widely among mainly, though not exclusively,  middle class, circles. His main immediate impact was in practical ventures, notably the Working Men’s College, which he launched in 1854 in nearby Red Lion Square, designed to contribute to education for working men. Ironically it’s structure was modelled on Kings College (who had sacked him), was based very much on Oxford and Cambridge, and more ironically still, the clientele are initially said by Walter Sylvester Smith to have been “more bourgeois than proletarian”… How true this is, and to what end the bourgeoisie joined,  may be open to further research. Certainly a number of distinguished figures lectured for free; people such as William Morris, of bourgeois origins, though working in arts and crafts, and already beginning the revolt against industrial capitalist society and class divisions that would lead him 30 years later to communism. The disillusioned middle classes, seeking for purpose and value in lives they felt to be slightly empty, were strongly attracted by the idea of breaking down class barriers through education. The curriculum emphasised humane studies,so drawing science and mathematics were taught from a liberal perspective. The College employed some notable teachers including the art critic and social commentator John Ruskin. The College underwent a number of significant changes over the years, creating an adult school in 1855 to prepare illiterate students to gain entry, and introducing technical subjects such as book-keeping, carpentry and plumbing. This approach was highly successful, attracting increasing numbers of workers which was reflected in the enrolments at the end of the 19th century, exceeding 1,000.

Maurice’s influence actually hangs over many of the progressive inhabitants of Bloomsbury; he did inspire significant numbers of younger, idealistic, well-to-do activists, including some who appear later in our walk: apart from Stewart Headlam (see below), William Morris taught at the Working Men’s College; and Maurice and the Christian Socialists had a particular influence on some of the leading figures of the mid-late nineteenth century women’s movement. Sophia Jex-Blake was closely associated with them; Emily Davies was drawn into Christ Socialist circles through her brother Llewelyn, a clergyman and follower and friend of Maurice. The Christian Socialists themselves were not explicitly pro-female suffrage (they weren’t really pro-universal MALE suffrage) but did admit women to their work and discussions as equals. Maurice recognised the right of women to determine their own lives according to their own thought and conscience (which may sound patronising now but was still shockingly extreme at the time). But his enthusiasm for women’s education had its limits: his response to the women fighting hard against male prejudice (expressed more than once as physical violence from male medical students) to train as doctors was “I hope… I have guarded myself against the suspicion that I would educate ladies for the kind of tasks which belong to OUR professions.”

Was the main function of Christian Socialism, in the end, to prick the consciences of the rich and middle classes about poverty, injustice and social inequality? They formed a small part of a larger trend of reasonably wealthy do-gooders who contributed funds and much energy on into ameliorating working class poverty; as with other groups and individuals who worked to improve the lives of the poor, how much of their work was motivated by desire for a fairer order, and how much by fear, concern that class war would erupt if something wasn’t done, remains a loaded question.

Maurice and his colleagues’ view that a more just society could only be created through education is a recurring theme among Bloomsbury progressives, from Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and his circle, on to the Fellowship of New Life. This view had both a positive aspect, education’s value as a way for people to break through social barriers, but also a tendency to express itself most often in elitist terms: educating people to behave better, and moral improvement, are necessary conditions for any real social change. Often those developing the theory had no doubt as to who was in a position to educate others…

Bloomsbury’s connection to the Christian Socialists continued, with Maurice’s disciple Stewart Headlam (see below).

In the same now-demolished terrace here was No 8 Russell Square: Emmeline Pankhurst & her children lived here, from 1888 to 1893. From a middle class background, but one steeped in liberal social activism, (her father was a councillor in Salford, and an Anti-Corn Law League activist; her mother supported women’s suffrage) Emmeline (nee Goulden) became active in the campaign for votes for women in the 1870s. In 1878 she married Richard Pankhurst, a radical Liberal Manchester barrister, author of the 1870 and 1882 Married Women’s Property Acts, and the first women’s suffrage bill in Britain. Gradually moving towards a form of socialist ideas, Richard and Emmeline moved to London in 1886, and to Russell Square in 1888.

Their house became a gathering place for socialists, Fabians, anarchists, suffragists, freethinkers, radicals of all sorts… Socialists Annie Besant, and Herbert Burrows, anarchists Louise Michel, Kropotkin and Malatesta, and Dadabhai Naoroji, the MP for Finsbury Central (the first Asian MP) were regular visitors among many others.

In 1888, a majority of members of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first nationwide coalition of groups advocating women’s right to vote, voted to allow affiliation from organisations linked to political parties. This cause the NSWS to split into a number of factions. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Franchise League, whose inaugural meeting was held here at her home on 25th July 1889. The League was seen as a radical suffrage group, because it also advocated equality in inheritance and divorce law, and campaigned on wider social issues; more traditional suffrage activists denounced them as the “extreme left” of the women’s movement. The group was short-lived however, divisions arose when, in 1892, Emmeline disrupted a public meeting by pioneer suffragist Lydia Becker (who had come down on the other side in the NSWS split); in 1893 the League fell apart. In the same year the Pankhursts moved back up north.

Emmeline and other suffragists later founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; they believed the existing pressure groups had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed… The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became almost the central issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support. When the first World War broke out, though, both the ‘militant’ and ‘constitutional’ suffrage organisations ended their campaign (now’s not the time, stand by our country, blah blah) and threw their considerable organising ability into mass support for the war effort: or whipping up nationalistic hysteria to help push thousands of men to march off to slaughter and be slaughtered, as it’s known in the trade. Emmeline and other leading suffragists pushed for compulsory conscription, denounced pacifists, strikers and other war resisters as betraying the national interest; on at least one occasion Emmeline grassed up leaders of a strike and got them drafted and sent to the trenches. A small minority (including Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, who had already been expelled from the WSPU for her left-leaning ideas, and pacifists, mainly in the NUWSS) opposed the War and continued to fight for reform. But the large-scale involvement of women doing the jobs of men off dying in the trenches was quoted as an influential factor in the introduction of suffrage reform in 1918, when women over 30 won the vote.

Bloomsbury history in fact teems with early feminism; from Mary Wollstonecraft, through the Victoria Press, to Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Garret Fawcett, to the Womens Freedom League. This area, and the Square at its centre especially, became so associated with the suffrage movement, it crossed into fictional accounts; in Bloomsbury Grope tourist-goddess Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day, Mary Datchett works in a suffrage campaign office based in Russell Square.

In keeping with the mostly well-to-do nature of the area, most of these feminists were middle class. It wouldn’t be to denigrate their sincerity or militancy, or the viciousness of the repression they faced, to say their class backgrounds to a large extent coloured their ideas. For instance, Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband hired a servant to help with the children, so that “she should not be “a household machine” and could spend time fighting for Women’s Suffrage. Presumably then, the servant became the ‘household machine’. More than reflecting itself in their social relations, did their social position help to push the Pankhursts to assume autocratic control within the WSPU? To capitulation to class snobbery, as with Christabel Pankhurst’s later moral improvement campaigns against working class men’s ‘inherent disgustingness’, and to nationalism and war mongering when World War 1 came? Its hard to say with the latter case, as most contemporary socialists and radicals of both sexes and all classes, it has to be said, joined in the war effort supporting the slaughter of millions.

Emmeline’s early enthusiasm for socialism is often contrasted to her later Tory politics, but it would be interesting to know how much her increasing dislike of socialist groups and trade unions was influenced by the widespread hostility of many male trade unionists, and members of organisations like the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation, to the women’s struggle to assert themselves politically. (For example, when her husband Richard, a long-standing ILP member and worker for womens’ rights, died, a radical newspaper launched an appeal to support the Pankhurst family since their debts partly resulted from their political activity. Emmeline, however, refused to accept the money to pay for her children’s education, asking that the money should be used to build a socialist meeting hall in Richard’s memory. However when the hall was completed in 1903, she discovered that the Independent Labour Party branch that used it would not allow women to join. this and many similar examples of blatant inequality in the supposedly progressive movement gradually helped to push her out of it.) Traditional attitudes towards a woman’s role in society prevailed among men who in other ways were reasonably ‘progressive’, such that women’s suffrage groups had to on occasion fight physical battles to use ‘radical’ meeting places, and women workers were excluded from many trade unions and jobs… There were large numbers of exceptions to this, but the viciousness of the disapproval from what they may have at one time thought of as natural allies contributed to some of Emmeline and other WSPUers’ growing distance from the ‘labour movement’. (The WSPU has generally been characterised as a middle class organisation, but the majority of membership were working class women, especially in northern England, though also in London in areas like the East End, Lewisham and Woolwich; and there were several women of working class origins in the national leadership.While it’s also true that with no formal constitution, the WSPU could sometimes operate top-down, some historians have found evidence of greater democracy in many branches; others assert a democratic approach would not have been practical in its illegal militant activities… The last being an organisational question that rumbles on today…)

For many Bloomsbury radicals, genuinely committed to, and influential in, real social change,  progressive ideas often went hand in hand with elitism, authoritarianism, class prejudice, nationalism… It crops up with suffragists, Christian socialists, the Fabians; working class people deserve a better life, so long as they are hard working, respectable and sober, but they can’t create it themselves, or they need showing the right way, by educated people of good background, or the state/the proper authorities should organize it for/force it on them. From mid-19th Century Liberal individualism, pulling yourself up by yourself bootstraps, as embodied in the Christian Socialist-inspired Working Men’s College, through the early women’s movement, to the Fabian Society, Bloomsbury’s middle class radicals have always felt themselves to be part of that ‘superior set of people’ ready and fit to run things better for the general good. The Fabian link runs right up to the present, their ideas dominated the Labour Government elected in 1945, and shaped much of post-1945 social policy, and have continue to do so (many leading New Labour figures were members of the Fabian Society).

But there are tangled skeins of ideas here. There’s gradualism, those who believed in an equal society as an ultimate aim, but held change can either only be achieved by tiny steps, or must wait till people are properly educated or improved… the varied versions of this even mirrored in the ideas of William Morris, another sometime Bloomsbury face; contrasting with the immediate almost monomaniacal single issue pursuit of many of the Suffragettes. Both the reformists and those who set up communes to experiment with news ways of living in the here and now thought THEY were the practical ones… Groups like the Fabians did contribute to real reforms, which did change many people’s lives for the better in the long run, though they opposed and may have helped hold back more fundamental change. Were they then more or less ‘radical’ in practice than people like Morris, inspiring, genuinely desiring and working for a classless and wageless society but often shunning getting involved in day to day struggles as being meaningless without revolution – a distant dream often postponed?

All of these strands had some value… but in the end, there has to be a  transformation of our daily lives, and it has to come from us, controlled by us, not run for us by an elite… and the everyday revolt against the social conditions we experience NOW is part of that transformation; revolution is not a “glorious day” in the future, but a joyous dance of defiance, from the past through present and onwards…

Cross the road to the north side of the square, and walk west to the corner of Bedford Way (which used to be Upper Bedford Place), and down to the north end of the road

Stewart Headlam, socialist clergyman, lived here, at no 31 Upper Bedford Place, which must be long gone. If the old numbers were same as the Bedford Way numbers in 1938 (when the name was changed), the numbers went from 1 to 23 at least, running northwards, on south-west side, and from 32 to 53 running southwards, on north-east side… So no 31 was probably at the top, but not sure which side, although on balance probably on the northeast side.

Influenced by the ideas of the christian socialists Frederick Denison Maurice (see 5 Russell Square) and Charles Kingsley, (who both taught him at Cambridge), Headlam believed that God’s Kingdom on earth would replace a “competitive, unjust society with a co-operative and egalitarian social order.” 

Ordained and appointed curate of St. John’s Church, Drury Lane, he was shocked by the poverty there and was determined to do all he could to reduce the suffering of the poor. This led him to clash repeatedly with John Jackson, Bishop of London. He also met and befriended theatre people – actors, dancers etc – then widely shunned as highly disreputable socially (churchgoing theatre folk often concealed their profession from fellow parishioners). In 1873, moving to St. Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green Headlam found conditions even worse than in Drury Lane. The vicar at the church, Septimus Hansard, was another Christian Socialist. 
In sermons, Headlam attacked the wide gap between rich and poor, warned the working class to distrust middle-class reformers(!) and presented Jesus Christ as a revolutionary and the new testament as a ‘Socialist Document’. His socialist political activities, friendship and political alliance with secularists like Bradlaugh and Foote, and vocal support for the theatre, especially ballet (NOTE: In fact the last was the most offensive to Bishop Temple of London (1885-?) (who seems to have had a special problem with male ballet dancers’ stage attire… don’t ask, I guess!) got him suspended from the curacy by the Bishop of London in 1878. The Church authorities managed to keep him from preaching in church for many years (apart from when friends lent him their pulpit).

However he toured the country preaching Christian Socialism, advocating a tax on land and the redistribution of wealth to end poverty – denouncing wealth as robbery and inconsistent with Christianity. No dabbler politically, he acted wholeheartedly on his beliefs, his clearly stated aim was to overthrow the establishment and society as then ordered and build the Kingdom of Heaven. He saw Christ’s reference to the Kingdom of Heaven as meaning a just society on earth: his Christianity centred not on the Bible, but on Christ, a Christ at injustice, greed, profit etc, whose miracles were all secular, aimed at relief of suffering and injustice. Practically he fought for an 8-hour working day, complete education for all kids, nationalisation of the land, fair wages… grassroots democracy in church, bishops elected by parishioners not appointed by the state, and  the rich. In 1886 Headlam joined the reformist socialist Fabian Society, and remained a member till his death in 1924; in fact they often met at his house here. He became a leading figure in Fabian circles, elected to the Society’s Executive Committee three times, helping to formulate policy and speaking at public meetings. He saw them as the only socialist body not condescending to or opposed to religion, though George Bernard Shaw recalled Headlam never much talked about religion at meetings!

Inverting Ludlow’s earlier statement about Socialism and Christianity, in his Fabian pamphlet Christian Socialism, Headlam declared that his main objective was not to convert socialists to Christianity, but to make socialists out of Christians.

Headlam was also an active member of the Land Reform League, the League for Defence of Constitutional Rights, National Association for the Repeal of the Blasphemy Laws, among others, and edited his own Christian Socialist journal The Church Reformer, from 1884 to 1895.

In 1894, 25 ‘Reverends’ were members of the Fabian Society, and 100 or so ministers identified themselves with Headlam’s Christian Socialist organisation, the Guild of St Matthew. Founded in 1877, and dominated by Headlam’s powerful personality, the Guild’s platform included Poor Law Reform, more equal distribution (in more extreme cases nationalisation) of the land, support for Trade Unions and Co-operation… Beyond this much divided and confused them. They couldn’t agree over immediate issues like the continuing prosecution and discrimination against secularists and atheists, and over more general policies like disestablishment of the Church; though there was general agreement that under socialism all Church landholdings would revert to the people (through the Government of course!), but totally divorcing the national Church from the state and removing the power it held over people’s daily lives was going too far for many, though some favoured gradual removal of church powers in gentle stages… The Guild reached 360 members at its highest point in the mid 1890s.

In contrast with many contemporary churchmen (and socialists, many of whom expressed puritanical disapproval of popular entertainment) he enthusiastically supported the theatre and opposed ‘puritanism’, His Church & Stage Guild, founded 1879, aimed to break down anti-theatre prejudice in the church and promote theatre as a form of worship. This Guild did link church people and theatre folk, meeting monthly, sometimes in Drury Lane theatre, and fought puritanical attitudes and prejudice for 20 years.Headlam took this support to new, and for many, shocking levels, supporting Oscar Wilde, finding half of the £5000 bail money set for him when he was remanded for criminal trial for sodomy in 1895. Later in 1897 Wilde visited Headlam’s Upper Bedford Place house, after release from Pentonville Prison, on his way out of the country. Headlam’s support for such a contraversial figure as Wilde cost Headlam’s Guild of St Matthew many members – he was also threatened by a reactionary mob, and his housemaid fled his house in horror! Headlam was later one of first 24 to receive a presentation copy of Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Headlam also worked to improve education for the working class, and was elected to the London School Board (the body which controlled public education) in 1888, with fellow socialist Annie Besant. School Boards were one of first places Fabian (and other reform-minded socialist groups’) practical influence was felt. Headlam & other progressives fought years of battles with conservatives over measures like abolition of fees, free school meals special classes for what were then seen as ‘retarded’ children, provision of swimming facilities, keeping class numbers smaller, raising teachers’ wages, building new buildings, requiring proper trade union rates for any contracts, acquisition of pianos for music classes… but especially the role of the church and compulsory religious teaching in schools! In 1897, dominating the Board for the first time, progressives enacted most of their reforms.

But the question of Religion in schools so tied up the progressive and conservative factions on that the Board was abolished in 1903.
 Elected to the London County Council in 1907, Stewart Headlam remained active in politics until his death in 1924. Personally he was said to be very honest and open, with a strong and magnetic personality; people either loved or hated him. He was also described as being as autocratic and stubborn in his organisations as his friend Bradlaugh was in the Secular movement.

We will return to the Fabian Society later on…

Walk north up to Tavistock Square, turn right, across Woburn Place into Tavistock Place, walk down to no 9

A drawing of the original Passmore Edwards Settlement

no 9 Tavistock Square was once the Passmore Edwards Settlement… later called the Mary Ward Settlement, founded by Mary Ward and John Passmore Edwards, rich charitable philanthropists, keen on doing good works for the poor, improving women’s education, for example supporting the foundation of Somerville College Oxford, and also encouraged women’s participation in local government and public service. What is now Mary Ward House was founded by her as an initiative in the late Victorian settlement movement, in which members of the middle class would go and live in a slum area and organise improving cultural facilities. Her fellow-committee members included Frances Power Cobbe and the Dowager Countess Russell, the then duke of Bedford’s mum (local big money is always useful – though she had to balance it with the influence and money of Passmore Edwards, who was an ex-Chartist, and took a dim view of the Russells: he wrote to her: “Personally I have a strong objection to paying rich landlords like the Duke of Bedford whose family has done so little for a district from which they gather such a rich rental”). Mary Ward worked hard to wangle financial support to keep the Centre viable. It certainly did useful work, working class people paid their small annual membership fee not only to pursue intellectual interests and learn practical skills, but to be part of a social and community network that included interest groups such as music, debating and chess societies, and self-help groups like the coal club, boot club, and mother and toddler groups. A poor man’s lawyer service, retraining facilities for the unemployed, and domestic economy classes for women were also part of the programme.

Mary Ward’s avowed aim was the “equalisation of society” – in practice this meant opening up opportunities for education, leisure and amenities still largely unavailable to working class people. Ward believed in value of culture, knowledge, experience for its own sake, and for all. Her original ‘settlement’ in University Hall in Gordon Square (1890-97) “had a religious aim”, but some of its more radical residents rented Marchmont Hall, (94 Marchmont Street) as an annexe. They had more secular and directly social and educational aims, and refused to pledge that they would follow Ward’s initial program: teaching “a broad religion and seeking after truth” (shurely a contradiction, Ed.) Not only did they hold debates on social issues, they also invited locals to join the Hall and help run it themselves; this seems to have been somewhat too radical for Mrs Ward, and caused a near split, which was resolved when she was persuaded to compromise… Class mixing and the spreading of ideas and culture was ok, so long as she was in charge! The new building here united the two projects in 1897 (the duke of Bedford donated the land, while Passmore Edwards paid the bills!). Mary Ward’s work here was crucial in the beginnings of the Play Centre movement in England, giving space to local children in the evenings, weekends and school holidays, and the first school for physically handicapped children was set up here in 1899.

Lecturers at the settlement included Keir Hardie, GB Shaw, Sidney Webb and other Fabian and socialist figures… Another socialist, Gustav Holst, was musical director, putting on concerts for the workers. The twin ideals were summed up as “continuous teaching by the best men available on history and philosophy of religion” and “an attempt to bring about some real contact between brain and manual workers.”

The Settlement relocated to nearby Queen Square in 1982, where it remains today as the Mary Ward Centre.

Walk down to Marchmont Street, turn right, down to the site of no 26 (possibly now under the Brunswick Centre?)

Radical romantic poet Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin lodged here after their marriage, in 1816. The building is long gone….

The descendant of well-to-do Sussex sheepfarmers become baronets who mixed in progressive Whig (liberal radical) circles, Shelley was to erupt politically well beyond his background, developing radical ideas that were constantly expressed in his poetry and other works throughout his life. He became a republican, anti-monarchist, an atheist (he was expelled from Oxford for writing an atheist pamphlet); he attacked nationalism, the imperialist wars that Britain was mired in for most of his life. He went beyond the demands for political reforms and universal suffrage advocated by the Whigs, attacking the property divisions that underlay class society; universal suffrage would mean little, he thought, without a redistribution of wealth and abolition of the privileged classes. Through reading William Godwin, he came to the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, and through his poetry runs a strong strand calling for equality between the sexes, denouncing men’s power over women, and (in the tradition of Mary W and William G) attempted to propagandise free love… Although the reality of his personal relations with the women in his life could be seen to undermine his theoretical feminism somewhat.

.. See below.

For decades, Shelley was “the only poet” for English radicals, especially the working class auto-didacts of the workingmens clubs. While polite society almost forgot his work for half a century, it was read and admired among the Chartists, artisans and socialists. Shelley was claimed as a socialist by later Bloomsbury residents Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, who gave lectures and published a pamphlet on ‘Shelley and Socialism’. Paul Foot thought this was optimistic, reckoning Shelley to have been leveller, not a socialist (especially as the word and the socialist movement postdate his death…) But he suggests he may have moved in that direction had he lived longer, and claims his Notes on Queen Mab show he had almost grasped the labour theory of value (later a pillar of Marx’s thinking), marking him out from Paine and other radicals of the french revolutionary era, to whom property was sacred and the key to liberty. The Marx-Avelings may have iced the cake a bit, in an attempt to counter the growing worship of a castrated vision of the romantic poet (embodied by the Shelley Society), with his politics removed, some of his more radical works simply ignored, deprecated or censored.

Shelley wobbled between reformism and calls for revolution, sometimes these ideas co-exist even in the same works. As the yanks say, he was conflicted; he just couldn’t make up his mind. He hated the idea of violence, while at the same time recognising its necessity in some situations, like revolution; and he did advocate forced expropriation of property of the rich… He also veered between seeing the ‘people’ as their own saviours, and distrust of the ‘masses’… 
Paul Foot, in his ‘Red Shelley’, comes out and says that Shelley was happiest and most creative when he felt inspired by intense struggles; his greatest works directly came from observing the upsurges of popular rebelliousness and the repression they suffered. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t make a break with his background entirely; too often he fell back into hanging out with fashionable circles or isolating himself abroad. At the time he was living in Marchmont Street, he was at a low ebb, cut off from political inspiration and suffering poetic block…

Straight Outta Godwin

Shelley had been influenced by William Godwin’s ideas since he read ‘Political Justice’ at Eton, and was captivated by it, as had been Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge before him. For him, though, this affiliation lasted, until his untimely death. Shelley began to correspond with Godwin in 1811, met him, and gradually started to support his impoverished guru financially. HN Brailsford thought Shelley’s ideas very much derived from Godwin (as well as the French philosopher Condorcet), and his poetry belonged entirely to world of politics. To him, ‘Political Justice’ was the “milk of paradise” – his work, from 1812’s Queen Mab to Hellas (1821) was often an imaginative expression of its ideas. To Shelley, thought, ideas , passion, were more real than things of earth and flesh; he lived in philosophy and guided himself by it.

In Hellas, he preaches perfectability, non-resistance, a kind of anarchist individualism, the power of reason, the superiority of persuasion over force, universal benevolence, and that moral evils come from political institutions: straight outta Godwin, basically. Under Godwin’s influence, he asserted, sometimes, that change would come through education and gradual elimination of error, not revolution. As with Coleridge and Southey, Political Justice persuaded him to do nothing political, that action is futile, ideas and spreading them everything. (In fact Godwin himself actually talked Shelley out of forming a radical association in Dublin in 1812); he preached passive non-violent resistance to oppression, in the Mask of Anarchy, and Revolt of Islam, to the point of portraying rebels as living sacrifices, humane missionaries for redemption of man.

But he differed from his mentor, in expression as much as anything: what are cold intellectual ideas in Godwin are emotional and heartfelt in Shelley’s work, and abstract ideas became calls for action. He also didn’t see of change in society as entirely a gradual process of discarding of error, he did believe a sudden emotional conversion or revelation would occur.

Relations between philosopher and his romantic pupil took a rocky turn when the poet met Godwin and Mary Wollstoncraft’s daughter, Mary and they fell in love. Shelley had already eloped with one schoolgirl, Harriet Westbrook, to whom he was still married. So despite his ideas about free individuals, marriage, etc, Godwin played the conventional father, banning Mary and Percy from meeting, leading to THEIR elopement. Only after the unhappy Harriet’s suicide in 1816 he was reconciled. BUT he continued to take Shelley’s money throughout this estrangement. (Is that unprincipled? He could probably have justified it in terms of rational benevolence and so on.) Shelley never criticised him for this attitude, but he would have been on dodgy ground himself really. Another question for Godwin’s views on freedom to act, how does Shelley’s ability to take up and discard women with little thought for the effect on them, fit in; but when they kill themselves its ok because now it can all be made respectable with marriage…? All leaves a bit of a sour taste.

Mary and Percy Shelley

Walk back up to the alley on Marchmont Street that cuts across the north end of the  Brunswick Centre to Handel Street, then walk down to the junction with Hunter Street

Students at the London School of Medicine for Women

In September 1874 the London School of Medicine for Women was established here. At that time British hospitals & universities still refused to admit women as medical students. The school was launched by ground-breaking women physician Sophia Jex-Blake, who at this point had largely been frustrated in her attempts to embark on a medical degree. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson joined the staff soon after the School started. In 1877 the school reached an agreement with the Royal Free Hospital (then based in nearby Grays Inn Road) that allowed students at the London School of Medicine for Women to complete their clinical studies there. The Royal Free Hospital was the first teaching hospital in London to admit women for training.

Walk east down Handel Street, to entrance of St George’s Gardens

Octavia Hill and other social reformers helped to transform the semi-derelict churchyard here to make it an “open air sitting-room for the poor”.

The gardens are a lovely quiet place to sit and rest if you’re slightly knackered by wandering and history at this point…

Walk through St George’s Gardens to Heathcote Street, down Heathcote Street to to Mecklenburgh Street; turn right and stop at no 1.

Before and during World War 1, this building was a major anarchist centre. A number of young anarchists were living communally here around 1912, and possibly still during the War. They shared the housework equally among men and women (not always the case with many anarchist or socialist communes in the late 19th and 20th centuries). Though when Tom Keell, editor of anarchist paper Freedom, moved in, he was exempted from doing his share of the chores, as his ‘political work’ was held to be ‘too important’ (arf). In 1915-16, no 1 was known as Marsh House, (after Alfred Marsh, editor of Freedom from 1895 to 1913), and was the head office of the Anti-Conscription League, one of the most prominent pacifist organisations of the era, which organised resistance to young men being forced into the army; conscription was introduced in 1916 in Britain, young blood being needed to replace the hundreds of thousands of volunteers already dead or maimed in the First Great Capitalist War.

Among those who lived at Marsh House were Lilian Wolfe, Jim and Nelly Dick, and a Belgian anarchist, Gaston Marin, most of its members living as a commune. It was named after Alfred Marsh, an anarchist who had died of cancer in 1914. It was a meeting place for the anarchist movement in London, as well as serving as a centre for the Anti-Conscription League (a sort of anarchist response to the No-Conscription Fellowship). In his memoirs of that period Jack Cummins mentions Marsh House and the anarchist activities there: ” At times I went to an Anarchists’ Sunday school in Stepney and spoke to the children , a precocious lot of infants who discussed Free Love, Divorce, and any other subject that occurred to them. I wrote one or two things for the anarchist papers The Torch and Freedom. Some anarchists had taken a house in Bloomsbury, and lived there. The lower part of the house had been converted into a hall where we had entertainments and dances. Often I was M.C. at the dances, for dancing was one of my new loves…… I was not much at home over the weekends, for soon after tea I was off to Marsh House, the anarchists’ place in Bloomsbury for the Sunday night dance” ( The Landlord Cometh, 1981).”

According to Lilian Wolfe: “we shared the house-work and expenses and each had our own room. We had a social and dance every Saturday evening at which we did refreshments, which earned some cash for Freedom’s expenses. There were always well attended. The socials were held on the ground floor where there was a full-sized billiard room so there was good room for dancing… the rent was £90 a year.”

Walk south down Mecklenburgh Street to Mecklenburgh Square

Pre-1914 no 34 Mecklenburgh Square was shared by the Women’s Trade Union League, the National Anti-Sweating League and the People’s Suffrage Federation.

Walk down the east side of the Square into Doughty Street, walk down to no 29

Anarchism over breakfast

[NB: Some of the ideas here owe loads to the mighty Judy Greenaway, check out her writings, including ‘No Place for Women: Anti-Utopianism and the Utopian politics of the 1890s’]

The Fellowship of the New Life had a co-operative house here at no. 29 Doughty Street, ‘Fellowship House’, set up around 1890.

Founded by Thomas Davidson in 1882-3, as a ‘society for people interested in religious thought, ethical propaganda and social reform’, the Fellowship was joined by people such as future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, the radical sexologist Havelock Ellis and socialist & pioneer gay liberationist Edward Carpenter. Other early members included Frank Podmore, ER Pease, William Clarke, Percival Chubb, Dr Burns Gibson, Hubert Bland…

In the original minutes the object of the organisation is expressed thus: members would join together “for the purpose of common living, as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising among themselves the higher life.” Manual labour was to be united with intellectual pursuits; education and improvement would be at the centre of the community’s life, and members would meet regularly for religious communion, lectures and study groups.

The group was almost immediately divided by one of the great polarisations of late 19th century liberal intellectuals: what would create a better way of life: practical social reform, or personal moral and spiritual self-development? This led to the ‘split’ that created the Fellowship’s more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

According to Edward Carpenter:  “Those early meetings of the New Fellowship were full of hopeful enthusiasms – life simplified, a humane diet and a rational dress, manual labour, democratic ideals, communal institutions.”
 The Fellowship held weekly lectures, alternately theoretical and practical, on subjects such as ‘Moral and Social Reform’. “Christianity and Communism’, and ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’.

Another leading Fellowship member was the founder and mainstay of the Doughty Street commune, Edith Lees; sometime Fellowship secretary, feminist and Lesbian novelist, lecturer, a member of the Women’s Social & Political Union and the Freewoman discussion circle. her story Attainment, though nominally fictional, may well represent what life in the Fellowship Commune was like…

Communal life at Doughty Street was based on Vita Nuova, (New Life), the Fellowship’s proposed manifesto, which asked of members that they live openly, giving up prejudice, gossip, selfishness, and that they introduce discipline and regularity into their lives, critically reviewing each day’s work each evening.

Besides Lees, other residents here included future Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, anarchist Agnes Henry (who “irritated everyone by discussing anarchism over breakfast”), a journalist called Lespinasse, and one Captain p-Foundes; but the house also guested a constant stream of visitors including many Russian anarchists (some of whom were Tolstoyan pacifist types).

According to Lees, Fellowship House promised residents all the advantages and obligations of a family without any of its drawbacks…” She “argued that women should reject servitude in the home as she and her comrades did.” However many socialist or anarchist communes of the time (and since!) ended up reproducing the same power relations between men and women, with women doing most of the domestic work… Did Fellowship House fall into this pattern as well? Judy Greenway says it “ran into familiar problems over money, housework, and personal incompatibilities…”

In Lees story, Attainment, despite the lofty aims, “Class and gender tensions emerge in the running of the household. Although they all praise the simple life and the delights of manual labour and… disagree with having servants, the housekeeping and bookkeeping eventually fall to Rachel (the main character); Rachel also brings with her a maid, Ann, whose practical experience and common-sense approach mean that she ends up doing much of the housework. Meanwhile, the men discuss the ‘boundless … courage’ they need to clean a doorstep. One says, ‘I literally blush all down my back and look up and down the street as if I meditated burying my grandfather under the step.’ ” The problem is not just that the men are transgressing gender and class boundaries with this kind of work, they are doing so in public.

Edith’s Doughty Street experiences dented her enthusiasm for the benefits of communal living, concluding in her reply to William Morris’s slogan ‘Fellowship is Heaven’ that “Fellowship is Hell: lack of Fellowship is Heaven.” 
In her novel, Rachel eventually leaves the collective household, rejecting both the “merger of domestic and political space”, and the “rule-bound way of life based on narrow idealism” (Greenway)… suggesting that ‘Brotherhood House’

“was frankly mere experiment, and was so involved in spiritual speculations and the grammar of living … that it rarely got to the marrow of me.”

Edith Lees and Havelock Ellis

But though Edith Lees rejected communal living, she remained committed to exploring alternative ways that men and women could live and relate. (Similarly Rachel in ‘Attainment ‘ decides to marry, but does not see this as retreating into conventionality: ‘I dare now,’ she says, ‘to live out what is real within me.’ ) Through the Fellowship she had met Havelock Ellis, who she left the commune after 18 months in 1891 to marry, in an open marriage in which she was able to enjoy her relationships with women.

Ellis also wrote about his wife’s lesbian love life in his writings on ‘Sexual Inversion’. Though their “living up to their principles was to prove difficult for both partners, emotionally and financially” (Judy Greenway), their open relationship worked for both, in its own way, until Edith fell ill, leading to her premature death in 1916.

The Doughty Street experiment didn’t long survive Edith Lees’ resignation… Though Agnes Henry, at least, continued to participate in experimental living situations, as well as remaining committed to radical politics. Ramsay Mac of course went on to lead the Labour Party into government and infamy…

Broader and more Indeterminate Lines

The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action was a main sticking point from early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which also met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.”

Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw (not a Fellowship member, though he had come into contact with Davidson, almost certainly at an early Fellowship meeting, and claimed he had been “bored as he had never been bored before”!) put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”

Shaw’s sarcasm aside, it’s easy to see that many people would balk at the rigid honesty and commitment demanded by the Fellowship’s program. Like William Godwin, and in some ways Christian Socialists like Kingsley, their program combined both naivety and elitism, in the idea of a development of a personal perfection that could be the only herald of a new society…

In reply to this the Doughty Street Fellowship members (like others who set up experiments in communal living) might well have countered that they were the practical ones, getting right down to working out on a day to day level how a ‘[new life’ could be created.

It would be interesting to know how much the two groups divided, were there crossovers, people who tried to work through both avenues? Did some folk work for ‘practical’ reforms with the Fabians but carry on with the Fellowship on a more personal level? Founder Thomas Davidson himself was critical of the Fabians, dismissing the kind of state socialism they came to stand for; he thought that even if socialists should ‘take over’ the state, “selfishness would find means to exploit and oppress ignorance, simple honesty and unselfishness,, as much as it does today”. Did the Fabians’ more cynically decide that ‘the masses’ would never reform themselves into virtue and would have to have a freer life organised for them?

Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their parent organisation, eventually joining the Labour Party, and by orthodox accounts becoming a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour Party culminated in post 1945 Parliament, with Prime Minister, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians.

Though Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, claiming much of their reputation is based on their excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks: 10% of the male membership in 1892.

The Fabians emerged not from the working class or the radical-liberal traditions that dominated nineteenth century left movements, nor adhered to newer ideas like Marxism. They were at odds with most other socialist groups, opposed to even the popular idea of independent working class party, supported imperialism, and wobbled on important questions of trade unionism and workers rights etc. They lacked contact with workers; though the Society attracted an inflow of workers in 1892 after the ‘new unions’ upsurge, and many affiliated regional societies formed (which could in theory have formed the nucleus of a socialist party), the leadership blew it or couldn’t have pulled it off, and most of its provincial societies joined the Independent Labour Party, formed the following year.

But the Fabians were equally out of tune with Liberals, though permeation of the Liberal Party was pretty much their policy in their early years. In fact their anti-Liberal base drove away Liberal intellectuals and economists attracted to them early on, who developed the left wing liberalism that developed the ideas on which social welfare reforms of 1906 and 1911 were based (a strand which also began to reject laissez faire economics); the socially critical, left wing intellectuals like JA Hobson, WH Massingham, who even after the effective demise of the Liberal Party in the 1920s developed social democratic theory: leading on to Beveridge, Keynes, and Marshal.

Early Fabian membership boiled down into three main groups:

• members of the traditional middle and upper classes who had developed a social conscience or rebelled against/disliked modern bourgeois capitalism…

• self-made professionals, and civil servants: including journos, writers, professional politicos and organisers, managers, scientists… “brainworkers”.

• independent women, reasonably newly ’emanicipated’, often earning their own living, most often as writers, teachers, or typists…

‘New’ men or women, then, rising through social structure, or creating new ones; the new intellectual or literary or professional strata; mostly salaried middle classes, uncommon then but growing rapidly, an administrative, scientific, would-be technocratic elite. This group dominated the Fabian leadership, and Fabian theory; its social composition directly gave birth to the Fabian conception of socialism (especially the Webbs) to be administered by an enlightened professional managerial caste.

By the 1880s a separation between ownership and management was growing in private firms, with a corresponding huge rise in the numbers and importance of professional salaried managers, admin workers; there was also a steep growth in the civil service, journalism, and so on.

The Webbs were keen observers of this, and of the ethos of this emerging ‘caste’, especially efficiency, They thought middle class professionals would play a big part in achieving socialism, bigger in their eyes than workers. Ramsay Mac called for “a revolution directed from the study; to be one, not of brutal need but of intellectual development, to be in fact, a revolution of the comparatively well-to-do.”

The Fabian conception of socialism never theorised the working class as the only or even main agents of change, or based their views on class struggle. In practice they fell back on usual vague ideas of education, progress, enlightenment in all classes, the general growth of unselfishness and social conscience. Though in their elevation of the positive role of the state, they are opposite to Godwin, in other ways they echo him, in their vaguely expressed idea of a gradual evolution in rational self-interest and social consciousness among the right sort of people… The middle classes wouldn’t oppose socialism as they would perceive its necessity and reasonableness, and their own self-interest, in such a society, that “this form of social organisation really suited them just as well if not better than the capitalist.”

Fabian Society coat of arms, showing a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or some nonsense

In another way too there was an echo of Godwin; both he and Fabians came possibly from new emerging classes or castes, strata that were literate and conscious, and somewhat at odds or not yet settled with existing structures. In both cases, some elements developed political demands or reforming passion, at least till they became assimilated into class structures. In Godwin’s case it was a dissident non-conformist  protestant bourgeoisie, in the Fabians case a new managerial/journalistic class; a minority in each case theorised a new society, but in both cases based this new society very much on themselves, their actual practice, and sense of their mission, their own importance, their role in this society.

Hobsbawm warns that “No hypothesis which seeks to link ideas with their social background can be proved to everyone’s satisfaction”, but suggests we have to see the Fabian Society “in terms of the middle class reactions to the breakdown of mid-Victorian certainties, the rise of new strata, new structures, new policies within British capitalism: as an adaptation of the British middle classes to the era of imperialism.”

The upsurge in public and private administration, science, journalism, professional writing and statistics/social sciences, from the 1870s on, did mean these people were in new and uncertain social positions, and hadn’t necessarily developed identification with existing structures or classes. There also was hostility and class snobbery from the old political and social upper classes towards salaried professionals, which you can see in the sneering at clerks and socially ambitious bourgeoisie in Late Victorian literature.

He says “the middle class socialism of the Fabians reflects the unwillingness, or the inability, of the people for whom they spoke, to find a firm place in the middle and upper class structure of late Victorian Britain.”

Which implies alienation, or not fitting in, both discomfort from from their side, and disdain from the existing structures; there may, though Hobsbawm doesn’t say this, also have been a sense of their own importance and abilities and a feeling of being unappreciated, and some element of knowing their own superiority over what they saw as a useless idle rich class.

Webb thought there were no practical reasons (though many historical and social ones) for this new class or caste to adhere to capitalism, especially the laissez-faire variety; THEY are crucial to the functioning of modern economy, both in the private and public sector, but neither private enterprise or the profit motive is crucial to THEM or their work…

BUT as Hobsbawm points out, the type of ‘socialism’ they were likely to be attracted to was then likely to aspire towards the technocratic, hierarchical, if meritocratic, based on management by an elite: fulfilling their vision of their own role in current and possible future societies. “So we can confidently predict that… [the manager] will remain for all time an indispensable functionary, whatever may be the form of society.” (from S. Webb, The Works Manager To-day, 1917.) 
This concept of socialism also goes some way to explaining the later enthusiasm of some leading early Fabians, like the Webbs and Shaw, for the Stalinist USSR; Lenin and the Bolsheviks also saw socialism as a question of management by the proper authorities, not of a real transformation of daily life organised from below.

All of which does provoke two questions – how much did the Fabians really speak for these castes, and did this sense of not fitting in, or not being appreciated, dissolve over subsequent decades, ie were these groups happier with rewards of capitalism and more integrated later? Clearly only a small minority of these new strata joined the ‘socialist movement’, though others expressed alienation in different ways.

We come back again to this sense of ‘bourgeois’ alienation and how those who experience it create and imagine alternatives. Individuals and groups from slightly older and more well-to-do background like Ruskin and Morris, and their disciples, resolved their dissatisfaction with modern capitalist modes of production by going somewhat medievally-craftsy, while Fabians embraced the social and structural changes, though did see the possibility of a new political order. Certainly William Morris had a vision of really different society socially and economically, while the Fabian vision is not immediately attractive. Morris was however influential on the Fellowship of the New Life and early Fabianism…

There was a lot of squatting in Doughty Street in the 1980s…

Walk south down to Guilford Street, turn right and walk west to Coram’s Fields

The Foundling Hospital was founded in 1739 by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. It was a children’s home established for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children. From 1742 to 1926, abandoned children were brought up here in a charitable institution, something between children’s home and approved school.

After the Hospital moved out in 1926, a developer bought the land, and was involved in a plan to move Covent Garden Market here. Local opposition scuppered this, and after lots of campaigning and fundraising the land was bought, and is now a lovely park/kids playground with brill facilities for kids.

Cross over the road, and walk south up Lambs Conduit Street to Great Ormond Street, turn right and walk down

Stop at no 23: Prison reformer John Howard had his London residence here from 1777, until his death in 1790.

In the 18th century prisons were filthy, overcrowded and rife with diseases, inmates subject to routine extortion by screws, who made money supplying almost everything to cons. Many people were jailed for debt, for petty offences and could be kept inside for years (even after acquittal for those who couldn’t pay ‘discharge’ fees!) Inmates were held all together in big cells (unless they could pay for more comfortable accommodation).

An Appointment as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire for a year in 1773, led Howard into investigating and documenting conditions for prisoners, and campaigning tirelessly for reform, at first locally, then across England and later across the world. A spell as a prisoner of war in France may have impacted on his sympathy for inmates; his strong non-conformist christian beliefs emphasised charity and compassion, which he tried to put into practice. Howard not only thought many prisoners were kept inside when they should be released; he thought the conditions they were subjected to was not only inhumane, but was only encouraging them to further crime and immoral behaviour. He advocated improving prison conditions, giving inmates fresh food and water, giving them useful work, encouraging church attendance and religious teaching, and above all, separating them into their own cells, which he thought would not only help hold back the spread of the many infectious diseases then rife in prison, and cut down on cons bullying and robbing each other, but could also help them contemplate their crimes and see the error of their ways: “Solitude and Silence are favourable to reflection; and may possibly lead to repentance.” And reduce the risks of collective resistance, escape plans, and so on. Howard was though opposed to full-time solitary confinement.

His eighteenth century reports on ‘The State of the Prisons’ had a huge impact on prison reform, (inspiring changes to sanitation and jailors’ fees, though they were resisted by many prison warders and governors) and especially on prison design and function in the 19th century. Newly built penitentiaries in the early 19th century United States were based on his ideas, influencing the layout of English prisons such as Pentonville in turn. However his ideal of a compassionate approach with each convict to their own cell was perverted into punitive systems imposing separation and rules of silence, where isolation was used to control and repress, in a way he would probably have disagreed with.

His work influenced Jeremy Bentham in his theories about prison layout and how to ‘rehabilitate’ offenders, though Bentham took it in directions that lacked Howard’s compassion.

[Out of step with developing liberal theory as he often was, fellow Bloomsburian William Godwin took a more enlightened view of crime and punishment – while also advocating rehab not revenge, and opposing capital punishment, he believed you couldn’t coerce people into good behaviour, and dissented from Howard’s idea of solitary confinement on the grounds that virtue depends on social relations.]

Little Ormond Yard once ran south from Great Ormond Street, roughly where Orde Hall Street is now

The Working Men’s College

Somewhere here FD Maurice, John Ludlow and Charles Kingsley, together with a conference of delegates from Co-operative Associations, founded a night school for local working men that evolved into the Working Mens College (having been told by the rector of St George’s Bloomsbury that the area was so disorderly that even the police did not venture there at night).

Later (in 1857) the Working Men’s College moved (properly founded) to 44 Great Ormond Street, just over the road on the north side, expanding into no 45 later; in 1905 the College moved to Crowndale Road in St Pancras.

Continue west down Great Ormond St, to Queen Square. Turn right, and walk round to northeast corner, to nos 24-28

William Morris

Between 1865 and 1872, William Morris, artist, designer, poet, writer, and later active communist propagandist, lived here with his wife Jane, at what was then no 26. The Morrises actually moved here after the failure of the Red House commune in Bexley, a practical attempt by Morris and friends to build a ‘palace of Art’ based on their ideals of architecture, design and furniture.

The ground floor on no 26 was converted into workshops and offices for Morris’s furnishing business., whilst Morris and family lived on the first floor. It was in the scullery where Morris and Thomas Wardle first started experimenting in the revival of vegetable dyeing, starting with embroidery silks. Though Morris and family moved out in 1871, the firm stayed until 1881 when it moved to Merton Priory. Morris was also an active member of Maurice’s Workingmen’s College at this time.

Morris was in his most productive period here artistically, setting up the Firm, experimenting with weaving, designs, etc and writing poetry, which became very popular at the time. Though socialist biographer EP Thompson sees in his poetry and private letters how a private despair and rejection of bourgeois life was growing in him.  From the 1860s when he began to be successful, until the 1880s, Morris life was one of growing paradox: his whole arts-crafts practice was born in romantic revolt against modern industrial capitalism and its methods of production; but both the products and designs of the Firm, and his successful late 1860s poetry, were only accessible to, and increasingly appealed to, the very upper middle class born from profiting on the factory system. He spent a lot of time working for and dealing with these people, but despised them and the way they obtained their wealth and the power they held.

His poems of this era, especially ‘The Earthly Paradise’, became widely read among the middle classes, partly as a poetry of escape, beautiful and evocative and avoiding dealing with everyday realities (thus helping the mid-late nineteenth century bourgeoisie forget the economic consequences of capitalism); partly as it evoked a dying ember of Romanticism, expressing dissatisfaction with modern life, a yearning towards something heroic or transcendent, but without action or a link to real experience. The early Romantic poets – Wordsworth (in his youth at least!), Coleridge, and especially Byron, Keats and Shelley, were rebels against the society they saw around them, and dreamed of political liberty, even if their active expression didn’t always live up to the flights of their poetry. But late Romanticism had drifted into a backwater, a retreat from real life. “An indulgence of melancholy” Thompson calls Morris’s Romantic poetry, satisfying many among the middle classes who felt alienated from the age, but lacked the drive to do anything about it: “to give an ideal life to those who no longer had one.” (Lesconte de Lille) For one escapist reviewer it represented an inversion of homesickness, and that incurable thirst for the sense of escape, which no actual form of life satisfies.” This suggests something approaching the meaning of the German word ‘fernweh’, yearning to be travelling or far away, but with more angst, because travel is basically unsatisfying: it is a complete and permanent overthrow of daily existence that we truly desire. But the late Romantics no longer believed in changing life; they had settled for the idea that our deep aspirations were unfulfillable in real life, only the evocation of the beautiful in Art could approach it… The Earthly Paradise seemed to hit that chord; but Thompson identifies passages where Morris’ despair emerges through the beautiful phrases, even those which have been misinterpreted. “The idle singer of the empty day”, a line from The Earthly Paradise, was widely quoted and held to evoke a gorgeous sense of romantic otherworldly beauty; but actually suggests a hollowness and feeling of despair – a sense of life unfulfilled.

Even Morris’ best mate Edward Burne-Jones was a bit scathing about his friend’s poetry: “in dismal Queen’s Square in black old filthy London in dull end of October he makes a pretty poem that is to be wondrously happy; and it has four sets of lovers in it and THEY ARE ALL HAPPY, and it ends well…” (Which does actually sound a bit like his later fantasy fiction, after his Socialist League exit, written at another time in his life where disillusion had possibly set in, with his growing realisation that bringing a socialist society into being might be a long way off.)

Thompson suggests that Morris’ very success in art and poetry and this paradox pushed him towards his later conversion to socialism. He believes Morris was setting up love and human relations, in opposition to buying and selling, the cash-relations of his age; but feels that Morris didn’t in fact achieve this very convincingly. Possibly due to the stilted and failed nature of his own marriage.

Morris’ 1860s/70s poetry is now probably the least celebrated and most dated of his work. As Morris said of the “earthly paradise” 30 years latter: “There was more real ideal in News From Nowhere.” Which is true, because in the latter there’s a real sense of the building a real new world, not picturing an ideal rose-tinted one.

Morris ways in many ways similar and part of the Bloomsbury Bohopian trends of the 19th century, and yet at the same time broke free maybe more than any of his well-to-do contemporaries. Famously he later became an active propagandist for communism, and drew out his vision of a stateless society free from wage slavery, in his novel News From Nowhere and many other writings. Was there a specific set of factors that led him to see clearly while others remained in the various bourgeois swamps…?
 Although he left Bloomsbury in 1871, his influence continued to run strong in the area: he supported the Fellowship of New Life financially in the 1880s/90s, some of his views on art and society permeated Fabian thought. Though Morris had been influential on many early Fabians, and helped to bring some into the wider socialist movement, as the Society moved towards parliamentary views, they increasingly derided Morris’s continuing adherence to anti-parliamentarism, and his insistence that the essential antagonism of different classes meant only revolution could create socialism. He also clearly saw how the Fabian emphasis on a technocratic utilitarian benevolent state ‘socialism’ would be no socialism at all, and mocked the suggestion that industrial capitalism was moving in the direction of a socialist society in its tendencies towards centralisation. In the late 1880s and early 90s, Morris and the leading Fabians were more and more at odds; after his death Fabian grandees like GB Shaw were at pains to blur Morris’s ideas, reduce him to a naive eccentric, or claim him as one of theirs. In the end the Fabians were more in tune with the way society, and the ‘socialist’ movement, were to develop, though Morris’s vision has a strong pull…
 Morris’s Arts & Crafts philosophy also put down powerful roots – just wander down the Square to no 6, and you’ll find still based there today, an Art Workers Guild set up here, influenced by his ideas.

There’s more on William Morris in our radical history walk around Hammersmith

Walk round to no 29 (next door on the east side of square)

Now part of University College Hospital, this was previously the Working Women’s College, founded in 1864 by feminist activists Elizabeth Malleson & supported by George Eliot, Barbara Bodichon (a co-founder of the Englishwoman’s Journal) among others. Influenced by FD Maurice’s Working Men’s College (which had briefly admitted women when first started but then excluded them!), its first teachers included social reformer Octavia Hill, Elizabeth Garrett (later Anderson); its remit was

“to meet the needs of several classes of women who are at work during the day… The coffee-room, provided with periodicals and newspapers etc, will open every evening from 7 to 10, and will be made as far as possible the centre of the social life of the college.”

William Morris, then a neighbour, lent a series of his mate Burne-Jones’ cartoons to decorate the coffee room.

Elizabeth Malleson moved in the early feminist circles that fill Bloomsbury’s past. A supporter of women’s suffrage from her 20s, she joined the Ladies London Emancipation Society in 1864 (Emily Faithfull published its tracts); was a member of the Society for promoting the Employment of Women and a founder of the Ladies National Association in 1870, later playing some part in the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and the Women’s Franchise League…

Malleson later changed her mind about separate education for men and women and the College attempted a merger with the Working Men’s College in 1874, but the men’s College senior staff wouldn’t have it, so they renamed themselves the College for Men and Women and admitted men. Some teachers and students reacted against this and created yet another college called the ‘College for Working Women’ in Fitzroy Street, which was more successful than the College for Men and Women by offering a wide range of technical and academic subjects as well as ‘domestic’ subjects such like cookery, dressmaking and health studies. This College attracted students from a range of employment areas including domestic service workers, nursing, shop assistants and teaching. This is one of a very few institutes at this time that offered a dedicated programmes of study for women. The College for Men and Women closed in 1901 but the College for Working Women continues to this day; in one more twist it merged with the Working Men’s College in 1967!

No 5, and no 21 Queens Square were both homes of FD Maurice before he moved to Russell Square (see above).

No 3 Queens Square was head office of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement from 1922 to 1924. The NUWM reached a peak in early 1923 with over 100,000 members. Figures were boosted by the first National Hunger March (October 1922 to February 1923). Membership and tactics were increasingly dominated by the CPGB.

This was an early Georgian townhouse but the building currently on the site dates from around the 1960s.

Walk round to the Mary Ward Centre

This moved here from Tavistock Place 1982 (see more on Mary Ward, above).  As well as being an adult education college, (with the legal advice centre around the corner in Boswell Street) the Centre has been used as a meeting place by various radical groups for meetings.

Walk down to southeast corner, down Old Gloucester Street, to Theobald’s Road, turn right, and across the junction to Vernon Place.

Look to right, to site of no 29 Bloomsbury Square: Charles Knight, who, in 1826, lived at No. 29 (on this site), was one of the founders of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, (SDUK), which published cheap texts on mainly scientific subjects for the benefit of the rapidly expanding reading public. Set up by many of the same reformists who founded University College London, and led by Henry Brougham, a Whig politician who briefly became Lord Chancellor, the Society was founded in 1826 and active until 1848, with publications such as the ‘Penny Magazine’ reaching a peak circulation of around 200,000 copies a week – huge in those days. The SDUK had strong links with Mechanics institutes, and UCL (see above); in fact, the SDUK, UCL and the Institutes together formed different arms of the same Whig-Utilitarian-axis in the early nineteenth century…

Although its motives were fairly straightforward and worthy, the SDUK was attacked, even ridiculed; in particular by reactionary writers. Henry Brougham in particular was lampooned by satirists, including the cartoonist George Cruickshank and the novelist Thomas Love Peacock, SDUK caricatured in contemporary fiction as the Steam Intellect Society.

Another satire on ‘The March of Intellect’

This uneasy reception for educational projects illustrates what was a fierce debate at the time; education for the masses seemed dangerous in the politically volatile 1820s and 1830s, with many of the upper classes voicing fears that the working man was ‘getting above his station’, encouraged by naive Whig reformers.

Vernon Place: The headquarters of The Men’s Society for Womens Rights, founded in the 1860s, was somewhere here, around 1917. When it was founded women were barred from studying at university, becoming doctors and of course voting. The Men’s Society campaigned for women to be allowed all such rights, and fought sexual abuse of women and children.

Continue on down Vernon Place, which becomes Bloomsbury Way. Walk round the corner into Bury Place, and down to the junction of Barter Street

No. 144 High Holborn/ 493 Oxford Street was located here, at the corner of Bury Street almost opposite Holborn Town Hall.

The building on the sire of 144 High Holborn/493 Oxford Street

A previous building here housed the Offices of the Chartist Land Company from December 1846 to August 1851. The offices of the Land Bank, established in January 1847 as an auxiliary to the land company, were at 493 Oxford Street, a side entrance to 144. The bank closed in May 1851, the land company surviving until August.

With the Chartist movement demoralised by the rejection of the second great Charter of 1842, and many of its leaders on trial or in prison in the wake of that year’s general strike, Feargus O’Connor proposed a plan for resettling urban workers on the land.

The Chartist Land Plan originated in speeches made by O’Connor at Chartist conventions in Birmingham in 1843 and Manchester in 1845, but it was only after the London convention of 1845 that the Chartist Land Co-operative Society was formed. This was later renamed the National Land Company.

Its aim was to sell 100,000 shares, the money from which would be used to buy estates. These would then be parcelled out by lot among the members, who would receive between two and four acres each.

In four years, the National Land Company attracted 70,000 shareholders, raised more than £100,000, acquired a total of 1,118 acres (the first of which, Herringsgate [in some sources given as Heronsgate] near Watford, was renamed O’Connorville), but succeeded in establishing just 250 smallholders. Its other sites were at Lowbands, Snigs End, Minster Lovell and Great Dodford in Worcestershire.

Some see the Land Plan as doomed to failure, almost a pyramid scheme, which diverted the Chartist movement from its main political objectives. But land, and access to it, was a central plank of many radical movements in the nineteenth century, and the period of disillusion with lobbying, strikes and mass meetings that Chartism was going through, is paralleled in other eras, with slumps in political movements often leading into dreams of going back to the land… 

The scheme collapsed in recriminations by 1851, having failed to find a proper legal basis for its activities, and embroiling O’Connor in arguments about its finances.

Later the same building here housed the Women’s Freedom League. The League was founded in Summer 1907 by Charlotte Despard, Edith How-Martyn and Teresa Billington-Grieg. Previously leading members of the Women’s Social & Political Union, they and a number of others (broadly speaking, though not entirely, those more influenced by socialism) had become unhappy with the autocratic control that Emmeline and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst were increasingly exerting in the WSPU, as well as the powerful influence of a handful of wealthy women, such as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, within the organisation, as well as a new policy introduced by Christabel Pankhurst (without any consultation with WSPU members) which called for attacks on Labour Party candidates at elections as well as Liberals. After their attempt to introduce a new more democratic constitution was defeated by Emmeline Pankhurst (actually she ripped it up at a conference, and swayed the majority into sticking with the WSPU) they broke away.Initially, like the WSPU, the WFL was a militant organisation with a membership willing to break the law: over a hundred WFL members were sent to prison for refusing to pay taxes or taking part in demonstrations. But they opposed the WSPU’s campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property, especially its arson campaign. After 1910 the WFL in fact largely gave up militancy, instead encouraging resistance to the 1911 census and refusal to pay taxes. The Women’s Freedom League worked on women’s issues till it disbanded in 1961.

Women’s Freedom League members

Many of the early WFL members were pacifists, such as Charlotte Despard, and in contrast to the mainly pro-War lurch of the WPSU leadership, opposed World War 1 throughout. Despard, at this time a vegetarian Independent Labour Party member, during a long and active political life, was involved in setting up one of first child welfare centres in London; she later lived in Ireland and was active in Sinn Fein during the Irish War of independence; back in London by the 1930s, she was a leader in the unemployed movement in London. Theresa Billington Greig, meanwhile, became a writer on a wide range of issues; she was though increasingly critical of the single issue nature of the suffrage movement. While remaining “a militant rebel to the end of my days”, she came to doubt the militant suffrage campaign: she later wrote that she felt the campaign had degraded into “small pettiness… playing for effects and not results”; that “every interest and consideration and principle [had been] sacrificed to the immediate getting of any measure of suffrage legislation”; and that the alternating violent tactics and then injured innocence had been “political chicanery”. She also felt that the WFL had been largely a failure, that their refusal to fight for control of the WSPU before the split, and then failure to criticise the Union afterwards, left them just an echo of the bigger organisation; the League became mediocre.

The Women’s Freedom League headquarters moved to the (since demolished) 144 High Holborn in 1909. There was also an Emily Davison Club based here to protect her memory.

In the 1930s the Emily Davison Club was based in an upstairs room. Presumably this was connected to the Women’s Freedom League which was also in the building. The Club was used for political meetings and as a base for the Socialist Propaganda League, an obscure offshoot of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Walk down Bloomsbury Way to Museum Street; turn left and walk down to no 38 and 40

The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, which as the name suggests supported suffragette activity in the 1910s, had its offices at no 38 in 1908, and 40, from 1909-1911 (they then moved to Westminster). The League included such luminaries as the novelist EM Forster and Thomas Hardy, poet John Masefield, the Earl of Lytton and the Bishop of Lichfield. Its work consisted of supporting pro-suffrage election candidates, supporting women’s groups in suffrage rallies etc. It disbanded in 1961.

The League consisted mainly of Liberal intellectuals, embarrassed and angered by the treatment the Liberal government was dealing out to Suffragettes. They largely disapproved of militant suffragette actions, (most, far from being pro-feminist, held very traditional views about women), and co-operated more with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies than the WSPU. Men proved useful in various roles – disrupting political and election meetings women had been banned from due to previous disturbances, arranging invites for other meetings to suffragists; working class members  also enjoyed stewarding meetings and chucking out/roughing up the reactionary middle class students who often heckled Suffragette speakers.

Walk back up Bury Place to Little Russell Street to St George’s Church

On 13 June 1913, the funeral was held here of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died after falling under the King’s horse, trying to disrupt the Derby, on June 4th (a myth has grown up that she deliberately threw herself under the hooves, but the plan was only to sabotage the race; the latest escalation in the militant suffragist campaign to win women the vote). Emily had been one of the most active of the militants, and had previously served nine prison terms for suffrage actions. She had hidden in the cellars under the House of Commons for 46 hours to avoid the 1911 census (another suffragist tactic: refusing to be censussed till they got the vote); she is also credited with being the first suffragette to set fire to a post box when that tactic was launched… for which she got six months. She gave no quarter inside either, being force fed several times in prison while on hunger strike, barricading herself in her cell, and chucking herself off a landing among other tactics. The Pankhurst-dominated leadership of the Women’s Social & Political Union are said to have kept her out of their inner circles, regarding her as a “very loose cannon”.

Her funeral was organised by the WSPU: 6000 women marchers, with brass bands played

Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral

Chopin’s Funeral March, a banner showing Joan of Arc, and three laurel wreaths placed on her coffin with the words “She died for Women”. Large crowds lined the route; although one protester threw a brick at the coffin, the onlookers were largely supportive.The cortege moved on to King’s Cross Station from where Emily’s body traveled to Morpeth for burial in the family grave.


We end our walk here… if your feet ache and your head is spinning, I’d suggest popping over to St Giles High Street and having a pint and a chaser at the Angel pub, traditional spot gig the condemned to have a last drink as they were trundled from Newgate to Tyburn to be topped… Thanks for following our ramblings & hope you have taken inspiration from these walks…


Written, researched, walked by past tense – the real godless college.

dedicated to Nina Wild: born in Huntley St, Bloomsbury 2-10-2008.



As noted in our first Bloomsbury radical history walk, a massive number of local streets, squares and thoroughfares are named after the Russells, the Earls/Dukes of Bedford, their landed estates, their various titles and estates, their wives, other aristos who they intermarried with etc etc…

Suggestions for the future (or immediate, fuck it!), renaming of squares and streets after some of its radicals instead:

Russell Square – should be renamed Pankhurst Square, we think. Despite the slightly dodgy political directions all of the fam but Sylvia eventually took…

Great Russell Street – Eleanor Marx Street seems fair.

Little Russell Street – Emily Wilding Davison Street.

Bedford Square: While it’s tempting to give it the name ‘Lord-Eldon-hanging-from-a-lamppost Square’, this is a bit of a mouthful. Could go for Wakley Square, though we are generally opposed to MPs getting their names on places; so we suggest Shelley Square, which would have galled Eldon, (plus Shelley also lived in Bloomsbury).

Bedford Avenue – Passmore Avenue. for John Passmore Edwards

Bedford Way – Headlam Place for Stewart Headlam.

Bedford Place – John Gray Place, for the Gordon Rioter hanged down in Bloomsbury Square.

Tavistock Place (the Russells were also Marquesses of Tavistock) – Jex-Blake Place, to remember Sophia Jex-Blake, a founder of the London School of Medicine for Women in neighbouring Hunter Street (since Elizabeth Garrett Anderson already has a local hospital named for her!)

Tavistock Square – Peace Square

Gordon Square, named (depending on which book you read) after Lady Georgiana Gordon, second wife of the sixth Duke of Bedford, or her father, Alexander Duke of Gordon. Suffragist resident Lady Jane Strachey is just too posh and pro-imperialist, so maybe Mud March Square after the infamously wet WSPU demo she was involved with.

So also Gordon Street: which could simply be renamed Gordon Riots Street.

Gower Street: From Gertrude Leveson-Gower, daughter of the Earl of Gower, and wife of the fourth duke of Bedford. Maybe rename it Garret Street after Millicent Garret Fawcett whose house was at no 2.

Gower Place: Godwin Place.

Gower Mews: Bob Marley Mews (since Bob lived round the corner)

Woburn Square – named for Dukes’ country seat at Woburn Abbey; Wolstoncraft Square, for Mary W.

Woburn Walk –  Emily Faithfull Walk.

Woburn Mews – Charles Kent Street, after another Gordon rioter hanged in 1780 for looting Lord Mansfield’s house.

Woburn Place/Upper Woburn Place – Despite his Christianity and Liberalism, why not call it Maurice Place after FD Maurice, sacked for refusing to believe in Hell and damnation.

Thornhaugh Street (after another Russell title, Baron of Thornhaugh) – Thelwall Street, for John Thelwall

Thornhaugh Mews – Anna Jameson Mews

Streatham Street (the Russells were also Lords of the Manor of Streatham, now in sunny south London) – William Morris Street

Herbrand Street – name of the 11th duke. Should be retitled Laetitia Holland Street, after one of those hanged in Bloomsbury Square in 1780 for looting Lord Mansfield’s house.

Also Burton Street: named for the developer who built much of the estate in the late 18th/early 19th Centuries. Maybe Rookery Street, to remember the people driven from their homes by the demolition of the St Giles Rookery, to the Dukes’ profit.

And for good measure, other aristo names round ere

Southampton Row – named for Earl of Southampton…. maybe International Times Way?

Montague Place  – named for Ralph 1st duke of Montagu (another heir of the Earls of Southampton): Meltzer Street (for anarchist Albert Meltzer and his Coptic St bookshop)

Montague Street – Marten Street, for squatter Johnny Marten from the Ivanhoe Hotel occupation

Mecklenburgh Square is named after dropsical old Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, who before her marriage was Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.  – We propose Edith Lees Square.

Keppel street – the Keppels were Earls of Albermarle and ancestors of our own Camilla Parker Bollocks. The first Earl, Arnold Joost van Keppel, was a minor Dutch aristo, page of honour to king William III (the infamous king Billy), with who he came to England; he was created Earl of Albermarle, mainly for services rendered, ie he used to share the king’s bed when his royal anus was feverish (it was thought then that another body in the bed could help break fever). Or that’s the official story. Glencoe Street, recalling the 1692 massacre of Scots highlanders approved by king Billy?

Queen Square: named for Queen Anne (though weirdly the statue in the middle is probably NOT her, it’s George III’s other half, Charlotte). We suggest Elizabeth Malleson Square, commemorating the early feminist who co-founded the Working Women’s College here.

Marchmont Street: named for Alexander Hume-Campbell, Earl of Marchmont: Mary Shelley Street?

Brunswick Square: after more German aristocrats (possibly the Duke of Brunswick who led the early war against the French Revolution): Barbara Bodichon Square.

Great Ormond Street: named for the Dukes of Ormond; could be renamed John Bellingham Street, for the first, but hopefully not last, successful assassin of a Prime minister.

Ormond Mews – Hannington Street for the NUWM leader

Ormond Close – Agnes Henry Close

Gilbert Place: for Gilbert Holles, Earl of Clare. Stuart Christie Place

Finally: UCL should revert to its early nickname of the Godless College.

Also: we could change the names of all local pubs with dubious names: (NB altho we also understand how annoying random pub name changes can be…?)

eg: The ‘Marlborough Arms’, on the corner of Huntley Street and Torrington Place: as it was a hangout of the Huntley Street squatters how about ‘The Squatters’ Arms’? Or ‘The Crowbar”?

The Marquis of Cornwallis, Marchmont Street; remembering Charles Cornwallis, one of those old Empire stalwarts – a leading British general in the American War of Independence,  governor general of India, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who oversaw the response to the 1798 Irish Rebellion and a French invasion of Ireland, and was instrumental in the Union of Great Britain and Ireland. (but a pragmatic one – he argued unsuccessfully that Catholics should be given the vote etc as part of the Act of Union, resigning along with Prime Minister William Pitt when mad king George refused to countenance it) How about a good anti-imperialist Irish name like The Wolfe Tone, for the 1798 Irish rebel leader?

The ‘Lord John Russell’ also on Marchmont Street; named for the offspring of the Bedford dukes, Whig and Liberal politician who served twice as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century. (Although, when the pub was originally named, the landlord was supposedly also called John Russell, so it was kind of an ironic joke.) Since Lord John was the grandfather of Bertrand Russell, the mathematician, philosopher and pacifist activist, we could call the pub the Bertrand Russell.

The Norfolk Arms, Leigh Street – all Dukes of Norfolk are wankers: lets call it the Robert Kett, after the leader of the Norfolk anti-enclosures rebellion in 1549.

The Queens Larder, Queen Square; This pub is named after Queen Charlotte, wife of mad King George III, who was being treated for his insanity at a doctor’s house in Queen Square. The Queen rented a small cellar beneath the pub to keep the special foods which King George needed. How about calling the Hadfield, after James Hadfield, attempted assassin of mad old george; he was condemned as mad himself but receiving less sympathetic treatment…

The Duke of York, Roger Street… Which Duke of York? Who cares! worth finding out tho???

Thanks to Jim Paton, Keith Scholey, Judy Greenway, and Stuart Christie (RIP)


A Wander in Bohopia: A Radical History Walk around Bloomsbury

This walk is based on research originally done for a radical history walk which took place in Bloomsbury on 22nd April 2006, which started at ‘The Square’ squatted Social Centre, in Russell Square. The walk was organised as part of the London Zine Symposium, an annual festival of fanzine culture. There were about 70 odd people to start with, but traffic and tourism being loud, it being a West End Saturday, people had trouble hearing us, and we lost quite a few as we rambled around (including one of the walk organisers who had to go back to the centre to play a gig!) By the end it had worn down to 20 or so, and our voices had gone. Good fun was had by all though. Especially the coppers accompanying us, at the start at least, who panicked when we moved off thinking the walk was a cover for an action of some sort, and could be seen scuttling around like headless chickens for a while. They quickly got bored by anecdotes of the Christian Socialists, and buggered off.

Some things should be established from the start: this is not The History of Bloomsbury. Still less is it yet another list of famous painters, poets, writers and other creative bohemian types who have fluttered through WC1. If that’s what you’re looking for… look elsewhere, there are enough books, films etc about it. However, it cannot be avoided, that the bohemian, artistic atmosphere of Bloomsbury was a crucial attraction for many of the political radicals who have lived here, and fitted with their vision of how better societies could be created and should be run. For many bohemian radicals Bloomsbury both attracted them AND reinforced their visions. Eric Hobsbawm asserted that “No hypothesis which seeks to link ideas with their social background can be proved to everyone’s satisfaction”; but your background shapes your ideas significantly, even if only by defining what you struggle hardest to escape.


Past Tense publishes ‘historically’ oriented texts like this one, not because we want to live in the past, or as some sort of academic archeology, but because we desire a different present and hope to be part of building a future free from class divisions, hierarchy, and social relations based on property, wealth, and wage labour. We’re not historians; our interest in history is partly for inspiration and a link to people like us in the past, partly for a search for the origins of the world we inhabit, and partly to keep the story of struggles for a better existence alive. Exploration of ideas, shared experiences, ways of working and living freely together, are vital parts of this struggle, and discussion of ideas and movements of the past are central to why we study history, as is the geography of the areas we live work and play in, and understanding how they evolve, and are altered by social change. While we have used the term ‘radical history’ in the past to describe projects we have been involved in, some of us at past tense are dissatisfied with it, both because the word ‘radical’ is broad and open to many interpretations, and because focussing on ‘history’ blinkers us a bit when what we’re interested inhabits many other fields as well: urban geography, philosophy, economics and much more.

Remembering events, personalities, and battles of days gone by is hollow and meaningless if not linked to social change in our own lives, and just as our contributions to present theoretical and practical debate should be critical of ideas we disagree with, we extend this to our delves into the past. While some historians believe in objectivity, refusing to comment critically on the ideas of past times (and while its true that you can’t impose the ideas and values of today on people living through times when those ideas and values hadn’t developed), its also fair to say that movements of the past were not monolithic, and a wide variety of ideas emerged, changed, evolved and conflicted. We don’t hold with shying away from being critical of ideas we disagree with; but we also see that its important to remember that a broad array of social movements in past centuries, with widely diverse ideas and tactics, contributed to improvements in people’s lives, to freeing up of ways of living. As a result we feel it’s worth both celebrating the achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, AND being critical of her slide into nationalist chauvinism… and so on.

As as result some of the ‘stops’ on this walk are brief factual descriptions of people or events linked to a particular street or house; others expand more into discussions of political factions or activists and what they thought, and examines some broad themes that this opens up. This may leave the text somewhat uneven, and certainly concentrates more on some subjects than others. We don’t apologise for this, but if people find it inadequate, we are also always open to further discussion of anything in our work, and eager to learn about strands we’ve missed (as well as any corrections of glaring errors… of which we promise there must be some in this text). Also, all texts like this are works in progress, full of unfinished research, hastily drawn conclusions, statements based on snippets found in one source, which we couldn’t confirm elsewhere. At some point, despite the endless joy you may find in dusty archives, you have to set a deadline as to what you’re going to actually publish, and all such deadlines are arbitrary, leaving some threads slightly unwove. Further revisions subject to yet more delves into the ideas of the Fabians and co will have to wait for a later reprint, or may turn up on the web.

We hope you enjoy this walk, even better if you use it to physically navigate round the streets of WC1. To do this may take quite a while, which is why we have split it into two parts. Here’s part two… However the two walks kind of have thematic unity – it should be considered as a whole, in itself.

A fit place for the nobility and gentry

Unlike much of Central London, Bloomsbury is not very old, it was only really built up on a large scale from the 16th century. Before that, it was mostly fields and farms. It has no real industrial history to speak of; and although it was bordered by poorer neighbourhoods, its inhabitants have been mainly well-to-do up until the 20th Century. Two main themes emerge when examining Bloomsbury’s radical past:  reformers, socialists, feminists and so on, but of mostly middle class background, and a working class presence by invasion – encroachment by riotous crowds against particular wealthy locals. The class background of most of Bloomsbury’s broadly progressive residents is vital to understanding their politics, attitudes and activities.

A map of early Bloomsbury

The area has been fairly posh since it was built, developed mainly between the 16th and 19th centuries by aristocratic landowners, the Wriothesleys (Earls of Southampton), and later the Russell family, the Earls (later Dukes) of Bedford (who also owned large parts of Covent Garden, and areas south of Camden Town, as well as having large country estates). As the area grew, the central streets of Bloomsbury came to be filled with tenants of these aristocratic landowners, most of them upper and middle class folk.

The fourth Earl of Southampton first started to develop the area around his mansion (in modern Bloomsbury Square) in the 1650s, pioneering a trend for hereditary landlords to develop news streets by employing speculative builders; new houses for Lords, knights and other worthies began to spring up. By 1665 the area was already described as “A fit place for the nobility and gentry to reside”. The 1666 Great Fire of London brought well-to-do refugees seeking new, safer housing out of the City – the next twenty years saw houses spread along what is now Great Russell Street.

According to local resident J. P. Malcolm,  “Squares, and spacious streets of the first respectability are rising in every direction; and the north side of the parish will, in a few years, contain an immense accumulation of riches, attracted by the grand structures in Russell Square now almost complete….”

19th century Bedford Estate gatekeepers

Inheriting the estate in 1669, the Russells, the Earls of Bedford, named the new streets of their estates after their various titles and estates, and banned the building of pubs and shops, which they thought would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. In fact they not only attempted to control the atmosphere of their streets: they imposed barriers on who could even pass through it. Upper Woburn Place, originally a private road for the Dukes, had gates in the eighteenth century, and from the early 19th Century, parts of the Bedford Estate had gates at all entrances. Uniformed gatekeepers were employed by the Russells to keep out undesirables; only those with tickets issued by the Estate, (silver discs, embossed with the Bedford coat of arms, obtainable by tenants or certain other privileged people for a guinea deposit), could pass down the roads. Empty cabs, or carts, drays, wagons, cattle and exercising horses were banned from entering; gentlemen’s carriages, cabs with fares and persons on horseback were allowed through. For decades the Bedford Estate managed to prevent trams and omnibuses from being run through their streets. Private Acts of parliament banned hackney cabs from ‘standing for hire’ within 300 feet of some of the Estate’s poshest squares.

The Bedford Estate’s continued attempts to maintain the wealthy and ultra-respectable character of Bloomsbury must have been to some extent influenced by the sharp (and growing) contrast of this prosperous island with the neighbourhoods that surrounded it. St Giles to the south-west, Holborn to the south-east, Clerkenwell to the east, ‘Fitzrovia’ to the west, and, later, parts of St Pancras and Agar Town, to the north, all had an overwhelmingly working class population by the 19th Century; many of their streets were labeled as slums, rookeries or criminal haunts by the better-off classes. No doubt the increasing sense of being surrounded by the poor, desperate and possibly rebellious must have had some bearing on the gradual flight of the rich westward, to areas further from the dark threat of mob violence. The successive invasions of Bloomsbury in 1765, 1780 and 1815 by riotous crowds (see below) may only have been the sharp reminder of a deeper held fear and loathing… The increased control over open spaces, building on fields used for rowdy recreation, fencing off of squares’ gardens, can be seen partially as responses to both the class violence of the London Mob, AND the widely perceived ‘immoral’ nature of unlandscaped space – two sides of the same coin to the wealthy. The gates were popular with the mainly up-market tenants of the Bedfords; in fact some residents were pushing the Estate to toughen up the social control, petitioning the Estate to get rid of local streets that housed “wicked and disorderly people of both sexes”, lowering the tone of the Russells’ vision: the building of New Oxford Street through the St Giles Rookery would later obliterate some of these unrespectable streets.

Gradually opposition to the Dukes’ gates built up: they were obviously unpopular with cabbies and poorer folk, and even some local official bodies. Eventually in slightly less forelock-tugging times, private gates across streets in a busy capital became unsustainable. Legislation ended this restriction of access, in 1893, and the gates came down. The Duke’s posh tenants, still keen to keep the riffraff out, campaigned for the gates’ retention, writing letters of protest, but happily in vain.

Around this time the 11th Duke began to sell of parts of the estate, regarding it as unreliable as a source of income, especially as better off folk had been migrating west to posher pastures like Belgravia, Bayswater etc., since the turbulence of 1780. This process had already begun in the 1830s: the Bedford office, who ran the Estate, found demand for ‘first rate’ houses was declining – as a result they increased their control over the Estate property in a desperate attempt to preserve Bloomsbury’s character as “the gentleman’s private residence.” Land for the University of London and the British Museum had already been sold off. Fortunately for the Dukes, many 99-year leases in Bloomsbury began reverting to the Bedford Estate in the 1920s and 30s, just as the expansion of University College meant the Estate was able to cash in by leasing buildings to them (especially around Tavistock Square). New University buildings like Senate House, SOAS, and Birkbeck College were also built on Estate lands between 1932 and 1951. The Estate does still own some residential property converted to office and small hotel use and private housing.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, Bloomsbury has in some ways been on the slide, socially: there are much less of the rich who once dominated, and ever-increasing numbers of students halls and hotels, some posh, but many slightly seedy. Perhaps getting rid of the gates DID lower the tone of the neighbourhood! In the late nineteenth century, Henry James mocked “dirty Bloomsbury”, VS Pritchett referred to the area’s “spiritless streets”; Ford Madox Ford to its “dismal, decorous, unhappy, glamorous squares.” Music hall jokes abounded about Bloomsbury landladies renting to actors, poets and other dubious types – a real step down in class. Comparing successive versions of the Booth poverty/affluence maps for Bloomsbury shows the re-colouring of streets (colour in Booth’s maps was used to indicate the social class of the people living there). For example, in 1889, Little Gower Place (now part of university College London, then south of, and parallel to, Gower Place) had been inked ‘light blue’ [denoting “Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family”], but only nine years later in 1898 had become ‘dark blue’ [“Very poor, casual. Chronic want”].
 Houses let to one tenant a decade or so before were being sub-divided and let to several families.

Space, respectable and unrespectable uses of it, and control of it, gating or fencing it off, for the benefit of some (the rich), and to the exclusion of others (often, though not always, the poor) is the first theme of this walk: from the entire area, to the gardens in certain squares, to hotel gardens…  to housing and squatting… Aristocrats can no longer fence off whole neighbourhoods, but wealth and power still locks us out…

Walk one

(Walk Two will follow shortly)

START: Russell Square underground station. Walk westward down Bernard Street to the North-East corner of Russell Square.

Cross the road, walk into the gardens in Russell Square.

Russell Square was founded by the fifth Duke of Bedford in 1799, and when built was the largest square in London. It is still owned by the Bedford Estate, though leased to Camden Borough Council. The houses were the work of James Burton, the most successful property developer at that time. His workforce was so large, that in 1804, when Napoleon threatened to invade Britain, Burton raised a 1000-strong regiment (with architects and foremen being installed as officers), to protect the borders of the new town they were building in the event of the French army turning up. As to whether brickies and carpenters were happy to join this private army, its doubtful they had much choice…

From the beginning the Square was the ultimate des-res: Rowland Dobie described in 1830 how Russell Square “has, from its first formation, been a favourite residence of the highest legal characters; and here merchants and bankers have seated themselves and families, the air and situation uniting to render it a pleasant retreat from the cares of business”. The Bedford Estate made every effort to preserve this character, introducing not only the infamous gates, but also Watch Boxes, small semi-private police huts, (staffed by the Estate’s own dedicated beadles, private cops in effect) were erected on all four of the Square’s edges; a visible deterrent to “street nuisances”, ie plebs and other undesirables, which included anyone on one of those new-fangled contraptions, bicycles. The Estate Office even unsuccessfully tried to have cab ranks that had been built up here kicked out in 1886 – presumably thinking they lowered the tone.

But with the iron hand goers the velvet glove: scared somewhat by robberies, illegal prizefighting and other rowdy working class pursuits, the ‘comfortable classes’ set up various projects here to encourage wholesome diversions and moral uplifting of the poor, and most importantly “polite contact’ between the classes. These included soup kitchens and an annual flower show in Russell Square, which became very popular.  Flower shows as social cement and moral stiffeners!

It’s not known how much the Estate’s privatisation of space was contested in Russell Square, or Bloomsbury generally. Much small scale resistance, such as legging it through the old Estate gates, jumping over the Street gates or the railings in the Squares at night, to hang out, fuck, drink in the gardens, surely went on, but is probably not recorded.

The Square’s high-prestige reputation was satirised in fiction, by Thackeray, who used the square as the location for the family homes of both the Sedleys and the Osbornes in Vanity Fair; published in 1848 but set in 1815; and later in the nineteenth century by journalist and author Edmund Yates, who described what was often seen as a typical resident, a merchant with more money than class: “a merchant-prince―a Russell Square man―a person of fabulous wealth, who…lived but for his money, his dinners, and his position in the City; a fat, pompous, thick-headed man, with a red face, a loud voice, a portly presence, and overwhelming watch-chain” (Edmund Yates, The Business of Pleasure, 1879).

Since the 1950s the gardens in the middle of the Square have become a cruising ground for gay men looking for a spot of outdoor sex: as a result the square is now locked at night to keep out what  Camden Council described as “undesirables”. Gay campaign group OutRage! responded by calling for a gay sex “zone of toleration” as a way of reducing public complaints and police harassment, arising from gay cruising in the Square at night, (modelled on the “tolerance zone for gay sex” that operates in parks in Copenhagen and Amsterdam with the agreement of the police and city council).  “The Council increased the lighting in the Square and cut down the thick shubbery, making the sex more visible. No wonder public complaints have increased.” OutRage! suggested that the Council could make the gardens more discreet by turning off the lights and planting dense bushes around the outer perimeter of the Square, the borders of the flower beds, and the sides of the café. “One third of Russell Square could be sectioned off with a high fence and thick shrubbery”, explained John Beeson of OutRage!. “Entrance to the area would be marked with a warning sign. A similar system has worked well in the main parks in Copenhagen.”

Nice try, although it doesn’t seem to have seized the Council’s imagination, for some reason…

Open spaces, including squares, have been the focus of dispute for a thousand years in London. Often they were gathering places for the outcast and for rebellious or radical mobs, places for illicit sex. The poor, the outcast, the sexually promiscuous, the homeless etc, have faced numberless attempts to exclude them by better off residents or City authorities, including campaigns to end fairs, build on wastes, fence off squares, arrest and drive out beggars, tarts, gays etc, as well as to landscape ‘waste’, which was thought to have a civilising effect on people who used it. Moorfields (off Moorgate), a traditional place of bawdy recreation, outdoor sex and banned games (like football!) as well as a meeting ground for rebel crowds, was landscaped in the 1590s in an attempt to bring order to an infamous ‘uncontrollable’ area. In Bloomsbury itself disorderly spaces like the Long Fields that used to border on Great Russell Street, (see below) were gradually replaced by fenced off streets and gardens for the use of the gentry; these disputes are reflected into the 1940s in the conflict over the Montague Street Gardens.

Originally access to the gardens in many of the squares on the Bedford Estate – Gordon Square, Tavistock Square, Woburn Square, Torrington Square, Bloomsbury Square – was restricted to the Duke’s rich tenants. Still today many posh Squares in central London are fenced to exclude the likes of us… although angle grinders, hacksaws and boltcutters could solve that…

Walk back down to the corner of the Square, walk a few yards west to nos 21-22

‘The Square’ Social Centre once occupied this building in the old University College London School of Slavonic Studies

This fine occupied space flourished for several months from the winter of 2005 through to the following Summer. “When the Square was first occupied… everyone was overcome with excitement. The building was a dream – from its central position to its glorious fascia; from its large ground floor rooms to the labyrinthine former bar of a student’s union in the basement.” The Square was constantly teeming for the next few months, with packed out benefit gigs, parties, meetings, an info shop, offices and organising space for radical anti-authoritarian groups, as well as a friendly drop-in and coffee shop.

There were many and varied events, including meetings/reports back on the student riots in France, the London Zine Symposium, with stalls, talks, walks and bands; a Mayday Weekend, with talks and discussions on ‘The Future of Anarchism’, an excellent meeting with films and speakers from campaigners against deaths in custody and mobilisations for anti-war and anti-deportation demos and a remarkably successful meeting on ‘Radical Academics in the Neoliberal University’ which packed 100 people into the 80-capacity meeting room.

“What really occurred at the Square, though, was a community – a virtual community … The building became a focal point for all sorts of groups, organised or otherwise, who – holding their meetings in the same building, rather than the pub – had a rare contact with each other, creating many friendships and challenging many assumptions. This hive of activity was also a space which proved extremely

The Square resists eviction

stimulating for those few kids who came in search of politics rather than a cheap party. It was frequented by members of anti-fascist group Antifa, Aufheben, the Anarchist Federation, the WOMBLES, the Industrial Workers of the World, a whole mess of punks and even the occasional insurrectionist. One could always find an interesting conversation.”

The centre was sadly evicted in June 2006 despite some resistance from the squatters and supporters initially forcing the bailiffs to back off. Many of the core group that had run the space were also suffering slightly from “exhaustion – physical, emotional and political. People were just tired, and wanted a summer in the sun, not barricaded into a building. Others felt the social centre had drawn to its natural conclusion given the limits that had been placed upon it, and wanted summer for reflection and reformulation of the project. Still others were concerned that the symbolic weekend of resistance, which burnt so brightly, would be diluted by days and weeks of events for events’ sake.”
More on the Square squat

By the byways, an ex-UCL student thought they might have been part of a previous barricading of the very same Slavonic Studies building in its university incarnation,  during a UCL day of student occupations in 2001…

Walk over the Gardens or round to the south east corner of Russell Square, across the road to the corner of Russell Square and Southampton Way.

The building right on the corner (what no?) was squatted in 1969 by the infamous London Street Commune, who had just been evicted from their first and most high profile home/centre, 144 Piccadilly

Squatters leaving the house in Russell Square



‘Hippies from the London Street Commune roamed the city early today seeking a new home after their eviction from 144 Piccadilly. A large group tried to take over a house in Russell Square and others had the gate slammed in their faces at a house in Endell Street, Covent Garden, where 50 squatters were already in occupation.

A spokesman for the Endell Street squatters said: “We are turning away everyone from Piccadilly. They are an undisciplined mob.” ‘ [the Guardian, 22 September 1969]

Cross over Southampton Rows to the east side, turn right, and walk southeast to no 102 Southampton Row,(now an empty shop being refurbished).

In the late 1960s-early 70s, Indica Bookshop was based at no 102. This was the leading Underground hangout; it sold new age stuff, records, books, underground papers. Indica was run mainly by Barry Miles, who came from an old CND, jazz scene, arts school background. Indica was summed up as “Hip capitalism in a good cause”, at a time when social rebellion, drug use, rock n roll and new age money-making co-existed merrily in a contradictory mish-mash of an underground scene.

Indica moved here in March ’66, having been founded 3 months before… Miles had worked at Better books in Soho, which had hosted some of the earliest ‘underground’ happenings, poetry readings and other weird shit… He John Dunbar (art critic of the Scotsman) and Peter Asher (“one of the few upper-class rock ‘n’ rollers”) founded Indica (named for Cannabis Indica, though they didn’t tell everyone that at the time!) as a gallery-cum-bookshop, promoting avant-garde literature and art. Through Asher, his sister Jane’s boyfriend, Paul McCartney, and later other Beatles, became involved in helping out (mainly with money! although McCartney supposedly painted some shelves when they moved in) – John Lennon famously met Yoko Ono here at one of her performances (altho was this at the gallery or here? The bookshop moved to here and Indica gallery continued in Masons Yard for 2-3 years.)

According to Miles they had no idea what they were doing, especially no idea how run Indica financially and relied on donations from McCartney and others; though the gallery was selling lots of paintings to US art dealers, they lost money, and were ripped off, hand over fist.

International Times (it), the top underground paper of the day, had its office in the basement 1966-68. Launched (in October ’66) partly in imitation of New York’s legendary Village Voice, the original aims of the paper were fairly limited: “24-hour city, sex and drugs and rock n roll… being able to look weird and not being thrown out of your flat because you had long hair…”  “the idea was to have an international cultural magazine”: it aimed to link up people in London, mainly, in alternative undertakings in theatre, movies, fashion, rock ‘n’ roll, poetry, literature. “The only politics in early ITs was extreme libertarianism…the individual’s right to do with his or her mind and body whatever he or she wanted to do. Sexually, drugs, reading, no censorship, smoke anything, inhale anything, inject anything, it’s you life baby…” As with other ground-breaking publications the office became about more than producing it, but evolved into something of a social and organising space. “People were coming in and going out of the IT office all the time, it was like a continuous party… bringing in news, typing in another room, telephone ringing…”

Memories differ about the early success of the paper: Miles wrote “We probably printed 15000 of the first issue and there weren’t many returns… [it] went up to peak in May 68 around 44,000…” But Sue Miles reckoned the “the original print run was 2500 and at least 1750 never left the cardboard box…” Its impact was maybe wider than its actual sales, especially as the underground scene was adept at self-publicity.

When it was raided by police in March 1967, the cops removed everything; the editorial team “scattered to the metaphoric hills” (Mick Farren). In their absence it was taken over by Mick Farren, Mike McInnerny and Dave Howson. They whipped up support in the alternative scene. John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins organised a spectacular benefit event at underground club UFO. Farren, as UFO doorman, regularly skimmed off a percentage from the door takings to pay for the paper; as there was no formal mechanism for raising money to pay for it. A piece of street theatre put together in protest at the raid involved a coffin symbolising the death of it carried in procession through Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Trafalgar Square to the Cenotaph, then onto the Circle Line and round to Notting Hill, then the main underground barrio.

In the end no charges were brought against the paper. After this the old editors returned, which led to conflict with the team who had taken up the burden in the crisis. The oldies thought the new blood had gone too hippy rebel, they wanted a return to a more conservative style and format. There were internal numerous problems, including disputes between British and US staff (whose approach differed), problems when Bill Levy became editor (according to Alex Gross “he had no deep desire to deal with other people. He preferred to bring out the paper from his own apartment”. Levy was forced out after original founder John Hopkins got out of prison and pushed through a re-organisation of the paper’s ownership, turning it into a workers co-op… (Which turned out to be a disaster apparently).

It had outgrown its base at Indica. To add to it’s problems no printer in London would touch it (as printers could be prosecuted for dodgy content), the paper was being printed in Carlisle!

Others in the underground took a critical view of it: pro-Situationist agitators from King Mob invaded Indica and occupied the paper’s office: “going and breaking in there and scaring the wits out of them… Our basic statement was that they were agents of the Spectacle and they were all going to be co-opted.” (Dick Pountain)

In late ’67, Nigel Samuel got involved in helping out /funding it. Samuel was a rich playboy, son of ‘socialist’ property mogul Howard Samuel, bit of a mad lost soul (his dad drowned himself when he was 13), with lots of cash, keen to give it away, (some of the time), but according to Sue Miles, “absolutely and genuinely out to fuck the politicians. He was actually politically motivated”. With Samuel’s support, wages got paid properly, and it‘s debts were underwritten, but also this meant (according to the slightly biased Farren, who gradually got pushed out of the paper at this time) that paper sales were no longer taken as a guide to good product, and it started to lose contact with the underground and the growing hippie scene. In March 1968 it moved to Betterton Street; where it peaked in sales and influence around May during and after the French events (during which most of the editorial team were in Paris). After that it gradually declined, going through another occupation/takeover, this time by the London Street Commune, as well as further divisions, a prosecution for Conspiracy to corrupt public morals and conspiracy to outrage public decency, over printing gay personal ads (they were the first UK paper to do so – and it paid the bills for a while!)  The paper survived for two years on profits of dealing of hash, till business manager Dave Hall got busted selling to an undercover cop – in the it office! Rival underground and not-so-underground papers were also stealing its thunder. it was “in disarray” by the early 1970s, though it continued publishing sporadically through the 70s and 80s and was even revived in the 90s.

Indica Bookshop collapsed under its debts at the end of 1968.

Footnote: when it was being set up, and sometimes later, meetings were held occasionally in Cosmoba the italian restaurant round the corner in Cosmo Place…

Every issue of it can be found at the International Times Archive

Cross the road, walk down Bloomsbury place to Bloomsbury Square. Stop on the North side

Southampton House, London residence of the Earls of Southampton in the 15th-16th Centuries, stood here on the northeast side of the Square, the big house and gardens stretching all the way up to Russell Square.

Bedford House, seen from where Bloomsbury Square is now

Southampton House later became Bedford House, when the Dukes of Bedford inherited it and most of the land around here. Virtually all the streets in this area are named for the Duke’s family name of Russell, after their wives, their country estates, etc. A good case for a workers’ renaming commission when the revolution comes (or sooner)!

The Dukes were pretty much all-powerful in Bloomsbury for a couple of centuries; besides the gates they built to block entry to some streets, they also ordered the New Watch house built around 1694, (and enlarged twenty years later) on land they donated for the purpose, off Southampton Row. It served virtually as a private police station to protect their property against crime. However despite this, in the  eighteenth century, Bloomsbury Square was a popular spot for robbing the rich, possibly  down to the proximity of rookeries like St Giles that robbers could escape quickly to. Footpads regularly set upon well-to-do residents and visitors in their sedan chairs and coaches; in 1751 the Countess of Albemarle’s coach was held up by seven men who relieved her and some friends of two watches and seven guineas.

Bloomsbury Square remained private, its gardens for the use of residents only, right up to World War 2, when its railings were melted down for armaments, allowing non-residents to enter the square for the first time. In 1950 the Square was officially made public.

The 4th Duke of Bedford (like most of his family) was a whig politician, in and out of various positions of power; leader at one time of a political faction nick-named the Bloomsbury Gang. In May 1765 8000 silk weavers from Spitalfields, armed with bludgeons and pickaxes, besieged and attacked Bedford House three times, after the Duke engineered the defeat of a bill in the House of Lords designed to protect the London silkweaving trade by placing high import duties on Italian silks. The weavers had campaigned for the Bill, as part of their ongoing struggle to maintain decent wage levels. This was a time of high food prices & unemployment, and the weavers were well used to airing their grievances through demonstrations and rioting. Bedford’s extensive interests in the East India Company, which was engaged in importing cheaper Indian textiles, also undercutting the weavers’ livelihoods, would have made him an even more hated target.

On 6th May thousands of them paraded in front of St. James’ Palace with black flags, surrounding the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, and questioning the peers as they came out, concerning their votes. On 15 May, they attacked the Duke of Bedford’s coach outside Parliament, then, having been dispersed by cavalry in Palace Yard, they marched to attack Bedford House: “he sent away his jewels and papers, and demanded a party of horse… and as was foreseen, the rioters in prodigious numbers began to pull down the wall of the Court; but the great gates being thrown open, the party of horse appeared, and sallying out, while the Riot Act was read, rode round Bloomsbury Square slashing and trampling on the mob and dispersing them; yet not till two or three of the guards had been wounded. In the meantime a party of rioters had passed to the back of the house and were forcing their way through the garden, when fortunately 50 more horse arriving in the very critical instant, the house was saved… The disappointed populace vented their rage on the house of Carr, fashionable mercer, who dealt in French silks and demolished the windows.” (Horace Walpole)

Continued rioting by the weavers all month kept London in such a state of general alarm that the citizens enrolled themselves for military duty. “Monday night,” says a contemporary newspaper, “the guards were doubled at Bedford House, and in each street leading thereto were placed six or seven of the Horse Guards, who continued till yesterday at ten with their swords drawn. A strong party of Albemarle’s Dragoons took post in Tottenham Court Road, and patrols of them were sent off towards Islington and Marylebone, and the other environs on that side of the town; the Duke of Bedford’s new road by Baltimore House was opened, when every hour a patrol came that way to and round Bloomsbury to see that all was well.”

Walk clockwise round to Victoria House, on the east side of the Square.

“… Did unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble on the 7th of June, to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield…”

Lord Mansfield: “the leading exponent of British imperialism”

In the 18th century, nos 28-29 stood where Victoria House now stands. In 1780 this was the residence of Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench: William Murray, Lord Mansfield. Mansfield was widely feared & hated at the time (the spikes on Kings Bench Prison walls were known as Lord Mansfield’s teeth); he was an innovative lawyer who helped to adapt English law to the needs of a growing commercial empire, in alliance with powerful men of business. In return he grew very rich. “He invented legal fictions that enabled English courts to have jurisdiction in places where English law had not yet been introduced…he took the usages of commerce…and …made them into law…” (Peter Linebaugh).

More immediately, as Linebaugh points out, Mansfield had served at the Old Bailey for 11 years, being known for his severe judgments, sending 102 people to the gallows, 448 to be transported and 29 to be branded. He would be known by the poor as one of their greatest enemies.

On the night of 6-7th June 1780 his house was attacked & burnt out by the Gordon Rioters. The riots started out on June 2nd, as a protest against a proposed Parliamentary Bill to give more freedom to Catholics, but rapidly outgrew their sectarian origins to become a general insurrection of the poor against the rich and powerful.

The Judge had already been beaten up outside Parliament on June 2nd, and because of his reputation, the rioters were widely threatening to attack his house. On June 6th a magistrate and a detachment of guards came to protect him. Mansfield suggested they hid out of sight so as not to wind up the rioters. Soon after a crowd several hundred strong marched here from Holborn, carrying torches and combustible materials. They battered in his door, and he legged it out the back with his wife. The crowd tore down the railings surrounding the building, threw down all his furniture, curtains, hangings, pictures, books, papers and chucked them all on a huge bonfire. They then burned his house.

His whole library including many legal papers was destroyed. Interestingly, just as at the burning of the Duke of Lancaster’s Palace in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the crowd declared nothing was to be stolen, they were not thieves… A survival of a strand of rebellious moral highmindedness, although unsurprisingly, while silver and gold plate was certainly burned, several of the poor folk present were later found guilty of helping themselves to some of the Judge’s possessions. And why not.

The troops arrived (a bit late!), the Riot Act was read, and as the crowd refused to disperse, they shot and killed at least seven people and wounded many more. When the soldiers had gone, some of the rioters returned, picked up the bodies, and marched off, carrying the corpses in a bizarre procession, allegedly fixing weapons in the hands of the dead, with a man at the front tolling Lord’s Mansfield’s stolen dinner bell in a death march rhythm!

“The attack on his house was …an attack upon the leading exponent of British imperialism.” (Peter Linebaugh).

Gordon Rioters also marched to Hampstead to burn Mansfield’s other house, Ken Wood House on Hampstead Heath. They were allegedly delayed by the landlord of the Spaniards Inn, (on Spaniards Road), who plied them with free beer to give the militia time to arrive and save the house.

Three rioters, Laetitia Holland, John Gray and Charles Kent, convicted of involvement in the Bloomsbury Square attack, were hanged here on July 22nd in sight of the ruins of the house. Gray, a 32 year old woolcomber, who walked with a crutch, was seen demolishing a wall in the house with an iron bar, and later making off with a bottle of Mansfield’s booze. One-legged Kent was also seen by a witness  “bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know”. Laetitia Holland was sentenced to death for being found in possession of two of lady Mansfield’s petticoats. Others charged after the attack included Sarah Collogan, who got a year after being found wearing a gown previously owned by the judge’s neice; Elizabeth Timmings, tried for possessing five china dishes from his lordship’s tableware, and Elizabeth Grant, found in possession of a copper pot and plate-warmer (these two were acquitted).

Mansfield is generally credited with giving the court judgement in 1772 that made slavery illegal in England… Although he seems to have personally found slavery distasteful, in an official capacity, he was reluctant to rule against the property rights of slave-owners, and he tried his hardest to give the slave owner who brought the case the chance to free the slave concerned and drop the case, so a precedent wouldn’t be set. In the end, as the slaver refused to drop it, Mansfield was backed into a corner, since he could find no legal justification for slavery to exist. In fact the ruling didn’t outlaw slavery, it only really meant slavers couldn’t take slaves from Britain to the colonies; in effect existing slaves remained slaves, and continued to be taken from Africa to the plantations in the Carribbean.

Mansfield’s black niece: Ironically, given the slavery judgement, Victoria House was home to a free black woman: Lord Mansfield’s great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. Daughter of Captain John Lindsay, a naval officer, and an African woman, Maria Bell, who he had met in the Caribbean during the Seven Years War 1756-63: it’s not clear whether she was free or enslaved when they began their relationship. Scandalously against social mores of the time, Lindsay brought both mother and child to England, leaving his daughter in Mansfield’s care. There is no recorded word of what became of Maria Bell. But Dido was raised together with her cousin, Elizabeth, as a Lady, with education in literacy and music; she seems to have been treated as an equal, to the shock of well-to-do society. Some visiting worthies, especially loyalists guesting at Kenwood House during the American War of Independence, were uncomfortable when an illegitimate black woman sat down to eat with them at dinner!  Mansfield had great affection for her and appointed her his secretary; he left her money in his will (her father left her nothing), though much less than her cousin, the daughter of his heir. But he also explicitly stated that she was free. Mansfield was somewhat conflicted, as they say: or in the words of Kim Sherwood, “a man who could act according to his conscience singularly where he could not always for a nation [whose] rulings in slavery cases present an inner struggle of revulsion towards the ‘odious trade’ and reluctance to undermine England’s economy or stray from common law…” Hmmm. After his death Dido Belle married John Davinier, a Steward to a rich family, and they lived in Pimlico, raising three children, at least one of whom had a classical education. Dido died, aged 43, in 1804. In a final twist on racism and black-white power relations, her “last known relative has been uncovered as a white South African who lived free under Apartheid.”

Continue round the Square (or cut through the gardens) to no. 17

On 7th October 1979, the ex-Royal Pharmaceutical Society building here was squatted by 30 people. A luxurious and beautiful place by all accounts, (with oak pannelling, spiral staircases, a library and a concert hall) it had been empty 3 years, being owned by the Department of the Environment. The well-organised and together bunch of squatters, artist types with lots of energy, had the idea of setting up a co-op. One of the main movers was a German lefty named Bernhard (a mate of then ‘King of the Squatters’ Piers Corbyn… Piers of course has since returned to fame as a loony Covid-conspiraloon), who brought his particular branch of German organisational flair: there were a number of strict vetting procedures for people wishing to move in, to prevent the place being lunched out, graffitied etc. This sparked a verse in the popular squatters song of the day, Piers’s Restaurant, (inspired by the folk song of the day, Alice’s Restaurant):

“If you want a luxury squat
With Bernard and his lot
With all the rules you must conform
Soon you will wear the uniform.”

(the last line was apparently sung in a stereotyped German accent!)

Most of the rest of the song has been lost in the mists of time…

The building was squatted a couple of day before the General Election of May 1979: an editorial in either the Times or the Guardian cheered the squatters for their initiative and enterprise, saying it was exactly the kind of spirit the new Tory government should reward. Err yes…

The Squat however only lasted a couple of months.

Walk across Great Russell Street, and north up Bedford Place to no 40

1790s radical John Thelwall lived here, probably from 1806 -12, and ran his Seminary here for speech therapy and elocution, (of which he was a pioneer)… He had been an early member of the London Corresponding Society, a radical lecturer and orator; in 1794 he was tried with Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and others for treason, but acquitted. However he dropped out of the radical reform movement after the trial, worn out, though he later got back involved in the resurgent reform movement around 1818, editing a paper called the Champion.

Walk back down to Great Russell Street

From the earliest days of the development of the Bedford’s Bloomsbury estate, this street was “inhabited by the nobility and gentry, especially on the north side.” However, some of their immediate surroundings were anything but genteel…

“Nothing but the Whip”

Cartoon of St Pancras Fields (St Giles Fields) by George Cruikshank

The fields to the north of Great Russell Street, behind Montagu House and these other posh houses, at one time extending up beyond modern Russell Square, were known in the 16th Century as Southampton Fields, though also and more popularly, the Long Fields. Still undeveloped until after 1800, they were infamous as the haunt of “depraved wretches” (Dobie), who loved fighting “pitched battles”, and other disorderly sports – especially on (still officially holy) Sunday! Kite-flying, dog-fighting, and naked swimming and nearly naked running races were also popular, as well as organised duelling for the more aristocratic.

Just as some residents supported the street gates keeping out undesirables, and called for dodgy alleys to be blocked off, some well-to-do neighbours of the Fields pressed for ‘something to be done’ about this unrespectable open space, characterised as “waste and useless”, because the pleasures taken there were not useful orderly and polite (with the exception of some nursery grounds near the New Road to the north, and a piece of ground enclosed for the Toxophilite Society, [who practiced archery] towards the north-west, near the back of Gower Street) . Many Bloomsbury residents thought people should be banned from gathering, and even walking, there: others clearly wanted the whole ‘waste’ built over. A Mrs Nash, writing to the Bedford Estate in the eighteenth century, said that “everyone knew” what went on in the fields, and that if it was allowed to carry on “we must all leave our homes”. An anonymous whinger denounced the “vile rabble of idle and disorderly persons, who assemble there to play cricket, and such like pastimes, to the no small danger, and hurt, of harmless people, who either walk for air or business” and called for some serious action, especially against nudity: “Another nuisance of a most shameful nature I shall speak to, and that is running races, almost stark naked… Such abandoned miscreants can never be reclaimed, without a severe execution of the laws… Nothing but the whip, or battoon, that is the cudgel, will do with the vulgar.” The Duke’s private police, the beadles, should, said this complaint, be increased in number and powers, and out dealing with such people, as well as moving on vagrants and poor folk making a nuisance of themselves selling fruit and so on… In 1766, the High Constable of Holborn and his officers entered the Fields, to find “upwards of two hundred and fifty dog-fighters, bullies, chimney sweepers, and sharps…” When they tried to put a stop to a dog-fight, the hooligans set their dogs on them.

Later the ‘wastelands’ were put to more respectable purposes, when Burton the builder’s private volunteer army, raised under the threat of invasion by Napoleonic France (but, like all Volunteer militias of the time, partly driven by the well-to-do’s fear of revolt at home) drilled on the Fields in 1801. The fields were gradually built over between the 1770s and the early nineteenth century.

Walk down great Russell Street to Montague Street, turn right, and walk down to the gates leading to the gardens (just beyond Ruskin Hotel, east side, half way up on the right)

After the Second World War, in response to the housing crisis and the subsequent mass squatting movement, the Government requisitioned houses, to temporarily house many who needed homes… Hotels in the east side of Montague Street, which had stood empty since before the War, were requisitioned for emergency housing, usually for those whose homes had been destroyed in the war. The people rehoused there formed a strong community, as told in the very fine film Their World This Time (well worth seeing). Many of the inhabitants were socialists of one stripe or another, sharing the powerful mood of the time that they had been though the War, suffered many hardships, the depression of the 1930s, the Blitz, etc, and felt they deserved a better world – hence the film’s title. As the film

The gates into Montague Street gardens

relates, a community built up there; concerned about the danger of traffic to their kids, they formed a Committee, which campaigned and petitioned the Council to let them use the huge communal garden out the back of the houses. The Council leased them the Garden, which they used for a few years. However the posh hotels, which also backed on to the garden, were offended by their kids using the space, and after some lobbying managed to get the Council to confiscate the Garden. (Again, as with the ‘Long’ or Southampton Fields, with the fenced off squares, the endless fight between open space for all or for the exclusive use of the better off rears its head) Since then it has been once again a private open space for the hotel guests.

You can just see the garden if you look through the Gates: about time the gates came down we think! And we could requisition all the street’s hotels for the West End homeless while we’re at it.

Retrace your steps down Montague Street to no 29a 

The Bedford Office, who have administered the Bedford Estate (the Dukes’ property in Bloomsbury) for centuries, is based here.

Turn right onto great Russell Street, walk down to the Gates of the British Museum

Montague House, which used to be the home of another local aristo, Lord Montagu, was sold off in 1753 to house the collections of scientist and physician Hans Sloane; it reopened as the British Museum in 1759. Great Russell Street itself began to lose some of its lustre as one of the most desirable addresses in London after the original building was pulled down for the erection of the present Museum building in the late 1840s.

Troops camped in the grounds of the British Museum during the Gordon Riots

In June 1780, the military used the Museum gardens as a camp in the aftermath of the Gordon Riots, in response to the invasion of this area and to scare off any more potential rebels. Troops also camped there later in 1815 during the crisis at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in response to riots of hungry unemployed ex-soldiers and the poor. In April 1848 crowds of marchers assembled for a Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common; on the continent meanwhile many countries were in the grip of revolution. The British government feared the Chartists would launch an uprising, and fortified central London against riots, bringing in troops and police and swearing in middle class volunteers as special constables. The British Museum was thought to be under threat of attack, and in a letter to the Home Office, the director of the Museum, Sir Henry Ellis,  asked for the protection of 200 special constables. He added: “Please to remember if it should by any accident happen that the Building of the Museum fall into the hands of disaffected persons it would prove to them a Fortress capable of holding Ten Thousand Men.”

The Museum is of course a huge storehouse of mainly looted imperialist treasures from all round the world, acquired by British aristocrats, soldiers, explorers and scientists, often while imposing the Empire by military force on various peoples. Such folk get knighted and elevated; Gordon rioters get shot. Better a rich thief than a poor one, clearly.

A cartoon satirising the spending of money on the Elgin Marbles, suggesting the money would be better spent on relieving poverty

Just some of the disputed items:
• the Elgin Marbles: chiselled off the Acropolis in Athens in the 1830s and shipped to Britain; Greece has been asking for them back for decades.

• the Benin Bronzes: more than 1000 brass plaques from the old royal palace of the African kingdom of Benin. Seized by the British army in the “punitive expedition’ of 1897 and given to the Foreign Office, 200 of them ended up here; Nigeria claims they should be returned.

• Ethiopian tabots, or traditional tablets of law, looted by British soldiers during the 1868 ‘expedition to Abyssinia’; claimed by Ethiopia.

• the Achaemenid/Oxus treasure, from the time of the first Persian Empire; bought under dubious circumstances by a British soldier; claimed by Tajikistan.

• Mold’s Golden Cape, a gold ceremonial dress dug up in Mold, Flintshire, which many Welsh folk belongs back in Wales.

• the Rosetta Stone, a key to the translation of hieroglyphic writing, captured by British troops from Napoleon’s scientific-imperialist French expedition there (they’d nicked it themselves), then brought to London and donated to the Museum; Egypt would like it brought home.

At least Aboriginal human remains stolen in 1838 were returned to Tasmania by the Museum.

More on the dodginess of the museum collection

The old reading room at the British Museum

The Museum has been described as the “true heart of Bloomsbury”; maybe it is the spiritual heart of one of the many Bloomsburys. The old British Library Reading Room, has become mythologised in the history of the Left as the place where Marx researched much of Capital; it was also used by Lenin, John Ruskin, GB Shaw, among other left luminaries. Another frequent visitor in the 1910s was birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, reading everything about sex she could find, as research for her book Married Love, published in 1918, pretty much the first sex manual to put women’s pleasure as a priority.

Walk down Great Russell Street to no 35 

The National Unemployed Workers Movement, the campaigning organisation of the unemployed from 1921-1946, had its HQ here from 1932 to 1933.
The NUWM, formed in 1921, campaigned around unemployment, opposing attacks on the unemployed, occupying factories to persuade workers to boycott overtime to create more jobs for doleys, as well as doing much relief and welfare work on a local level. However after a more diverse beginning, they were increasingly dominated by the Communist Party, leading to a more centralised structure and concentration on hunger marches and national stunts.
The most important event of this era was the Fourth National Hunger March (September to November 1932), which was a reply to the National Government’s benefit cuts. Although well attended, it was also the most violent, with police attacking marchers repeatedly. (See Great Ormond Street, below).

On the corner of Bloomsbury Street, near the British Museum, this is a pleasant but unremarkable mid-Victorian building now in use as a Bureau de Change.

Walk down Great Russell Street to no 52-57

The flats at 52-57 Great Russell Street

Helen Graham House (next to Starbucks, opposite the crossing to Museum): from Summer 1884 to 1887, at what was then no. 55, Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter, a socialist and trade unionist, lived here with Edward Aveling. This was a great scandal at the time as they were not married. (Eleanor had previously lodged nearby in Great Coram Street). They were members of the pioneering socialist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, and then part of the large minority that split away, disillusioned with the authoritarianism, racism and opportunism of the SDF’s founder HM Hyndman, to form the Socialist League. They founded the Bloomsbury branch of the League. At least one of the meetings of the ‘cabal’ that forced this split was held here at the Marx-Aveling home.

Although Eleanor did see her open co-habitation with Aveling as rejecting “immoral bourgeois conventionalities”, she wasn’t really a campaigner for Free Love. She DID view women as being the most oppressed in the capitalist society of her day, but didn’t believe it was best addressed on a domestic or personal level, focussing instead on collective solutions – especially to the struggles of working class women.

Setting up home with Aveling, Eleanor discovered that she hated housework. Uniquely among Marx’s family (and the middle class generally then), she had no servants – she couldn’t afford it, and again, unlike Marx and most of his family, she was reluctant to continually tap Marx’s well-financed mate Friedrich Engels for cash. She attempted to support herself writing essays and reviews, lecturing on Shakespeare, and teaching.

The Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League, which grew to 80 members at one point, met for a while at the Eagle and Child coffee house in Soho’s Old Compton Street; but they also held events at other nearby venues, including the Athenaeum Hall, 73 Tottenham Court Road, where they put on an evening of Musical and Dramatic Entertainment. Eleanor also lectured in Bloomsbury’s Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way), in Neumeyer Hall, for the annual socialist commemoration of the Paris Commune in March 1885 (a speech praised even by the SDF’s HM Hyndman, no mate of Eleanor, who called it “one of the finest speeches I ever heard”. At another Commune commemoration, held at the ‘Store Street hall’ off Gower Street in March 1888, she spoke on a platform with Hyndman, William Morris, Kropotkin, Annie Besant and John Burns. Interestingly Eleanor and Aveling also celebrated an earlier sometime Bloomsbury resident, Shelley, in two lectures on ‘Shelley and Socialism’ in 1888, later published as a pamphlet. [Interestingly, Shelley and Mary Godwin lodged at no 119 Great Russell Street, in 1818, having previously lived  in Marchmont Street for a while in 1816. Both these houses are now long gone… For more on Shelley’s ideas see Marchmont Street, in our second Bloomsbury walk…

But if the Socialist League was united mainly by opposition to Hyndman, it was divided by many principles and tactics. Eleanor and Aveling, as well as others of the membership, especially in the Bloomsbury branch, were in favour of parliamentary representation and campaigning in elections, a minority position in the League, which increasingly became dominated by anarchists or anti-parliamentary socialists. From the start Eleanor and Aveling were hostile to the anarchists, not only politically, but because they saw them as easy meat for the many police spies sniffing round the broad socialist movement. Growing internal differences manifested as bitter faction fighting and attempts by the Bloomsbury branch to capture the League for their position; at the SL’s fourth annual conference their resolutions proposing the standing of candidates in local and parliamentary elections, and for moving towards uniting with other socialist groups were defeated. The widening split to led to their eventual departure in 1888 (they were suspended after it emerged they had put up local election candidates jointly with the SDF that April, and had encouraged joint membership, breaching League policy), after which they reformed themselves as the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, which helped to organise the first British May Day demo in 1890. The Society met weekly at the Communist Club in Tottenham Street from 1890 to 1893 (at least, maybe earlier and later).

Eleanor was very active in trade union work, especially with the Gasworkers Union and with striking East End matchgirls in 1888; and while on the one hand the Bloomsbury ‘faction’ undoubtedly intrigued and supped on parliamentary illusions, they also rejected the purist attitudes of the SL towards workers striving for immediate improvements in their day to day lives, which isolated some socialists from much working class organisation.

Eleanor’s long-time lover Edward Aveling was a cad, as they used to say; infamous in the secularist and socialist circles the couple moved in, for philandering, poncing (and sometimes embezzling) money and never repaying, two-timing Eleanor and generally behaving anti-socially. At the same time he genuinely dedicated his sharp mind to both Darwinism and Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’. Shaw called him “an agreeable rascal… who would have gone to the stake for Socialism or Atheism, but with absolutely no conscience in his private life…” “In revolt against all bourgeois conventions, Aveling did not replace them by any moral concern, but simply filled the vacuum with his own egotism…'” (EP Thompson) His amoral attitudes gradually alienated many fellow socialists – for instance William Morris, who worked with Aveling closely in 1883-6, was by late 1887 calling him a “disreputable dog”; though they had fallen out politically by then.

For all their shared life, unmarried in defiance of bourgeois convention, he later secretly married someone else, after other affairs, and a despairing Eleanor, who had long defended Aveling against the criticisms of fellow socialists, killed herself at her home in Sydenham in 1898, by swallowing prussic acid. Aveling himself died later the same year.

NB: Eleanor may have been down on the anarchists; she was more complimentary about the Fabians, many of who were personal friends, though she thought their politics misguided, and even the Christian Socialists, who she considered sincere, though again she called their mix of Christianity and socialism “ludicrous”.

Walk west down to Bury Place, turn left and down to:

no 34, Russell chambers, Bury Place: Bertrand Russell lived here 1911-16. In many ways he sums up the contradictions of Bloomsbury: pacifist, socialist, tireless campaigner against war and later nukes – as well as a pioneering philosopher and mathematician… But… descended from the local landlords, the dukes of Bedford; grandson of the first Earl Russell (former Prime Minister John Russell), he later became Earl himself. Wonder if he had to pay rent here (and at Gordon Square, where he lived later)? Russell was bound up in the bohemian and left-leaning circles of Bloomsbury: a member of the Fabian Society, influential through his philosophy and politics on residents (many of the Bloomsbury Grope were taken with his philosphical ideas).

Walk back up Bury Place to Little Russell St, turn left and walk down to the back of St George’s Church

This is the church in the background in Hogarth’s famous 1751 engraving, Gin Lane… Why not bring a bottle of gin on your walk and have a healthy slug here? It’s not as potent as the infamous 18th century moral panic in a bottle, but it’ll still hit the spot.

Troops were hidden inside the church, on 6th June 1780, in a plan to intercept the riotous crowd marching on Lord Mansfield’s house… well obviously THAT didn’t work! (see Bloomsbury Square, above).

Continue up Little Russell Street to Museum Street, turn left and then left again, into Gilbert Place, and down Gilbert Place to no 10 (halfway along on south side)

This was a hangout of class struggle anarchists (the best kind!) in the 1960s. The Christie-Carballo Defence Committee met here around 1964. Scots anarchist Stuart Christie had travelled to Spain, and teamed up with Spaniard Fernando Carballo in an abortive attempt to blow up Spanish fascist dictator Franco; they were both arrested and sentenced to 20 years in jail. The Defence Committee which was set up on their behalf managed as part of a widespread protest to get Stuart freed in 1967. This group, (connected to a London Anarchist group which met here around 1965) together with Stuart and veteran anarcho Albert Meltzer evolved into the revived Anarchist Black Cross, and anarchist paper Black Flag, which had its office here, c. 1969-73. They were renting, then squatting for a while, but moved out (around June 1973?) when a private detective agency moved into another part of the building! Around this time, people associated with this group launched the famous Centro Ibérico anarchist meeting place in premises in Haverstock Hill.

Walk back down Gilbert Place, left at Museum Street, right into Little Russell Street, and down to Coptic Street, to no 7 (over the road from Pizza Express)

The shop at no 7 Coptic Street is long gone…

Veteran anarchist Albert Meltzer had a bookshop here c. 1964 -68,The shop also housed Coptic Press, run by Albert, Ted Kavanagh and Martin Page. This was an anarchist press, reprinting anarchist and surrealist pamphlets, as well as producing commercial reprints of interesting, out of print material. Stuart Christie started work in both the bookshop and press on his arrival in London after being freed from Spain in 1967 (see Gilbert Place, above): “I had been working less than a week at Coptic Press when a detective called at the shop to see Albert. He asked to speak to him in private. They went to the pizza bar across the street, where the detective asked Albert – whom he had only identified as the managing director – if he knew anything about his new employee Stuart Christie. Assuming the airs of a company tycoon – very easy at the time, since he had a weight problem – Albert stiffly replied, ‘He came with good references.’ The detective asked him if he knew that I had just completed a prison sentence. ‘What on earth for?’ ‘He was sentenced to twenty years in a Spanish prison.’ ‘That can’t be the same person, he’s not old enough – he’s only twenty-two.’ The detective sighed in that worldly wise manner, more indicative of sympathy than impatience, reserved by patrol constables for absent-minded motorists who leave their car doors unlocked. ‘The trouble with you gentlemen is that you never read your papers,’ he said. He gave a brief account of my crime and punishment.’ I don’t know why you are worrying,’ Albert said in his grandest manner. ‘I thought the police encouraged old lags to go straight. Surely this will be a chance to rehabilitate?’ ‘But he’s a terrorist!’ protested the detective. Albert looked suitably shocked. ‘I wish you would put this down in writing. I couldn’t take the risk of acting without that.’ But the policeman wasn’t falling for that one. ‘My word should be good enough.’ He refused to give his identity and details of his complaint. ‘I’ve told you and you can find out more for yourself. It’s no secret, sir.’ His tone was deferential. He had not checked up to find that Albert Meltzer was as committed to anarchism, perhaps more so, than his erstwhile terrorist employee – certainly he had been active since well before I was even born. The press was cultivating the image of the anarchist as youthful and hippie, and burly, balding, middle-aged Albert hardly fell into that category.”

… though the Pizza Express where Albert received his advice from the secret police remains

The Coptic Street bookshop was a focus for the class struggle anarchist group around Albert and Stuart, who in November 1967 formed the Anarchist Black Cross, as a support group, for publicity, fundraising and solidarity for anarchist prisoners, mainly in Spain but later all over the world. The Black Cross did excellent work for years… this also led to the founding of the long-running anarchist paper Black Flag. During interesting times in London, eg when big demos taking place against US embassy over Vietnam, anarchos from London, other parts of UK and Europe frequented the bookshop, came to find crash space etc. The Press later moved to Pentonville Road.

Walk up to Streatham Street, turn left, down to corner of Bloomsbury Street, cross over onto the west side.

Somewhere here, a low number, 4 or 6 Bloomsbury Street, or something, (a double fronted building, on the left hand side as you walk up… next door to Bookmarks we think) was squatted for quite a while, around 1979-80… 15 people were living here, including several musicians. It was here that two characters, having been sampling some exotic substance or other, entertained themselves by shooting at passing rush hour traffic with popguns which fired little union jacks… Until they were suddenly surrounded by an armed response unit. No sense of humour, the Old Bill.

Walk north up Bloomsbury Street, to the Bloomsbury Street Hotel, on corner of Great Russell Street: Formerly the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel

In June 1914 Olive Bartels succeeded Annie Kenney as London organiser of the suffragette Womens Social & Political Union, then engaged in an all-out campaign of sabotage and rebellion against the government in pursuit of winning women the vote. The police were on the hunt for WSPU activists, and Olive, while living in Ivanhoe Hotel, in disguise as a widow, wasn’t overtly in touch with organisation, in fact she kept in touch by ‘underground’ methods, which included coded messages passed by ‘office girls’.

The Bloomsbury Hotel

The Hotel was squatted in September 1946, as part of the post-war squatting wave. Empty for some time, it had been used during the war to house Irish labourers repairing bomb damaged buildings.

At the end of WW2 there was massive homelessness around the country – a pre-war shortage of housing had been made worse by the destruction of houses through bombing and a total halt in the building of new housing. Demobilisation of thousands of servicemen jacked this up into a crisis… As a result there was mass squatting of empty houses, and army camps and depots, around the country. In September this spread into London: on September 8th Duchess of Bedford House in Kensington was occupied by over 1000 people; within the next 2 days other buildings in Kensington, Abbey lodge near Regents Park and Fountain Court in Pimlico were also squatted. The Ivanhoe was squatted on the 10th. All were luxury housing or up-market hotels left empty during a housing crisis… The Communist Party was heavily involved in these London actions, though there has been argument over how dominant they were in the squatting movement nationally, initially they rubbished the early autonomous squatters; they then jumped on the bandwagon when it became obvious how strongly the movement was taking off, tried to take things over and repress independent activity. Sound familiar?

While the squatting in the camps was more the practical meeting of a basic need, the London actions were more political propaganda acts, launching a campaign to force the Government to requisition empty private housing for those in need. It did trigger some squatting of smaller houses in the London suburbs.

Hotel Ivanhoe Squatters

The squatters here used a diversionary tactic to get in to the Ivanhoe… One group drew police who were on their back off to another building some distance off, while another group moved in on the hotel (possibly though according to James Hinton, they got in through an underground tunnel the police had no idea was there). 12 families broke in through boarded up doors; by this time the cops had got wind and turned up, blocking up the doors and reboarding them, to stop other squatters getting in. An attempt by others to force their way in was prevented by the police.

The Police put a cordon round the hotel; although food and bedding could be thrown in from the outside by supporters, people could not go in or out, so the squat became a siege. There were confrontations between supporters outside and cops, here and at other buildings: horses were used here to disperse large crowds blocking the streets (usually by sitting down). Within a few days five Communist Party members involved in planning the squats had been arrested for conspiracy and incitement to trespass. CP member and squatting activist Johnny Marten was nicked on September 12th for talking to the squatters from outside the hotel: according to the Evening News, “he was then escorted by the police to Tottenham Court Road police Station. Followed by a crowd, some of whom shouted ‘is this what we won the war for?’ ” Court orders were obtained against all the squatted buildings, they seem to have left voluntarily after this, reports in the press said there were just 13 people left at the end, they left in taxis paid for by the CP.

Turn left, into the western stretch of Great Russell Street, stop at end of Dyott Street

In the late eighteenth century, the Capper sisters lived at the north west end of Great Russell street. Tenant farmers of the Duke of Bedford, they rented the farmlands north the street. These eccentric respectable folk took a dim view of the rowdy sports, and worse, beyond their fences on the Long Fields, and claimed their land was regularly trespassed on by local yoof who liked to bathe in their ponds and fly kites there.
Unlike others of their discomfitted middle-class neighbours (see above), though, they took matters into their own hands, venturing onto the Fields to combat immorality. Esther Capper “rode an old grey mare, and it was her spiteful delight to ride with a pair of shears after the boys who were flying their kites, in order to cut their strings. The other sister’s business was to seize the clothes of the lads who trespassed on their premises to bathe.” (Albert Smith, Book for a Rainy Day).

Detour down Dyott Street to junction with Bainbridge Street

“Intricate and dangerous places”

This was the heart of the St Giles Rookery, a notorious slum for centuries, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts – one great mass, as if the houses had originally been one block of stone eaten by slugs into small chambers and connecting passages. The lanes were thronged with loiterers, and stagnant gutters, and piles of garbage and filth infested the air.” (John Timbs, Curiosities of London).

Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, the rookery was known for the poverty of its residents already by the end of the Seventeenth Century (when the area was fairly recently built up), it declined through the 18th. a “most wealthy and populous parish”, social upheavals in Tudor times seem to have first led to its notoriety as a nexus of the unruly poor. Attempts were made here (and widely elsewhere) to control the migration of undesirables into the parish: in 1637 it was ordered that, “to prevent the great influx of poor people into this parish, the beadles do present every fortnight, on the Sunday, the names of all new-comers, under-setters, inmates, divided tenements, persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses.”

The St Giles Rookery

But as those who could afford to move gradually drifted west to newer, more prosperous estates, the houses they left became subdivided and sublet and relet, often on short leases, creating complex patterns of ownership that made repairs and maintenance a logistical nightmare and defeated authorities’ efforts to enforce legal standards. The inhabitants became poorer and overcrowding rocketed. the late 1700s, the parish was  “said to furnish his Majesty’s plantations in America with more souls than all the rest of the kingdom besides.” (ie large numbers were sentenced to be transported to the colonies) and for producing a disproportionate percentage of those who hanged at Tyburn (as well as several of the “Jack Ketches”, the public hangmen who “turned them off”)

The most notorious streets were Jones Court, and Bainbridge Street, according to Mayhew: “some of the most intricate and dangerous places in this low locality”, a haunt of coiners and thieves, costermongers (pedlars and street hawkers) , fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters. A bull terrier was said to stand here, trained to bark if a stranger approached; it was later taken away by the cops and destroyed. Jones Court, Bainbridge Street and Buckeridge Street were joined together by cellars, roofs yards and sewers, making it easy for fugitives to escape the authorities; and filled with booby traps: hidden cess pools etc. Also infamous was Carrier Street (which ran north to south in the rookery): Mother Dowling’s lodging house & provision shop stood here, frequented by vagrants of every sort. Cellars became so integral a part of life here that ‘a cellar in St. Giles’s’ became a byword for living in extreme poverty.

The rookery mostly consisted of a warren of cheap lodging houses, “set apart for the reception of idle persons and vagabonds”, where accommodation could be found for twopence a night:

“there was, at least, a floating population of 1,000 persons who had no fixed residence, and who hired their beds for the night in houses fitted up for the purpose. Some of these houses had each fifty beds, if such a term can be applied to the wretched materials on which their occupants reposed; the usual price was sixpence for a whole bed, or fourpence for half a one; and behind some of the houses there were cribs littered with straw, where the wretched might sleep for threepence. In one of the houses seventeen persons have been found sleeping in the same room, and these consisting of men and their wives, single men, single women, and children. Several houses frequently belonged to one person, and more than one lodging-house-keeper amassed a handsome fortune by the mendicants of St. Giles’s and Bloomsbury. The furniture of the houses was of the most wretched description, and no persons but those sunk in vice, or draining the cup of misery to its very dregs, could frequent them. In some of the lodging-houses breakfast was supplied to the lodgers, and such was the avarice of the keeper, that the very loaves were made of a diminutive size in order to increase his profits.”

Notorious pubs were prominent, each said by outraged commentators to be the HQ of gangs of beggars thieves and pickpockets: the Maidenhead Inn, the Rats Castle, the Turks Head, all in Dyott Street, and the Black Horse.

Of the Rat’s Castle, the Rev. T. Beames, in his “Rookeries of London,” (a classic outraged ‘expose’ of life in the slums) said: “In the ground floor was a large room, appropriated to the general entertainment of all comers; in the first floor, a free-and-easy, where dancing and singing went on during the greater part of the night, suppers were laid, and the luxuries which tempt to intoxication freely displayed. The frequenters of this place were bound together by a common tie, and they spoke openly of incidents which they had long since ceased to blush at, but which hardened habits of crime alone could teach them to avow.”
 Gin shops also abounded: one in four houses in St Giles was estimated to be selling spirits in 1750.

Modern Dyott Street

The area contained a large poor Irish population, said to be three quarters of the population in some streets, so much that it was nicknamed little Dublin, or the Holy Land. They gradually displaced older groups like the Hugenots who had moved here in the 1680s… Most of the Irish were labourers, originally arriving to work the harvests, later flocking to the building and brewing trades. In 1780, the majority of the 20,000 odd Irish people living in London were residents of St Giles. Besides the Irish, by the 1730s this area also housed a noticeable black community, known as ‘the St Giles Blackbirds’, many ex-slaves, some on the run from their ‘owners’, some former sailors or ex-servants.

In 1780, several Gordon Rioters were nicked in the rookery with loot, including Charles Kent and Letitia Holland, hanged for the attack on Lord Mansfield’s house (see above), apprehended in Bambridge Street.

Well-to-do commentators saw the rookery through a lens tinted with their own prejudices: the above quote from John Timbs, describing the streets of the rookery as if they “… had originally been one block of stone eaten by slugs”, brackets the residents with termites or other insects; a dehumanisation of the poor that is a regular feature of observations on the lower classes by the better off. There are fewer verminous paragraphs to describe landlords or middlemen (often ‘house-farmers’ leasing from the rich and making tidy sums from subdividing the garrets) who benefitted from overcrowding their houses for their own profit.

In an early act of development as social engineering, New Oxford Street was built between 1844 and 1847, partly to break up the rookery by demolishing some of its most notorious alleys and tenements. Several of the most infamous streets disappeared, leaving some 5000 of the poor homeless; while the Duke of Bedford, owner of 104 of the demolished houses, received £114,000 in compensation (a huge sum then.) Driven from their homes, but needing to stay near their work or sources of casual labour, the rookery dwellers found lodgings nearby, causing a 76 per cent increase in population in some streets. Many such schemes to improve London’s main roads were also used in the 19th Century to break up areas of poverty and lawlessness the authorities found threatening. The building of New Oxford Street, together with the later construction of nearby Shaftesbury Avenue through other notorious parts of St Giles, began the reclamation of this long-infamous area for respectability.

This was however only the opening skirmish of a long process of architectural class restructuring. Thirty years later, further social cleansing took place in St Giles, this time under the guise of actual cleansing of insanitary housing. St Giles had already seen an influx of refugees from slum clearances in nearby areas of Holborn, the City and the Strand in the 1860s, and was more and more jammed to the rafters. Under the terms of the 1875 Artisans Dwelling (or Cross) Act thousands of residents in overcrowded London slums were evicted, and the buildings demolished. The result of sustained lobbying by housing reformers, notably the Charity Organisation Society, the idea behind the Act was that crap housing could be cleared, in an organised way for the first time, on the orders of the local medical officer, compensation paid to the owners, and then the land would be sold to a developer on the proviso that they would build decent working class housing. Another of the many and varied attempts by coalitions of the worthy to kickstart a general improvement in the condition of housing for the poor, which they also believed would have a positive impact on their morals, way of life and prospects for secure employment… Many of these reformers knew that it was the owners or middlemen making the money who should shoulder much of the blame for slum housing, and that many of these sat on local Vestries and thus were able to defeat attempts at real change. The Act was a disaster, however, making overcrowding much worse. Partly this was because excessive compensation was paid to the landlords, for land which was then not to be used for commercial use, so the value dropped heavily; meanwhile, because compo was based on rental receipts, land owners in areas likely to face action under the Cross Acts rammed more people into their properties, and lied through their teeth about the value of houses. And while the poorest were usually those evicted (in St Giles, those displaced were ‘waifs of the population, poor labourers, hawkers, thieves and prostitutes, many of who were “lying out in the streets” or found space in already crowded neighbouring buildings), where replacement ‘model dwellings’ were built, (which took years, and in some cases never happened), they were not the type of people allowed, or who could afford, to move in. Although the Peabody Trust built 690 tenements to replace demolished slums in Great Wyld Street and Drury Lane, there was no accommodation for barrows and donkeys belonging to costermongers, the majority of the evictees, and the rents were too high. The net effect was to increase overcrowding in the area, as most of the cleared worked locally and were unlikely or unable to move far. This kind of well-intentioned reform rewarding the property-owners and making things worse for the poor seems to have been a regular feature of late-19th Century philanthropy. Local Medical officers also openly used the Cross Act and other sanitary reform legislation to forcibly rid their manor of people they saw as scum, with little pretence of rehousing them – in St Giles in 1881, the Medical Officer reported that he saw no possibility of improvement while many of those evicted remained in the area , and that he “was pleased to have got rid of them.” Some 8000 people were driven out of the area in the 1870s.

Some of those cleared in Great Wyld Street (now Wild Street, off Drury Lane), were unwilling to simply play victim, and took up squatting: “they made a forcible entry into Orange Court, and were turned out of the empty houses after they were compensated by the Board of Works.”

Originally a major gallows stood in St Giles, later moved to Tyburn. Even after that, St Giles remained for long the last stop on the road from Newgate to Tyburn, a symbolic route of procession for those condemned to be hanged. Here they could have their last drink to keep up their courage; originally, in the 17th Century, at the Bowl tavern, on the corner of St Giles High Street and Endell Street (roughly where Dudley Court is now), later in the 18th century, the custom passed to the Angel, in the High Street, next to the church. Later still other pubs in Holborn and Oxford Street took up the custom.

The presence of the Rookeries of St Giles, Drury Lane and Seven Dials, clearly acted not only as a ‘neighbourhood threat’ to Bloomsbury’s well-heeled; but also as a local spur to the consciences of wealthy reformers and radicals there; we know his work in the Drury Lane slums influenced socialist vicar Stewart Headlam’s ideas, for example.

Recuperating the slums: a club called the ‘Rookery’ where the rookery was socially cleansed

Walk down to the western end of Bainbridge Street (where the YWCA building now stands)

“a great day for the Rookery”
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The Dominion Theatre

A large brewery used to occupy the land where the Dominion Theatre stands, between this end of Bainbridge Street and Great Russell Street, backing onto some of the ‘darkest spots’ of the Rookery. On October 17th 1814, this was the scene of a disaster which is said to have turned into a free festival: “the great porter vat, which stood 22 feet high and contained 3555 barrels (or 135,000 imperial gallons)… the talk of the town when first erected… burst, flooding the Rookery.” Other vats burst as the debris collapsed, and several flimsy garret walls collapsed under the tremendous force of thousands of gallons of dark beer, killing several inhabitants. But the rookery-dwellers weren’t likely to pass up such an opportunity, as described by local chroniclers Gordon and Deeson, (with typical loaded language: again, note the immediate likening of the residents to verminous animals): “Like rats out of their holes came the mob and lapped at the porter as it ran along the gutters, or cupped their hands and poured it down their throats…” The more enterprising grabbed whatever containers they could to collect the porter for later consumption, “even the children, in the scantiest of rags or more more frequently nothing at all, ran out to do their share with spoons… it was a great day for the Rookery.” In court it was held to be an Act of God! More here

Walk back down Bainbridge Street, to the junction with Streatham Street

Standing here in Streatham Street are the oldest remaining “Model Dwellings” in London, (older ones existed, but were all destroyed in WW2 bombing). They were built in 1848-49 by Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, and opened in 1850 with the expressed aim of rehousing evictees from the St Giles Rookery during the clearances for New Oxford Street.“The Duke of Bedford supplied the site at a nominal ground rent of 1½d per foot” (given the compo he’d been granted from the demolition of the rookery, he could afford a bit of largesse.)
That only the most respectable of the rookery poor should be rehoused was the usual policy of such schemes,  housing, based on the  general belief then that there were two types of poor folk: those who wanted to work and improve themselves, achieve respectability etc, and the feckless, semi- or outright criminal lumpens who would never amount to anything. The trouble with slums and rookeries was that the deserving had to live amongst the undeserving, thus exposing them to drunkenness laziness and all the other traits of the feckless. People’s environment was inseparable from their behaviour: “filthy habits of life were never far from moral filthiness”, as the Health of Towns Committee Report in 1840 put it. The obvious solution was to elevate the deserving and give them decent housing: under proper controls of course. Streatham Street was an early pioneer of this, although the model was adopted across London and the country as the nineteenth century went on . The vast majority of the slumdwellers evicted from St Giles were excluded; 42 of 48 households in 1851 were ‘headed’ by working men in respectable trades; unmarried working women were largely barred, and a fairly high rent kept the casual poor out. On top of this there were strict controls on the behaviour of tenants to make sure levels of decency and morality were maintained (offenders could always be evicted and pushed back into the slums). The early pioneers of Model Dwellings and other social housing reform believed that the architecture even, the physical environment people lived in could either sap their moral will, keep them held in poverty, or be adapted and changed to mould them into better more hardworking citizens (the Streatham Street Buildings architect Henry Roberts even published a pamphlet on ‘Home Reform’ to “instruct the poor on their own elevation” as Robin Evans put it) The layout of Model dwellings was specifically designed to have what was thought to be a beneficial moral and social effect. One of the main aspects of slum life they aimed to change was overcrowding – families having to share a room, where they slept, ate and did everything together; often even more than one family might live together in one room. Housing reformers were keen to give these poor families more space; however their pressing reason was not privacy, but that this way of life was in itself immoral. Not only did it encourage immodesty and improper sexual relations (a subject of  pathological obsession and innuendo for the Victorian middle class), but in a more complex and nebulous way, they thought that it formed part of a collective, communal life that should be done away with. Life publicly shared, in housing, the street, the pub, and other places of amusement, was itself somehow inconducive to respectability and self-reliance; the Model Dwellings were designed to separate people as much as possible – children from parents, one family from another. Physical space was designed to keep people apart – stairwells and other physical barriers between flats and doorways – in fact separate sanitary arrangements were built in at extra cost to reduce ‘immodest’ contact. Part of the plan was definitely a reinforcing of the patriarchal family unit, split off from a shifting wider communal society or even extended family.

The trouble was, that many of the intended recipients, even those as could afford it, didn’t always want it. The aims of the housing reformers were openly stated, and large numbers of the poor resented the attempt to improve them, and either resisted moving in (Model Dwellings, early on, sometimes stood half empty amidst overcrowded slums), or resisted and subverted the harsh rules if they did take up residence. Reformers complained that families often continued to all sleep together in one room even when another lay empty, doors stood open as people socialised, among other practices brought from the rookeries into the new moral blocks.

Turn into Dyott Street again, walk down, then left down Great Russell Street, and right at Adeline Street, to Bedford Square

So many judges and lawyers lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries it acquired the nickname Judgeland.

Walk round the west side of the Square: stopping at:

Passmore Edwards

No 51: John Passmore Edwards lived here, mid-19th Century. Originally a Chartist, he later became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, of the Crimean War, and corporal punishment. He made a fortune in publishing, and used it to found 24 free libraries, 2 hospitals and other charitable works. Co-founder of charitable Passmore Edwards Settlement with Mary Ward, (now the Mary Ward Centre, still used as a community centre; see Tavistock Place and Queen Square) He refused a knighthood twice.

No 50: Home of Baron Denman, a lawyer who became Solicitor-General then Lord Chief Justice. Denman represented leading radical and freethinking publisher Richard Carlile at one point in his trials for printing blasphemous texts… but a rightward drift, or “migration to office and persecution” of lawyers who “appear before the public as counsel for the defence of public liberty against infamous persecutions” (as Guy Aldred put it) is a strong trend for young radicals. Denman later prosecuted people who rioted at the funeral of king George IV’s estranged wife Queen Caroline, although he himself had argued her legal case against the king, and as Lord Chief justice he presided over many prosecutions of radicals including Chartists, and prosecuted the publisher of Shelley’s complete works for blasphemy! The hypocrisy and majesty of the Law!

Thomas Wakley

no 35: Surgeon Thomas Wakley, pioneer medical and social reformer, lived here. A friend of radical journalist William Cobbett, with whose radicalism he was in sympathy, in 1823 Wakley started the medical weekly The Lancet, and began a series of attacks on bribery and corruption in the medical profession. To opposition from hospital doctors he published reports of their lectures, exposed malpractices, leading to a number of law-suits, but gradually winning support among fellow doctors. He also attacked the whole constitution of the Royal College of Surgeons, and became a coroner, as part of a campaign to reduce coroners’ power; his judgement that a young soldier’s death had been caused by brutal flogging helped to end flogging in the army. In 1828 Wakley became involved in the campaign for parliamentary reform, an extension of the vote, the removal of property qualifications for parliamentary candidates, the repeal of the Corn Laws, the abolition of slavery and the suspension of the Newspaper Stamp Act. He was elected MP for Finsbury in 1835, and his maiden speech attacked the decision to convict the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Wakley was the main spokesman for the campaign to have these transported trade unionists reprieved and worked so hard on their case that, when their freedom was celebrated in 1838 by a vast procession through London, he was the guest of honour. Wakley was one of the main opponents of the repressive stamp duty on newspapers. As part of this campaign, Wakley published six issues of an unstamped newspaper called A Voice from the Commons in 1836. He was also a passionate opponent of the 1834 Poor Law, and in 1845 helped to expose maltreatment of inmates in the Andover Workhouse.
Wakley was later one of the few members of the House of Commons who defended the activities of the Chartists, though he didn’t agree with all the six points of the Charter.

Walk round to no 6, on east side of the Square

“heavy on mankind”

John Scott, Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor from 1801-6 and 1807-1827, lived here (no 6 seems to have been an official residence of Lord Chancellors)… a bad bad bastard! Early on in his political rise, as Attorney General, Eldon brought in the Act suspending Habeus Corpus in 1794, allowing people to be imprisoned without trial, and acted as chief prosecutor in a treason trial against leading members of the radical reform organisation, the London Corresponding Society  – though his case was so weak and his speechifying so hysterical, they were famously acquitted. Appointed Lord Chief Justice and later Lord Chancellor, he became a crucial wedge of the most repressive government in modern times, which repressed numerous working class movements, and quashed several revolts and conspiracies, including the Despard Conspiracy, the Black Lamp, the Luddites, among the most famous. Eldon was a notorious advocate of hanging for the most petty offences, an ardent opponent of the abolition of slavery in the Colonies. “He is a thoroughbred Tory… There has been no stretch of power attempted in his time that he has not seconded: no existing abuse so odious or so absurd, that he has not sanctioned it. He has gone the whole length of the most unpopular designs of Ministers… On all the great questions that have divided party opinion or agitated the public mind, the Chancellor has been found uniformly and without a single exception on the side of prerogative and power, and against every proposal for the advancement of freedom.” [William Hazlitt, Spirit of the Age, 1825.]

Eldon was a great hater of radicals on principle – in 1816 he denied the revolutionary poet Percy Shelley custody of his children after the death of Shelley’s wife, because Shelley was an avowed atheist. (Although he also may have had a personal spite: Shelley was also fond of eloping with his future wives, and Eldon’s own daughter had angered him greatly by running off secretly to marry some down at heel architect).

Shelley achieved a measure of revenge by portraying Eldon satirically in his Masque of Anarchy, where the Chancellor appears in a procession of caricatured repressive powerful figures:

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

(the little children playing around Eldon’s feet may be a dig over the loss of custody of his kids…?)

Sydney Smith said of him “Lord Eldon and the Court of Chancery sit heavy on mankind.”

The riots against the passing of the Corn Laws

Eldon’s house here was attacked in 1815 after the passing of the Corn Laws, Acts of Parliament designed to guarantee maximum profits for the English landed aristocracy (who then dominated Parliament) by banning cheap imports of corn; in times of bad harvest this meant high bread prices, making the Laws wildly unpopular with the poor. Eldon was widely seen as being instrumental to the passing of the Corn laws, (although this may not have been true).

On March 6th 1815, after the Corn Laws were passed, Eldon was pursued from the house of Lords to his house by a mob who attacked the building, hanging a noose from a nearby lamppost in the hope he could be persuaded to wear it. They broke all the windows, using iron railings as crow-bars to wrench an entrance, and destroyed the house. Soldiers of the British Museum guard, arrived and drove out all the intruders, except two who were taken into custody on the spot. Eldon told them: “If you don’t mind what you are about lads, you will all come to be hanged.” A rioter replied, “Perhaps so, old chap, but I think it looks now as if you would be hanged first.”
Sadly not, as the troops chased off the crowd.

The two arrested men were sent before a justice of peace, but the soldiers refused to be witnesses against them.

A garrison of 50 soldiers was stationed here for 3 weeks, since “persons in the front of the house from time to time using menacing language and threats, whenever from the streets they saw any persons in the house.”

Eldon’s house, and convenient lamppost…

Whether or not Eldon was involved in the passing of the Corn Laws, he was, it’s fair to say, an evil bastard, whose looks would have been improved by a hemp necklace…

Walk down to no 11, on the north-eastern corner, on the junction with Montague Place

This building was occupied 27th February 2011 as an ‘Anti-Cuts Space’ by UCL students… evicted March 3rd by bailiffs who came through the roof…

Walk north into Gower Street

There were many squats in Gower Street the late 1970s… Including the Rectory of St George’s Bloomsbury. When this was squatted, it was found to have a working telephone already connected; the word got round quickly and soon there were queues, literally around the block, of squatters from far-off lands, including many from Oz and Kiwiland, waiting to use the free phone. This must have cost somebody, hopefully the orrible church, £1000s.

Walk up Gower Street, left into Chenies Street, and right into Ridgemount Gardens

Although the Bedford Estate was forced to remove its gates across Bloomsbury streets in 1893, that it remains committed to social control in WC1 can be seen up this quiet back street. The gardens on the east side of the road are locked off, for residents’ use only; the plentiful signs on the railings ban even these lucky keyholders from playing ball games, riding bikes, exercising dogs, and even playing music (ironically regarding this last, opposite one of the signs, a plaque on nos 25-36 commemorates Bob Marley’s living in Ridgemount Gardens in 1972! Wonder if he was allowed to sing…?) See photos of signs…

Despite the signs, it wouldn’t take much to jump the fence and have a lie down, share a couple of sarnies and a bottle of pop, or even have a quick game of cricket/unicycle practice/belt out an Elvis number, or give the whippet a run, if you felt like it…

Walk north up to Torrington place, turn right into Gower Street, then cross over to no 78

Between February and July 2005, this was squatted and became the Institute for Autonomy, an anti-capitalist social centre. Created in a disused university building that lay empty for over 5 years. The Institute for Autonomy aimed to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. It was organised by open assemblies. Run by a collective made up of University of London students and other assorted refugees from Ex-Grand Banks Social Centre. The IFA, located close to the university/student area became used by a variety of political groups as well as hosting various labs (hacklab, screen printing, photolab, infoshop/bookstall) held a cafe three times a week offering top-quality food attracting workers, students and lecturers from around the area. It also housed upwards of 15 people and provided housing for people who were on their way to attend the anti-G8 actions in Gleneagles.

The Institute signified a move for the mostly Wombles-based squat centres of Tufnell park etc, merging with student activists at central London colleges… it was to be succeeded by the larger squat in Russell Square, ‘The Square’, and formed part of a chain with the later Bloomsbury activists involved in uni occupations, supporting workers eg cleaners at the Universities, and opposing cuts…
More on the Institute for Autonomy

Cross back over, back into into Torrington Place, then turn left into southern end of Huntley St, walk over to nos 1-9, on the west side

The former squatted blocks, Huntley Street

In February 1977 these 5 blocks of 54 empty police flats, empty for 4 years, were squatted. Soon 160 people were living here, including evictees from squats at Cleveland St, Trentishoe Mansions & Cornwall Terrace. One block was allocated to women and children from a hostel for battered women; a ground floor flat became the office of the Squatters Action Council and later the London Squatters Union. 3 days after the flats were squatted, the Health Authority, who owned them, announced that they were to be used to house nurses and doctors from neighbouring University College Hospital.

After the Health Authority obtained a Possession Order in July 1978, the flats were barricaded, a watch was set up around the clock on the roof. But the squats were infiltrated by two undercover cops, “Nigel and Mary”, posing as homeless, who managed to get themselves on the roof rota one morning, up turn the cops…

On 16th August 1978, in what was then London’s biggest mass eviction, the houses were evicted by the Special Patrol Group; in all 650 coppers led by ex-bomb squad supremo, & nemesis of the Angry Brigade, Roy Habershon. They sealed off the street & send in bulldozers. All 5 houses were cleared despite some resistance from the barricaded buildings. It turned out they had been tapping the phones, taking aerial surveillance pictures, and so on… 14 people were nicked, charged with ‘resisting the sheriff’ contrary to Section 10 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. 12 later got off, but Piers Corbyn and Jim Paton were found guilty… (Although Jim wasn’t even present at the eviction!)

More on the Huntley Street squatters

here you could stop for a pint at the Marlborough Arms, at the corner of Torrington Place and Huntley Street, a hangout for the squatters at the time, who held some meetings here.

Walk north up to the corner of Huntley Street and University Street

In front of you is the Cruciform Building of University College Hospital. In 1992-93, Wards 2-3 were occupied, in an ongoing attempt to resist the ‘merger’ of UCH, Middlesex Hospital and the Elizabeth Garret Anderson Hospital.

the old Cruciform University College Hospital building, with the new UCH behind…

Walk down University Street, turn right, cross the road, up to the north end of Gower Street
, cut through Gower Place, Gordon Square to Tavistock Square

To Bloomsbury Jobcentre Plus, formerly the DSS office (Tavis House, 1-6 Tavistock Square): in October 1989, DSS workers here in alliance with those from several offices thoughout London, staged a one day walkout in protest at being told to snoop on claimants for the purpose of compiling lists for the poll tax.

Eliza Cook

Tavistock House, which stood on on site of the current BMA Building in Tavistock Square: Builder James Burton lived here while developing the Bedford Estate. Later, Charles Dickens lived here…
… as did, at another time, Chartist poet Eliza Cook. This nineteenth-century author and poet, born in Southwark on December 24th 1818, advocated political freedom for women and believed in self-improvement through education, cleverly called “leveling up”. She was a strong supporter of the Chartist movement, and wrote many poems celebrating working people but condemning poverty and hardship of their lives, which made her popular with the working classes of both England and America. 

Her first volume, Lays of a Wild Harp, appeared in 1835, when she was only seventeen. Encouraged by its favourable reception, she began to send verses anonymously to the Weekly Dispatch, the Metropolitan Magazine, the New Monthly Magazine, and The Literary Gazette. After a time she confined herself to the radical Weekly Dispatch, where her first contribution had appeared under the signature ‘C.’ on 27 Nov 1836 and she became a staple of its pages for the next ten years. Its editor was William Johnson Fox and its owner was James Harmer. She lived for a time at Harmer’s residence, Ingress Abbey, in Kent, and wrote certain of her works there. Her poem The Old Armchair (1838) made hers a household name for a generation, both in England and the United States. In that year, she published Melaia and other Poems.

Her work for the Dispatch and New Monthly was pirated by George Julian Harney, the Chartist, for the Northern Star. Familiar with the London Chartist movement in its various sects, she followed many of the older radicals in disagreeing with the O’Brienites and O’Connorites in their disregard for the repeal of the Corn Laws. She also preferred the older Radicals’ path of Friendly Societies and self-education. From 1849 to 1854 wrote, edited, and published Eliza Cook’s Journal, a weekly periodical she described as one of “utility and amusement.” Cook also published Jottings from my Journal (1860), and New Echoes (1864). Her works became a staple of anthologies throughout the century.

Cook stood for political and sexual freedom for women, and believed in self-improvement through education. This made her a great favourite with the working-class public. She was a close friend and lover of the famous American actress Charlotte Cushman. In 1863, she was given a Civil List pension income of £100 a year. She died in Wimbledon on September 23rd, 1889.
There’s a great post on Eliza’s Chartist poetry here and a blog on her here

Tavistock Square (as with many other Bloomsbury Squares) used to have strict social controls: servants were barred, and children’s games were harshly regulated. And like most local squares, only residents were allowed in until the 20th century (only Mecklenburgh and Bedford Squares maintain this exclusivity these days). The Square is in some ways a peace garden, with separate memorials to the dead of Hiroshima and to Conscientious Objectors, among others, congregrating around a statue of Gandhi,

Cross to Woburn Place, straight over, carry on down Tavistock Place to Marchmont Street; turn right and walk down the east side of the street to no 66:

Gays the Word Bookshop

As we have already mentioned, the Bedford estate for a long time restricted the building of shops in Bloomsbury, to keep up the tone of the neighbourhood. Even when forced by demand to zone Marchmont Street as a shopping area, they tightly controlled the appearance of the new establishments, forcing shopkeepers to choose shopfront designs from a prescribed catalogue. (As late as 1926, the Poetry bookshop, when it relocated to 38 Great Russell Street was also forced to repaint its art deco shop sign, considered too bright and futuristic by the Estate, who ordered it repainted white like the rest of the block.

Its doubtful whether Gay’s the Word would have snuck through this snooty net in earlier decades. It opened here in January 1979. Inspired by lesbian and gay bookstores in the States, a small group of people from Gay Icebreakers, a gay socialist group, founded the store in 1979. Initial reluctance from Camden Council to grant a lease to the bookshop was overcome with help from Ken Livingstone, then a Camden councilor.

Gay books weren’t generally available in ordinary bookstores, and for a while most of the bookshop’s stock came mainly from the vibrant US gay publishing scene. It was only in the ‘80s that lesbian and gay publishers like Gay Men’s Press, Brilliance Books, Onlywomen Press and Third House were established in Britain.

Organisations using the shop as a meeting place over the years have included Icebreakers, the Lesbian Discussion Group (still going after 27 years), the Gay Black Group, the Gay Disabled Group and TransLondon.

From the beginning, Gays the Word has been more than shop – the space has served as a community and information resource for lesbians and gay men. Hundreds of people drop by every week to pick up the free gay papers, hang out in the back, drink tea or coffee or check out the free noticeboard detailing numberless gay organisations and upcoming events. Sadly the piano, centrepiece of the musical evenings of the early days has since vanished…

In 1984, Customs and Excise, assuming the shop to be a porn shop, mounted a large scale raid and seized thousands of pounds worth of stock, including works by Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood and Jean Genet. Gay’s the Word’s Directors were eventually charged with conspiracy to import indecent books under the Customs Consolidation Act 1876: under a loophole this Act allows prosecution for obscenity for IMPORTED books that would be totally legal if published in the UK, as it doesn’t admit for a literary or artistic defence. A campaign was set in motion and the charges were vigorously defended, supported by well-known writers including Gore Vidal himself. A defence fund raised over £55,000 from the public.

In 2007 rising rents and the effect of internet book-buying, the bookshop faced possible closure. It launched a campaign to stay open which got huge press coverage and a massive worldwide response: its future, for the present is secure. Hurray!

Walk a few doors down to Marchmont Community Centre

The Anarchist Communist Federation (since abbreviated to the Anarchist Federation) used to meet here, from the late 1980s to the mid-90s I think. In May 2011 activists planning radical resistance to the government’s austerity program also gathered here.

Walk down to the alley that cuts across north end of Brunswick Centre on Marchmont St to Handel St, then walk down to junction with Hunter Street. Turn right down Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, Grenville Street, turn left into Guilford Street, down to Millman Street, and turn right

Walk down Millman Street to no 9:

The shooting of PM Spencer Perceval

John Bellingham, assassin of PM Spencer Percival, was lodging here in 1812. A small-time merchant, he had been working in Russia, where he was imprisoned over a disputed debt; in his view this was due to misconduct by the British ambassador, and when he managed to return to England he tried to claim redress from the British government, but despite repeated efforts, got nowhere. His grievances built up in his head; eventually he decided to take his claim go the top; attending the House of Commons, on 11th May 1812, armed with a pair of pistols, he waited till the Prime Minister walked by, and shot him dead. For which he was hanged, a week later. At first the authorities feared the shooting was the signal for a popular uprising (there was mass industrial unrest in the midlands and north of England at the time), and even after it became clear the assassination was the product of a lone grudge, troops were stationed on the edge of London during the hanging just in case…

For a day the country was in turmoil. Popular elation was undisguised. Crowds gathered outside the House of Commons as the news seeped out, and as the assassin, John Bellingham, was taken away there were repeated shouts of applause from “the ignorant or depraved part of the crowd”. The news that Bellingharn was probably deranged, and had acted from motives of private grievance, was received almost with disappointment; it had been hoped that another, and more successful, Despard had arisen. When Bellingham. went to the scaffold, people cried out ‘God bless him’, and Coleridge heard them add: ‘This is but the beginning.’ It was thought inopportune to give Perceval a public funeral.’

Although Perceval was not as orrible a bastard as the some of the other leading politicians of the early nineteenth century, he had made a fortune as a lawyer, cutting his teeth in the repressive prosecutions of radicals and reformers in the 1790s; he set his face against political reform early, and was a lifelong defender of ‘Old Corruption’ against unruly plebs and the influence of the French Revolution. So no loss really.

Walk down to no 70

Peter’s Bookshop opened here in 1935, an offshoot of Peter’s Bookshop in Hammersmith; both shops were associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain. Funnily enough the Peter in question was Peter Murphy, a Cambridge friend and later secretary of dodgy coup-plotting royal, Lord Mountbatten; Murphy advised the old rightwing bastard on communism, being a Party member himself. He supplied the cash to launch the bookshops, which were run by CP members… Oh the odd relations of upper class lefties and righties in the 1930s – never ceases to amaze. There’s lots of wild conspiracy theory speculation on the internet about Mountbatten, Murphy, their sexuality and whether the former held rightwing or left wing ideas, coup plots, Irish politics and so on, but we really don’t have the space.

Walk south down to Great Ormond Street, turn right, and walk to no 23 (just beyond the end of Lamb’s Conduit St)

The national offices of the National Unemployed Workers Movement were located from 1931-32 (see Great Russell Street, above)

On 3 October 1931, the NUWM offices were raided during a National Administrative Council meeting, At this time the NUWM was involved in heavy campaigning against austerity measures; unemployed demos had ended in fighting with the police in several cities. In the days leading up to the raid, there had been riots in Glasgow, and large demos to London prisons where unemployed activists were being held. Leading activist Wal Hannington recounts:

“On Saturday, 3rd October, the National Administrative Council of the N.U.W.M. met at the headquarters of the movement; our offices were on the first floor of a building in Great Ormond Street, Bloomsbury, and during the afternoon session of the N.A.C. a knock came at the office door, and a police officer stated that he wanted to have a word with me. Thinking that it was some inquiry in connection with particulars of a demonstration, I went outside the office on to the landing and found myself confronted by two uniformed police inspectors and four plain-clothes detectives. I quickly took in the situation, but before I could retreat into the office they grabbed me and stated that they had a warrant for my arrest.”

He served a month for inciting a breach in the peace for a speech on an unemployed demonstration.

The offices were raided again on 1 November 1932. Several detectives rushed up the stairs, nicking Hannington, having a warrant for him yet again… They searched the offices… Hannington was taken to Bow St police Court, and charged with “attempting to cause disaffection among members of the Metropolitan police” due to a speech he had given at a hunger march demo in Trafalgar Square where he referred to pay cuts among the cops and appealed for them to unite with the unemployed… He later got two years in prison.

Walk back down to Lambs Conduit Street, turn right, and walk up to near the top, close to Theobald’s Road

No 7 Lamb’s Conduit Street once stood here. This was a building associated with anarchist and socialist groups… It was the temporary postal address for Marxist-anarchist hybrid the Socialist League, in December 1890. After William Morris left, many of the subscriptions stopped leading to bit of a funding crisis. League journal Commonweal reverted to a monthly and the spacious headquarters were given up.

7 Lambs Conduit Street was also occupied by John Turner’s Socialist Cooperative Federation Stores. From 1895 to 1898 this was the editorial address of the anarchist journal Freedom.  No. 7 was destroyed by wartime bombing in May 1941.


That’s the end of our first Bloomsbury walk…

If you fancy a pint or three at this point the Lamb on Lambs Conduit Street is a reasonable pub.

But if you want to continue wandering Bloomsbury’s radical past, here’s our second walk around the area, focussing on the area’s rich history of feminism, and the heavy presence of education, or more specifically ideas of education as the path to a freer society…..

Today in London healthcare history: Second in a series of occupations at University College Hospital, 1993

Occupational therapy – the incomplete story of the University College Hospital strikes and occupations of 1992-3.

The story of the (ultimately unsuccessful) struggle to keep a hospital open despite the efforts of the government, the Area Health Authority, management, University College London and the Wellcome Foundation and Trust.

Put together by a number of individals in the UCH occupation together with help and suggestions from others, London 1995.

[NB: on what actually happened to UCH after the occupations and campaigns related here, see Appendix 2]


The First UCH Strike

(late November/early December 1992)

The first strike at UCH comprising of an occupation cum work-in against the phasing out of the hospital took place in late November/early December 1992. It was said at the time that it was the first occupation of a hospital in the UK.(1) Everyone who worked at UCH knew that some kind of crunch was coming. Staff had been accused of “over-performing” and it was mooted that 60 nurses were to be sacked. The purchasing authority had let it be known that they found UCH too pricey and also, in the background, the Tomlinson Report had pointed some kind of unspecific finger at the hospital.

The strike started simply enough. One day in late November some managers marched on Ward 2/1 — a general surgical ward — to close it. There was an immediate spontaneous response as nurses linked arms to form a human chain at the ward’s entrance. as one nurse said, “We decided as a Ward, without any union involvement, that as nurses we could not leave Ward 211.” From there, it escalated into an indefinite strike as more and differing people were sucked into the conflict Patients refused to leave the threatened Ward and porters refused to move them. Briefly, the traffic on Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road was blocked by strikers and within no time there was a lot of support from other workers, mainly in the form of generous donations to the strike fund. COHSE was to make the strike official but NUPE didn’t.

It was something of a breakthrough as effectively the threatened part of the hospital was soon run by time health workers themselves. As one said, “management where being completely circumvented.” Unlike the later occupation in September 1993, the first one took place in a functioning situation where all kinds of day to day nursing practicalities had to be considered. For a brief moment, many of the quite nasty divide and rule mechanisms in the hospital hierarchy were diverted and perhaps the most important obstacle of all was overcome. A hospital occupation/work-in cannot succeed without the support of junior doctors and this, it appears, was forthcoming. Generally junior doctors are loathe to support or take any action as they are utterly dependent on consultants good reports and are prepared to take shit waiting for that fat salary at the end of the 72 hour per week work rainbow (there was however, a junior doctors’ strike in the 1970s and this might be worth looking into). Equally (or not so equally), experienced nurses tend to give junior doctors hell as they know that they’ll be handing it out like hell when in a consultants position. All such understandable pettiness aside, finally and most importantly, the harassment of junior doctors is largely to do with worries about cock-ups on the ward. Although responsible for everything on the ward, the nurse-in-charge is under medical supervision from the doctor. The usual situation is inexperienced juniors having responsibility over and above their skill and age. The subsequent panic felt by the nurse-in-charge who usually knows the score in a potentially life or death situation translates into hassling and nagging juniors.

But in a subversive dynamic, everyday relationships quickly change, affecting even the most hidebound. In the UCH occupation, it seems that the consultants’ attitude bad changed too and was sympathetic to the action taking place. To the annoyance of managers, consultant Dr. M Adishia even transferred a patient to Ward 2/1 a day after the occupation began. This kind of thing was unheard of. Prior to the free market reforms consultants ‘ran’ the hospitals. They were seemingly all powerful, often terribly arrogant and, inevitably, hated by all. Thus it was easy for the new hard-nosed management to take power away from the consultants as no one was prepared to defend them. Having created such (unheard of) unity among the hospital staff it wasn’t surprising that one UCH striker had cause to say in early December 1992, “we need workers councils in hospitals.”

The only force pitted against them was the new, economically insecure, limited contract, cadre management employees. These managers didn’t ideologically believe any longer in what they’re doing but are scared stiff to do anything else knowing that the dole could be in waiting for them tomorrow. Blindly ruled by money terrorism, they’ve seen their proletarianisation on the horizon and they don’t like what they see. A nurse at UCH whose ward was closed by management in the space of two minutes without any medical consultation or warning commented, “the manager said she knew it was wrong but there are other managers waiting to take her place.” Shits though they may be, they’re hardly the stuff who could make a solid defence based on conviction come a more concerted, more general attack. Headless chickens come to mind.(2)

The strike was successful though and the management backed off giving oily-written undertakings that all wards due to close for Xmas would re-open on January 4th and dropping all disciplinaries against strikers. Probably they were nervous after all the tumult (hot air really) about miners a month previously. Possibly too, they were nervous about the rank’n’file Health workers Co-ordinating Committee, a body boycotted by the Health Unions themselves, thinking it was a more potent body than it was. In reality, the Health Workers Co-ordinating Committee was a made up/fake co-ordination (in comparison to the rather more genuine co-ordinations in the UK strikes in 1988/89) pick’n’mix of various Trotskyist factions each running their own party recruiting campaigns and little demonstrations – a unified, on the ground response being the last thing on their minds.

Of course, as a lot of people knew, UCH management were biding their time when they could hit a lot harder and nastier… And how!… read on…


The 1993 Strike

On August 17th 1993 about 50 nurses and porters at University College Hospital in central London came out on indefinite strike against management plans to begin closing down the hospital.

From the beginning the 50 strikers were – and remained – a minority of the total work force of the hospital; this was one of the main weaknesses of the struggle. In the original strike ballot well over 50 voted to strike – but UCH management announced that those taking industrial action would be banned from the building, so making it impossible to provide a rota for emergency cover for patients as had been done in the December ‘92 action. This discouraged some nurses from striking – and numbers were further reduced by the divisions of the trade union structure — i.e. ambulance drivers were to be balloted separately, some nurses were RCN members (with a no-strike agreement) while others were casual/temp staff employed via agencies.

Once the strike began there was some support from other workers — ambulance workers refused to move patients out of closing wards; British Telecom and other workers would not crass the picket line to dismantle closed wards; postmen and women leafleted their rounds; and tube workers at nearby Goodge St used the station tannoy to report and publicise the strike. There were a couple of one day strikes by catering, ancillary and clerical staff at UCH – and also by staff at the nearby EGA and Middlesex hospitals. Same public sector workers – teachers, posties, DSS and council workers – came out unofficially for the Day of Action on September 16th (the teachers despite being threatened with disciplinary action by their union if they did so).

Local people and other supporters also turned up to the marches and rallies during the strike — in fact the best marches were the ones that formed themselves spontaneously from the rallies and went streaming off through the central London traffic. With the cops unprepared and confused but not wanting to be publicly seen getting heavy with a nurses-led march, Tottenham Court Road was brought to a standstill in the rush hour a couple of times by 150 people.

Other marches were more tame, controlled and less effective — due mainly to the union branch officials getting afraid that the rowdiness would upset the union bosses too much.(3) Nevertheless, the September 16th march still managed to completely block Whitehall for a while – or at least the riot cops did, so as to make sure we didn’t get to Downing Street or Parliament.

Although UNISON had apparently said they would back the strike even before balloting for it had begun, it was obvious all the way through that they did not want it to be effective or help the strikers in any way. They obviously wanted, at the most, to negotiate some kind of structured closure program for the hospital with maybe a few token concessions thrown in — and parade this as some kind of victory (see leaflet). UNISON only officially came into existence on July 1st 1993 through a merger of the NALGO, NUPE and COHSE unions – so forming the largest public sector union in Western Europe, with 1.4 million members. This was their first major dispute and they were keen to prove to management that they were worth negotiating with and could do the job – i.e. by proving they had control over their members and could deliver an obedient work force to the bosses. The union disassociated themselves from any “unofficial” actions (such as a brief occupation of hospital chief executive Charles Marshal’s office) and sent circulars to other hospitals ordering workers not to support it. UNISON withheld all strike pay for 6 weeks. It was finally paid the day after the union had forced the strikers to return to work.

The strikers tried to get support from other workers – they were constantly visiting different workplaces. But it was nearly always done through union structures — i.e. by approaching shop stewards rather than by talking to workers face to face. All this usually resulted in was a resolution of support being passed at the next branch meeting, a money donation and a promise to send a few people down to the next rally.

In 1982 in Yorkshire nurses were able to bring out thousands of miners and car workers by bypassing the union structure, by simply standing outside the workplace and appealing directly to the workers for solidarity. This should have been tried by UCH nurses and porters, but the prevailing faith in the unions (encouraged by SWP ideology) prevented it. In Leeds, in 1982, support came from engineers and public sector workers. The best example was some construction workers who were building miners’ baths at Wooley Colliery. The shop steward there had a brother in a hospital in Leeds (long stay)and got in touch with the nurses at the hospital to picket himself and other workers out. When striking nurses arrived they had no difficulty in stopping the construction site, although there was a visible chillness from local NUM officials. One of the construction workers drove straight through the nurses picket line. This led to an extension of the construction workers’ strike for three days. It all ended when the builders caught the scab, took the wheels off his car and emptied his wallet into the health workers’ collection bucket. In 1982, there was still too much reliance on union structures – mainly on a shop steward rather than full time official level. This was because of inexperience and workers being over-awed by the myth of the shop steward. Defeat was ensured by reliance on the union structures and ideology, with unions turning militancy on and off like a tap, leading to disillusion. But 11 years on at UCH, so many defeats later and in a Central London workplace — there was much less chance of repeating such a success.


And then the occupation

Ward 2/3 in the Cruciform building of UCH was occupied on September 15th – it had recently been emptied of patients as part of an ongoing closure of this wing of the hospital. The idea was first suggested to some local people on the picket line by someone who we later found out to be a full time Socialist Workers Party official. The occupation was originally planned to end after one night, merely being a publicity stunt to coincide with the Day of Action occurring the next day — but it was eventually decided that the occupation should continue indefinitely.

The majority of the strike committee were initially against an occupation, although 3 nurses did take part on the first night. It’s very likely that some were against the idea simply because it was promoted by those strikers who were SWP members — there was already some resentment about SWP manipulation within the strike committee and this was probably thought to be another example or vehicle for it, same of them at first assumed that we occupiers were all SWP Members.(4)

Those in occupation decided during the night to argue for not leaving the next day; this was mainly in response to full-time UNISON official Eddie Coulson turning up at l a.m. with hospital managers (who he’d been in conference with for over an hour before hand) to try and make everyone leave. Coulson stated in front of hospital chief executive Marshal and two strikers that UNISON members would be disciplined; he said that he wouldn’t be surprised if there were further management disciplinaries; he was prepared to drop all the demands of the strike, some of which he was only paying lip service to anyway, if Marshal would drop the disciplinary threats. He said he could guarantee a return to work within 24-36 hours if Marshal did this. He also talked with Marshal about the “damage” the dispute had done to UNISON, and how be would be looking at ways of disciplining UNISON members through the machinery of the union (these are almost direct quotes from a letter of complaint sent by the UCH branch to their union leadership). At the end of the strike Coulson was quoted in a paper as saying that UNISON had “lost control” of the dispute, giving the “unauthorised” occupation as an example.

Still, at the time, the strike committee were divided about the occupation — some now not only wanted to continue in Ward 2/3, but also to open another ward (the rest of the 2nd floor was empty). During the rally on the 16th September all the strikers came up to the occupation — initially just to protect the 3 nurses already present from disciplinaries and to walk out with us down to the rally. But when we told them we didn’t want to leave this started an emergency meeting. It was an urgent situation —if we were going to take another ward it should have been then, with all those people outside. The whole rally of 1,000 or more people should have been encouraged to enter the hospital and become a mass occupation, taking over empty wards.

In the middle of all this, in walks Tony Benn, and as he waffles on, the rally marches off towards Whitehall… Somebody went out of the occupation to try to get the march to turn around — they did manage to stop the march for a bit but, amid the confusion and argument, the march eventually continued on to Whitehall.

Back at the hospital, the strikers took a vote about continuing the occupation – they were divided half and half for and against. It was decided that for the moment we wouldn’t open another ward and that the fate of ward 2/3 would be put off for now until it could be discussed further.

Most of the strikers then went off to join the march, while we waited in 2/3 for the marchers’ return and the strikers decision. While waiting we heard that UNISON bad cancelled the National Day of Action they’d planned for November 11th — this was in response to our occupation. We also learned that management were taking advantage of the fact that the march bad moved off, leaving nobody behind to carry on picketing: they had immediately begun to close another ward. This news was relayed to the marchers, who were by now blocking Whitehall, and the march set off back to the hospital.

When the marchers returned some quickly stormed into the hospital chief executive’s office, occupying it for a while. Some others came up and joined the occupation. Meanwhile the strikers went into their meeting – it was 6 hours before their decision to hold on to Ward 2/3 came back to us.

The best day of the strike and the strikers spent most of it in meetings!


Early leaflet supporting strikers by soon-to-be occupiers:



Predicting the future of any hospital has become almost impossible since the government forced their ‘internal market’ — competition for less resources – on the health service. NO HOSPITAL IS SAFE, and the situation at UCH is increasingly unsafe.

Under the new rules, an increasing number of well-paid managers, many of whom have no knowledge of health matters, are trying to cut costs, while pretending that all is we11. The local health authority, through which government money comes, is having its funding cut by £21 million, with other cuts not yet decided. The health authority, whose members are appointed, not elected, recently complained that UCH was ‘over-performing’ – carrying cut too many operations! Apart from private patients, those with ‘fundholding’ GPs have been able to jump queues while there is ‘no money’ for others.


Between them they plan to reduce UCH to a skeleton emergency service — those considered non-emergency or needing more than 2 days care will be sent elsewhere, and GPs will not be able to send patients. This skeleton service will not work because the Accident & Emergency section has always been dependent on the wide specialist knowledge of the other sections. Any cuts mean a reduction in the range of skills available to bring us back to health.

A reduced service also means more pressure to classify patients as non-emergency, and that any major tragedy, like the Kings X fire, will simply not be catered for. Their idea for sending people somewhere else doesn’t make sense anyway, when these other hospitals are also under threat.


As for the other parts of UCH and its associates, the Cruciform building is being emptied, to be bought up by UCL and Wellcome (the drug company that made billions out of expensive dodgy drugs tested on AIDS sufferers) for medical research, to add to Wellcome’s coffers (and with the local poor, and our pets, as guinea pigs?). The latest leaflet from management says that the Middlesex is not closing, but that everything is going to move to the UCH site, which means it is! The private patient section is of course safe.

Last year. over 20,000 patients from Camden and lslinqton, mainly from the poorer parts, were treated at UCH etc. and we are dependent on it. Me don’t need this chaos and these closures. He need a general, local health service, responding to our needs, not the needs of the market, and controlled by the people who use it and work in it, not by a bunch of managerial parasites.



Life is a hospital (for a while)

Although determined, aggressive tactics are going to be increasingly necessary if we are to keep some kind of free (albeit through national insurance contributions) Health Service intact, the occupation of Ward 2/3 wasn’t about “militancy” as such. Weren’t we there basically because it made you feel good (good enough to want to fight rather than just fulfilling a dull political duty) and gave you one hell of a lift? A new world begins (or is at least glimpsed) instantly in such actions — simply in meeting, laughing and messing about with barricades etc. with people you’ve largely never met before. Quick as a flash, that horrible imposed isolation knot – an isolation much worse today than its ever been – is loosened and that single factor could possibly be the most important in any future occupations.

For the first few days of the occupation we were more or less left to organise ourselves. Leaflets were written and distributed; a picketing rota was put in operation (which meant for the first time there were to be some 24 hour pickets); developing local contacts brought in more people and donations of food, cash, etc.. A great atmosphere and infectious buzz was in the air for those first few days and everybody involved felt the occupation had great potential as a focus for the struggle — people were openly discussing things and coming up with new ideas all the time. A hardcore of a dozen or so people were so involved in what was happening that we were basically living on the ward for a while.


Early occupation leaflet:



Ward 2/3 at University College Hospital has been occupied by striking health workers and supporters, angry at the destruction of the health service. The strike has been on since 17th August and the occupation since 15th September.

Since the strike began management have closed down 4 wards as part of their plan to close the whole hospital. Because the government is trying to force our hospitals to compete against each other for smaller crumbs of a smaller cake, hospitals have been starved of cash — resulting in indefinite waiting lists, unnecessary deaths and increasing chaos for staff and the public.

This is part of management’s reign of terror in the health service, with staff being victimised and intimidated and patients being treated like prisoners as they try to close hospitals.

The success of this occupation and strike depend massively on outside support — which means YOU! So get your finger out, get stuck in and come on down and Join us! We can’t win this struggle any other way — people are needed on the picket lines and at the occupation. We also need food to keep us going, messages of support, donations etc.

If we can wipe the smug grins off the faces of these health butchers, just think how healthy it’s gonna make you feel!

(The occupied Ward 2/3 is on the corner of Grafton way and Huntley St — easily recognisable by the banners outside!)

JOIN THE LOBBY OF CAMDEN & ISLINGTON HEALTH AUTHORITY 4.30 – 5.3Opm Tuesday 21 September @ Friends Meeting House, Euston Rd (opposite Euston station)




But, alas, the spell was soon broken. We had been requesting a meeting with the strikers for a couple of days, and one was eventually arranged between the full strike committee (i.e. all available strikers) and the occupiers; but instead we were met by just a few union shop stewards who were all SWP members. One of these SWerPs was also the union branch secretary at UCH, and although she was not even on strike – she was one of the clerical workers and they had not come out – she very much used her union status to play a dominant and often manipulative role during the strike. They proceeded to tell us of their plans for completely restructuring how the occupation was to function – we were led to believe (wrongly as it turned out) that they were speaking for the strike committee as a whole and only relaying to us what had been decided by it. In fact it was an SWP engineered coup, done behind the strike committee’s back as much as ours’.

They wanted vetting to decide who should be allowed into the occupation — this was to be carded out by the branch secretary and chairperson – both SWP members. People would have to book themselves onto a formalised rota days in advance just to be able to spend a night in the occupation — reducing it to a duty and a chore, killing off the social dynamic going on. They also intended that there should be at least 6 strikers on the ward at any time and that there must always be at least one striker on the picket line with us. They justified all this by saying that if anything bad happened in the occupation or if things got “out of control” this would jeopardise the strikers — by giving management an excuse to legally evict the occupation and to victimise the strikers (6 of them already faced disciplinary actions due to activities in the strike).

By the time this meeting occurred, most of the occupiers were tired out from a lack of enough sleep due to late night picketing, leafleting and generally running around trying to organise stuff. We were stunned by these sudden proposed changes (although in retrospect we should have been expecting something like this) and did not resist them as we should have done; this was partly due to simple fatigue but also because we were being guilt tripped about the necessity of protecting the strikers’ interests as a priority. The implication was “but would you feel if a nurse lost her job because you lot fucked up?” The answer was obvious but the likelihood of it happening was exaggerated and used as a weapon against us.

Although none of us were happy about all this, we weren’t able to respond effectively — and as we mistakenly thought that these were decisions taken by the strike committee as a whole we didn’t feel in much of a position to argue. We should have said we would consider these proposals and then discuss them with the full strike committee as soon as possible, instead of just capitulating. If we had known that these issues had not even been properly discussed by the strike committee and that there had already been strong disagreements within the strike committee about SWP manipulation then we wouldn’t have felt so isolated with so few options. It was also partly unfamiliarity with what was a pretty unusual situation as well as a (not unrelated) lack of confidence and assertiveness in ourselves and other simple personal failings that led to our downfall. It can’t just be explained by the supposed absence of enough organisation or of a certain kind of organisation, as some have tried to do (see Appendix for more on this).

Their plan was to make the occupation a centre for union and SWP organising and to fill the place with SWerPs. Having seen that we were good at organising ourselves and developing our autonomy the union/SWP hacks felt threatened — partly because they judged us by their own miserable standards and thought we were really some secret anarchist group (possibly Class War!) come to try to take things over. Rumours were flying amongst the strike committee that this was the case.

They also wanted to reduce the occupation to a publicity exercise – i.e. getting media celebrities and MPs to visit and be photographed there. In fact it seemed they had decided that getting public opinion on the side of the strikers was going to be the main weapon to win the strike with. Some occupiers now felt they were being treated as a token pensioner, a token mother and child, etc. to be displayed for the cameras. One woman was even offered a spare nurses uniform to wear in case there were no real nurses around when an MP came to visit!

The effects of these changes being imposed were several: a lot of people, particularly locals who visited regularly, were put off coming to the occupation. And there seemed little point in giving out leaflets encouraging people to come to the occupation if they’d all have to be vetted first. The atmosphere was totally changed, with people now feeling they were only there with the permission or tolerance of certain officials and no longer as joint partners in the struggle. The openness of the occupation, with free debate flowing back and forth informally, was replaced by an atmosphere of intrigue and secret whisperings…

“In those early days one related to the occupiers as strikers, local or non-local or all mixed up together. You were curious about their lives, background, last night’s binge, learning about hospital jobs, what immediate tasks had to be earned out, etc. Ideology just didn’t really count and you couldn’t give much of a fuck what political persuasion anybody had. It was only after the attempted SWP mini-coup that you really started relating to strikers as SWerPs or not And that was REAL BAD. After that, paranoia, whispered conversations (from them) with doors closing behind you as if you were an unwelcome intruder. And so hypocritical! A poster then appeared: “NO DRUGS OR ALCOHOL IN THE WARD.” And yet it was only a few nights previously that an SWerP had been openly rolling up spliffs. Previous to this laying down of the law there was no trouble at all with anybody getting out of their heads. In fact even occupiers who were regular boozers had hardly touched a drop, being so occupied with what was going on. It was only after the SWP coup that people were drunk on the ward — and they were mainly SWerPs come back from the pub. After that occupying was more like work; a duty; a painful task to be undertaken. Wage labour felt freer than this! Better to occupy the Morgue which was just below Ward 2/3 — at least that would have been a bit of life in death.”

The SWP’s plan was to draft in large numbers of SWP foot soldiers, but this was never very successful — some did turn up (although a lot who were told to didn’t) but never in sufficient numbers to completely dominate or alienate the rest of us; as they usually only came for one night they still had to ask those of us staying there for information about the general functioning of the place. Some rank ‘n’ file SWerPs were fine to be with (5) and we could talk and relax with them but the real hacks were often vile — functionaries and mere appendages of the party machine, mouth pieces for faithfully parroting the banalities of the party line, with no social graces or warmth at all.

In fact it might be said that leftist militancy is a diagnosable disease in itself, with definite schizophrenic behavioural tendencies! The personality split between political duty and real desires, voluntary submission to party lines and hierarchies with repression of doubts and contradictions, obsession with manipulation of others and conversion of others to one’s own rigid beliefs, etc…

In the early days of the occupation it was the Trots who’d left bunches of Socialist Worker around (along with the Revolutionary Communist Party etc. leaving their rags lying about) ready for piling propaganda in the occupiers’ heads. At the same time these politicos spotted in a flash one Class War newspaper lying innocently about and what’s this? — a man called Vienet’s book on the French occupation movement in May ‘68 – things that somebody had bought or nicked for one’s own personal enjoyment on the day. So an ideological construct was fearfully assembled: “Its Class war anarchists in there”; “Is that a destructive lunatic fringe?”; “Should we Kronstadt the bastards?” The mind boggles at the lurid fantasies possibly conjured up.

The bunch that became the mainstay of the occupation were a mixed bag – partly determined by the fact that we were the ones who could devote most time to it. On the dole or on the sick, single mums, pensioners, casual/part-time workers or those whose jobs were flexible enough to take time off (builders, dispatch riders, etc.). Some had known each other before, some hadn’t, but most had some involvement with the strike from the beginning; some who already knew each other had been involved in producing their own leaflet and poster for the Day of Action prior to the occupation, having been inspired by some striking nurses. People came from a wide variety of social and ‘political’ backgrounds and experiences — most had been involved in other struggles in the past. Different people had served time with various political groupings, ranging from the Labour Party through Trot groups, ultra-left marxism and beyond. Others had never touched politics with a barge pole. None were hacks or Party animals (in the political sense!) and there was a consensus of distaste for such beasts. One or two of the more ‘eccentric’ characters could at times get to be a pain in the arse but generally they were responsive enough to get the message if you told them so; unlike some of the devious lefties who had the cheek to call these people “disruptive.”

Some of the strike committee at least had a stereotypical view of just who they wanted as permanent overnight occupiers. Lots of worker delegations carrying TU banners or representative of community/tenant organisations, etc.. What they got was just what they didn’t want: the ‘freak’ or mongrel proletariat — those not that much into work and who largely had never seen the inside of a trade union but who were prepared to put their heart and soul into the occupation. Instead of the ‘straight’ working class (at least as the leftists saw it) they got those without the correct image.

The SWP turned the occupation into a political arena where all other forces were seen either as rivals or subjects to be submitted to their will. In an atmosphere of intrigue, plots and manipulations we were forced into being less open and more secretive ourselves as protection against totally losing our ground. This is often the effect on struggles of self interested political factions with a separate agenda for themselves — to combat them you are often forced to adopt some of their tactics – resulting in the social dynamics of the struggle being stalled and energy being wasted on simply trying to stand your ground and contain the effects and spread of the Trotskyist virus.

But it’s too simplistic to blame the SWP for everything – another sect could have played the same role, as could any other union bureaucrats or a group of timid, conservative workers in different circumstances. It’s no good seeing the SWP cadres as the shit part and the rest of the strike committee as pure light – sometimes the SWerPs took the more radical initiatives, in opposition to more conservative strikers. But it’s important to remember that the non-SWerPs were never as inflexible and ideological and therefore could be more imaginative in many ways.

Avoiding the routinisation of struggles seems to be a real challenge. All sorts of forces combine to turn an occupation or strike into just a different kind of work. The Trots are usually the visible cause, but it’s often that they are filling a vacuum created by people’s own uncertainty — it’s inevitable in any genuine autonomous struggle – but the way in which vanguard groups use that uncertainty means they turn it into a weakness. Ideally they could be wrong-footed by a bit of playfulness and craziness, but when the situation becomes tense and ‘serious’ and people start worrying and falling back into the workday mechanisms, autonomy gives way to ‘common sense.’ At least in this experience at UCH people got out and about which lifted the weight a bit — a lot of occupations become sieges and in that context the vanguard and all the other military metaphors start giving the appearance of making sense. Isolation is another problem — especially if the occupiers are seen to be a ‘minority.’

It’s true to say that the SWP’s goal is not firstly to advance a struggle, but to advance their influence on a struggle, and it is this which determines their choice of tactics: this was illustrated by the way their attitude to the occupation was to change.

Although of course the SWP strikers at UCH sincerely wanted to win the strike, its nevertheless true that the Party’s tactics are generally determined not by how to advance or win struggles but by how to prove that if everyone had listened to and followed them then things would have worked out better – this often entails directing struggles and demands at the union bureaucrats, so that when (inevitably) they don’t do what they’re asked to, they can be shown to be wrong and the SWP “correct” (this cynical attitude to the working class was spelled out yonks ago by their arch-guru Trotsky with his theories of the “transitional demand” etc.).(6)

But even in their own terms, none of their own plans for the occupation ever worked well. They could never draft in sufficient numbers for a total coup: very few union officials turned up; and only 3 or 4 ‘left’ Labour MPs turned up, attracting very little press coverage. (It was laughable to later read Socialist Worker’s claim that, due to pressure of public opinion and the strike highlighting the health issue, the Labour Party had been “forced” to send some prominent MPs down to the Ward. They had been phoning up loads of celebrities and these were the only ones who ever bothered to come).

The political vetting they’d wanted became impractical as it turned out that the branch officials were too busy to impose it — and as the Party faithful failed to materialise in sufficient strength we were needed to make up numbers anyway.

The picket line was another main casualty of the imposed changes. It was impossible for the strikers alone to mount successful picketing — there were 10 or 11 different exits all connected by underground tunnels that the management could use to sneak patients and equipment out as they closed more wards. During the occupation we had begun to organise 24 hour pickets with walkie-talkie contact between the picket and our Ward; we still didn’t have enough people to cover every exit but it was certainly an improvement. But it seemed that part of the reason for the reorganisation of the occupation was that the union/SWP officials had given up on trying to develop effective picketing in favour of getting public sympathy on their side through publicity stunts. We had shown that we were serious about trying to make the picket effective and more than just a token show of strength — and possibly it was thought that this could lead to a clash on the picket line that would have further pissed off the union and would not have looked good in the media (‘Picket Line Fight at the UCH” etc.). The officials had demonstrated no real enthusiasm for the idea of mass pickets at the hospital — and the possibility of growing numbers of local people and others organising themselves independently (in co-operation with strikers) on the picket line would not have appealed to them (just as it didn’t in the occupation). They eventually discouraged us from all night picketing by saying that management would not bother moving stuff at night – shortly after we stopped night picketing they did start moving things at night.

We wrote a leaflet to the strike committee outlining our concern about how the occupation had been changed but is was never actually distributed to them; the strikers found out that UNISON had been going behind their backs to stitch up a deal with management to try to get them back to work. So the strike meetings were too busy trying ideal with all that to time to discuss the occupation with us .-. we were advised by a sympathetic striker that this was not a good time to distribute our leaflet.

But a lot of these conflicts might not have happened (or at least not so quickly) if more people, especially from the council estates nearby, had joined the occupation. If there had simply been a big toing and froing of 200 people or so (or even of less) then the event could have taken on a momentum of its own whereby other empty wards would have been taken over as a matter of course as more beds were needed to sleep on at night, etc.. This would have made it harder for the officials to dominate events.

UNISON eventually issued an effective ultimatum to the strikers – to go back to work or the union would withdraw support for the strike; which would have left the strikers wide open to dismissal and possible legal action against them. In their iso­lation without wider effective support, this didn’t seem like a risk worth taking.

The union bosses said that with only a minority of the UCH work force out the strike could never win. Not that UNISON wanted other workers to support it – their attitude towards the strike was hardly going to encourage more workers to gel involved. The union machinery did its job of keeping the strikers isolated from other sections of the working class who could have given the active solidarity needed for victory; and the strikers were not capable of overcoming this isolation. The strikers met and voted to accept the deal whereby they went back to work in return for all disciplinaries being dropped and full trade union rights to organise in the hospital being restored.

The strike committee held its last meeting where two delegates for the occupiers were finally able to attend. A large number of strikers were elected as shop stewards at this meeting, this being proposed by the branch chairperson and the secrets (both SWP). This was a way of trying to re-integrate disaffected workers back into the union structure and to re-kindle faith in it – some of those elected had earlier thrown their UNISON badges in the bin in disgust. Obviously workers must “radicalise the unions,” “push the leadership leftwards,” “force the TUC to call a general str… blab blab yawn” – in SWerP speak this translates (they hope) into more positions of influence in the unions for the SWP “workers vanguard.”

After all that was settled the occupation was discussed. We said why we thought the occupation should continue — the main arguments are set out in our leaflet [below] (which, again, was never actually distributed because during the first part of the meeting a union bureaucrat from UNISON head office was present and obviously we didn’t want him to see it. When he left, the occupation was discussed and it was eventually voted to end it. After that, there seemed little point in giving out our leaflet).


Undistributed leaflet:


We have written this statement because we want to sort out where we stand, to clarify our relationship to the strike committee and to the struggle to keep UCH open, which is also our struggle.

We have been involved in the occupation as NHS users, getting involved either from the start or from the Thursday demo, and have been trying to build the occupation as part of the struggle. We have helped build support in the local community, getting more people to join in and to widen the distribution of leaflets, getting local shops to donate food and display campaign material, along with community centres and others.

We produced our own leaflet, in consultation with a number of strikers, to put the case from the perspective of the community, of service users, calling for people to get involved. We have found that people, like us, do want to get involved, directly in the struggle for their health service, not just signing petitions or marching, and the occupation has given them a focus and an opportunity to start to get involved. We have also joined in the picket and enabled it to be extended a few times to 24 hours.

But it now appears that members of the community are at best to be tolerated, rather than allowed our own ideas and initiative. Even though a rota was being successfully developed, a formal rota has been imposed, controlled by the branch officials, making it more difficult for people to be involved on their own terms. Some people already felt they were being treated as ‘token’ pensioners, etc;, and these changes have discouraged some people from returning.

More general involvement by local people and workers is being substituted by party political contacts. Occupiers have been forced into a position of passive observers as decisions taken elsewhere are carried out. These changes were presented to us on Sunday by a few branch leaders who seemed to be speaking for the strike committee, though it appears they weren’t. On the grounds that we cannot be allowed to do anything to jeopardise the strikers or the strike (which we have no intention of doing) we have in face been prevented from doing anything for ourselves. If allowing us any initiative is a threat, then the occupation should be staffed by cardboard cut-outs, not real people. Replacing the active solidarity of local people and other supporters by a strategy of using the occupation merely for public sympathy and visiting celebrities will not win our struggle. The miners had plenty of this sympathy and have still been destroyed.

Another justification mentioned in passing for dealing behind our (and others’) backs was the problem with the union. We recognise there are problems – we just want to be able to discuss these things openly, we want to help.

We are not suggesting the occupation be separate from the strike – we want to work with the strikers to save the hospital, not just be assigned tasks as if we were workers and the union officials our managers. We are not here to disrupt, we are not a political group come to muscle in, we want to fight with you, for our health service.

We would like to meet and discuss all this with the full strike committee A.S.A.P.



The debate eventually became a political argument – the SWP putting their line forward that community action like our occupation can only be useful and successful as secondary, supportive action for worker’s industrial action. They didn’t like it when we put forward the obvious example of the Poll Tax to contradict them. At the time the SWP’s line was that workers would defeat the Poll Tax by refusing to process the information, handle the paperwork, taking strike action, etc… Such actions happened only on a very small scale. It was what was happening outside the workplace that defeated the Poll Tax. It’s significant that the only mass struggle in over a decade that in any sense could be called a victory was community based; neither union sabotage nor anti-strike legislation nor isolation could be used to restrict the movement. At this meeting and another later on in Ward 2/3 with more occupiers we managed to add some discord to the familiar refrain of the SWP union chairman giving a summing up lecture on what lessons could be drawn from the strike (7). He claimed it as some kind of victory that management had been shaken by (a defeated Arthur Scargill put it this way: “The struggle is the victory”). This desperate line from brave strikers has gained momentum since the miners’ defeat in ‘85, as the defeats pile up as each group of workers is picked off in isolation one by one. With every defeat the bosses are inspired to tighten the screw a little more.

The occupiers later held their own meeting where we voted by a narrow margin to accept the wishes of the strikers and so end the occupation.

But the fight goes on and we can at least reflect on our failures in the hope of making our position stronger as we wait for the next cut of the Health Butcher’s scalpel.

The strikers and occupiers walked out together, with one occupier being pushed out in his bed, and went their separate ways. Now calling ourselves the “UCH Community Action Committee” the occupiers headed straight for the nearby head offices of UNISON. A crowd of us pushed our way in to the building, leafleted workers and vented our anger at some bureaucrats for the union’s role in sabotaging the struggle. They didn’t call the cops on us, thereby avoiding more bad publicity for them. The building’s entrance was later grafittied with “UNISCUM” and another wall saying “Unison sold out UCH nurses and porters”. A stranger later added underneath “so what’s new? NALGO sold out the Shaw workers” (i.e. workers in the nearby Shaw library).

The Action Committee kept holding regular meetings and did some actions. We decided to visit Wellcome, the multinational drug company involved in the sell-off of UCH. As luck would have it, when we arrived we discovered that a board meeting was then in progress. Fifteen of us snuck up the stairs and stormed straight into the Wellcome boardroom. Much to the shock of both them and us, there we were, in the heart of the dealers’ den, facing the biggest and slimiest drug pushing cartel in the world(8). We immediately started haranguing and shouting at the bow-tied and blue-rinsed board members, demanding that they pull out of any deal to buy the UCH Cruciform building. We stayed for half an hour, arguing with them and eventually forcing them to leave and hold their meeting in another room. Then three van loads of cops arrived outside, including riot cops. Once they saw we were a motley crew including toddlers and pensioners, and not a gang of terrorists, they sent in a few to tamely escort us off the premises.


Leaflet for Wellcome action;



We have come to Wellcome because we object to their involvement in the closure of our local hospital, UCH. The UCH Cruciform is being closed to make way for a muti-million pound bio-medical research centre, with funding from the ‘charitable’ wing of WELLCOME (the multinational drug company), in association with University College London (UCL). A ‘replacement’ hospital, if it happens at all, is planned for “within the next TEN YEARS”. In the meantime, WELLCOME and other businesses UCL have links with can rake in the profits while we suffer as the NHS is dismantled.

The Cruciform must stay a much needed hospital, and not become another site for business, even if it is medical research. What is the use of such research when our hospitals are closing,

We also question the nature of the research, including the testing of dangerous drugs on animals. WELLCOME have made £billions from the manufacture of the faulty drug AZT, at the expense of AIDS sufferers. Although they were reported to the Department of Health in 1992 for “false and misleading” claims about AZT, and also condemned by the Committee on the Safety of Medicines for the same, they are still managing to make profits from this drug, which some claim is not only useless but highly toxic. WELLCOME are in an extremely powerful position, having got AZT recognised as the main treatment for AIDS in the USA, which means other potential cures are being ignored.

WELLCOME are vampires on the NHS. At Leeds general infirmary, for every pint of bloods given by donors to the NHS, the NHS gets only 10% and WELLCOME get the rest for profiteering bloodsucking research…No welcome for Wellcome!

Although the strike and occupation at UCH were forced to end,; the struggle to keep our hospital open continues. Half the Cruciform is still being used as a hospital. It is not too late to re-open the empty wards and stop UCL/WELLCOME dancing on all our graves.


For more information contact:

UCH Community Action Committee, c/o BM CRL, London WC1.


Later that day we gate-crashed the UCL Provost’s office, interrupting his lunch and puncturing his self-importance to the point where he was reduced to calling us names and shouting at us to “get stuffed”. We then moved on to the nearby offices of UCH boss Charles Marshall, which we invaded, disrupting a business meeting in the process. A few of us stayed for a while to argue the toss with him. All in all, not a bad day’s work.

We also kept demonstrating once or twice a week outside the hospital and tried to organise to resist more wards being moved out, but we were never strong enough or well informed enough of management’s plans. In the run up to November 5th a Virginia Bottomley guy was taken round the local area to raise money and a few laughs. We also attended and heckled meetings of the local Health Authority; who were discussing plans to deal with a £21 million cut in their budget by not sending any more patients to UCH; this would leave only a casualty department without adequate back-up facilities, with patients allowed a maximum 48 hour stay before being moved on. In order to compete with other hospitals for patients, UCH management announced a 10% price cut. This was to be achieved mainly by the axing of 700 jobs – but even this wasn’t enough to satisfy the “Internal Market”. Ex-strikers we talked to said there was no mood for a strike against these cuts amongst UCH workers.


A Second Occupation

An NHS “Day of Action” had been organised by the TUC for November 20th, basically as a token safety valve to dissipate the growing anger and pressure from health workers and others. Originally planned for Thursday 18th, it was changed to Saturday 20th – this was decided during the UCH strike in September, apparently due to union fears of a growing militancy amongst health workers. For the unions, the unpleasant possibility of effective action being taken – such as solidarity strikes or at least the major disruption of central London weekday traffic – would be greatly lessened by holding the demonstration on a Saturday. The unions’ publicity for November 20th was very low key and half hearted – neither the demo nor any other real activity was emphasised, just the symbolic slogan “NHS Day of Action”, with the demo mentioned in small letters at the bottom of the posters. The unions obviously have the resources to organise a massive demonstration to defend free health care if they want to, but this was not on their agenda.

Members of the UCHCAC decided to use the Day of Action as a way of combating the inactivity planned by the unions. We also wanted to do something to try stop the imminent closure of the Cruciform building. So we arranged for a group of us to reoccupy Ward 2/3 on the night before the Day of Action. Seventeen of us and some friends waited while a few people cracked open the ward. We all eventually sneaked in to find a bare ward: no beds or furniture this time.

The next morning we hung out some banners from the windows, as people began arriving for the UCH feeder march which would link up later with the main demo. At about 10.30am the hospital security guards finally noticed us. They came and asked what we were doing and then disappeared.

Most of us went off to join the demo, leaving a handful to “guard the fort” and stay put. Our faction marched under an anti-TUC banner saying “Tories Unofficial Cops sabotaging struggles.” It was a boring march with 20-25,000 people on it; but the rally at Trafalgar Square was more interesting. We heckled a lot through a megaphone at the TU bureaucrats and celebrities, taking the piss and expressing our anger at the pathetic farce. It was ridiculous to see actors from the TV soap “Casualty” being invited to make guest appearances and talk crap on the platform while real nurses who wanted to speak were prevented from doing so by the union bosses.

We also handed out leaflets at the demo explaining the UCH situation and asking people to come and join the occupation. About 25 people responded by coming to the ward after the demo — some SWP and Class War members and the other half various non-aligned individuals – 25 out of 25,000 – pathetic. We had a meeting and all these people expressed support for the occupation but most left never to return. Four or five stayed the weekend with about eight of us, and a friendly hospital worker managed to smuggle us in plenty of spare bedding to make us more comfortable. Some of the visitors went off to attempt their own occupation in south London but were apparently quickly evicted without any legal formalities by the cops.

Within a few days we were reliant on the same old familiar faces to maintain and publicise the occupation — our aim of using the occupation as a base to get more people involved was not succeeding. It was becoming a strain on the dozen or so hard core of people involved to keep things going and the lack of response was depressing. Sometimes there were just 2 people in the occupation and the boredom weighed heavy. We had a few supporters dropping in and some donations of food but very few people willing to become actively involved – even staying overnight occasionally was too much of a commitment for most people.

Although we had been very clear from the start that the occupation should not just be another token publicity stunt, we were now getting desperate and the brick walls of apathy around us were beginning to close in. So it was decided to contact the media in order to spread the word that we were here — our own local leafleting and flyposting having bad so little effect. But we were agreed that no media people would be allowed inside the ward as this would create a totally different and unwanted atmosphere and would also be a great security risk (but not everybody stuck strictly to this agreement).

Management tried at first to ignore the occupation, fearing that any action against us might give it more publicity, but responded immediately once we contacted the media. Carlton TV said they’d come down and interview from outside while we talked to them from a window on the ward. Carlton phoned UCH management just beforehand to get their side of the story – which prompted management to cut off our electricity just before the cameras arrived. But the interview went ahead and was shown on London-wide TV news. We made sure our mobile phone number was prominently displayed to the cameras. This led to three people phoning us, two very supportive and one abusive. Considering that millions of people saw the interview and phone number on prime-time TV news this seemed to be one more example of how apathetic people felt. But in all our statements to the media we emphasised that our main goal was to help spread and inspire more occupations; we can only hope that we have planted some seeds that have yet to grow.

The SWP were even less supportive than the rest of the bourgeois press — it was only after we got some media coverage that they mentioned the occupation at all in Socialist Worker – and only after we had been evicted!

There were attempts to involve more people by holding a weekly under-5s afternoon, alternative health workshops, an acoustic music session, etc.. But general conditions plus the impossibility of long term planning made these hard to develop.

The few remaining wards in the building had been steadily closing during the occupation — and without the active support of staff or large numbers of other people there was nothing we could do to try and stop them closing down the building. Once the last patients had been moved out the management also cut off our heating. Now without heat or electricity we nonetheless stuck it out; we stubbornly dug our heels in and just wore more clothes and used candles, lanterns and camping gas stoves.

During this time we had a public meeting at Conway Hall – 22 people turned up, including a few militant health workers. We all had a good discussion with interesting ideas being suggested. It was generally felt that more effort should be put into making links with like minded groups and individuals. But again, only one or two people showed any willingness to get involved with the occupation. Still, we did make contact with some good people.

It was no surprise when we eventually received a High Court summons notifying us that proceedings were underway for management to regain possession of the ward. We went to the court hearing and, joined by a crowd of friends and supporters (including a few ex-strikers), we picketed outside the court with banners and leaflets. We lost the case, despite our solicitors arguing that the management were unable to produce any title deeds or clear evidence that they had any right to the building. The court case also attracted more TV, radio and press coverage.

We had a small but noisy spontaneous march back to the hospital – afterwards a few of us climbed on a flat roof opposite the UCH Chief Executive’s office windows and blared out a tape of the old working class anthem “The Internationale” at the management for a laugh, while waving banners saying “Spread the Occupations”. At around this time we received a couple of amusing phone calls; we had managed to get an article published in Pi, the UCL student magazine, about UCH and University College London’s involvement in the sell-off of the Cruciform building:


Student magazine article; Pi 553

The Provost Makes Us Sick

Students at UCL might like to hear about the involvement of UCL, and of the Provost, Derek Roberts, in particular, in the closing down of our local hospital UCH. They might also like to hear about an action taken against Roberts in protest at this involvement.

Derek Roberts is one of a committee appointed to close the main (“Cruciform”) building. Others on this committee are Charles Marshall (former Private Secretary to minister John Biffen and Chief Executive at UCH), Sir Ronald Mason (Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence) , Professor Laurence Martin (Director of the right-wing think tank, The Institute for International Affairs) and John Mitchell (Fellow King’s Fund College).

Once the UCH Cruciform building is fully cleared of patients, UCL management have plans to turn the building into a multi-million pound “biomedical research centre” with money from the “charitable” wing of the multinational drugs company Wellcome. (Wellcome, it might be remembered, wee responsible for the dodgy drug AZT, which made them billions at the expense of people with AIDS). With the involvement of Wellcome, the Ministry of Defence, and the institute for International Affairs (though by some to be an MI5 front organisation), it is open to question what sort of “biomedical research” UCL intend to carry out at the vacated hospital. But even if it were “legitimate research” (you know, that stuff where they drop chemicals into rabbits’ eyes), this would still be no argument for closing down a hospital in it its favour, when hospital waiting lists all over the country are growing.

In reality, the closure and expansion into the UCH Cruciform building are part of UCL’s moves to strengthen connections with business and commerce. UCL is trying to get funding for research through two companies – UCL Initiatives Ltd. and UCL Ventures Ltd. Naturally, like any other business concerns, these two companies care nothing at all about the welfare of people with no hospital to go to and no private medical insurance.

It is not that “now the Cruciform building is closing UCL are making use of it by moving in”. The plans for UCL’s expansion into the Cruciform were floated long before the closure was made public. This is why the Provost was so against the 6-week strike by nurses trying to prevent the closure. Roberts has said “the strike was counter to the interests of patients, the future of UCL Hospitals, and indeed, the future of UCL….there should be great relief that it is over.” If UCH was kept open, Roberts wouldn’t have such an ideal location for empire-building – of course, he was relieved when the strike finished!

But the struggle against the closure isn’t over despite the ending of the strike. In protest at Roberts’ activities, members of UCH Community Action Committee – a group formed out of a previous 11 day occupation of an empty ward at UCH by angry local residents – occupied Roberts’ office for an hour, while Roberts and two of his associates were trying to eat their lunch. Roberts became increasingly flustered as we plied him with questions about UCH, and he became even more uncomfortable when it was evidents that we weren’t about to leave in a hurry. Soon Roberts, this shining representative of liberal academic tolerance, was resorting to one-liners like, “Get stuffed!”, “Shut your mouth!” and “You’re a child!” (this latter remark being particularly ironic considering that many of the occupiers were older, and obviously wiser, than himself). All in all this mini-occupation was a success, and as we were escorted off the premises by security guards we felt some satisfaction in the fact that we’d made Roberts squirm, and messed up his afternoon.

However, this occupation was nowhere near enough. We call upon all students, whether they are concerned about the hospital into political activism or just bored with the misery of meaningless studies, to take direct action against the Provost and management of UCL. Go for indefinite occupations, or imaginative acts of sabotage. And don’t wait for the next union meeting where everything will get bogged down in bureaucracy. Do it now! You will have our active support.

Guy Debord

Note 1: You can contact UCHCAC outside the hospital main entrance from 12-2 every Friday, or c/o BM CRL, London, WC1N 3XX.

Note 2: There is a national demo against hospital closures in London, Nov. 20, with one contingent leaving from UCH, 11 a.m.


We had then reprinted it as a leaflet and distributed it outside UCH and UCL, which was just across the road from the Cruciform. We also stuck it up inside the college. A few days later we received an angry telephone call from a whingeing student journalist insisting that we stop distributing the article as it was “all lies” and we were infringing Pi magazine’s copyright. Realising she was failing to intimidate us, as we laughed and insulted her for being a pathetic crawling lackey for the college authorities, she slammed the phone down. Shortly afterwards we were phoned by a member of UCL management who demanded (unsuccessfully) to know who we were and threatened to sue us — we told him to sue if he wanted to, as we had no money to lose. And if they took us to court for making false statements about UCL’s involvement in the closure and sell-off of UCH then they would have to reveal what the truth of the matter was – something we’d all like to hear! The editor of the mag also phoned the author to complain that she’d been called into the Provost’s office and given a furious bollocking for publishing it. (The Provost also mentioned that he had checked the student register for the name of the author — and there was not even a “Guy Debord” listed there!). It was clear we were beginning to make them feel vulnerable.

Word had got out that Health Minister Bottomley was due to visit Arlington House, a hostel for homeless men in Camden Town. She was to be launching a new government video about ways to help the homeless be more healthy (of course, this didn’t actually include giving them a home). We publicised her visit the best we could, calling on people to demonstrate outside the hostel. Shortly before the visit we heard that Bottomley would not now be attending and would be substituted by Junior Health Minister Baroness Cumberlege. Unfortunately it was too late to change our publicity from “Give Bottomley a lobotomy” to “Give Cumberlege a haemorrhage”. The night before, a wall opposite the hostel was graffitied with “Bottomley bottled out” but it was painted over before the Baroness arrived. When she did come she was immediately surrounded by us as she got out of her car — surprisingly she kept her nerve quite well and stopped briefly to argue with us. As the abuse and accusations intensified she was hustled away by cops to shouts of “murderer!”.

Once again the great silent majority had stayed silent and absent, not responding to our flyposting and leafleting or mention of the visit in local papers. Only about twenty people turned up, most of them already known to us, plus three residents of the hostel. One told us they’d graffittied inside the building but that had been painted over too.

We went back to the ward and had a party that night. We were evicted by bailiffs, cops and security guards at 7.45 the next morning, twenty days after the start of the occupation.

So now the Cruciform lies empty, with the loss of around 350 beds, while in other hospitals people suffer and die in corridors for want of a bed. But a few days after the end of the occupation Bottomley announced that the UCH was “saved” – all that this meant was that there would still be a casualty department (which hadn’t been under threat anyway) and a renowned centre for medical research (meaning that the plan to sell it off to the likes of UCL and Wellcome was still to go ahead). This grand announcement was presented in the media as a great act of charity and a big concession; when in fact all that they were saying was that nothing had changed and their plans were still the same. That was newspeak at its most effective – people kept saying to us how great it was that UCH had been saved – when they had just closed down the main building with the loss of 350 beds and 700 jobs to follow! Bottomley also said that she might give some extra money as a temporary subsidy, on the condition that management make even more cuts. This was a way to avoid the embarrassment of UCH finally collapsing due to the pressures of competition in the Internal Market — the money could also be seen as a reward to UCH management for its cuts package of 700 jobs.

Then, to cap it all, three weeks later it was announced that the latest plan being considered was to sell off the whole UCH site (like other hospitals, the land would fetch millions on the property market) and to move parts of the UCH to various other hospitals. Who knows what they’ll come up with next?


Post-occupation leaflet;


The SWP – doing Bottomley’s dirty work for her:

Q: What have Virginia Bottomley and the SWP got in common?

A: Amongst other things, they both claim that University College Hospital (UCH) has been saved.

About 700 jobs and hundreds of beds have been lost, and the main Cruciform building – which everyone associated with UCH – has been closed. Yet for different, equally-manipulative reasons, the “Health” Minister and the “Socialist” Workers’ Party are both agreed on the lie that “UCH has been saved”. Goebells – “The bigger the lie, the more it is believed” – would have been proud.

What’s left of UCH?

Well – now merged with the Middlesex, there’s the administration – really useful if you’ve had a heart attack. And there the Accident & Emergency – but that was never scheduled for closure in the first place. Instead, as with all A & E’s without a hospital attached, it’s been left without adequate back-up, giving patients just 48 hours to stay before being moved on. There are, however, 40 or so extra beds for those who need intensive care, who can now stay on a bit longer. Nevertheless, staff are now complaining that whereas before it used to take just a couple of minutes to move such patients to a specialist ward in the old Cruciform building, now it takes up to half an hour to get to the Middlesex because of heavy traffic. What’s more, the recent death of a six-month-old baby at UCH A&E shows how dangerous it is to have an A&E separate from the specialists (now based in Middlesex) who were previously on site; at the same time the cuts ensured that the equipment for monitoring the baby wasn’t working. It looks like the parents are going to sue the over-worked nurses involved, using the Patients’ Charter. The much-lauded Charter is used intentionally to blame individual health workers in order to fend off attacks on the real murders: the managers and accountants who push through the cuts demanded by Bottomley and her genocidal government.

Apart from this, there’s a private wing (great!). Also “saved” (we’re not sure they were planning it for closure originally anyway) are the Urology department (much reduced), the clap clinic and Obstetrics. And there’s a new children’s ward: however, at the Middlesex there used to be two children’s wards, and now there’s only one – which means that between them, one children’s ward has been lost, even though on paper UCH’s has been “saved”. Similarly, by classifying some beds which were previously the Middlesex’s, and by counting the beds existing towards the end of the run-down of the UCH, the health authorities can claim that UCH has lost “only” 70 beds instead of the 300+ that have really been lost. Lies, damned lies and statistics. Moreover, three weeks after Bottomley said the UCH had been saved, it was announced that the latest plan was to sell off the whole UCH site (the land fetching millions on the property market) and to move parts of the UCH to various other hospitals. If this comes about UCH will merely be an administrative label on some bureaucrat’s door.

To say all this means the hospital has been saved is like saying that a formerly healthy adults, aho has had both legs and arms amputated and is on a life support machine, has been saved. Well, technically yes – but it hardly constitutes the victory the SWP like to make it out to be.

With saviours like these, who needs grave-diggers?

During the Vietnam war, an American general declared, “In order to save the village, it had to be destroyed.” With UCH it’s more a case of “in order to destroy the hospital, it had to look like it was saved.”

Virginia Bottomley says the UCH has been saved, for similar reasons to the government saving coal mines in 1992 – to stop people fighting together, to reinforce the ignorance and confusion about what’s happening to the hospitals and to divide up the fight to save them into isolated campaigns for each hospital, separated from a more general movement.

But why does the SWP proclaim “We saved UCH” when those SWP members who have worked and struggled at UCH – some of whom are genuinely fighting to win – know perfectly well this is bullshit? As in all hierarchies, the individual has to repress their point of view and preach “the party line”. During the strike, SWP strategy was designed to gain the maximum publicity and to show how radical they were compared to the union leadership, by pushing for demands that they knew the leaders would not meet. The predictable sell-out of the strike by Unison was the “victory” the SWP wanted: confirmation of something they knew beforehand would happen; but did nothing to undermine. In fact, they had encouraged a faith in the union which they knew would inevitably be betrayed. It was only afterwards that they needed to find a happy ending, so that they could encourage others to repeat the tragedy at other hospitals. The SWP’s main concern was recruitment to a self-proclaimed image of themselves heroically and successfully leading the working class to victory, even if this victory is a myth. For them this is more vital than the development of any real struggle by the poor, honestly facing the horrific extent of their defeats and the reasons for them.

The struggles at UCH

During the struggles at UCH the SWP did everything to minimise the efforts of non-SWP members. During the work-in aimed at stopping the closure of Ward 2/1 in Nov – Dec ’92, SWP members played as much a part as anyone else involved in the struggle – though it was probably the support of the junior doctors which really won this battle, admittedly only a temporary reprieve. In the strike of Aug – Sept ’93 they played a more significant part – not all of it helpful by any means. For instance, they did much to ensure that the cheerful demos which had previously disrupted traffic got turned into boring routine affairs. And in the occupation of Ward 2/3 in September, admittedly suggested by an SWP member, though broken into by a non-party hospital campaigner, they did much to dampen the high-spirited atmosphere. When occupiers met with a few SWP union stewards to discuss the occupation, the occupiers were told the stewards represented the decisions of the strike committee, and these decisions were: vetting to decide who should be allowed into the occupation, to be carried out by the branch secretary and chair, both SWP members. People would have to book themselves onto a formalised rota days in advance just to be able to spend a night there, reducing the occupation to a chore and duty, killing off the social dynamic going on. The effect of these changes was miserable: a lot of people, particularly locals who visited regularly, were put off from coming. And there seemed little point in giving out leaflets encouraging people to come, if they had to be vetted first. People now felt they were only there with the tolerance of certain officials, and no longer joint partners in the struggle.

The openness of the occupation; with free debate flowing back and forth informally, was replaced with an atmosphere of intrigue and secret whispering. It was only later found out that these demands of the SWP union officials weren’t at all proposed by the strike committee: it had been an SWP manipulation from the very beginning.

The second occupation of Ward 2/3 was organised by us – UCH Community Action Committee – without, unfortunately, a strike at UCH, and completely independently of any political party. We had hoped to extend the occupation of one ward by getting loads of people back from a TUC Health Service demo on November 20th. We failed, even though the occupation took nearly three weeks to be evicted. During this time, the SWP were even less supportive than the rest of the media – the occupation only got a mention after the evictions. We could never, of course, pretend that “we saved UCH” – not just because it hasn’t been saved but, more vitally, because if UCH had been saved it could not have been down to us, but due to a more general and much more combative movement, involving a considerably greater section of the working class than the few people who initiated the occupation. Unlike the SWP, we have no pretension to being an indispensable vanguard, able to win victories on our own. And, of course, UCH has been, by and large, a defeat, and to ignore that is to confuse and demoralise any chance of a fightback, which is where the SWP and Bottomley have so much in common.

If a fight is to develop to save the hospitals or to stop the horrific attacks on the poor, it will not only have to bypass the parties and unions, but attack them as enemies and obstacles to our struggle. Our health and our lives cannot be “saved by the professional liars of the Left, Right or Centre, but only ourselves organising not just an organisation with a name on a banner or logo on a leaflet, which is just an image, but organising specific actions and critiques, correcting our weaknesses and failures.

UCH Community Action Committee, c/o BM CRL, London WC1N 3XX


Victory prepared by a series of defeats?

As we go to press (1995) it seems that some kind of active campaign may be starting up at Guy’s Hospital to try and save it from the Health Butchers. From what we have seen so far it seems that the same old mistakes made at the UCH are doomed to be repeated at Guy’s; many of the hospital staff appear to have the same naive faith ‘their’ unions and ‘their’ MPs etc. – and once again they are encouraged in this by the SWP – who have set up their own community campaign front group, as have two other rival political factions. The SWP now even claim that they saved UCH (see leaflet below). The campaigning appears to be about one hospital only – all the easier to be defeated in isolation. And only a few hundred turned out for a demo, although this is the local hospital for many thousands of people. But these are early days and hopefully things will develop beyond these limits.

So what lessons can we draw from the UCH strike and two occupations that are worth passing on to those who may find themselves in a similar situation?

Well, basically, never trust those who want to represent you and speak for you – fight to preserve your own autonomy if you have it and fight to gain it if you don’t. Never trust the unions and lefty parties (despite the fact that there are OK individual rank’n’file members within them) – they’ll always try to use you for their own ends.

If you want to gain support then go and get it yourselves — going through official channels is generally useless. Workers need to speak face-to-face with other workers – the union reps will try to fob you off with excuses and tie you up with official procedures.

If strike action is to be effective it will have to be organised outside and against the unions — and ideally there will need to be prior commitment of solidarity from sufficient numbers of workers so as to make it impossible for the bosses to victim small groups of workers in isolation.

And do all you can to immediately spread all strikes and occupations; such may seem wildly optimistic at the moment, but if each hospital is to avoid being picked off one by one in isolation (just as so many sectors of workers have been) then we need a growing movement of occupations and strikes.


Our hospital was saved by the kind of action that this bill will seek to criminalise. We occupied, we picketed, we slept outside and we won. All that is under attack. We must stop this bill.

– Candy Udwin, UNISON branch secretary, University College Hospital

Quote from an SWP anti-Criminal Justice Bill leaflet: Ms Udwin is an SWP member who, during the strike, loudly condemned the dangerous consequences if the Cruciform building was closed with hundred of jobs to be lost. Yet now all this has happened, she faithfully parrots the party lie that this outcome is a victory won by the SWP!



[NB, typists’ note: This was published in 1995, so some of the ‘current’ issues and developments mentioned are history or present problems to us now…]

Alongside other attacks, the Health Service is being torn apart around our but where is the resistance on the scale necessary to turn things around? The last years of accelerating defeat, demoralisation and hardship seems to have created ai extreme cynicism about being able to change anything for the better, or even that worth trying to. People have retreated largely into an isolation centred on the struggle for survival day-to-day. The war of all-against-all for shrinking resources ha made everyone a casualty — resignation rules. The health service is an issue that effects everybody and yet the amount of active resistance to its destruction is so far pathetically small.

There is at present little strike action taking place in the UK; but when it happens there is more and more criticism by workers of the role of “their” unions in the struggle. UCH, Burnsall and Timex are the most recent examples of this (interestingly, in each case it was a predominantly female work force confronting a typically male union bureaucracy).

The early ’70s were often marked by a strong belief in the union as the real sister/brotherhood that would bring about radical social change. Most of that sad faith has now gone although there’s still a fair amount of “if only we could get rid of the bureaucrats things would be okay” type platitude – with little recognition that the union structure is designed to be a control mechanism, or that trying to “radicalise” the unions is as futile as trying to radicalise any other capitalist institution. Yet, despite mounting criticism, people feel more compelled to obey the union than in the 60’s/70’s period when there were rank’n’file movements jumping in and out of the trade union form (almost always to end up in it again) and often initiating wildcat actions that bypassed the union bureaucracy whilst making use of union resources for their own ends: but the bottom line was still that of quite strong TU beliefs.

But all these contradictions reflect the changing role of the unions. why people obey the union today is because of its role as an economic provider: as a cheaper kind of building or insurance society (literally — the unions now provide low cost insurance deals and mortgages to staff); as an issuer of strike pay when you can’t get anything off the State; as a provider of legal skills (solicitors, etc.) in an increasingly litigation oriented society where Law Centres are often no longer available for low paid workers; and the union as the place where bitter divorce proceedings or future funeral expenses cost you nothing more than the renewal of a years subscription. In short, working in harmony with the money terrorism of a free market cash-and-carry UK. Thus to get thrown out of the union for engaging in wildcat actions or whatever (a threat increasingly employed by union bureaucrat fat cats) might have serious financial consequences.

UNISON is only the latest but perhaps the most significant example of unions extending their influence from the workplace to other areas of life. Maybe this should be looked at more closely because it may reveal a new stage in the unions’ role in society (i.e. extending the disciplinary role, or at least their role of social recuperation in the community). There does seem to be a tendency of unions pursuing a more “consumerist” role, looking after its people on all fronts – no doubt, they would say, the better to integrate people back into the present system. Its different from the old German model of holiday camps and trekking, in that the whole set up is based upon private consumption, leisure and social services. The last thing the unions could (or want to) do is bring people together in a real physical closeness.

At UCH the strikers never received strike pay until after they had agreed to call off the strike. No doubt the accountants are instructed to keep money in the bank, making interest until the very last moment. Although nurses are paid monthly, the porters are paid weekly and they were particularly hard hit during the strike by the union’s mean approach. This union strike pay sabotage is widespread: in 1988 striking civil servants in London never received a penny until their thirteen week strike had come to an end.

All the measures listed above are a great form of blackmail – no wonder then that the unions are now such superb organisers of constant and almost total defeat. But again, we can’t simply blame the bureaucrats for our own failures – they thrive on our isolation and passivity – and their strength is based largely on what we let them get away with.


Derailing a runaway train

If we look at the policies promoted by the Tory State in the last few years, it seems that increasingly they do not even serve the long term interests of the ruling class. The fast money, free market “privatise everything that moves” ideology is like a runaway train mowing down anything in its path but having no clear idea of where its going. The destruction of industrial manufacturing in favour of financial capital, the creation of a boom and then bust property market, the lack of investment in training for a skilled work force; these are all measures that have given them short term gains (at the expense of the working class) but have inevitably created deeper problems as they mature later on. The State is not capable of planning logical long term strategy in its own interests – only more cuts, more repression.

This short-sightedness is mirrored in the State’s plans for the health service. There is a strategy of wanting to destroy the popular principle and tradition of free health care for all, but the way they are pursuing it means that they could end up wrecking all kinds of health care provision.

At the present time all doctors and nurses are trained within the NHS. With continual closures of so many hospitals, including the best teaching institutions, the effects are likely to be catastrophic for health care in general.

Private health care takes place mainly in NHS hospitals – so the BUPA alternative will be no solution. Being dependent on the NHS for facilities and staff training, it may crash with it. The big increase in BUPA advertising is just a sign of desperation. BUPA is now in serious financial crisis – gone are its eighties hey-days when, for a cheap rate, a BUPA subscription was lodged into many a middle management contract. Now BUPA are desperately revising their services and moving to a position whereby those who are likely candidates for any major illness can get lost/drop dead.

But could we even expect a future total collapse of BUPA to cause the government to pause and rethink its policies on health services? What other country in Western world is making such attacks on the general health of its population? The government recently began running a series of adverts in British medical journals c behalf of the United Arab Emirates government – the ads were aimed at convincing thousands of NHS medical staff to start a new career abroad working for much better wages in the UAE. The government has announced that it plans to cut sick pay – another attempt to force those who can afford it into private health insurance. And since the introduction of water meters in trial schemes thousands of people who could not pay the much higher bills have been disconnected – outbreaks of dysentery and other health problems have been caused by the rising cost of water (it is planned that water meters will soon be compulsory for all). It’s worth remembering that one of the main reasons better public sanitation was originally introduced was because the diseases that developed from the filthy slums of the 19th Century showed no class prejudice and would eventually hit the richer parts of town.

It’s possible that there’s real disarray in the ruling class; crudely put, a conflict between ‘finance capitalists’ (who are blind to social consequences) and a more socially concerned professional capitalist class. The finance capitalist faction looking for a repeat of ‘80s privatisation sell-off bonanzas – as they are also aware (rightly) that capitalism can never satisfy all the needs it creates. So they pursue cut-back strategies, with little regard for the social consequences, almost taking a social Darwinist position. On the other side is a professional class which finds some sort of common ground with One Nation Tories. This faction is both trying to secure own sectional interests (more money for managers, administrators, professional etc.) and appealing to a wider social consensus around a program of managerial capitalism. They are, however, under-represented at the top and exist as a middle management of the chaos. What they don’t appear to realise is that the system cannot fill all the needs they have set themselves to manage – so they are in a permanent state of frustration, and are becoming somewhat deranged as a consequence.

The most likely outcome of imposing the internal market will be a vastly reduced NHS run as a skeleton service for those with no other options, maybe with a sliding scale of charges according to income. Already Leicester Health Authority is requiring people to pay for non-emergency operations since their annual budget ran out half-way through the financial year. So now everybody will have to wait six months for a free operation – and by then the queue will be so long they will probably use up the funds allocated for the whole year in a month or so. So each year the queue will become more and more endless. This is one way of gradually introducing payment for treatment by the back door.

To conclude: the question mark that hangs over the NHS, to be or not to be, raises a number of related matters which can only be hinted at here.

Can capital overall dispense with an NHS given that powerful chemical companies depend on State revenues to underwrite their profitability? It was commonplace in the 70s to argue against dismantling the NHS on the aforementioned ground as well as emphasising that taking a vast amount of purchasing power (jobs) out of the economy would be a deflationary move amounting to the suicidal. The Thatcherite legacy is fully prepared to explode this piece of economic logic not by refuting the conclusions but rather by accepting the consequences.

What part did war and war time play in the setting up of the NHS, particularly in the need to have a fighting fit workforce able to wage war on capital’s behalf? Except locally, conventional warfare on a large scale is a thing of the past hence a further argument against an NHS, but an argument that would have been conducted behind closed doors. Undoubtedly, however, the ideology of a “people’s war” (1939-45) helped shape the comprehensive nature of the NHS — so today, its continued existence is probably more of a political than an economic imperative with a political class using the issue to garner votes, especially from the ageing part of the population. It’s conceivable a government could buy out a person’s right to free health care by offering a once-and-for-all cash payment This could appeal to young, healthy people with no money nor perspective on the future.

The potential for political deception and manipulation is enormous. A cull of the old and sick cannot be dismissed Out of hand though doubtless it would have to be left to the “hidden hand” of market forces rather than be achieved through mass execution. The prescribing of inferior and cheaper medicine, and the withholding of health care for people over a certain age not only underlines the economic burden of health care and the cost of an ageing population, but the problem of valorisation of capital. A youthful workforce could be turned against the old and sick on the grounds that they act as a depressant on wages. All family social ties would have to be virtually sundered for this program of wrinkly-cleansing to have a chance of social success. The human consequences of the actual workings of the internal market are, however, a taste of things to come. On occasion, competing trusts award contracts to health authorities some hundreds of miles distant The Bradford Trust won the contract for Virginia Bottomley’s (Secretary of Ill-Health) constituency in the south of England, which means patients run the very real risk of being isolated from family and friends in a moment of real crisis. This example reflects the way in which isolation accumulates in society at large — just seeming to happen – without anyone shouldering responsibility or cold-bloodedly anticipating the end result. But it suits capital’s needs perfectly and a comparison with the practice of moving prisoners away from familiar localities springs to mind.

It would be instructive to draw up a list of property magnates on the boards NHS trusts. Hospitals tend to occupy prime sites, and the conversion of St Georges hospital at Hyde Park Corner during the late 70s and early 80s into a swish hotel ranks as a forerunner. Similarly, the Harrow Road hospital in west London was bulldozed and yuppie apartment blocks constructed on the site overlooking the canal. By good fortune, the building company and developer, Declan Kelly. became a victim of the property crash and to this day the wretched place has the air of a building site. There is talk of converting Charing Cross Hospital into a hotel for senior staff at Heathrow airport. It’s possible too that Withington hospital in south Manchester could be used for similar purposes serving Ringway airport. Recently, St James’ University hospital in Leeds concluded a £25 million deal with private developers over 13.5 acres of their site. Doubtless it will be treated as badly needed “proof” that the property wheeler dealings of the trusts do work, with apologists eager to point out how the deal will finance a new paediatric unit and a “ninety bed patient ‘hotel’ for low intensity care cases” – which does hint that only private patients will eventually be welcome. Nor was any mention made of a likely bonus payable to trust managers. Leeds is however a special case and the fact that land values have risen in Leeds has more to do with its runaway success as a financial centre able to challenge the City of London in some respects (going on for half of all mortgages in UK are lent by building societies based within a thirty mile radius of Leeds). In Leeds too, Tony Clegg, the ex-chair of Mountleigh property consortium, who pulled out just before its financial potential nose-dived, is still chair of Leeds General Infirmary trust after the preliminary arrangements were put together by the boss of Centaur Clothes store in Leeds.

The presence of property developers on trusts is witness to the determination to recreate all that was associated with yuppie culture. There is some recovery in commercial property but not enough to stop the majority of closed hospitals from being boarded up and left to await the return of the roaring 80s and the stratospheric property values. It could be the trusts are biding their time and drawing some hope from the wave of privatisations sweeping Europe. The majority of States – with France and Italy in the lead – seek to expand by some 20-30% the market capitalisation of Europe’s largest stock markets. However, it’s not accompanied by fanfares of “popular capitalism” to anything like the same degree as under Thatcher.

The increasingly precarious nature of NHS schemes needs to be situated the multi-nationalisation of the global economy and the reduced significance of nation State as a pro-active economic force. Globalisation is, however, fraught with competing interests and in this present phase the flow of capital vastly outweighs flow of trade. Private insurance ties in with the contemporary dominance of finance capital so different from that described by Hilferding (basically as banker to industry). Its short-termism, money making money, detracts from the goals of industrial capitalism whose relationship with the nation State is somewhat less ambivalent, needing the State as a consumer, an enactor of labour legislation and as an educator. The whole issue however remains highly complex: e.g. money markets eagerly snap up treasury auctions in credit worthy countries and therefore have a vested interest in maintaining a manageable level of government overspend which includes expenditure of health and social security.



When comparing the different Health Services in Europe and North America, economically the most important point to grasp is the weight accorded to insurance companies versus the degree of state subsidy. In France, each individual is charged for hospital treatment but up to 70% is then reimbursed by the state — the rest is usually paid for by the Health Insurance deducted at source by your employers. The Balladur government wants to increase the role of the insurance companies and is meeting resistance both on behalf of the employees and the employers because it will add to the wages bill. It could also be used as an argument by employers to cut wages. Superficially, when comparing Britain and France things look better here regarding treatment irrespective of ability to pay. In France, each individual is charged a nominal sum for each day they spend in hospital but this money is refunded. Ideas along French lines have been floated in Britain but, at the same time, doctors in France are given an additional increment to their salaries every time they see a patient. So it is in their interest to continually follow up patients and in that sense primary care is better in France. Some attempt will be made to limit the amount of money spent on the French Health Service because it would appear that health spending in France is, in comparison to other countries, “out of control” (but doesn’t every government say the same thing???).

In North America, feeble attempts have been made in the last thirty years or so to limit the control of insurance companies over health care. Most recently, President Clinton wanted to reduce the role of insurance companies to 80% of health care costs by 1997/8; which shows just how tepid Hilary Clinton’s reforms were before they completely collapsed. (It took less than two years in Attlee’s post WWII reforming government for a “free” NHS to come into existence in Britain)(9). In the US, it has been reckoned that the only institutional group interested in preserving the American Health Service status quo are the huge insurance companies. Many powerful industrial conglomerates in the US want a form of NHS so as to ease the burden of medical insurance for their employees. Capitalist arguments are wheeled out in support of an American NHS along the lines of firms will become more internationally competitive freed of a medical insurance burden. Firms also seek to minimise health insurance cover as part of cost cutting, and such ploys have led to strikes such as the Pittston miners’ strike of 1989. There is also a current of opinion that the control of the insurance companies in America is leading to a degree of inertia with doctors fearing writs will be taken out charging them with medical negligence in case mishap. Compensation can reach astronomical sums and lawyers love pursuing medical claims (c/f “The Verdict”, the Paul Newman film about a beat-up lawyer pursuing a claim). The whole thing becomes a never-ending spiral of increased premiums to cover law suits, with the insurance companies the main beneficiaries isn’t this, more or less, how it must be under finance capital; the final “antediluvian form of capital” as Marx put it: is it possible to return health care to an earlier more rational form of capital? All in all isn’t it the rough equation: health care funded through equity culture — with the insurance companies along with pension funds playing big on the stock exchange???).

There is another shady area – the amount spent on administration. In comparison to the NHS in Britain, the ratio of administrative cost was something percent here to twenty percent in America. The admin costs are increasing dramatically in Britain as more and more accountants are being employed, particularly fund-holding GPs. In one estimate quoted by the Economist magazine, a former personal director of the NHS, Eric Caines, has calculated that it often takes seven a half weeks(!) worth of administration to deliver an hour and half of care to patients.

The importance of insurance companies in relation to health care, and who also related to the tempo of class struggle, must be linked to notions of popular capitalism, equity culture and a recognition of the role of insurance companies in driving stock exchanges forward. Concomitant with casino capitalism, beyond the risk-taking and rapacious short-termism, is the notion that on an individual level, a person takes full responsibility for the failure of capitalism; that one introjects and moralises its desperate shortcomings; that its failure is your failure. Not to be covered by private insurance is to be guilty even though its limitations are becoming painfully obvious to more and more people (BUPA has recently removed several medical conditions from the insurance cover, such as Alzheimer’s disease). demand “free medicine” is tantamount to being a fraudster, to want “something for nothing” and hence an aspect of “welfarism” to be bracketed alongside dole scroungers, single parents, travellers and, as the net expands, the ‘sick’ and people on State pensions. Amid the hysteria over the public sector borrowing requirement, it’s forgotten that an individual’s State health insurance contribution is exactly that of BUPA assuming that the individual is employed. And what is forgotten as the welfare blitz shows no sign of abating is that one aspect of modem welfarism, as expressed within the NHS, grew out of the armies of Empire and, secondly, the need for the bourgeoisie to protect themselves from cholera epidemics etc. through general environmental improvements. Does Mrs. Bottomley seriously believe Flo Nightingale went amongst the wounded soldiery of the Crimea inspecting BUPA cards by the light of the lamp before administering treatment?

The position of the staff nurse with its faint militaristic ring has been replaced by that of the “ward manager” resonant of a business appointment. The “line manager” of an Accident and Emergency Department approximates to that of an “assembly line manager” with patients substituting for the throughput of cars. Terminally ill cancer patients receive chilling letters concerning their admission to hospital from “marketing managers.” It’s as if a fatal disease has become a marketable commodity, something henceforth to be touted on the market. A hospital closure is referred to as a “market exit”, not to carry out a life saving operation is called a “budget under-spend”. This impenetrable language is redolent with symbolist abstruseness – a stay in a hospital becomes an “episode in care” a sort of “après-midi d’un NHS” bizarrely evoked by the estranged wordsmiths of monetarism – whose aim is not to concoct some ideal reality through a language torn from its functional context – but to cover up the unspeakable. The circle closes: this inverted apocalypse of language is indebted to the euphemisms of modem warfare where to kill was to “terminate with extreme prejudice” and where villages were destroyed “in order to save them.”

The closing down of the NHS, i.e. its privatisation, inevitably forms part of the Tory government’s privatisation program. However, the economic context and the circumstances of class struggle in which the first privatisations took place and today’s projected privatisations are very different. Privatisation, beginning with British Telecom, was an ad-hoc strategy. The foot-dragging “consensus” propping up subsequent privatisations was largely manufactured through economic sweeteners. The State crudely rigged “market” price, and sections of the working class throughout the ‘80s were able to get in on asset inflation. However, other than insurance companies, no one will get rich out of the pnvatisation of the NHS. Such a thing literally tramples into dust any notion of a share owning democracy and a popular capitalism, because all the money goes straight to the fat cats as private insurance schemes are taken up. “Popular” intermediaries are dispensed with who, in previous privatisations, would sell their shares to institutions in order to make a quick buck. The privatisation of the NHS brutally emphasises the concentration of capital, not its pretended democratisation. Misguided individuals may beef about waste in the NHS – the enormous amounts of food surplus to requirements disposed of everyday is still a familiar complaint – but there isn’t even the shreds of a consensus supporting the dismantling of the NHS. The mass of people, including middle class professionals, have been bludgeoned into accepting it and behind every hospital closure, in the not too distant past, is the defeat of section after section of the working class fighting to the death in isolation. True, criticisms of the formerly “fully operational” NHS were broad and manifold, but the ease and speed with which it is being dismantled is different from the “willingness” of factory workers to accept redundancy and closure previously. Then there was an element of gladness to have done with alienated labour – now the attitude is one of resignation and the feeling all protest is hopeless. The public’s attitude is not one of “medical nemesis” — the actual shortening of life through too much medical interference – but the aghast realisation one could literally be left to die in the not too distant future. Whatever the future of the NHS – and a nurse in the UCH occupation did ask for alternative ideas on the NHS to make it more appealing — any renationalisation of health care must necessarily involve re-regulation and a hands on approach in other spheres as well, like, for instance, the stamping out of currency speculation favoured by more rational capitalists out of which insurance companies along with bank, pension and investment funds can do very well. Instead of a minimalist State, more of a maximalist State — all of which evades the vexed question of an autonomous medicine going beyond the rapidly fading institutions of the NHS. No matter how airy fairy such a notion now seems, the realisation of the good life through autonomous class struggle is inseparable from good health.

Both in psychiatry and general health care the recuperation of the everyday is very visible. (This recuperation is not merely carried out in terms of an idealised healthy person – it also carries a political meaning:— the restoration of the power of the status quo). Hospital wards at times come to resemble a homely sitting room with visitors sitting on beds, portable TVs flickering, music blaring, easy chairs at random. Nurses are far less starchy and doctors and consultants are not so sniffy. Belatedly the trauma of a stay in hospital has been recognised and a patient seen to have human and emotional needs. At the same time the gain in informality cannot cover up the dust collecting in corners, the stains, the peeling paint, the dilapidated state of the premises, the clapped out beds. In fact the informality has developed alongside reductions in staff levels. It is as if recuperation has been permitted to exist with the proviso that everything will shortly be gone – doctors, nurses, ancillary staff, equipment, even the bricks and mortar. Here, to kill is to cure. Waiting lists are abolished by closing all hospitals in an insanity which knows no bounds, and strikes are abolished by shutting down industry.

There are a myriad of other matters one could glance on. The misery of doctors enveloped in a world of serial sickness, endlessly seeing one patient after another, their loneliness, self-doubt and recrimination resulting in breakdown; disastrous love lives often leading them in middle age to pounce upon the first available member of the opposite sex. And then there are the drug company reps that prey on doctors, offering inducements like holidays in the sun, to demonstrate the virtues of some new supadrug – their stylish clothing, large salaries, persuasive selling techniques and at the end of the day nothing but the sting of conscience and alcohol.

And why haven’t doctors, consultants and hospital administrators laid bare their professional unhappiness and told it like it was? This failing they share in common with most other professional people who similarly maintain a vow of silence, leaving the rest of us to try and do it for them. It is noteworthy that Dr Chris Pallis of “Solidarity” — a member of one of the best revolutionary group/mags of the 60s – never voiced his unease at being a top consultant, as though clinical practice was immune from the vicissitudes of class struggle. When he came to write on the NHS, he used it as a vehicle to demonstrate the Cardanite thesis of ever increasing bureaucracy. And where NHS staff have written from the eye of the storm it has tended to come from within a Trotskyist perspective (e.g. “Memoirs of a Callous Picket” written by Jonathan Neale, an SWP ancillary worker (Pluto Press, 1983) and Dave Widgery’s account “Some Lives” of what it was like to be a GP in a poverty stricken East London borough), Only recently have more autonomous critiques started to appear, and let’s hope we’ll see a lot more of them when things really start to come to the boil…

Unfortunately, most people (and with all the so-called ‘reforms’ the numbers grow by the minute) still have some kind of faith that the Labour Party, once in power, is going to ride into the fray on a white charger and clear up the mess, bringing about free health care, building hospitals everywhere. Don’t believe it. Basically, they are going to take over the ‘reforms’ managing the ‘unaccountable’ trusts with a phalanx of the their own personnel. After all, it was ad hoc Labour Party initiatives (pretending to be grass roots and independent) on urban regeneration and single issues in the 60s and 70s that brought to prominence the para—state (as it was then known) which became the precursors of the now notorious and much more powerful (lucratively funded) quangos, staffed with failed government cadres. Obviously, the Labour Party will change to some degree the form and content of the trusts, making them more publicly acceptable (perhaps doing away with the two-tier system and GP fundholding practices?), but any real rebellion from below concerning wages, staffing levels, etc., will the direction of health care, some Leeds health workers asked John Battle – a Leeds Labour MP and Labour left winger — if the Party on coming to power would abolish the trusts. Battle looked as though he’d swallowed a bee accusing them of being wreckers destroying the Health Service – and this at a time when the same health workers were daily facing the new brutalism of trust management… Is this the shape of things to come?


Appendix 1

Shortly after the first occupation ended, one of the occupiers, who is a member of Wildcat (a ‘revolutionary journal’) wrote an article about the events (“Managers and unions act in unison” — by “RB”). The article was originally intended to be published in the next issue (no.17) of Wildcat but in the end it was left out. The article is quite critical of the occupiers and our failures – and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that unfortunately most of the criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the real facts of the situation. But never mind about that – we respond to a more important point of view in the article, concerning the question of organisation.

In Wildcat no.17 several pages were devoted to the journal defending it against accusations from others that they are vanguardists; that is, that they believe the working class is in need of their political leadership. Wildcat, who are neither Leninists or anarchists but call themselves (anti-State) communists, say in their defence, “the most vehement anti-Leninists usually share many of the conceptions of Leninism. In particular they share an obsession with the division between politically conscious people (such as themselves) and the masses. They see the central question as being how the former relate to the latter. Do they lead them organisationally? (Leninism); do they lead them on the plane of ideas? (Anarchism); do they refuse to lead them? (councilism)… They assume that everyone else is obsessed with the question as well: ‘Wildcat have evidently found that their ideas and attitudes little impact on the mass of workers around them…’ Who do they think we are – the SWP?” Now contrast this with their statements in their article about the UCH occupation: “We should have set up an occupation committee, and tried to ensure its domination by the more politically advanced people involved, in other words, by ourselves.” This hard-talk after the event is a mask for an inability to transcend the limits of the situation any more than anyone else. In fact, RB waited until after the strikers were forced back to work by Unison before distributing to some of them Wildcat’s “Outside and Against the Unions” pamphlet – again copying the ‘I-told-you-so’ arrogant attitude of the leftists.

Its not surprising this article was left out of the magazine — it wouldn’t have sat very well next to their claims of not being vanguardist. These sentiments, plus Wildcat’s own usual obsession with “the division between politically conscious people… and the masses” were echoed by other statements in their UCH article.

“If the working class can be led into socialism, then they can just as easily be led out of it again.” – Eugene Debs

For us, we hate the left because their tactics always seek to destroy the subversive, autonomous content of struggles – and without that content the struggle is headed for defeat. But for Wildcat it seems that the left is a problem simply because their ideas and long term goals are wrong: they want to use similar tactics towards different ends. We know that the left’s influence on struggles often alienates, drains and demoralises people who have to deal with their manipulations — but RB obviously thinks it’s not important if the mass of the working class has a relationship to its own struggles similar to that of a passive TV viewer to their set — as long as they can be prodded and made to act in a prescribed way the “politically advanced” can win struggles by their domination. This is a logic shared by trade unionists, the SWP and political specialists in general.

We know that the leftist party machines always have a separate hidden agenda to pursue in struggles — recruitment, self-publicity, etc., and they believe they are the necessary vanguard that must lead the masses. It seems that RB would like to be the ultra leftist vanguard that outflanks the left – instead of a rigid party machine, a more fluid structure of ultra leftist militants dominating struggles, like “invisible pilots at the centre of the storm.” Wildcat often say they are against democracy, partly because it submits all activity to the will of a majority. But to counter this by seeking to submit all activity to the will of a “politically advanced” minority is no solution at all.

RB rightly says that the SWP managed to “destroy the atmosphere of the occupation, an intangible but important thing” – one wonders what kind of appealing atmosphere his plans for an occupation dominated by the politically advanced would create?


UCH Songs (by Jean)

To the tune of “John Brown’s Body”

Verse 1

The crisis at the UCH is looking very grave,
They want to close the hospital for the pennies it will save,
But we won’t forget the union for the support they never gave,
When they would not back the strike.


Un-i-son sold out the nurses
Un-i-son sold out the nurses
Un-i-son sold out the nurses
Cos that’s what scum they are.

Verse 2

Now Marshal down in management is looking very smug,
But when he dealt with nurses he was acting like a thug,
If he thinks he’ll get away with that, then he must be a mug,
‘Cos he cannot blackmail us.

Chorus 2

Marshal blackmailed all the nurses
Marshal blackmailed all the nurses
Marshal blackmailed all the nurses
‘Cos that’s the scum he is.

Verse 3

Now its up to the people, to do what we think right,
Nothing’s going to close again without a bloody fight,
If we have to occupy, we’ll be there day and night,
For we shall not give in.

Chorus 3

UCH is for the people
UCH is for the people
UCH is for the people
So we’re going to take it back.


To the tune of “Daisy, Daisy”

Marshal, Marshal, give in your notice, do,
We’re quite crazy, ‘cos of the likes of you,
You’re too busy protecting your purses,
When you should be supporting your nurses,
Resign – resign – you waste of time,
And the rest of your management too.
Unison, Unison, give us your answer, do,
We’re quite crazy, ‘cos of the likes of you,
If you won’t back the hospital strike,
You’d better get on your bike,
Get real, get real, or else you’ll feel,
Some action directed at you.


To the tune of “My old man said follow the van”

Uni-son said, “We’ll back your strike,
And we won’t dilly dally with your pay,”
But six weeks later they withdrew support,
Then they dillied and dallied
Dallied and they dillied,
Done some deals with Marshal on the way,
Now they can’t trust the union,
Not to stitch them up,
Or blackmail them to stay.


Dedicated (2006) to Jean Blache, RIP, Beattie, RIP, and to all others who also participated in the UCH struggle.



slightly edited by past tense

1) This wasn’t the first occupation of a hospital: there are other incidences worthy of a mention. The women’s hospital, the Elizabeth Garret Anderson, close by UCH, was the scene of a long and successful work-in in the mid to late 70s, and it would be worth getting together some of the real analysis of that struggle. Also, Thornton View nursing home in Bradford was occupied during 1984/5 when faced with closure. The strike lasted marginally longer than the miners’ strike taking place at the same time. Leaflets given out by the strikers constantly called for an open picket but despite this, health care wasn’t revolutionised by the occupation — a nursing officer continued to visit to keep an eye on the nursing, and strict divisions were maintained between staff, patients and general public – although this is a very difficult problem in such a life or death situation. The occupation was brutally broken at night just after the miners’ strike was finished off. Worse than that, it was also done in a snow storm and allegedly one or two patients died after the ordeal. Also, in 1979, there had been an occupation of a geriatric community hospital in Oxon.

past tense note: Some 20 hospitals were occupied in the late 1970s-mid 1980s, including the Elizabeth Garret Anderson Women’s Hospital (over the Euston Road from UCH), Hounslow, Hayes, Northwood & Pinner, the South London Women’s Hospital, St Leonards Hackney… See also: Occupational Hazards, a past tense dossier on UK hospital occupations, which is still available to buy in paper form here, or can be downloaded as a PDF here

2) A nurse from Yorkshire isn’t so sure about this and likens the managers he’s come across as having some sort of Christian Fundamentalist look about them and seem to act from a conviction that is quite crazy. Some of the courses they go on operate very much like “psychobabble cults” creating in the manager a personal dependence on the managerial culture to the extent that breaking with it summons up imaginings of self-annihilation.

3) On one occasion a rally was led indoors for a “meeting” (in fact a speech from a UCH union branch secretary – a SWerP who was not on strike) ensuring that the march started in an orderly way and ended up in a nice quiet rally with a variety of SWP speakers. For a later one, large enough to be interesting, the union had a car ready which drove through to the front to take control — just as some nurses were about to march off without waiting for their orders. At the end of this march nurses and others continued past the rally to block Victoria Embankment The cops were willing to stop the traffic but the branch stewards called everyone back to listen to boring Frank Dobson MP with the excuse that the union had threatened to drop support for any future actions.

4) Other people who we met much later on, after the occupation, and who had been to some of the very early UCH rallies and seen large numbers of SWerPs drafted in to attend them – they also assumed that the occupation was merely another SWP publicity stunt, and so not worth getting involved in.

5) There was one nice guy, an SWP member who had been in the occupation since the beginning, who felt the same way as the rest of us about the Party hacks coming in and spoiling things – he walked off in disgust saying he was finished with the Party.

6) For a good examination of the SWP’s crass opportunism see Carry On Recruiting! byTrotwatch; AK Press and Trotwatch 1993.

7) We were also able to get some strikers (including even one or two of the more open minded SWerPs) to question how relationships between them and us, health workers and health users, between different kinds of groups, etc., could work better.

8) For more information on Welcome, see Dirty Medicine by Martin Walker; available from Slingshot Publications, BM Box 8314, London WC1N 3XX — price £15 (729 pages). This book is sub-titled “Science, Big Business and the assault on Natural Health Care” and describes the harassment, persecution and dirty tricks used against those who seek to offer alternative health treatments that could challenge the domination of industrial-medical giants like Wellcome. The persecuted have included those who come from orthodox medical backgrounds and also those patients who have received effective treatment after conventional drug-based medicine had given up on them. It also details the scandals surrounding the introduction of the “anti-AIDS” drug AZT, its lack of proper testing and the dubious claims made for it. (One criticism of the book is that it misses out the complexities and strengths of the struggles by AIDS activists in the USA. See for example Larry Kramer’s Reports From the Holocaust.) It reveals the systematic attacks and slanders made on the producers of health foods, vitamin supplements and alternative treatments, very often orchestrated by those directly or indirectly in the pay of the processed food industry and drug companies. (Duncan Campbell, the investigative “journalist”, although not with any obvious financial interest, has been particularly active in these shady activities). Wellcome, with their extensive contacts amongst the British ruling elite, dominate medical education and research here – and therefore have a very strong influence on the functioning of the NHS and the nature of its treatment. The author has recently said that “Although, as a socialist, I am committed to the NHS, I’m also in favour of choice and I know that for many of our present-day illnesses, drugs cannot be the answer” (Evening Standard, l4/2/94). Reading his book has only reinforced our feelings that the slogan “Defend the NHS” is far too simplistic in the long run. We must fight for what we have plus a whole lot more, but eventually we have to ask — what kind of free health care do we need and how do we get it? The often toxic and dangerous, profit motivated production line treatment promoted by the scientific-medical establishment is mainly concerned with the maintenance of people to keep them functioning as efficient, productive members of capitalist society. This has nothing to do with healthy living. The book Dirty Medicine is highly recommended.

9) Although it was the Labour Party that brought in the NHS, it was originally the idea of Beveridge, a Liberal and an extension of the post-1906 Liberal government’s introduction of health insurance. Moreover, Bevan, Attlee’s Health Minister, did a deal with the pro-Tory British Medical Association to retain private patients and private beds within NHS hospitals. Bevan said “I stuffed their mouths with gold”: doctors were now being paid for work they’d done in the voluntary hospitals for free, plus they kept the fees for their private work. And this has been the basis for the more fully fledged two-tier system we have today.


Appendix 2

UCH post 1995: The Cruciform building was purchased by UCL, for use as the home for the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research and the teaching facility for UCL bioscience and medical students UCL Medical School.

A new 75,822 m² hospital, UCLH, procured under the Private Finance Initiative in 2000, designed by Llewelyn Davies Yeang and built by a joint venture of AMEC and Balfour Beatty at a cost of £422 million, opened in 2005. 

In November 2008, the £70 million Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing was opened, allowing the hospital to offer all women’s health services in one place (except some breast and gynaecology services).

SO – yes, a hospital stands roughly where UCH stood. But the PFI deal under which it was built is making vast profits – money being removed from the NHS. Health Management (UCLH) Ltd., which runs the new UCH, made £139.7 million in pre-tax profits between 2010 and 2015 alone. Between 2005 – 2015 the NHS Trust responsible for UCH paid £724.8 million for it, out of which Health Management made £190.4 million. The capital value of the hospital according to the Treasury is £292 million. Typically PFI deals are taking some 25-50 years to pay back, the interest on the initial funding dwarfing the amount ‘lent’ at the start. A lovely New Labour idea.
The returns for PFI contracts are high even though the risks are low once construction is completed, as the government guarantees the payments, save in exceptional circumstances.


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Today in London squatting history, 1978: mass eviction in Huntley Street, Bloomsbury.

In February 1977 5 blocks of 54 empty police flats, in Huntley Street, behind University College Hospital, which had lain empty for 4 years, were squatted; as an initiative of the Squatters Action Council. Getting in to the blocks (all amusingly named after the first five commissioners of the Metropolitan Police!), wasn’t hard, the front doors were unlocked… Soon 160 people were living here, including recent evictees from squats at Cleveland Street, Trentishoe Mansions & Cornwall Terrace. One block was allocated to women and children from a hostel for battered women (in co-operation with Women’s Aid); a ground floor flat became the office of the Squatters Action Council and later the London Squatters Union.

3 days after the flats were squatted, the Health Authority, who owned them, announced that they were to be used to house nurses and doctors from neighbouring University College Hospital.

In 1977 the many activists living in the flats were regularly woken early in the morning by motivated people going round knocking on doors to gather people to head up to the mass pickets at the Grunwicks strike in West London…

After the Health Authority obtained a Possession Order in July 1978, the flats were barricaded, a watch was set up around the clock on the roof. Barricades were also set up in the street; the occupiers prepared for a confrontation. However, negotiations were also going on for rehousing of the squatters…

The squats were infiltrated by two undercover cops, “Nigel and Mary”, posing as homeless… Now many of the squatters sussed to these two early on, but others went all liberal, saying there was no proof, they could be ok etc… “Nigel and Mary” managed to get themselves on the roof rota one morning, up turn the cops… well you can guess the rest.

On 16th August 1978, in London’s biggest mass eviction, the houses were evicted by the Special Patrol Group; in all 650 coppers led by ex-bomb squad supremo, & nemesis of the Angry Brigade, Roy Habershon. They sealed off the street & send in bulldozers. All 5 houses were cleared despite some resistance from the barricaded buildings. This included a pan of what was alter allegedly piss (but was in fact just water) being poured over Harris, the Under-Sheriff of London.

It turned the police had been tapping the phones, taking aerial surveillance pictures, and so on… 14 squatters were nicked, charged with ‘resisting the sheriff’ contrary to Section 10 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. 12 later got acquitted, but Piers Corbyn (then famous as the ‘king of the squatters’ in Elgin Avenue, now more infamous as a climate change denier and Covid conspiracy superspreader) and Jim Paton of the Advisory Service for Squatters were found guilty… Although Jim wasn’t even present at the eviction, he had been heavily involved in planning the resistance (including negotiating the loan of lots of corrugated iron from squatted street Villa Road for building the barricades).

In solidarity with the evicted Huntley Street residents, 150 Dutch squatters besieged the British Embassy in the Hague (smashing the windows by throwing heavy cast-steel yellow dinky toys modeled on the bulldozers used to smash the barricades!), & the British embassy in Stockholm was also picketed.

In fact the eviction was totally unnecessary – an agreement had been won the day before that all the squatters would be rehoused (which was to some extent why securty on the barricades had been slightly relaxed – it was thought the eviction wouldn’t take place with an agreement for rehousing in place…) The deal was granted by then Camden councillor Ken Livingstone… Many were given flats on the nearby Hillview Estate, in Kings Cross, which was handed over to Shortlife Community Housing to manage…|

There’s a short video of the eviction here:

NB: Nothing can’t be sold… The poster reproduced at the top of this post, printed in support of the Huntley Street squatters, is being sold on the internet  by a ‘rare books’ dealer in the US for $750… Betting the money will go to housing campaigns today…?

Today in London legal history, 1780: Charles Kent, Laetitia Holland and John Gray tried for the burning and looting of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s House.

In second half of the eighteenth century, nos 28-29 Bloomsbury Square was the residence of Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench: William Murray, Lord Mansfield. Mansfield was widely feared & hated at the time (the spikes on Kings Bench Prison walls were known as Lord Mansfield’s teeth); he was an innovative lawyer who helped to adapt English law to the needs of a growing commercial empire, in alliance with powerful men of business. In return he grew very rich. “He invented legal fictions that enabled English courts to have jurisdiction in places where English law had not yet been introduced…he took the usages of commerce…and …made them into law…The attack on his house was …an attack upon the leading exponent of British imperialism.” (Peter Linebaugh).

More immediately, as Linebaugh points out, Mansfield had served at the Old Bailey for 11 years, being known for his severe judgments, sending 102 people to the gallows, 448 to be transported and 29 to be branded. He was known by the poor as one of their greatest enemies.

On the night of 6 -7th June 1780 his house was attacked & burnt out by the Gordon Rioters. The riots started out on June 2nd as a protest against a proposed Parliamentary Bill to give more freedom to Catholics, but rapidly outgrew their sectarian origins to become a general insurrection of the poor against the rich and powerful.

The Judge had already been beaten up outside Parliament on June 2nd, and because of his reputation, the rioters were widely threatening to attack his house. On June 6th a magistrate and a detachment of guards came to protect him. Mansfield suggested they hid out of sight so as not to wind up the rioters. Soon after a crowd several hundred strong marched here from Holborn, carrying torches and combustible materials. They battered in his door, and he legged it out the back with his wife. The crowd tore down the railings surrounding the building, threw down all his furniture, curtains, hangings, pictures, books, papers and chucked them all on a huge bonfire. They then burned his house.

His whole library including many legal papers was destroyed. Interestingly, just as at the burning of the Duke of Lancaster’s Palace in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the crowd declared nothing was to be stolen, they were not thieves… A survival of a strand of rebellious moral highmindedness, although unsurprisingly, while silver and gold plate was certainly burned, several of the poor folk present were later found guilty of helping themselves to some of the Judge’s possessions. And why not.

The troops arrived (a bit late!), the Riot Act was read, and as the crowd refused to disperse, they shot and killed at least seven people and wounded many more. When the soldiers had gone, some of the rioters returned, picked up the bodies, and marched off, carrying the corpses in a bizarre procession, allegedly fixing weapons in the hands of the dead, with a man at the front tolling Lord’s Mansfield’s stolen dinner bell in a death march rhythm!

Gordon Rioters also marched to Hampstead to burn Mansfield’s other house, Ken Wood House on Hampstead Heath. They were allegedly delayed by the landlord of the Spaniards Inn, (on Spaniards Road), who plied them with free beer to give the militia time to arrive and save the house.

Three rioters, Laetitia Holland, John Gray and Charles Kent, were tried on June 28th for involvement in the attack on Mansfield’s house. Gray, a 32 year old woolcomber, who walked with a crutch, was seen demolishing a wall in the house with an iron bar, and later making off with a bottle of Mansfield’s booze. One-legged Kent was also seen by a witness  “bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know.” Laetitia Holland was sentenced to death for being found in possession of two of lady Mansfield’s petticoats:

“June 28th, Old Bailey: CHARLES KENT and LETITIA HOLLAND were indicted for that they together with an hundred other persons and more, did, unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble, on the 6th of June , to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield , against the form of the statute, &c.

– GREENLY sworn.

I am a baker, in Tottenham-court-road.

Are you a housekeeper there? – I am.

Do you remember being present on Tuesday night when Lord Mansfield’s house was destroyed? – I believe it was half after twelve on Wednesday morning before I went there. Some of the mob were then in the one-pair-of-stairs rooms, pulling down the wainscoting and throwing the goods out at the window. I observed Letitia Holland there throwing part of a desk and some small trunks and other goods out at the one-pair-of-stairs window.

Did she say any thing at the time she threw them out? – I did not hear her say any thing. I saw her remove from the one-pair-of-stairs floor to the two-pair-of-stairs floor, and throw out some more goods.

Did you hear her make use of any expressions? – I did not hear her speak at all. I saw Kent at the same time bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know.

How long was it afterwards before they went away? – In less than half an hour. Upon their going away I walked close behind them up Russel-street, through Tottenham-court-road. I heard her declare to Kent, who was with her, that she had loaded herself well. Kent has a wooden leg.

Was the man who carried out the bottles the man with the wooden leg? – Yes; he was with her.

Did you afterwards do any thing to either of them? – Yes, I watched them to the end of Bambridge-street, turning out of Russel-street. I went down the left-hand side; the prisoners were on the right-hand; they seemed rather to suspect me; they both turned round and set their backs to the house, and faced me. I went across the street and seised the woman by both her hands, and I took her to the watch-house. She asked what I wanted with her? I said, you know you have destroyed a great deal of Lord Mansfield’s property, and have some about you. She answered, She would give me the property if I would let her go. I said no, she should go to the watch-house. She said what she had got was given her in the house, and she had not taken it. Before I took her to the

watch-house she threw a small picture behind her, which I believe was the property of Lord Mansfield; this is it (producing a small oval picture). When I took her to the watch-house, the watch-house-keeper would not take charge of her. She had a great deal of bundling round her. I wanted her to be searched; the watchman said he would not run the risque of losing his life for me. She delivered this book in the watch-house (producing it). I left her there in care of the watch-house-keeper.

What became of the man? – The man went off directly as I seized her.

Are you positive that the prisoners are the persons you saw at Lord Mansfield’s house doing what you have described? – They are. I called upon Mr. Platt, Lord Mansfield’s clerk, the next day, to inform him that these things were in the watch-house. The watch-house-keeper said he knew her very well, and where she lived.


I am house-keeper at the Rotation-office, in Litchfield-street. I was employed all night at the office. I did not go away from the office, till about three o’clock or a little before, on the Wednesday morning. I went with Mr. Parker, who is a magistrate, and a party of soldiers to Lord Mansfield’s, just before three o’clock. A little before four o’clock I was sent for an engine. When I got half way down Dyot-street I saw the prisoners, they crossed into another street; I crossed after them, and went to them; I perceived the woman had something under her arm, which caused me to follow her; it turned out to be this petticoat (producing it) it was wrapped up in a napkin. I asked her whose that was; she said she got it from Lord Mansfield’s, but it was given her by the mob. She had this apron on (producing it). I did not say any thing to her about that till I got her into the round-house, then I searched her, and took from her this petticoat (producing it) she had it under her black one.


I live at Lord Mansfield’s.

Look at these petticoats and aprons? – They came out of Lord Mansfield house; they were in the two-pair-of-stairs floor at the time the house was broke open. They are the property of Miss Mary Murray , Lord Mansfield’s niece.


I was at the fire but I was never near the house. I do not know of which side the house the door is. I picked these things up, except the green petticoat which the mob gave me. I thought I might as well take it as let the flames consume it. Coming away I met this young man; he was not near the house, nor was I; I was not near the fire myself; I was by the Duke of Bedford’s wall.


I never was near the house; I stood at a distance off, with other people looking at the fire; there were several other people there whom I knew myself; and one or two, I knew myself in the house. I have but one leg, and so he took notice of me.

Court to Greenly. Did you see him bring the bottles out or throw them out? – I saw him do nothing else but bring out the bottles.

At that time were the mob destroying any part of the house? – Yes; they were then in the lower rooms of the house destroying every thing.

BOTH GUILTY ( Death .)

Tried by the Second Middlesex Jury before Mr. Justice ASHHURST.”

… JOHN GRAY was indicted for that he together with five hundred other persons and more, did unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble, on the 7th of June , to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield .

2d Count. For beginning to pull down a certain out-house belonging to the dwelling-house of William Earl of Mansfield.


I am a constable of the parish of St. Giles’s I keep a shoe-warehouse in Holbourn.

Was you in Bloomsbury-square on Wednesday morning, the 7th of June? – Yes. The high constable and I had been all night at the Rotation-office, to defend it. We were in Bloomsbury-square about eight o’clock, I saw the prisoner at Lord Mansfield’s; I knew his person well before; he had a large bar of iron, and was sitting upon the cell of the window, and breaking down a wall of a building which was separate from Lord Mansfield’s house; there was a vast concourse of people there. I suppose near two thousand; I durst not apprehend the prisoner on account of the concourse of people. I saw him three days after at the Rotation-office, on another charge.


I am under-cook to Lord Mansfield.

Do you remember, in the morning after Lord Mansfield’s house was destroyed, seeing any thing of the prisoner? – Yes, I saw him about five o’clock in the morning with an iron bar on his shoulder; I did not see him break any thing belonging to my lord. I know him particularly by his crutch. I saw him at five, and again at eight o’clock.

Is the building the last witness describes detached from the house? – Yes, it is the room where I lay, it is over the kitchen and under the laundry.

You are sure the prisoner is the person? – Yes.

Was that building, the kitchen, and the rest destroyed in the course of the morning? – They were totally down, I believe by ten o’clock.


I saw the building destroyed.


I am under-butler to Lord Mansfield. I was at my lord’s house on the 6th of June, when the mob first came. I saw the prisoner about four in the morning. I passed him several times in the house with my Lord’s liquor in his hand coming out of the house; I saw him in the street afterwards near the place that was pulled down; but I did not observe him doing any thing. He had nothing in his hand but his crutch then. I saw him carrying out the bottles before.


I got up about a quarter before four o’clock, I was dry; the people said there was a shocking murder done in Bloomsbury-square. I went there and saw a soldier wallowing in his blood. On the 11th of June I was taken up by a constable on suspicion of picking a gentleman’s pocket. After I was fully committed, the constable came and said as I was committed he would charge me with pulling down my Lord Mansfield’s house.

GUILTY ( Death .)

Tried by the Second Middlesex Jury before Mr. RECORDER.” (Old Bailey Records)

Others charged after the attack included Sarah Collogan, who got a year after being found wearing a gown previously owned by the judge’s neice; Elizabeth Timmings, tried for possessing five china dishes from his lordship’s tableware, and Elizabeth Grant, found in possession of a copper pot and plate-warmer (these two were acquitted).

Kent, and Gray were hanged in Bloomsbury Square, on July 22nd in sight of the ruins of the house. Holland was ‘respited’ on 21st July, and her sentence was reduced to two years imprisonment in 1781.


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Today in London squatting history, 2006: ‘The Square’ Social Centre resists eviction.

‘The Square’ Social Centre, in the old University College London School of Slavonic Studies in the North West corner of Russell Square, Bloomsbury, flourished for several months from the winter of 2005 through to the following Summer. “When the Square was first occupied… everyone was overcome with excitement. The building was a dream – from its central position to its glorious fascia; from its large ground floor rooms to the labyrinthine former bar of a student’s union in the basement.” The Square was constantly teeming for the next few months, with packed out benefit gigs, parties, meetings, an info shop, offices and organising space for radical anti-authoritarian groups, as well as a friendly drop-in and coffee shop.

“The first months were immensely exciting. Every day, while the café was open, people would wander in, stunned and enquiring as to the present status of the building. As the situation was explained their eyes widened as they considered new horizons. In fact, all of our eyes were wide, then. Even the 40-person meetings, where people talked and talked in circles about politics, action, organisation and so on were just about bearable – and the discussions in little groups in the evenings were something else, magical conspiracies mapping our future.”

There were many and varied events, including meetings/reports back on the student riots in France, the London Zine Symposium, with stalls, talks, walks and bands; a Mayday Weekend, with talks and discussions on ‘The Future of Anarchism’, an excellent meeting with films and speakers from campaigners against deaths in custody and mobilisations for anti-war and anti-deportation demos and a remarkably successful meeting on ‘Radical Academics in the Neoliberal University’ which packed 100 people into the 80-capacity meeting room.

“What really occurred at the Square, though, was a community – a virtual community ordinarily spread all over London, all over the South East, but finding at the Square a physical space to come together. The building became a focal point for all sorts of groups, organised or otherwise, who – holding their meetings in the same building, rather than the pub – had a rare contact with each other, creating many friendships and challenging many assumptions. This hive of activity was also a space which proved extremely stimulating for those few kids who came in search of politics rather than a cheap party. It was frequented by members of anti-fascist group Antifa, Aufheben, the Anarchist Federation, the WOMBLES, the Industrial Workers of the World, a whole mess of punks and even the occasional insurrectionist. One could always find an interesting conversation.”

The Square faced an attempt to evict it, on Friday, June 23rd 2006. A call out was made to resist the eviction and to hold a Festival of Resistance, involving autonomous groups, social centres activists, live bands, DJs and participants from The Square.

On Friday, 23rd June, around 60-70 people followed the call for solidarity and to resist the eviction from the early morning. The building was festooned with an array of flags and banners, and the mood was light but determined. Apart from a couple of officers from Camden Council that eventually turned up, made some telephone calls and then left, no other form of ‘authority’ showed up or attempted eviction.

On Saturday 24th, around 400 people attended the concert in support of The Square, which featured live music in two stages and a couple of sound systems in the basement. A talk and film screening about repression in Mexico also took place in the evening, organised by Z.A.P.

Despite the June 23rd resistance initially forcing the bailiffs to back off, “on Sunday [25th], around 30 people including most of those who had had a sustained relationship with the space, came together to decide the term of the resistance that had begun on Friday. This gathering eventually came up with a dissolution communique of The Square Occupied Social Centre, which informs that “the space has now been passed on to a handful of residents who wished to remain and a few people who wanted to continue to run the place as a political and cultural venue”.

Many of the core group that had run the space were suffering slightly from “exhaustion – physical, emotional and political. People were just tired, and wanted a summer in the sun, not barricaded into a building. Others felt the social centre had drawn to its natural conclusion given the limits that had been placed upon it, and wanted summer for reflection and reformulation of the project. Still others were concerned that the symbolic weekend of resistance, which burnt so brightly, would be diluted by days and weeks of events for events’ sake.”

There had also been many of the usual tensions and difficulties familiar to any group running a squatted centre in these (possibly any?) times: the never-ending meetings attempting to hammer out a consensus, and the old chestnut of many users not clearing up after themselves (leaving it to the core collective), among them. Some among the main organisers felt, at the end, that a clearer initial definition of the space’s ideas aims and politics (rather than the open invitation to anyone to get involved) might have helped to both reduce some tedious debates about what the place was for, and keep out some of the assorted nutters and wishywashy ditherers who often consume much time and energy in such centres… Eternal questions, for those of us who’ve also been involved in keeping similar spaces going. Sometimes the high energy adrenaline-fuelled temporary spaces like the Square are more inspiring BECAUSE they don’t last very long. Squatted, or rented, or even bought, social or political centres, that survive for years can be dogged by a loss of inspiration, by boredom, when the business of keeping a physical space together can take the focus away from the reasons the place was founded. Long-term spaces do have their uses though…

All in all though the legacy of the Square was generally very positive, inspiring squatted spaces in London and elsewhere since. As the organisers said in their dissolution communique:

“This building has been sustenance for us, a place to socialise with like-minded people, a place in which to play, to party and conspire. That it was ending – for all of its flaws and tensions – made a lot of us take stock of what was being lost: and it was more than we had thought.

Something has passed from central London into our hearts. The red and black will not fly over Russell Square much longer but we carry them in exile…”


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Today in London art history: John Ruskin born, Bloomsbury, 1819.

”Trade Unions of England – Trade Armies of Christendom, what’s the roll-call of you, and what part or lot have you, hitherto, in this Holy Christian Land of your Fathers? Whose is the wealth of the world but yours? Whose is the virtue? Do you mean to go on for ever, leaving your wealth to be consumed by the idle and your virtue to be mocked by the vile? The wealth of the world is yours; even your common rant and rabble of economists tell you that: “no wealth without industry.” Who robs you of it, then, or beguiles you? Whose fault is it, you cloth-makers, that any English child is in rags? Whose fault is it, you shoemakers, that the street harlots mince in high-heeled shoes and your own babies paddle bare-foot in the street slime? Whose fault is it you bronzed husbandmen, that through all your furrowed England, children are dying of famine?” (John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: 89th Letter, 1873)

John Ruskin, (1819 -1900), who lived much of his life in South London (Herne Hill and Camberwell), is best known for his work as an art critic and social commentator; he was also an author, poet and artist. Ruskin’s essays on art and architecture were very influential in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As an Art critic, he was heavily judgmental. He supported the pre-Raphaelites when they were widely disapproved of as being too avant-garde, and was particularly outspoken in support of Millais’ paintings of Christ, which were generally condemned as blasphemous.

His books on architecture, The Stones of Venice and Seven Lamps of Architecture argued that art cannot be separated from morality, by which he meant that the arts should be the expression of the whole moral being of the artists, and of the quality of the society in which the artist lived. He believed that ‘man’ achieved ‘his’ own humanity through labour, but through creative labour, not drudgery. He attacked mechanisation and standardisation of goods; this led him increasingly into rebellion against 19th century capitalism. “Mens pleasure in the work by which they make their bread” lies at the heart of a just society, this was his underlying thesis. His view was that Capitalism was turning workers into machines: he viewed craft and artisan skill as vitally important, and looked back in some ways to the Middle Ages, to craft-based guilds. He also condemned the separation of manual and intellectual labour… “the workman ought to be often thinking, and the thinker often to be working…. As it is… the world is full of morbid thinkers and miserable workers.”

Ruskin was born in 1819, the son of an Evangelical Protestant mother who wanted him to be a Bishop. His father was a successful wine merchant whose art collection gave “an unquestionable tone of liberal-mindedness to [his] suburban villa”. Ruskin said his parents treated him “effeminately and luxuriously” by paying for his education, artistic tuition, travels across Europe and studies but “thwarted [him] in all the earnest passion and fire in life”.

His travels in Europe and studying at Oxford led him to launch himself into art and architecture criticism. Between 1843 and 1860 Ruskin worked on his huge multi-volume study of art history, Modern Painters. But he discovered he could not study and write about beauty without discussing the ugliness of urbanisation, and poverty in the Europe of his time, then rapidly industrialising as capitalism came into its fullest power. The conditions million lived under seemed contrary to his moral and aesthetic religious view of the world.

“In the late 1850s, Ruskin’s thoughts began to turn from the nonsensical religious analysis of art to an examination of the conditions under which art was produced. He contrasted the works of gothic beauty in Stones of Venice (1851-3) with the squalid uniformity and imitation of industrial British architecture. The relation of labourer to his work in industrial capitalist society meant that production was totally separated from the workers’ creative faculties and art had become bastardised displays in private galleries for the appreciation of a privileged few. Ruskin’s conclusion that artistic and social decline were due to political and economic conditions produced works that was of interest to later critics of capitalism; most notably the political reformists that emerged from the labour movement in the late nineteenth century, but also early socialists like William Morris.” (Colin Skelly)

In 1858, Ruskin was again travelling in Europe, when he experienced what he later described as the loss of his faith. The tour took him from Switzerland to Turin where he saw Paolo Veronese’s Presentation of the Queen of Sheba; the discovery of which painting, contrasting starkly with a particularly dull sermon, he later claimed led to his “unconversion” from Evangelical Christianity. But in fact he had doubted his faith for some time. He blamed Biblical and geological scholarship, that had undermined the literal truth and absolute authority of the Bible: “those dreadful hammers!” he wrote to Henry Acland, “I hear the chink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.” This “loss of faith” launched him into a serious crisis, including doubting much of his writing to date, which he now thought had been founded on a bed of lies and half-truths. (He later returned to Christianity.)

Following this crisis of religious belief Ruskin effectively abandoned art criticism at the end of the 1850s, moving towards commentary on politics, under the influence of his great friend Thomas Carlyle. Ruskin’s lectures began increasingly to be concerned with social relations; the one given at the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute, for instance, on January 24th, 1865, was entitled “Work and Play”, and took this theme: that work had to be useful, fulfilling and enjoyable.

Fundamentally Ruskin condemned the division of labour, which formed part of the heart of capitalism. In many ways he pointed the way for liberals and radicals towards socialist ideas without quite going there himself. His ideas were crucially influential on many radicals who became fouders of the ILP and other trade unionists, and most particularly on the development of William Morris, and through him the Arts and Crafts Movement. In Unto This Last he expounded his theories about social justice, which influenced the development of the British Labour Party and of Christian socialism.

“Ruskin, by around 1860 and the publication of his essays on political economy, Unto This Last, had reached the conclusion that the test of production and consumption was in its impact on human life and happiness. This was opposed starkly to the capitalist society in which he lived, of production for profit and subsequent overproduction amidst a grossly unequal society where the hardest poverty existed next to luxury and opulence. Though a very long way from any sort of socialist conclusions, Ruskin sought, against his inherited Tory political inclinations, to redefine the classical political economy of the era (not fundamentally different from the current orthodoxies). This laissez-faire, free trade political economy was, for Ruskin, a far too narrow reading of human nature, with the motive of human existence being reduced to the lowest terms of private gain and universal, supposedly “enlightened” selfishness. Despite the limited nature of these conclusions from a socialist perspective, they provoked an outcry from Ruskin’s contemporary ex-admirers who were alarmed at his straying beyond art in the application of his aesthetic and ethical values. A society which denied production for profit in favour of production for the benefit of humankind, would clearly not enable the privilege of a few to continue. Ruskin, however, never concluded that capitalist ownership of the means of production (whose political economy Ruskin thought was its ideological expression) was the defining feature of the existing condition of production. Instead, he concluded that the relinquishing of paternal responsibilities of industrial capitalists, no longer with a close pastoral tie to its labour force, was the problem (and here lies a possible link to later state capitalists and reformists who wanted the state to fill this role).”

Ruskin was a rebel against the idea of money wealth: “to leave this one great fact clearly stated: THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers, of love, of joy, and of admiration”.

But he was unable to break with the bourgeois conception of power, of enlightened elites who would lead; mainly because he was not able to realise the nature of class division and in the ownership and non-ownership of productive resources; failing to see a definite difference in interests between those who own property and derive privilege and those who, by their non-ownership of productive resources, are forced to sell their labour power for less than the value of what they produce.

“Upon the death of his father, Ruskin declared that it was not possible to be a rich socialist and gave away most of his inheritance. He founded the charity known as the Guild of St George in the 1870s and endowed it with large sums of money as well as a remarkable collection of art. He also gave the money to enable Octavia Hill to begin her practical campaign of housing reform. He also taught at the Working Men’s College, London and was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, from 1869 to 1879, he also served a second term.

In 1871 Ruskin began publication of Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. Between 1871 and 1878 it was issued in monthly parts and until 1884 at irregular intervals. Ruskin intended the work to be a “continual challenger to the supporters of and apologists for a capitalist economy”. It was Ruskin’s socialist writing that influenced trade unionists and political activists such as Tom Mann and Ben Tillett.

Ruskin was a weird mix, to our eyes: a railer against the dehumanising effect of capitalism and mass industrialisation, and a hater of some of the new technologies also because of the destruction of nature that was involved. He famously hated trains, especially when lines were run through countryside that he loved. “The valley is gone and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour and every fool in Bakewell in Buxton,” ranted John Ruskin when a railway was first built in the 1860s through the peaceful Wye Valley, which runs through the Peak District National Park. He didn’t want more people to flock to wild places, and was undoubtedly elitist in some aspects, though he was in other ways egalitarian and pro-democracy… Ruskin also influenced the setting up of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Like many of the bourgeois radicals of the 19th and 20th centuries, he also supported imperialism and racial hierarchy: Ruskin was supported the savage suppression of the Jamaican Insurrection in 1865. Racist views were hardly unusual among such figures of the era…

Some folk see Ruskin “as a visionary, more the progeny of William Blake than a member of the Victorian establishment. He foresaw climate change in The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century – both as a physical threat, in industrial pollution, and a metaphysical one, as a “plague cloud made of dead men’s’ souls”.”

But he was also a technical innovator; using collage to create his letters to supporters and artisans: “Although he disdained new technologies such as the train, Ruskin did not reject other advances. He advocated the new medium of photography, and in his monthly newsletter to the working man, Fors Clavigera (Fate’s Hammer), he created what was in effect a 19th-century blog. Sitting at his desk with a pile of newspaper cuttings by his side, he worked through the day’s stories to surreal effect, creating new juxtapositions of imagery that augur the work of the modernists and even, perhaps, William Burroughs’ cut-ups.”

Ruskin continued to lecture in art, becoming Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, and later in 1871, John Ruskin founded his own art school at Oxford, The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. The School challenged the orthodox, mechanical methodology of the government schools (the “South Kensington System”).

His lectures were often so popular that they had to be given twice—once for the students, and again for the public. Most of them were eventually published. He lectured on a wide range of subjects at Oxford, his interpretation of “Art” encompassing almost every conceivable area of study, including wood and metal engraving (Ariadne Florentina), the relation of science to art (The Eagle’s Nest) and sculpture (Aratra Pentelici). His lectures ranged through myth, ornithology, geology, nature-study and literature. “The teaching of Art…,” Ruskin wrote, “is the teaching of all things.” Ruskin was never careful about offending his employer. When he criticised Michelangelo in a lecture in June 1871 it was seen as an attack on the large collection of that artist’s work in the Ashmolean Museum.

 In the July 1877 Fors Clavigera letter Ruskin launched a scathing attack on paintings by James McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, especially Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Ruskin accused Whistler of “ask[ing] two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler filed a libel suit against Ruskin. Whistler won the case, which went to trial in Ruskin’s absence in 1878 (he was ill), but the jury awarded damages of only one farthing to the artist. Court costs were split between both parties. Ruskin’s were paid by public subscription; Whistler was bankrupted within six months. Ruskin’s reputation suffered from this episode, however, which may have accelerated his mental decline.

Ruskin founded a utopian society, the Guild of St George, in 1871 – a communitarian venture, with a hierarchical structure, with Ruskin as its Master, and dedicated members called “Companions” whose first loyalty was to Ruskin personally. Ruskin wished to show that contemporary life could still be enjoyed in the countryside, with land being farmed traditionally, with minimal mechanical assistance.

Ruskin purchased small parcels of land – initially in Totley, near Sheffield, later land was bought or donated at Wyre Forest, near Bewdley, Worcestershire; Barmouth, in Gwynedd, north-west Wales; Cloughton, in North Yorkshire; and Westmill in Hertfordshire.

Ruskin also tried to see traditional rural handicrafts revived, especially weaving.

Ruskin increasingly became subject to depression and then mental health problems, and for much of the last 20 years of his life felt haunted by a sense that he had failed in the causes he had adopted. He died at his home in Brantwood in the Lake District in 1900.

Ruskin’s legacy was strong in the last decades of his life and the early part of the twentieth century, in the Labour movement and in conservation and housing; many town planners acknowledged his influence. A number of Utopian socialist Ruskin Colonies also attempted to put his political ideals into practice. These communities included Ruskin, Florida, Ruskin, British Columbia and the Ruskin Commonwealth Association, a colony which existed in Dickson County, Tennessee from 1894 to 1899.

But interest in him and his ideas has declined somewhat in the last half century; it is also likely that many of the movements and organisations that he did inspire would disappoint him; in the way they operate. During his own life he as critical of architecture developments that acknowledged his influence, claiming they paid lip service to form but failed to arise from a true understanding or feeling for the intellectual basis behind it.


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in mystic socialist history: the Fellowship of the New Life formally founded, 1882.

The Fellowship of the New Life was formally founded in 1882. It would go on to produce a much more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Founded by Thomas Davidson ( in 1882-3, as a “society for people interested in religious thought, ethical propaganda and social reform”, the Fellowship was joined by people such as future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, the radical sexologist Havelock Ellis and socialist & pioneer gay liberationist Edward Carpenter. Other early members included Frank Podmore, ER Pease, William Clarke, Percival Chubb, Dr Burns Gibson, Hubert Bland.

Davidson, a talented and brilliant scot from poor background, was a terminal wanderer, who founded other similar societies, (eg in New York); but couldn’t settle anywhere. He had difficult relations with people, was inspiring but hard to communicate with him, and seems to have had little time for anyone who disagreed with him…

An interesting character, among other ideas he thought virtue should be evaluated and celebrated; that anyone who hadn’t educated themselves to be a profound thinker “is still a slave to authority and convention, a mere play actor in life, bound to play a traditional, unreal part, without any of the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

He basically believed in the essential divinity of all things, including human life. These ideas seem to echo 17th century ideas more than anything, especially the ranters: Davidson even fixes on the same phrase ‘glorious liberty’ (originally from the Bible, Romans 8:21) as the ranter Jacob Bauthumley: “God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the Sons of God’

The Fellowship was founded in his Chelsea rooms around September/October 1882,

In the original minutes the object of the organisation is expressed thus: members would join together “for the purpose of common living, as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising among themselves the higher life.” On top of this, aims were further clarified:

“Object: The cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.

Principle: The subordination of material things to spiritual things.

Fellowship: The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere and strenuous devotion to the object and principle.”

Manual labour was to be united with intellectual pursuits; education and improvement would be at the centre of the community’s life, and members would meet regularly for religious communion, lectures and study groups.

From its birth, though, the group was divided by one of the great polarisations of late 19th century liberal intellectuals: what would create a better way of life: would it be practical social reform, or personal moral and spiritual self-development? This led to the ‘split’ that created the Fellowship’s more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Edward Carpenter, author, anti-vivisectionist, vegetarian, teetotaller, and campaigner for homosexual equality, came to be associated with the Fellowship.

From 1888 to 1889 Carpenter lived with Cecil Reddie, a Ruskin-inspired educationalist; they and the Fellowship planned the pioneering and progressive Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire, which opened in 1889.

According to Edward Carpenter: “Those early meetings of the New Fellowship were full of hopeful enthusiasms – life simplified, a humane diet and a rational dress, manual labour, democratic ideals, communal institutions.”
 The Fellowship held weekly lectures, alternately theoretical and practical, on subjects such as ‘Moral and Social Reform’, ‘Christianity and Communism’, and ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’.

Anarchism over breakfast

The Fellowship of the New Life had a co-operative house at no. 29 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury: ‘Fellowship House’ set up around 1890.

A leading Fellowship member was the founder and mainstay of the Doughty Street commune, Edith Lees; sometime Fellowship secretary, feminist and Lesbian novelist, lecturer, a member of the suffragist Women’s Social & Political Union and the radical feminist Freewoman discussion circle.

One of the most active and vigorous of [the Fellowship]”, she helped to organize and to carry on for some time a joint dwelling or co-operative boarding-house near Mecklenburgh Square, where eight or ten members of the Fellowship dwelt in a kind of communistic Utopia. Naturally the arrangement gave rise to some rather amusing and some almost tragic episodes, which she has recorded for us in a little story entitled Attainment.”

Communal life at Doughty Street was based on Vita Nuova, (New Life), the Fellowship’s proposed manifesto, which asked of members that they live openly, giving up prejudice, gossip, selfishness, and that they introduce discipline and regularity into their lives, critically reviewing each day’s work each evening. Sounds like fun ????!!! Discussions over Vita Nuova had though caused much internal dispute among the New Lifers in 1882-3, to the point that it was not formally adopted as the manifesto.

Besides Lees, other residents here included future Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, anarchist Agnes Henry (who “irritated everyone by discussing anarchism over breakfast”), a journalist called Lespinasse, and an “elderly and quixotic” Captain p-Foundes; but the house also guested a constant stream of visitors including many Russian anarchists (some of whom were Tolstoyan pacifist types).

According to Lees, Fellowship House promised residents all the advantages and obligations of a family without any of its drawbacks… She “argued that women should reject servitude in the home as she and her comrades did.”  
However many socialist or anarchist communes of the time (and since!) ended up reproducing the same power relations between men and women, with women doing most of the domestic work… Despite Edith’s ideal, did Fellowship House fall into this pattern as well? Author Judy Greenway says it “ran into familiar problems over money, housework, and personal incompatibilities…”

In her story Attainment, Lees portrayed life at Doughty Street in fictional form, as ‘Brotherhood House’. Despite the lofty aims, “Class and gender tensions emerge in the running of the household. Although they all praise the simple life and the delights of manual labour and… disagree with having servants, the housekeeping and bookkeeping eventually fall to Rachel (the main character); Rachel also brings with her a maid, Ann, whose practical experience and common-sense approach mean that she ends up doing much of the housework. Meanwhile, the men discuss the ‘boundless … courage’ they need to clean a doorstep. One says, ‘I literally blush all down my back and look up and down the street as if I meditated burying my grandfather under the step.’ The problem is not just that the men are transgressing gender and class boundaries with this kind of work, they are doing so in public.”

Edith’s Doughty Street experiences dented her enthusiasm for the benefits of communal living. In reply to William Morris’s slogan ‘Fellowship is Heaven’, she afterwards asserted that “Fellowship is Hell: lack of Fellowship is Heaven.” 
In her novel, Rachel eventually leaves the collective household, rejecting both the “merger of domestic and political space”, and the “rule-bound way of life based on narrow idealism” (Greenway)… suggesting that ‘Brotherhood House’

“was frankly mere experiment, and was so involved in spiritual speculations and the grammar of living … that it rarely got to the marrow of me.”

But though Edith Lees rejected communal living, she remained committed to exploring alternative ways that men and women could live and relate. (Similarly Rachel in ‘Attainment’ decides to marry, but does not see this as retreating into conventionality: “I dare now,” she says, “to live out what is real within me.”) Through the Fellowship she had met Havelock Ellis, who she left the commune after 18 months in 1891 to marry, in an open marriage in which she was able to enjoy her relationships with women. (Ellis himself was largely impotent until the age of 60, when he discovered that only the sight of a woman pissing turned him on. Better late than never. )

Ellis also wrote about his wife’s lesbian love life in his writings on ‘Sexual Inversion’. Though their “living up to their principles was to prove difficult for both partners, emotionally and financially” (according to Judy Greenway), their open relationship worked for both, in its own way, until Edith fell ill, leading to her premature death in 1916.

The Doughty Street experiment didn’t long survive Edith Lees resignation… Though Agnes Henry, at least, continued to participate in experimental living situations, as well as remaining committed to radical politics. Ramsay Mac of course went on to lead the Labour Party into government and infamy…

The Fabian Society

The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action was a main sticking point from early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which also met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.” (Its not that often that lefties split demanding a LESS specific program!)

Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw (not a Fellowship member, though he had come into contact with Davidson, almost certainly at an early Fellowship meeting, and claimed he had been “bored as he had never been bored before”!) put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”

Shaw’s sarcasm aside, its easy to see that many people would balk at the rigid honesty and commitment demanded by the Fellowship’s program. Their program combined both naivety and elitism, in the idea of a development of a personal perfection that could be the only herald of a new society…

In reply to this the Doughty Street Fellowship members (like others who set up experiments in communal living) might well have countered that they were the practical ones, getting right down to working out on a day to day level how a ‘new life’ could be created.

It would be interesting to know how much the two groups divided, were there crossovers, people who tried to work through both avenues? Did some folk work for ‘practical’ reforms with the Fabians but carry on with the Fellowship on a more personal level? Founder Thomas Davidson himself was critical of the Fabians, dismissing the kind of state socialism they came to stand for; he thought that even if socialists should ‘take over’ the state, “selfishness would find means to exploit and oppress ignorance, simple honesty and unselfishness,, as much as it does today”. Did the Fabians’ more cynically decide that ‘the masses’ would never reform themselves into virtue and would have to have a freer life organised for them?

Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their parent organisation, eventually joining the Labour Party, and by orthodox accounts becoming a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour party culminated in post 1945 Parliament, with Prime Minister, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians, although Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, crediting them with excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks, and that the Fabians have created a mythology around themselves and their history which inflates their impact…

The original Fellowship, changing its name to just the New Fellowship, enjoyed a new lease of life around 1889/ 1890. In 1889 they issued a journal, ‘The Sower’, later ‘Seed Time’, printed by a ‘saintly’ Tolstoyan ‘anarchist’ William Frey (Originally Vladimir Geins), a Russian former aristo and general! who later emigrated to New York, becoming a leader of the ‘New Odessa colony’. Frey was a veggie humanist who influenced communal living ideals in New York and possibly founded a Russian commune in Kansas.

According to Seed Time the group was holding lectures weekly, (at Doughty St?) alternately theoretical and practical (still never nailed that dual nature eh?).. examples of the subjects being ‘Moral and Social Reform’. “Christianity and Communism’, ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’. The Fellowship was still in existence until at least 1896.

Both Seed Time and the groups activities could not have survived if not supported (presumably financially) by William Morris, Ramsay MacDonald, and other luminaries. Morris was a huge influence on the Fellowship, as he was on the early Fabians.


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

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Today in London’s squatting history: Institute For Autonomy social centre evicted, Bloomsbury, 2005.

In 2004-5, no 78 Gower Street, Bloomsbury, London, was squatted and became the Institute for Autonomy, an anti-capitalist social centre.

Created in a disused university building that had lain empty for over 5 years. Officially opening on Saturday 19th March, 2005, the Institute for Autonomy aimed to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. It was organised by open assemblies, and effectively run by a collective made up of University of London students and other assorted refugees from the Grand Banks Social Centre, which had run in Tufnell park the previous year. The ‘Institute’ located close to the university/student area, became used by a variety of political groups as well as hosting various projects (hacklab, screen printing, photolab, infoshop/bookstall) held a cafe three times a week offering top-quality food attracting workers, students and lecturers from around the area. It also housed upwards of 15 people and provided housing for people who were on their way to attend the anti-G8 actions in Gleneagles.

Below we reprint the Institute’s Opening Statement:

The Institute for Autonomy is a newly occupied social centre in central London. Created in a disused university building in a city where house & rent prices continue to climb far out of the reach of the majority, it has lain empty and forgotten for over 5 years.

The Institute for Autonomy aims to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. We are a collective of people of different backgrounds and experiences: some of us have participated in similar projects, some of us are students; none of us can find a place in this society to live our lives with dignity.

We believe capitalist society is based on the principles of greed, egoism, individualism and competition – and like it or not, we are all part of this machine.

In these modern times our fantastical means of communication drive us apart. We are losing the art of society: first we lost our local bakeries to the supermarkets, and with them our local communities (and our health) – now, we rush home from work and, with a frantic series of keystrokes destroy one more opportunity to free ourselves from the prison of efficiency. We are becoming robots at the service of money and fake dreams.

It’s vital for us to create space where a different reality can be experienced, where new paths can be walked, along which can emerge common action, interest and identity amongst people. We organise both the space and our work in open assemblies where, in a rejection of this society where our ‘superiors’ tell us what to do, we practice horizontal and direct democracy. When ideas are discussed openly, we are recreated as real actors in our lives – we use our differences to make any idea a better idea. We aim to create a self-organised space where people aren’t judged by their ability to consume or to produce; where really human discussion and action can take place.

It is more and more clear how unsustainable capitalism is. The scream of nature is louder than ever; animals are facing extinction all over the world; and we are facing a bleak, uncertain future. Wars, wars against wars, wars against our food, wars against the environment, and wars against those who seek to resist.

We believe the process towards autonomy will not protect us from the current situation, but will create a path within the capitalist world which will help us to learn, reflect and develop real relationships between human beings based on solidarity, honesty, respect, initiative and dignity.

We think it is necessary to create and experience moments of autonomy and freedom in our daily lives, in order that we have the tools to begin posing serious alternatives to capitalism and start creating a new world in the shell of the old.

We hold an open meeting every Monday at 8pm to discuss our progress, and for new projects and events to be proposed.

Infoshop and Library

We have set up an infoshop where people can come and pick up leaflets and literature on radical events, thought, movements and struggles. You can find out about squatting, the Zapatistas, the history of Anarchism and environmentalism. Lots of groups have left their literature, and books and pamphlets are for sale at pretty much cost price. There is also a library for people to read in the building, while enjoying a cup of coffee… contributions of books are welcomed!

Art Project: Printing Workshop/ design / banner making.

We will be having weekly screen-printing workshops starting on Sunday 20th March, where people will be encouraged to make their own designs and print on different materials, including T-shirts. Instead of expensive corporate logos we can have our own say on our clothes, and recycle old clothes by making them a lot more interesting. Workshops will welcome artistic people as well as those with no artistic background because it’s very easy to practice anti-copyright by just cutting and pasting any design off the web or anywhere else – so you don’t need talent, just ideas and energy. Anyone wanting to make their designs on the computer (photoshop or illustrator) can be given design support, and then they can print the designs they have made on the computer to the screen and then onto the t-shirt/jacket. We can print colorful posters and leaflets as well if people are committed to consistent printing and a bit of hard work.



Maybe your boss decided not to pay you, maybe you are getting evicted, maybe your benefit claim is being refused, maybe you have an urgent problem or just a feeling that life could be better if we work to change it together… Come for food and coffee, and to talk about insecurity in our lives and how we can take action together to solve them. Come to share information, advice and to meet people.

For the last few months in London a group has been meeting and discussing their precarious situations and lives. Increasingly we are balanced on a cliff edge: we have no job security, no state benefit, no guaranteed shelter, food: all aspects of life in this system are unstable.

That is the aim of the powerful – that we will do as we are told, constantly controlled by the fear that we will end up homeless and hungry. We want to build an alternative, build our own security, by knowing we will have the support of each other.

Solidarity Kitchen

We are an all-volunteer, not-for-profit cooking collective. We seek to provide cheap, vegan and organic meals as an alternative to the pesticide-ridden, genetically modified and expensive supermarket produce and in opposition to the rampant exploitation of animals and the environment.

We are currently open 3 lunchtimes a week at the Gower Street location. The Kitchen will be open between the hours of 12 and 3 pm, the same time as the Cafeteria Rebelde, which serves organic coffee in direct solidarity with the autonomous Zapatista communities of Chiapas in Mexico. The Infoshop will also be open, providing radical reading material. So come down, try the food, meet new friends or volunteer to help to place our health back into our own hands.  We are also available to be approached to cook for political events, demonstrations and direct actions that we feel affinity for.

Cafeteria Rebelde

In 1983, the EZLN the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was formed in the mountains of Chiapas in order to combat the crushing poverty of the regions indigenous communities. The EZLN has worked closely with the communities in order to build a new society from the bottom up where the Maya people can organise autonomously. After more then 20 year the Zapatista are practising a level of autonomy they never dream of, autonomous education and health care are a concrete project now in their territories. They also organise themselves in co-operative and create direct solidarity networks to sell their coffee avoiding market constrains.

Our project aims to support autonomous communities in resistance in Chiapas and also to undermine the rules of the neo-liberal market.

The cafeteria will be open during events in the “Institute for Autonomy”…”

The Institute signified a move for the mostly Wombles-based squat centres of Tufnell Park of 2004, merging with student activists at central London colleges… it was to be succeeded by the larger squat in Russell Square, ‘The Square’, and formed part of a chain with the later Bloomsbury activists involved in uni occupations, supporting workers, eg cleaners at the Universities, and opposing cuts…

The Institute was evicted on 7th July 2005, after it had effectively been abandoned, as most of those involved and a sizable contingent of its regular users had decamped to Scotland to besiege the G8 Summit of the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations. As it was reclaimed by bailiffs, bombs were going off around central London, as Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers attempted to spread terror in the city…


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

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Check out the text of a past tense radical history walk around Bloomsbury, including some other local rebellious sites…

Today in London rebel history: riots erupt against the Corn Laws, 1815

The Corn Laws had their origin in the ‘total war’ waged between Britain (and numerous allies) and revolutionary/Napoleonic France between 1793 and 1815. Napoleon’s blockade of Britain after 1806 accelerated enclosure of common lands, as MPs voted in over 1900 enclosure acts to ensure enough grain could be produced to support Britain and her allies. (The legal machinery for enclosure was simplified in an attempt to speed up the process with the 1801 with the General Enclosure Act. This Act saw the peak of the Agricultural Revolution.)

As all trade with Europe was ended, British landowners ended the war with a virtual monopoly of domestic grain markets. The result of this artificial scarcity of foodstuffs, together with a series of bad harvests in Britain, was a rapid rise in prices accompanied by fluctuations in the trade cycle.

At the end of the French Wars, corn prices plummeted to nearly half their war level, causing panic among the farmers – many of whom were also voters. As a result the government of Lord Liverpool government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815, to ensure the high incomes of farmers and landowners. MPs argued that prices had fallen due to an influx of ‘foreign corn’ after the resumption of trade with Europe. Opponents argued that landowners should reduce rents to ease pressure on farmers – a parliament and government representing the landowners reacted as you might expect…

These laws were intended to stabilise wheat prices at 80/- per quarter. They laid down that no foreign grain could be imported until domestic grain reached that price. The laws protected the intensified agriculture and expanded grain farms that had emerged in the war, but predictably failed to solve the problem of high prices. Prices fluctuated at high levels, encouraging the hoarding of corn.

This was class legislation at its most blatant. It made sure aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported. The Houses of Commons and Lords passed the law with Parliament surrounded by soldiers, knowing well enough what the law meant for the poor.

In response the poor of London rioted – knowing that that, having faced 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier. High food process were compounded by a trade recession and mass unemployment, as the war economy crashed and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors were demobbed.

Rioting broke out in the area around Parliament as the Acts were being debated, and spread out around London and Westminster as the London houses of the MPs and lords held most responsible were targeted by crowds:

“About the usual hour of the Meeting of Parliament on Monday, there were assembled in different parts, from George-street, to Abingdon-street, various groupes of persons, not numerous at first, all declaring against the Corn Bill, and inveighing against such of the Members as had been most active in support of it. There had previously been a great number of persons in the lobby and avenues of the House, and a considerable quantity of constables have been posted in them, to prevent too great a pressure and disturbance.

The persons who were forced to quit the lobby and passages, took post on the outside of the house. In these groupes were several who were well acquainted with the persons of many leading Members of both Houses, and pointed them out as they came down to attend their duty.—”That is Lord Grenville—that Lord Stanhope—that the Chancellor of the Exchequer”—and hooting or applause followed as the Member passing was known to be friendly or unfriendly to the Corn Bill.—Meanwhile loud shouts of “No Corn Bill!” raised without the House, were distinctly heard within it. For some time the groupes confined themselves to these manifestations of pleasure or displeasure. At length many of the carriages of the Members were stopped, and the Members forced to walk through the crowd amidst hooting and hissing. The civil power now was found to be insufficient for the protection of the Members, and the Magistrates having applied to the Speaker, received an order to call in the military to act under the civil power. Several of the Members, however, had been very roughly handled. They were called upon by the populace to tell their names, and how they had voted or intended to vote. Mr. Fitzgerald, the Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, was treated in this way. Mr. Croker’s life was more seriously endangered; his carriage was beset by a mob, who made the enquiries to which we have just alluded, he refused to answer them; on his arrival at the house, both doors of the carriages were forced open, and upon stepping out, he was seized by the collar, and received several blows; same question was repeated to him, and the mob said, he should never enter the House alive if he did not tell his name and his sentiments on the Corn Bill. He still refused, and probably would not have escaped without the most serious injury, if at all, if the mob in their violence and confusion, had not directed their rage against each other. Those who suggested one mode, were opposed by others, and enforcing their arguments by blows, Mr. Croker fortunately made his escape into the Coffee-house of the Lords, and from thence into the House of Commons.

The Attorney General, though assailed at first much in the same manner as Mr. Croker, escaped more easily. He gave the mob his name, and told them he should vote as his conscience would direct him.

The military however succeeded in suppressing the tumult near the House, and the immediate vicinity remained clear during the rest of the night. But the populace, driven from this scene, repaired to other parts of the town—”to Mr. Robinsons!” “To Lord Eldon’s!” “To Lord Darnley’s!” “To Lord Ellenborough’s!” was the cry, and groups report repaired forthwith to one or the other of the houses these Noblemen and Gentlemen.

Having supposed the Hon. Mr. Robinson’s residence to be in Charles’s-square, they went thither, and did not leave the street till they learned he had moved to Burlington-street. As soon as they had fixed upon his house, they broke the windows in every floor, demolished the parlour shutters, and split the doors into pieces. The iron rails before the house were torn up, and instantly carried off. Rushing into the house, they then cut to pieces many valuable pictures, destroying some of the larger pieces of furniture, and threw the rest into the street, to be trampled to pieces by their associates.” (Chester Chronicle).

Frederick John Robinson MP had introduced the Corn Bill to Parliament. From his half trashed gaff soldiers stationed to prevent further attacks shot two passers-by who had nothing to do with the violence. Nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house, was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene. Another person was also said to have been killed here.

“From Mr. Robinson’s they ran to the house of Lord Darnleys, Mr. Yorke’s, Lord Hardwicke’s, Mr. Meux’s, in Berkeley-square. They broke every window at each place, and demolished the doors, what were prevented from going within.

Another account says, that having mustered about the centre of the street, and not amounting at their arrival to more than fifty or sixty, one (we understand a person well dressed) was selected to ascertain the residence of Mr. Robinson. He knocked at the door, and being informed that Mr. Robinson was not at home, he continued for a short time in conversation with the servant who opened it, when, on a preconcerted signal being given, the others rushed in and proceeded to the work of devastation. The demolition of the furniture occupied little more than an hour.

At ten o’clock, a mob, amounting to about 300, not more, entered Bedford-square, from the corner next Oxford-street, and proceeded to the house of the Lord Chancellor…” (Chester Chronicle).

John Scott, Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor, had been pursued from the house of Lords to his house. Ironically, Eldon seems himself have been opposed to the Corn Laws, but on balance, he was a bad bad bastard! Early on in his political rise, as Attorney General, Eldon brought in the Act suspending Habeus Corpus in 1794, allowing people to be imprisoned without trial, and acted as chief prosecutor in a treason trial against leading members of the radical reform organisation, the London Corresponding Society – though his case was so weak and his speechifying so hysterical, they were famously acquitted. Appointed Lord Chief Justice and later Lord Chancellor, he became a crucial wedge of the most repressive government in modern times, which repressed numerous working class movements, and quashed several revolts and conspiracies, including the Despard conspiracy, the Black Lamp, the Luddites, among the most famous. Eldon was a notorious advocate of hanging for the most petty offences, an ardent opponent of the abolition of slavery in the Colonies.

So the London Crowd hated his guts anyway, and may have felt they’d seize the chance to do for him in the general ruck. They broke all the windows ; broke into the house and smashed as much as they could, throwing Eldon’s papers into the street; only the arrival of a party of soldiers prevented them from their aim of hanging Eldon from a lamppost in Bedford Square, a noose having been prepared for the same…
Eldon and the soldiers grabbed two rioters and dragged them inside: Eldon told them: “If you don’t mind what you are about lads, you will all come to be hanged.” A rioter replied, “Perhaps so, old chap, but I think it looks now as if you would be hanged first.”
Sadly Eldon was to wear no hemp necklace.

The two arrested men were sent before a justice of peace, but the soldiers refused to be witnesses against them. A garrison of 50 soldiers was stationed outside Eldon’s house for 3 weeks, since “persons in the front of the house from time to time using menacing language and threats, whenever from the streets they saw any persons in the house.”

Other MPs residences received similar treatment:

“The house of Lord Ellenborough in St. James’s square, was also attacked, and considerably injured. Soon after they had commenced their assault upon the house, his Lordship, in the most intrepid manner, presented himself at the door, and inquired the cause of the outrages upon his dwelling? The reply was “No Corn Bill, No Corn Bill:” on which his Lordship addressed them in a few words, the purpose of which we have not heard, but the effect was that the mob instantly cheered the Noble Lord and departed. They next proceeded to assail some other houses in the same square, but a party of the Life Guards approached by this time in full gallop, and the square in a few minutes was completely cleared. This, we understand, was the case in every other part of the town where the assailants appeared, and by one o’clock they were no longer to be seen in bodies; straggling individuals only were observable, and the military continuing to patrole the streets and squares, no further attempt to disturb the public tranquillity was any where made.

THE RIOTS—were renewed on Tuesday night, and with fatal consequences. Every person going to the Houses of Parliament was examined by constables, and no tumult occurred till after the House of Commons adjourned. Afterwards, however, the mob assembled, and made two attacks on Lord Castlereagh’s house; they renewed their violence against the houses of Mr. Robinson, and Lord Darnley; their next objects with those of Mr. Yorke, Mr. Bathurst, Lord King, Lord Lascelles, Mr. Weston, Mr Wellesley Pole, Sir H. Parnell, Sir W. Rowe, &c. The windows of many private persons were demolished by mistake; but none were entered, owing to the activity of the soldiery. It appears that the mob had actually collected some bags of shavings, for the purpose of setting fire to Mr. Robinson’s house, at the moment the guards arrived, and several wheelbarrows full of stones, were emptied in the street, to facilitate the work of destruction!

In these movements, we lament to say, one man and one woman were killed, and three persons wounded. The man was shot through the head with slugs; he was dressed in uniform of a midshipman, and was immediately conveyed to a public house. He proved to be a son of Mr. Dodd, printseller, in Parliament-street, and had gone out shortly before, for the purpose of viewing the operations of the mob. The woman was a widow of a sailor, and had left her friends with a promise to return in half an hour.

A large train of artillery was brought on Friday from Woolwich. More troops have arrived or are on their road. Two fresh regiments of light dragoons are quartered at Kensington and Bow. Ten thousand horse and foot could be called out in an hour, if it were necessary.”

(Chester Chonicle, 17th March 1815).

The riots continued in various parts of the town during the 7th, 8th, and 9th of March. By this time, however, the houses of the Lord Chancellor, and of many other leading members of the Ministry and of the Legislature, were garrisoned with soldiers ; and, London being ultimately surrounded by troops on every hand, the disturbances ended.

Other disturbances around the country commenced with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815 and continued intermittently until the end of 1816. In London and Westminster riots ensued and were continued for several days; at Bridport there were riots on account of the high price of bread; at Bideford there were similar disturbances to prevent the export of grain; at Bury by the unemployed to destroy machinery; at Newcastle-on-Tyne by colliers and others; at Glasgow, where blood was shed, on account of soup kitchens; at Preston, by unemployed weavers; at Nottingham by Luddites who destroyed 30 frames; at Merthyr Tydvil, on a reduction of wages; at Birmingham by the unemployed; at Walsall by the distressed; and December 7th, 1816, at Dundee, where, owing to the high price of meal, upwards of 100 shops were plundered. Other riots and demonstrations with an avowedly political bent, like the 1816 Spa Fields Riot, and the 1819 Peterloo massacre, were strongly influenced by the mass poverty of the time, in which the high price of bread was a major factor.

Although rioting died down, over the next three decades, the Corn Laws remained a hot issue economically, with periodic agitations for their repeal, usually driven by a middle class movement based in the manufacturing strata, who saw the introduction of complete free trade as being ideologically and economically in their and the national economy’s best interests. This became focussed with the founding of the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. The rising class of manufacturers and industrial workers (who were under-represented in Parliament, as compared to he old landowning aristos) wanted to maximise their profits from manufacture by reducing the wages they paid to their factory workers, but complained that the Con Laws kept the price of bread so high, they were unable to reduce wage levels to the pittance levels they desired—men could not work in the factories if a factory wage was not enough to feed them and their families. Lovely. Chartists and socialists accused the anti-Corn Law League of only being interested in reducing wages, but needing to enlist mass support from the working classes so as to put pressure on the Tory protectionists.

Eventually a combination of this long agitation for repeal, a succession poor harvests and the resulting hardship (starvation in Ireland), and the threat of reviving Chartist campaigning, led to the Corn Laws being repealed in 1846, amidst much political shenanigans, and against strong opposition from landowning interests.


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

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