Today in London housing history, 2009: six people die in Lakanal House fire, Camberwell

“It began with a faulty electronic appliance starting a fire in a flat. But the flames spread across the outside of the building, taking hold on cheap composite panels, not compliant with building regulations, which had been fitted during a refurbishment. Terrified residents called emergency services and were told to stay put in their homes, where they later died.

In the aftermath, questions were asked. How did risk assessments miss this? How did the system of building regulation allow the refurbishment to take place? How couldy this happen so close to the wealthiest part of one of the wealthiest cities on earth?

In social housing right now it seems history repeats itself twice as tragedy. Because this is not a description of the Grenfell Tower disaster, but Lakanal House – a fire eight years earlier …” (Inside Housing)

Lakanal House was built in 1959: a 14-storey tower block containing 98 flats. Southwark Council had previously scheduled the building for demolition in 1999, although later it was decided not to demolish it.

On 3 July 2009, a fire broke out a flat on the ninth floor of Lakanal House, caused by faulty television.

One single central stairwell was the only way in and out of the building – this filled quickly with thick dark smoke, making escape – and rescue – difficult. Around 150 people were evacuated or rescued from the flats. The Fire Brigade rescued a number of people from the flats. Many were taken to Guy’s Hospital, King’s College Hospital and Lewisham Hospital with injuries including smoke inhalation.

The fire killed three people in their flats – three people died of their injuries in hospital. Nine other people were treated at an emergency centre set up by Southwark Council. One firefighter was also admitted to hospital after being injured while fighting the fire.

The dead were three adults and three young children: Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her children, six-year-old Thais, and Felipe, three; Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; and 31-year-old Catherine Hickman.

The Fire Brigade had responded with a total of eighteen fire engines attending, setting up an operational command centre was erected on the seventh floor. People within the flats calling 999 were told to remain in their flats instead of attempting to flee, based on the theory of ‘compartmentation’ – the idea that the structure of the building meant the fire could not spread from flat to flat, so staying in their flats would help protect the families while the blaze was contained. This was supposed to be safer than braving the smoke-filled stairwells and corridors.

However, the flames spread from flat to flat and between floors on the outside of the building, as cladding and insulation caught fire. The exterior cladding panels had burned through in less than five minutes.

Catherine Hickman spent 40 minutes on the phone with 999 responders who urged her to stay in her flat; at the end of the call the responder could no longer hear her breathing.

A Fire Brigade investigation into the fire later helped bring to light that it had already been identified, before the blaze, that the structure and layout of Lakanal House posed a risk of enabling a fire to spread, if one should occur in one of the flats.

An inquest into the deaths at Lakanal House found that the rapid spread of the fire, due to the igniting of the exterior cladding, had trapped people in their homes. As in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire eight years later, residents were advised to remain in their homes in the event of a fire. The inquest also concluded that substandard renovations had removed fire-stopping material between the flats – a problem not uncovered by any Southwark council’s fire safety inspections carried out before the fire.

The layout of the flats made escape in case of an emergency difficult. The two-bedroom maisonettes were based on a two-storey interlocking design. The flats are entered from the right or left side of a central access corridor. On the access level, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom. There are stairs to the upper level where a lounge and kitchen stretch across the full width of the block. This means that the lounge for each flat is above one of the bedrooms of that flat and one of the bedrooms of the flat on the opposite side of the access corridor. The flats were built with fire exits from the lounge and the kitchen to ‘exit balconies’ on either side of the building, and also a fire exit from the largest bedroom into the central access corridor, separate from the front door.

The block had no central fire alarm system – not required by virtue of the then Building Regulations Approved Document B for England And Wales.

Southwark Council claimed after the fire that it had recently spent £3.5 million on refurbishment to meet current fire safety standards.

Residents evacuated from the flats sheltered in nearby community centres, helped by donations and solidarity from other locals and people much wider afield. Some of the residents found alternative accommodation with relatives although the majority were provided with accommodation by Southwark Council. Lakanal House was boarded up. Refurbishment work commenced in 2015, and the block had reopened to residents – many of those who lived there prior to the fire found it too painful to return, however. Southwark spent millions on refurbishment of several blocks after the event.

A number of tower blocks of a similar design exist: Marie Curie House, also nearby, is of identical design to Lakanal.

Despite many calls for a proper investigation and inquiry into the causes of the rapid spread of the fire, no public inquiry has ever been conducted into the Lakanal House fire. At the inquest it was concluded that no realistic prospect of any corporate manslaughter charge was possible, despite many clear failings by the council. However, London Fire Brigade eventually brought a case against Southwark Council to court, eight years later. The Council pleaded guilty in February 2017 to four charges concerning breaches to safety regulations. It was fined £270,000, reduced from £400,000 because it had pleaded guilty, plus £300,000 costs.

Less than four months later, Grenfell Tower caught fire, and the blaze spread in a very similar way, up flammable cladding & insulation on the outside of the building. Again, people were told to stay in their flats as this should protect them from fire better than trying to escape down the stairs.

This time 72 people died.

But might Grenfell never have happened, if proper notice had been taken of events in Lakanal? Recommendations for changes in construction and fire regulations, and to how fires are dealt with by the emergency services, after Lakanal House burned were never acted on at national level, leaving thousands of residents living in potential death traps.

After the 2013 inquest into Lakanal, Coroner Judge Frances Kirkham wrote to Southwark council, the London Fire Commissioner, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a series of recommendations to prevent a similar disaster occurring in future.

She made more than 40 recommendations, including that more guidance should be given to residents in high rise blocks, including clear advice on how to react if a fire breaks out and what to do if circumstances changed – for example if smoke starts coming into a flat.  She also recommended that block layouts should be given to emergency workers responding to fires.

The Department for Communities and Local Government, led by then-minister the (Right Corrupt and Frankly Disgusting) Eric Pickles, was asked to publish national guidance on the confusing ‘stay put’ principle and ‘get out and stay out’ policy.

The government was also asked to provide guidance on building regulations and check the safety of materials and whether refurbishment work can reduce existing fire protection, and to consider retrofitting sprinklers across high-rise blocks.

The government published a response committing itself to publishing new building guidance and committing to make fire safety and priority. This was a smokescreen – no review ever came.

Grenfell repeated Lakanal – but on a scale many times worse. The impact has been massive – on residents, families, friends, communities. A wave of support and solidarity for the affected; an upsurge in social housing tenants organising, especially in blocks with similar issues. Huge lip service has been paid by politicians, corporations and councils, in response to the outpouring of outrage. A Public Inquiry has been quickly set up this time. But yet again campaigners and those most involved in the after-effects have been saying for nearly three years that this should never have happened, warnings were there before the fire, and the evacuated have been increasingly marginalised by the authorities. Cynics (AKA people with some experience of the housing system) have been expressing the view that despite everything, they suspect that things will go back to the way they were before. Deaths, outrage, inquiry, recommendations, burial, silence, normality. Repeat.

Why? How can people die in horrific fires – caused by the institutions supposedly there to look after their interests, and by the large corporations contracted to carry out the building work… and no-one puts into practice any lessons learned? How does it happen again: much, much worse? Will it happen again?

Could it be because the people in charge of housing and housing policy overwhelmingly do not live in social housing, have never lived in social housing, will never live in social housing, and consider those that do as at best a nuisance to be ignored or ‘managed’, or an impediment to the proper and ‘vibrant’ commercialisation of inner city land, to be shifted, shafted and short-changed? Housing is for profit not people’s need, and the people had better get used to that?

Some say we need another way of living…

Justice for Grenfell

Grenfell United

Rare Doings at Camberwell: A Wander around some of the radical history of London SE5

RARE DOINGS AT CAMBERWELL

A walk based on research done for a radical history walk around Camberwell, under the title “The Right To Live”, held on Sunday 25th June 2006, as part of Camberwell Arts Week. The walk was researched, designed and mostly spoken by Melissa Bliss and Alex Hodson, though other locals contributed their own reminiscences… In April 2007 part of this material was reprised as a talk at the Camberwell Squatted Centre (aka Black Frog) in Warham Street. We’ve run some public variations on the same walk since… This text owes much to the original researches and ideas of Melissa Bliss.

This isn’t the history of Camberwell. It’s not even the history of the events, personalities and movements that it covers. It is, at best, a series of linked themes, exploring some social history and the more disorderly and politically radical underside of SE5. It has serious omissions, could cover more social history, more on industrial development and those who worked in those industries; more on the different communities that have made their home here, and the conflicts they have experienced; more on madness and its containment, and especially more on recent gentrification and class. Maybe another time…

Also: we are not historians. We came to history as rebels and activists, fighting for a world where people’s lives, personal relations and survival are organised for our needs and desires, not for someone else’s profit. Our interest in history arises from a wider desire, to change the present collectively. The past, its links to the present and to a future we aspire to create, are not separate areas of study; the ideas and practice of rebellion against the authority of one class over another, and the methods of social control that class society develops to maintain itself, link history, our own battles in our own lives, and the visions of how we would live if we could freely choose. Some of us have lived in Camberwell, and have experienced some of this ‘history’ first-hand.

An earlier version of this text was also published as a Past Tense pamphlet, ‘Rare Doings At Camberwell’ in 2008.

When done as a physical walk, this route could take some time… it could be split up into sections. Walked backwards. Whatever.

START: CAMBERWELL GREEN

Camberwell has a deep and interesting past, full of working class struggles, radical, subversive and downright mad personalities, rowdy popular entertainment and some outbreaks of class war.

A brief Overview of Camberwell/ general history

Up until the 18th Century Camberwell was a rural village, based around St Giles Church Church, the Green, (scene of the annual Fair) and a spa and healing well, which was located up Camberwell Grove.

Some historians believe the healing well may have given the area its name, as they think Camberwell means ‘well of the crooked or cripples’. This chimes in with the local church being named for St Giles, patron saint of lepers. People expelled from the City of London for having leprosy may have settled here for treatment.

However it is also possible that the ‘Camber’ refers to an old settlement of Britons, who in the days of the Saxon conquest of Southern Briton called themselves Cumbri (in modern Welsh, Cymry’). This might be linked to neighbouring Walworth, thought by some to be named by neighbouring Saxons for the ‘Welsh’ (Britons) who lived there. The whole area might have been an enclave of older celtic communities…

The Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell’s old coat of arms. When we did our first version of this walk, we made up an old standard with this and paraded it around, spoofing the old beating the Bounds ceremony

The old medieval parish of Camberwell St Giles included Peckham, Nunhead and much of Dulwich. The parish was controlled by the Vestry; when the parish was replaced as an administrative body by the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell in 1900. In 1965 the Borough was amalgamated with the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark and the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey to create the London Borough of Southwark.

The popularity of the Spa gradually transformed the village into a place of middle class retreat, and farms were replaced by big houses up the hill… The area became more suburban during the 19th century, as London expanded; speculative building firms bought up land and built large housing estates.

Later in the Century, the class of persons living in area ‘went down’, especially after “workman’s tickets” on trains enabled the working classes to live further from their place of work. In common with many other areas of South London, large areas of Camberwell saw mass house building to accommodate newer working class residents. Many earlier middle class areas thus were transformed into working class neighbourhoods from the 1860s-70s – for example around Southampton Way and St Lukes.

The following population figures give some sense of the massive 19th Century growth of the area, though they represent the whole parish and not merely Camberwell the village/suburb:

Census for parish of Camberwell                           Population

1801                                                                           7,059

1841                                                                           39,868

1861                                                                           71,488

1891                                                                           235,344

In 90 years a few rural villages were swallowed up by the rapid expansion of the metropolis.

So who were these people who moved into the area, and where did they live?

In Booth’s Map of Descriptive Poverty, from Life and Labour of the People of London,1890, the relative social class of people living in various parts of the area was sketched out. You can get an interesting picture of what had become a suburb of London, and where people of different classes lived.

  • South, up the hill, from De Crespigny Park, to the top of the hill at least, was upper class, and upper middle class, wealthy, almost exclusively.
  • The middle classes lived all round Church St, the Green, especially in houses lining the main streets. Also middle class was Brunswick Park, the east end of where the Elmington Estate now is, Camberwell Grove, Grove Lane, Coldharbour Lane, and along Peckham Road.
  • The next class down, a mix of the ‘fairly comfortable’ with others on ‘ordinary earnings’, can be found behind Daneville Road, round Wyndham Road and Medlar Street.
  • Mixed areas of ‘some comfortable, others poor’ lived behind the modern magistrates courts and off D’Eynsford Road, round the west part of the modern Elmington Estate…
  • The poor (’18 to 21 shillings a week per family’) clustered to the north of Camberwell Green, round the old Father Red Cap pub/Camberwell Road, and also to the north of Southampton Way, north of Commercial Road (now Commercial Way), and north of the Elmington. “A confusion of alleys and courts enclosed by Lomond Grove, Camberwell Green and Camberwell Road” was described as holding the chronically poor in the 1880s (Dyos)
  • Very poor areas (‘Casual, chronic want’) were found behind the Cock in Cock Yard (behind the modern Tiger (formerly the Silver Buckle) pub), round yards between the southern bus garage and Denmark Hill, and also in the Sultan Street area (known as Camberwell Mill or Freemans Mill), off Wyndham Road. Several streets here – Crown Street, Wyndham road, Pitman Road, and Bethwin Street were said in the 1880s to be “of very bad character”…”The only policemen venturing there were very foolish policemen.”
  • Interestingly though, there were no concentrated areas of the “lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal” as could be seen all over Southwark and Newington further north.

With some exceptions and accepting that this is a broad generalisation, it could probably still be said today that Camberwell New Road, Church Street and Peckham Road form a kind of border, and those who live to the south in the main are better off and maybe hang with a ‘higher’ social class than those who live to the north… Not entirely, and areas are more mixed now than in the past… But it has some validity.

Local industries: In the mid to late 19th century, the printing, small engineering, leather trades became widespread in the area, mainly in the north of Camberwell round Southampton Way, and where modern Burgess Park now lies. The old Surrey Canal that ran from Camberwell to the Thames through Surrey Docks helped stimulate a lot of local industrial growth, especially along its banks.

Revelry, Disorder, Space and Social Control

For centuries, Camberwell Fair was held locally, every August. First recorded in 1279, it moved from being held in ‘Gods Acre’, the immediate grounds of St Giles Church, to Church Street, opposite the Cock Pub (which was by the corner of Denmark Hill); by the 18th century it had moved on to the Green itself.

Originally held for three weeks, (9th of August to September 1st, the latter being feast of patron saint St Giles), by the 1800s the Fair, with it’s catchphrase; “Rare doings at Camberwell”, had been shortened to only 3 days – the 19th, 20th, and 21 August. Local farming had declined, and the Fair’s traditional rural economic functions (based around trade, but also hiring of agricultural workers for the year ahead) had eroded; the Fair now mainly featured drink and food, music, and acts, shows and performances, with a generous side helping of illicit sex, debauchery, and some robbery and violence.

Cheap food stalls of food, (oysters, pickled salmon, fried plaice, gingerbread) mingled with with junk and toy stands; side by side with exhibitions, animals that performed, or had bizarre deformities, plays, merry go rounds, shies etc…hawkers, pickpockets, jugglers, performers, magicians… People from all over South London flocked to the event, with carts, donkeys, old nags, offering rides, often the drivers singing songs or bantering with each other.

But the growing middle class of early 19th Century Camberwell hated this plebeian disruption.

“For these three days the residents of Camberwell were compelled to witness disgusting and demoralising scenes which they were powerless to prevent” …
Peckham Fair, in the same parish, ran every year for the 3 days following Camberwell Fair (namely 22nd – 24th August), and was a similarly troublesome – local authorities had to pay for extra policing for the whole week and passed this onto the parish ratepayers.

The two events attracted petty, and not so petty, crime. In 1802 at the end of Peckham Fair; a “numerous and desperate gang of pickpockets” robbed & assaulted respectable folk en masse as they were leaving the Fair. The gentry and middle classes attending the Fairs were seen as fair game (pardon the pun)…

There were constant attempts to control and restrict the fair and people’s enjoyment of it. Fairs at this time were a major source of moral outrage (think of modern objections to the Notting Hill Carnival every year).

However, the Fairs were a source of income for many of the poor and working classes, both legally, and through crime and the conning of fairgoers; there’s no doubt that it also brightened up people’s lives, an explosion of wild relief of the daily grind of poverty in a huge party.

There were several concerted attempts during the early 19th Century to shut the Fair down. In 1807 a Notice was pasted up:
“Notice is hereby given that no drinking, booths, unlawful exhibitions or music, will be permitted at Camberwell or Peckham Fairs. That the constables have strict orders to prevent all gaming, or seize and carry away all implements used or employed therein, and to apprehend all the offenders, and that no dancing or music will be permitted at public houses, which are required to be close shut at eleven o’clock at night.

By order of the magistrates.”

Apparently “officers from Union Hall Police Office and the Patrol from Bow St, attended… some trifling incidents occurred, but none of serious importance.”

In 1823, a Camberwell Vestry meeting was held to see what authority there was, in the form of an old grant or charter, to hold the Fair, This backfired, as evidence was produced in a Petty Session case to support its right to be held. In 1827, the Vestry managed to ban Peckham Fair for good.

Another attempt to ban Camberwell Fair in 1832 failed, but by 1855, the Fair’s days were numbered: a local Committee for the Abolition of Camberwell Fair was set up by leading residents, who pressurised the parish authorities into buying the Green, and closing down the fair, with the help of the police. The glee of one middle class historian is palpable: the Green was “encumbered for the last time with its horde of nomadic thieves, its coarse and lewd men and women and this concentrated essence of vice, folly and buffoonery was no longer allowed to contaminate the youth of the district and annoy the more staid and respectable residents.”

The Green, said before then to be a Waste, was bought from the Lord of the Manor, landscaped, turned into a ‘proper’ park.

The closing down of Camberwell Fair should be seen in the context of a widespread campaign in the early 19th Century, to impose social and moral control over the growing working classes. National government, local vestries and parish authorities, officials of most churches, and various bourgeois organisations such as the Constitutional Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, were broadly united in attempting to control and ‘reform’ the ‘immoral’ behaviour of the working classes, especially the poor, through encouraging/them forcing them into hard work, proper respect for authority and religion, and by attacking ‘vice’, disorder and immoral behaviour. This meant repression of ‘vice’ in the forms of pubs, prostitution, those who radically challenged religion or the political establishment.

Fairs, widely viewed as hotspots of immorality, disorder and in many cases satirical political plays and speeches, were a prime target. Not only this, but in an era of political upheaval and widespread radical agitation among the working class, any gathering of the poor was seen as dangerous. The open spaces where Fairs traditionally took place were also under attack, through the enclosure of commons, Greens and the increasing landscaping into parks, or development into housing. The physical alteration of space was seen as having a moral effect on the disorderly behaviour of the poor: proper ordered open space replacing ‘waste’ and common was believed to encourage respectability…

For local Vestries, the high cost of policing the Fairs and cleaning up afterwards were also a factor.

But the Green’s tradition as a place of entertainment and hedonism has continued. It has long been a site of public meetings, rowdiness, rallies, protests, and parties.

Not only in terms of its continuing use by street drinkers, who, as in many other parks have gradually reclaimed open space in defiance of those who would keep them socially cleansed and invisible.
Read a longer post on Camberwell Fair

Festivals and parties have also taken place on the Green over the years.

For instance: in June 1998, during Camberwell Arts Week, a Summer Solstice party was held, featuring a three-quarter size model of Stonehenge, made of fibre-glass. Several hundred urban pagans reproduced their own Stonehenge Festival… during which a slightly inebriated reveller fell against one of the stones and, as they were all roped together) nearly dominoed the whole lot!

From 2006-2008, the annual ‘Bonkersfest’ celebration of madness and creativity was held there (more on this later).

Here’s a temporary plaque we put up on the Green to remember Camberwell Fair (some fancier banners about the Fair hang on the railings these days)

CROSS THE ROAD TO THE CORNER WITH CAMBERWELL NEW ROAD, STOP OUTSIDE THE BANK

Poverty, Crime And Policing

Look over the road to Tiger pub:

Tiger Yard and Joiners Arms Yard, behind the Cock Inn (ie behind the modern Tiger pub & the Joiners Arms) were among the poorest places in Camberwell in the mid to late 19th century… the people who lived here existed in chronic poverty. Large numbers of families living in a few houses, often unemployed and overcrowded. (These yards were still described as one of the area’s blackspots when demolished in 1930s. There had been much agitation by local Labour councillors to demolish the old overcrowded houses and rehouse the inhabitants, despite much opposition from the Tory-controlled Borough Council.)

There’s a great bit of research on the inhabitants of Tiger Yard before its demolition here

Camberwell slums in 1930

The bottom of the hill had always had some poor even when the area was rural; not all the forelock-tugging, law-abiding poor either. Some inhabitants who lived in cottages opposite the Cock Inn (round about Kennedy’s Sausages) were said to watch out for wealthy travellers dismounting from the coach, which stopped at the corner of Camberwell Green, and setting off walking to Dulwich… They would then follow them and lighten them of their possessions in some suitable dark spot…

 

 

This re-distribution of wealth led to the building of the constables’ Cage and Watchhouse, which stood on Denmark Hill, next to today’s Joiners Arms, until the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. This was replaced as the stronghold of local law and order by a Police Station the Northwest corner of the junction of the Green and Camberwell New Road, (now the bank) which was built in 1848, and demolished in 1898.

The Cage was succeeded by other centres of control and restraint. On the corner of Medlar Street and Camberwell New Road, Lambeth County Court used to stand, in the early 20th Century (with a Masonic hall and Sorting Office behind it, next to the railway). Camberwell Magistrates Court was built behind Camberwell Green in the early 1970s (we will return to this later).

Wyndham Road used to house the Southwark Diocesan Boys Shelter, in the late 19th/early 20th Century. This was an Approved Probation School for boys 16-19 put on probation in police court. The institution attempted to “build them up morally mentally and spiritually”, by prayer, a tough physical training regime, and training in domestic skills so they could better themselves by becoming servants in hotels and the homes of the wealthy etc. The usual mix of morality and brutality.

WALK UP CAMBERWELL ROAD TO THE NORTH: STOP AT THE CORNER OF WYNDHAM ROAD

Radicals and Rioters

19th Century Camberwell may have been largely a middle-class suburb but also had a local working class tradition: possibly originating in the tradition of London trades traveling out to rural pubs for days of merriment and sometimes political debate.

In the early 19th Century, with working people being increasingly forced off the land and into urban areas, with the growth of factories and massive spread of Cities, working class people were rapidly becoming politicised and conscious of themselves and their class interests. Working class organisations, radical clubs and early Trade Unions formed a growing network across many cities… London was no exception.

In 1832 the National Union of the Working Classes met at the Duke of York pub, Camberwell New Road (which stood opposite the modern Union Tavern, but has long since been closed).

The NUWC had arisen from an alliance of radical artisan societies in London, who had been organising both on economic levels, fighting for better wages and conditions, and politically, seeing parliamentary reform and more rights for working people as fundamental to achieving economic improvements… The NUWC were involved in encouraging working class pressure in support of the campaigning for the 1832 Reform Act; however, the Act enfranchised the middle classes and reformed outdated constituencies and corrupt practices, but did nothing for the workers. More radical elements of the NUWC together with other groups, prepared to step up their activities – many felt armed uprising would be necessary to achieve change… This led to confrontations with the new Metropolitan Police, as at the Battle of Coldbath Fields in 1833, when a NUWC rally was attacked by the Met and a policeman killed in the ensuing riot (it was later found by a Jury to be Justifiable Homicide in self-defence, due to the police attack on the crowd!).

In 1833, the Sawyers Arms, Camberwell (which we haven’t yet located) hosted meetings of the 91st Class of the NUWC, in particular they held a dinner for the acquitted George Fursey, a defendant from the Battle of Coldbath Fields.

The Chartists

As the 1830s went on, the NUWC and groups like them evolved into what has been called the first national movement of the British working class – the Chartists.

The Chartists aimed broadly at an increase in political power for working class people, at that time mostly not allowed to vote and formally excluded from the political process. Chartism became a huge broad-based mass movement, organised around six major demands for political reform that had been the program of the British reformers and radicals since the 1760s…

  1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The ballot – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament-thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

The Chartists’ tactics included huge monster meetings, and a petition to Parliament, presented and rejected three times between 1838 and 1848. The movement was made up of thousands of local branches, whose activities went far beyond pressing for reform, but built a whole culture, of education, songs, history, their own ceremonies and open discussion; they were conscious of their links to radicals of the past and similar movements abroad. and included all kinds of people, women and men, black people… Although most did not advocate the vote for women, some Chartists did, and female democratic associations formed an important part of the movement.

As their petitions and political pressure failed, many Chartists began to advocate a working class seizure of power by armed force, and divisions split these ‘Physical Force’ Chartists from their ‘Moral Force’ counterparts. Several Chartist uprisings were planned in 1839-40, which failed or were repressed. Plotters, and Chartists involved in organising rallies, strikers and other actions were jailed, transported to the penal colonies in their thousands.

Local Chartists who lived in Camberwell include one Simpson, of Elm Cottage, Camberwell, who sold tickets for a Chartist-sponsored soiree in honour of radical MP T.S. Duncombe in 1845; and David Johnston, a moral force Chartist, born in Scotland, a Weaver, then apprentice baker, who was elected Overseer of the Poor in St. Giles, Camberwell, 1831, ‘by popular vote’. Johnston ‘was a keen (moral force) Chartist. Johnston left in 1848 for the US, after ‘rowdies from Kennington wrecked my shop’.

The Chartists held mass meetings in South London the 1840s, mainly on Kennington Common, especially in 1848, the year of the last great Chartist upsurge, when they prepared the third Great Petition for the Charter. While the plans for presenting the petition were developed, physical force Chartists again prepared uprisings; in London in ’48 several riots ensued when rallies were attacked by police. Through the Spring and early Summer the capital was in a state of alert: the authorities feared revolution (which was breaking out in France and across Europe), and Chartists hoped and worked for a popular rising to achieve their rights.

On 13 March 1848, a week after a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square, that led to 3 days of rioting, a Chartist mass meeting was held on Kennington Common. Nearly 4000 police were called out; despite this 400 or 500 demonstrators moved off to Camberwell by back streets, led by a band. When they got to here, Wyndham Road, then called Bowyer Lane a riot broke out; looters armed with “staves of barrels, and sticks of all descriptions”, including palings, rifled shops and fought with the constables. The whole episode occurred within the space of an hour and only nine arrests were made (by a party of’ mounted police, assisted by special constables) at the time, but since a number of the rioters had been recognised by the locals twenty-five were brought to trial in April. Identified among the leaders were Charles Lee, a gipsy, and David Anthony Duffy, a ‘man of colour’ and unemployed seaman, known to the police as a beggar in the Mint, where he went about “without shirt, shoe, or stocking”; and  Benjamin Prophett, known as ‘Black Ben’, another ‘man of colour’ and seaman. These and fifteen other men, of whom four had previous convictions, were sentenced to from seven to fourteen years’ transportation and three to one year’s imprisonment. More on the Camberwell Riot

The Camberwell riot was short, but it attracted some publicity, and contributed to the hysterical prelude to 10 April 1848, when Chartists met nationally on Kennington Common, aiming to march on Parliament. Shocked by the rebellious atmosphere in London and the country, the Government had fortified the bridges over the Thames and brought in the army and recruited middle class volunteers to defend them. The Chartist leaders backed down from confrontation.

Note the participation of black radicals in the riot: the early 19th Century radical movement was notable for the involvement of prominent activists of African descent. One of the leaders of the London Chartists, prominent in the April 10th events, was William Cuffay, a Black tailor whose father had been a slave from St Kitts in the Caribbean. Cuffay was arrested in June that year accused of involvement in the planning of a Chartist Uprising and transported to Tasmania for life.

Other Black radicals well known in South London was Robert Wedderburn, ex-slave, who had come to England, become a Methodist preacher, and then got involved in radical politics. Wedderburn used to preach on Kennington Common. His contemporary William Davidson was executed for taking part in the plans for a radical uprising in 1820.

A plaque we left here to remember the Chartist Riot of March 13th 1848.

After the anti-climax of 1848, the Chartist movement began to go into a decline; although many groups still existed, the Chartists were largely a spent force. Smaller groups of radicals continued to agitate and meet, but mass agitation for reform did not revive till the mid-1860s, when the National Reform League formed and many local reform-minded groups began to spring up. From this pressure came the 1867 Reform Act, which won some limited increase in the franchise for working men.

Liberals and Radical clubs agitating for once again became widespread in the 1870s, many emerging under the influence of the Secularist Movement, others from growing Republican agitation.

WALK BACK DOWN CAMBERWELL ROAD TO CORNER WITH CHURCH STREET

Secularists and Republicans

The Secularist movement arose from scattered radical groups, many of which had survived the collapse of Chartism, others of which emerged in the reform agitation of the 1860s. Influenced by powerful speakers like George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh, they discussed, debated and attacked the religious control over many aspects of people’s lives, much stronger and integrated into all walks of social, working and home life then. Secularists spoke at street corners, often in direct competition with Christian preachers, and formed clubs or branches of Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society. Gradually they also became associated with pressure for the right to birth control, and a strong republican strand, demanding the removal of the royals and a British Republic. More on South London Secularists

In the 1870s Camberwell Church Street was a local Speakers Corner: Secularists used to regularly denounce religion in large open-air meetings here. The area in fact became one of their strongholds – the Camberwell National Secular Society branch, an offshoot of the large Walworth branch built a hall at 61 New Church Road in 1882.

The United Republican League held Sunday morning meetings in Church Street (and afternoon ones in the Rose & Crown Pub, Acorn Street in Peckham) in the early 1870s, when republicanism was very strong among the working class, and the Royal Family very unpopular. Famous class warrior Dan Chatterton spoke here.
There were also three Radical Clubs in Camberwell in the later 19th century – one in Denmark Hill, one in now vanished Muswell Road (not sure where this was), and North Camberwell Radical Club, in Albany Road.
For more on North Camberwell Radical Club – see Mayday in South London

There was also a Camberwell Radical Club in ‘Gloucester Road’ (possibly Gloucester Grove, SE15?) in the 1880s: William Morris was listed to speak there twice in 1885-6.

CROSS ROAD, UP EAST SIDE OF CAMBERWELL ROAD JUST AS FAR AS… USED TO BE AN ENTRANCE TO TRAM DEPOT HERE.

War and the Workers

Camberwell Trades Council, representing local trade Unionists and Union branches, was founded in 1913.  Almost immediately it was thrown into the political hotbed with the outbreak of World War 1.

Despite a sustained campaign against the impending war in the months running up to its actual outbreak, most trade unions and Labour Party activists fell in behind the government and supported the national war effort. The war achieved instant popularity, and thousands of men enlisted enthusiastically. Camberwell was said to have provided a good response to the call-up (though nearby Brixton was described as “full of slackers”!)

However, Camberwell Trades Council, in common with a minority of socialists and union activists, took an anti-war position when war broke out. The Trades Council issued pacifist leaflets, including a leaflet calling for people not to worry about paying rent during war, as surely landlords wouldn’t evict people during such a national emergency! The police tried to suppress this leaflet – unsuccessfully.

The Trades Council held meetings about the high cost of living, denouncing privations caused by the War, and launched campaigns for free school dinners for kids; useful work for the unemployed and democratic control and distribution of food.

In 1915 it also founded a Trades Council bakery, officially to try and increase the distribution of bread to the local working class; unofficially the bakery also provided jobs to conscientious objectors on the run from the authorities trying to force them into the army. Although this project collapsed by end of year, its work was incorporated into a similar bakery scheme run by neighbouring Bermondsey Trades Council.

In 1916, when the Government introduced conscription to force men into the trenches, Camberwell Trades and Labour Council also expressed its strongest opposition. It declared conscription in any form “to be a violation of the principle of civic freedom hitherto prized as one of the chief heritages of British liberty.” Anti -conscription demonstrations were held on Peckham Rye and on Camberwell Green by the Trades Council and ‘The No Conscription League’. One motion passed by a mass meeting stressed: “Conscription would be against the best interests of the working class and would be a strong weapon in the hands of reactionaries to enslave the British People.” Trade unionists were outraged when Military Tribunals were set up under the oversight of Borough Councils to hear claims for exemption from conscription. Trades Unionists were in most places appointed to take part in these borough tribunals, but then Tory-controlled Camberwell Borough Council refused to appoint any.

The Anti-war movement locally centred around the Independent Labour Party. Some ILP delegates followed the Christian, pacifist line of George Lansbury. Some were inspired by the ethical conviction that violence, organised or not, was evil and immoral. Others argued against the War on on socialist, internationalist grounds.

Leaders of anti-war activity in this part of South London included Charles Ammon, a member of the Fawcett Association, the postal sorters union, and Parliamentary Secretary of the ‘No Conscription League’ (he later became Lord Ammon of Camberwell), Dr Alfred Salter, (later to become MP for Bermondsey), and Arthur Creech-Jones, twenty-three year old Secretary of Camberwell Trades Council. In 1916 Creech-Jones was called up for army service. On appeal he attended four Tribunals and although supported by Labour Party leaders Fenner Brockway and Herbert Morrison his appeals were dismissed: he was finally arrested in East Dulwich in September. After being taken to the local Recruitment Centre, then based at Camberwell Baths (in Artichoke Place), and refusing to take orders, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons.

Creech-Jones gained much support in the local press. One letter from the National League of the Blind, Camberwell Branch praised his Trades Council work. When he was jailed, he was replaced as Secretary by Florence Tidman, delegate from the Women’s Labour League. Many trade unionist soldiers had returned from the front and were now becoming sympathetic to pacifism and opposed to the war.

Not all Trade Unionists locally opposed the War however. In March 1917  the local branch of the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants disaffiliated from the Trades Council, disagreeing with its anti-war position. Many trade unionists reflected the jingoistic and pro-war/anti-foreigner feeling as the wider population they lived among.

The majority of the local population capitulated to the upsurge of national chauvinism. Camberwell, like many areas of London, had a small german population, often proprietors of small bakeries and other shops – there were German delicatessens, toy shops and haberdashers, and other local shopkeepers proudly announced that ‘hier spricht man Deutsch’. Others worked as music teachers, artists and waiters. There were around 60 German families in the area in 1914.

But many Germans were detained when World War 1 broke out (although some exiles had fled political persecution in Germany, or were descended from political refugees.) Racist hysteria against the “Hun” was whipped up to a crescendo in South London. Riotous mobs burnt and looted shops with German names in East Street, Camberwell Green and the Old Kent Road in October 1914.

The South London Press in early July 1916 reported a heavily underlined banner headline extending across seven columns proclaimed “Camberwell’s Great Patriotic Festival.” Seven miles of cheering crowds, we read, lined the streets to bid farewell to Lieut.-Colonel Hall and the men of the Borough of Camberwell Gun Division as they marched off for training.

Camberwell Borough also played host to Belgian refugees, driven out of their country by the German invasion. 300 were sleeping in Goose Green public baths in October 1914.

In May 1915 anti-German rioting resumed across the country after the ship Lusitania was torpedoed by German u-boats, with the loss of many lives. Sometimes the ‘foreigners’ targetted were not german, due to various levels of stupidity and bigotry intermixing. Frederick George Jeffreys, a 22-year-old plumber’s mate was fined 40s plus 10s compensation for smashing up a hairdresser’s shop in Wyndham Road, Camberwell in May 1915. The Lambeth magistrate H.C. Biron was scathing: “You behave in this way, and instead of attacking a German you attack a perfectly harmless Pole and wreck his shop. Even if he were a German you bring discredit upon your country by behaving in this way.”

Recuperation huts on Camberwell Green, during WW1

Opposition was growing to the war, however, often in small local meetings across the country. At the Surrey Masonic Hall, Camberwell New Road, in June 1915, Charles Trevelyan MP addressed the South London Ethical Society: “The peace, when it did come, should not be made by diplomats sitting in secret, but there should be a real public opinion for the real ending of war on the right lines.” He warned his large audience not to listen to the militarists who claimed the time was not right for discussing the terms of peace. “They would keep on saying this until the last shot was fired.” Trevelyan had been a founder member of the anti-war Union of Democratic Control, established the previous year.

Check out Against the Tide, an excellent book on World War 1 and resistance in Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell.

Mutiny!

At the end of World War One, there was widespread social unrest.  Disillusionment with the war increased across the country, as conscription and mass death had hit home, but repressive conditions at work and wage depression led to an upsurge in strikes. The Russian Revolution in 1917 inspired workers across the world to believe a new more egalitarian social order was possible. The unrest spread to the various armies, and mass mutinies helped to end the war, sparking revolt and revolution across the world.
Camberwell was affected by this ferment…

In January 1919 Army Service Corps men in a camp somewhere in Camberwell went on strike, during a mass movement of mutinies and demonstrations to demand faster demobilisation of troops all over Britain and in the army abroad. Despite some investigations we’ve not discovered where this camp was, whether in the Borough or SE5 proper… though theoretically it could be somewhere near to the present Territorial Army Barracks in Flodden Road.

In 1920, the British Government’s determination to send troops, including conscripts, to Russia to try to overthrow the new Soviet state, led to a mass movement inspired by socialists and trade unionists who were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, to prevent troops and supplies reaching Russia. Local councils of action formed to oppose the move, and actions included dockers refusing to load goods and munitions for these ships. In August 1920, the Camberwell Council of Action demonstrated on Peckham Rye, where it called for “complete trade and peace with Russia”, and demanded that the National Council of Action send an ultimatum to Lloyd George along these lines.

The 1926 General Strike

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of losing control of the mass of union membership.

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off.

The General Strike was a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages add conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

Locally Trades Councils or Councils of Action co-ordinated the union branches and workers involved in the Strike.

Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel. This contrasted with other local boroughs eg left-wing Bermondsey, where the local Council supported the Strike and opposed the Government.

Camberwell Trades Council march on Mayday demo, 1st, 1926

Camberwell Trades Council organised the Strike locally. According to a post-Strike Report by the Trades Council:
“only a fortnight before the strike, [we] obtained a roneo duplicator and a typewriter. When the possibility of a strike loomed up we made three tentative preparations for this eventuality, viz:

(a) We enquired for an office, which we might take for a month as a minimum.

(b) (b) We obtained a lien on a hall where we might have a large meeting and would run no danger of the hall being cancelled by opponents.

(c) We made arrangements for a Committee meeting to be called the day after the general Strike began, if it did so begin. On May Day we thought the importance of demonstrating was sufficient to warrant us paying for a band, banner bearers etc, and for us to give a lead in having a good turn out. This we had organized and we secured a fine response from Camberwell workers. Whilst on route to Hyde Park came the news of the General Strike declaration – truly a fitting send off, thus demonstrating to the rich loafers in the West End out power and solidarity.”

The Strike Committee organised effective picketing of workplaces. Tramwaymen and busmen, who made up 3000 of the 8000 workers affiliated to the trades Council, were solid, as were roadmen of the Borough Council also came out, (bar one depot where men were reported working.) Tillings Bus Co., however, of Peckham, a major local employer, was a black spot: large numbers of police specials were stationed to ensure these buses were never stopped from running.

Reports which came to the Strike office as to the need for pickets were transmitted to the Strike Committee concerned at once by an organised messenger network.

The Trades Council concluded that: “we were not ready. We quickly improvised machinery… Everything had to be found on the spur of the moment, and we rose to the occasion fairly well in our own estimation., considering the difficulties of lack of our own premises, voluntary workers, and having to set up, equip and run an office after the Strike had commenced.”

In the Borough of Camberwell, as it was then, two strike bulletins were produced, the Camberwell Strike Bulletin and the Peckham Labour Bulletin – both produced from Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham.

The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reported that a man was convicted of selling the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”. Inspector Hider also saw copies of the ‘Camberwell Strike Bulletin’ also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’. 

Trams were not running, till the local electricity generating station was reopened by naval ratings…

On May 5th, commercial vehicles were stopped & trashed here by strikers. The trams were in the main kept off the roads. Altogether there were 12 attempts by voluntary (mostly middle class) recruits supported by police and special constables to run trams from Camberwell Depot to New Scotland Yard – resulting in crowds of pickets and supporters attacking scab trams, smashing their windows and pushing them back inside, preventing them from running.

The British Worker (A daily paper put out during the Strike by the TUC) reported:
“BANNED TRAMS SCENE: An unsuccessful attempt was made shortly after four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon to run LCC tramcars from the Camberwell depot.

Earlier in the day two lorries with higher officials of the tramways Department and OMS recruits arrived at the Depot, where a strong force of police had been posted.

A large crowd, including tramwaymen, their wives and sympathisers, collected, and when the first car came out of the Depot gates in Camberwell Green there was a hostile demonstration.

Some arrests were made. Following this incident the cars were driven back in to the Depot to the accompaniment of loud cheers.” (British Worker, 5th May.)

Strike-breaking buses were also stoned in Camberwell on Saturday night (8th May) There were huge public meetings at Camberwell Green, as well as at Peckham Rye and at the triangle near the Eaton Arms, Peckham. During a public meeting at Camberwell Green, waves of police with drawn truncheons marched on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

After the TUC sold the strike out, there was confusion here. Crowds of workers gathered at the Tram Depot, not knowing what to do. Each worker had to sign a form on future conditions of service, hours and wages. Some never got their jobs back at all.

At the end of the Strike Camberwell Trades Council sent £10 to the Miners from the funds collected during the Strike, continued that support as the miners fought on alone after the TUC sellout.

Camberwell Borough Guardians took a hard line during and after Strike – issued ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work’ forms to stop strikers getting any dole payments.

Following the defeat of the Strike, the Government brought in the Trades Disputes Act, known as ‘the blacklegs Charter’, which outlawed all General or solidarity strikes and prevented many civil service workers from affiliating to Trades Councils… Camberwell Trades Council formed a Trade Union Defence Committee to oppose the Act – without a lot of success.

A plaque put up here remembering Camberwell working people’s action against scabs in the General Strike

1935 Painters’ strike

On March 15th 1935 a strike erupted over trade union membership among the Camberwell Borough Council painters. Eleven non-union painters were employed, but a week later, there being no agreement between the National Society of Painters and the Borough council, 85 painters were sacked. The dispute became official and following a motion condemning the employers from the Camberwell AUBTW, continued for nearly two months. The borough council was prevented under the 1927 Act from making union membership a condition of employment. Two members of the Camberwell NSP branch, E. Milligan and C Laws, were Chairman and Secretary of the Trades Council Industrial Section which strongly supported the strike.

The London Bus strike of 1958.

The Tram Depot later became a Bus Depot. In 1958, bus workers struck for higher wages, in a dispute that lasted nearly two months, but was eventually severely defeated. On May 24th the T&GWU, Camberwell Bus Garage branch organised a march of 250 from Camberwell Green to Peckham Rye to publicise the busmen’s plight. But the strike hadn’t 100% support in the area. A scab organisation known as the People’s League for the Defence of Freedom recruited drivers to drive buses. The scab drivers later revelled in the fact that they had scabbed and publicised an organisation they had formed known as ‘Blacklegs Incorporated’.

In 1998 this northern section of the Bus Garage was squatted for exhibitions and parties.

WALK THROUGH CAMBERWELL PASSAGE TO THE NORTH SIDE OF CAMBERWELL NEW ROAD, TURN LEFT AND STOP AT THE GYM

Though the 1850s saw the end of Camberwell Fair, in many ways though working-class Camberwell recreation had become no less rowdy for being forced inside off the Green.

The New Grand Hall Cinematograph Theatre in Camberwell New Road, opened in 1912, on the north side of Camberwell New Road, between Depot entrance and Camberwell Passage; (it later became a Snooker Hall).

In 1956 there was a Teddy Girls and Boys riot at the New Grand, after they’d watched the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Bill Haley & the Comets. Teddy girls in black jeans encouraged by their boy-friends swarmed across the rows to stamp seats free from their hinges. They stamped, clapped their hands, screamed and beat out the 12 bar blues by kicking seats until they splintered… The police scattered them, then restored order by escorting the Teddy boy ringleaders from the theatre.

Teds were the hoodies of the time: teenage working class kids, in an era of increasing prosperity emerging after the restrictions and poverty of the war years… They were listening to outlandish music that baffled their elders and betters, and getting together for dancing, drink and some splatterings of violence. Gang warfare was common between different ted gangs. The Elephant & Castle area was one of London’s strongest ted areas.  A 2000-strong crowd of teds had fought the police outside Elephant & Castle’s Trocadero cinema shortly before this, inspiring similar battles across the country, mainly after viewings of the film.  Respectable fears, moral panic and mass crackdown followed.

Teds were often scapegoated as the cause of all troubles and many paranoias of authority and conforming social hierarchies were projected onto them.

Today’s kids are similarly seen as out of control, street violence, knifings, shootings etc are widely seen as new and frightening developments: in many ways the terror and legal/political responses mirror the reaction to the teds, but similar scares have emerged repeatedly in the last 200 or so years. Usually no matter how serious developments are, they are represented as unprecedented; often in fact patterns and numbers are very similar. Not to disparage the genuine despair, fear and anger that the current crop of South London murders arouses. Fear of crime though, is always often out of kilter with the reality of crime.  Returning to Camberwell Green, many kids now avoid the place, seeing it as too dangerous to hang out there; recently Peckham and Camberwell teens have been especially targeted as being out of control.  Control of space and potential troublemakers’ access to it, seen in the enclosure and respectabilisation of the green in the 1850s, is reflected in the 6 month exclusion order regularly imposed on the centre of Camberwell over recent years, allowing the police to ‘escort’ anyone under 16 found in the area home whether they are up to anything dodgy or not.

WALK DOWN TO 303-309 CAMBERWELL NEW ROAD, THE TFC BUILDING (NEXT TO THE GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH)

Around 2001, the upper floor of this building housed the clandestine HQ of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), an undercover unit of the Metropolitan Police Service’s Special Branch.

Between 1968 and 2008, when the unit was disbanded, it organised the systematic infiltration of undercover police officers into campaigning and protest groups. Officers pretended to be activists to worm their way into 1000s of groups, from national organisations to small local campaigns, many using the names of dead children to set up false identities. The police spied on campaigns for justice for people killed by racists and by the police; animal rights activists, peace groups, union branches campaigning around health and safety, the anti-apartheid movement, anti-racists, environmental groups, socialists anarchists, feminists, MPs… Many of the (mostly male) officers entered into deceptive relationships with women in false names; they lived with people, fathered children and then disappeared completely when their tour of duty was done. Many acted as agent-provocateurs to get people arrested.
Over the last ten years activists have exposed many of the names and histories of these officers, but much more of what they did remains secret. After it was proved that the unit had spied on the family and campaign of Stephen Lawrence, murdered by racists in 1993, the government announced a Public inquiry into undercover policing would take place. We are still waiting for the first hearings to be held in 2020.
For more info contact:

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Police Spies Out of Lives

Undercover Research Group

Blacklist Support Group

For a local slant on one of the campaigns infiltrated by the SDS, see later on when we visit the Institute of Psychiatry…

BACK ACROSS CAMBERWELL NEW ROAD, WALK DOWN TO JUNCTION WITH DENMARK HILL, THEN UP WEST SIDE OF DENMARK HILL TO CORNER OF COLDHARBOUR LANE

Camberwell became well-known for music halls; many were in the back hall of pubs. Music Hall arose from the last of the old tavern ‘free and easies’, where people could get up and do turns, usually songs or comedy acts.

The People’s Palace of Varieties, or Lovejoys, at the Rosemary Branch, Southampton Way, was held in “a long, shabby room adjoining the tavern, furnished with chairs and tables, and illuminated with flaming gas brackets. At one end a stage with footlights screened with blue painted glass. A Chairman sat in front of the stage facing the audience. He wore the most deplorable evening dress. Another gent sat at the piano on the stage. Everybody seemed to be drinking and talking while a man in shirt sleeves was dashing about with a tray loaded with glasses of beer. Each turn was announced by the Chair. He rapped with his hammer both to attract attention and to assist applause. A tall gent sang a song about his wife, his trouble and strife.”

The Rosemary Branch was demolished in 1971. The Castle on the Camberwell Road bears the name of an earlier pub that housed the Bijou Palace of Varieties or Godfrey’s Castle Music Hall from 1875 to 1889.

The Father Redcap pub, on the north side of the Camberwell Green, originally held a music hall built in 1853. On 2nd December, 1867, the audience here could enjoy “the great W J Collins, a banjoist from America, a Shakespearean sketch, Professor Davis in the renowned rope trick, and Mr Mucus Hellmore in his great delineation of Mephistopholes”

Later it was a gay bar at least back to the 1970s till 1997, and later again the Red Star, a party venue, holding many gigs including benefits for various worthy causes. (we will return to this building later).

In 1896, the Dan Leno company opened the “Oriental Palace of Varieties”, on Denmark Hill, which was soon replaced with a new theatre, with a capacity of 1,553, in 1899, named the “Camberwell Palace”. Famous old timers who appeared here included Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder, Nellie Wallace and Harry Tate.  By 1912, the theatre was showing films as a part of the programme; it became an ABC cinema as “The Palace Cinema” in 1932. Later it reverted to a variety theatre in 1943, but closed on 28 April 1956 and was demolished. (The 1957 film The Smallest Show on Earth, the story of a family-run suburban cinema, was probably based on the Palace).

Nearby at the corner of Denmark Hill and Coldharbour Lane was the “Metropole Theatre and Opera House”, opened in 1894, which held transfers of West End shows: “The theatre had a very ornate interior with private boxes, stalls, dress circle, balcony and gallery. Ladies who came in their fashionable hats were respectfully informed that hats and bonnets were not allowed in the stalls or first two rows of the dress circle.”

No wonder Camberwell starred in a 1915 music hall song. Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green by Lionel Morrekton, about a young lady who went for a ride on the top of a bus with “a fellow, a regular swell”, on what is still the no. 68 bus route:

Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green
All on a summer’s day
Up we climbed on the motor bus
And we started right away

When we got to the end of the ride_
He asked me to go for a walk!
But I wasn’t Camberwell Green
By a very long chalk!

The replacement of live theatre and music by cinema was also reflected locally: the Empire was demolished to build an Odeon cinema in 1939; itself since closed in 1957, becoming Dickie Dirts (see below)… Besides these, on Denmark Hill, where Somerfield now stands, there was the Golden Domes, (later called the Rex and then the Essoldo); across the road, on the site of the Post Office, was the Bijou, known locally as the Bye Joe; and the Coronet, a small cinema in Wells Way.

WALK UP TO CORNER OF COLDHARBOUR LANE TO NANDOS

Where Nandos and the flats behind now stand, was the site of the Empire, later the Odeon, which became, as we said above, Dickie Dirts clothing warehouse. Closing in the late 1970s, it was squatted in August 1984 as a back-up/centre/crashpad/gigspace holding benefits, for the September 1984 Stop the City actions/defence fund. Stop the City was a series of days of action against the capitalist exploiters in the City of London, initially against firms making profits from war and arms manufacture, later expanding to oppose many other causes… 1000s of mainly young anarchist-influenced activists attacked, demonstrated against and besieged City institutions. The Dickie Dirts squat was evicted on 3rd October ’84 by cops, bailiffs and builders; the building’s owners apparently turned up in a Rolls Royce to watch! The three people found in Dickie Dirts at the time were kicked out. The police had broken in on the bailiffs’ behalf; obviously the Met were slightly aggravated by the Stop the City link.

Dickie Dirts was resquatted several times, eg in June 86 for gigs, when  Camberwell indie band House of Love played here.

The Dickie Dirts building, after standing derelict for most of a decade, was demolished in Spring 1993, and a block of flats for homeless young people called ‘The Foyer’ was built on the site, plus a restaurant; this was later replaced by Nandos.

Camberwell has also played host to a number of other squatted venues and social/political spaces and centres, as we will relate…

WALK DOWN COLDHARBOUR LANE TO CORNER WITH CRAWFORD STREET

Crawford squatted social centre, on the corner of Crawford Street and Coldharbour Lane, 2003. Run by the Black star collective (who had previously occupied another squat in the Coldharbour Lane area), the place held gigs, a “lost film festival”, and served as a drop in centre for some local old Jamaican dudes… After the collective handed out invitations to locals to come and get involved (in which they charmingly asserted that they ” are well-mannered and reasonable people…. Not into drugs or anything alike.” This building was still empty 5 years later after its eviction by Lambeth Council.

Looks like the remains of the old Muesli factory still stand

WALK BACK DOWN COLDHARBOUR LANE TO DENMARK HILL, OVER ROAD AND BACK DOWN TO JOINERS ARMS

The old Muesli Factory behind the Joiners Arms was squatted around 1992-3… mainly for rave parties etc… By some of our remembrance,  it could be a bit nasty in fact, a lot of aggro and some bad drugs.

 

And others: the Old Labour Club and Groove Park, which we’ll talk about later), also some others which are bit off the route of this walk:

Location, 299 Camberwell New Rd, Squat party by LSDiezel crew is advertised for 7th Feb 1992. Were other parties held? Probably. Demolished?

Area 7, 64 Camberwell Church Street: An ex-Council Building squatted for an arts centre in 1993 but quickly evicted.

Kwik Fit on Denmark Hill, was squatted for 2 (or more?) punk shows in October + December 2003.

There have been some great local squatted social centres more recently too;

Warham Street, the Black Frog/Camberwell Squatted Centre in 2007

The Library House, behind the Minet Library, squatted 2008

WALK BACK UP DENMARK HILL TO CORNER OF DANEVILLE ROAD, WALK DOWN TO ALLENDALE ROAD OR KERFIELD CRESCENT

Squatting

The modern squatters’ movement started in 1969 caused by the contrast of rising rents and widespread homelessness, while thousands of houses stood empty, many being slum clearances and Compulsory Purchase Orders, that local councils had left to rot for years (up to 7 years in some cases). The 1970s saw a huge increase in squatting, both for personal housing needs and increasingly as part of an alternative lifestyle that questioned, opposed or rejected traditional conformist ways of life, including work, the sanctity of private property (including leaving houses empty), and conventional social, sexual and economic values.

Southwark Family Squatters Association had originated in October 1970 when Lewisham squatters occupied some empty houses in Peckham. At this time councils had, under pressure from squatters and lengthening waiting lists, started to licence squats in property they were planning going to use, notably in Lewisham.

Squatting in Camberwell began in January 1971 in Cuthill Road, Allendale Road and Kerfield Crescent (all just to south of Daneville Road) in houses left empty, while the Daneville Road/Selborne Road area was waiting for redevelopment, scheduled in 1974.  Southwark Family Squatters Association moved 4 homeless families in to nos 13 and 25 Cuthill Road, 44 Allendale, and  22 Kerfield Crescent. The Council claimed they were going to repair the houses and use them, but squatters, and others, had their doubts. The families had all been made homeless due to private eviction or were living in properties too small or unhealthy, and had been let down by the council refusing to rehouse them or dragging its feet.

The following report appeared in Camberwell Candles, in February 1971:

“You might be forgiven for not noticing anything very special about these houses. They look ordinary outside And inside, the only noticeable things are the good state of the decoration and the absence of any of those damp patches that afflict many older properties in Camberwell.
But since January, when the Southwark Family Squatting Association moved in
and rehoused four families under eviction orders from their previous homes, 4 of these houses have been the homes of squatters .
Before the squatters moved in these houses were empty with doors and windows boarded up – usually a sign that nothing’s going to happen for a long time.

The Council say that the Houses were awaiting “patch repairs” – which you might find curious if you were to go and inspect them. The only repairs needed that anyone other than the Council can see – are an outside wall that needs some attention, and a roof that leaks slightly into a landing – just enough with
an hour’s rain, as one of the squatters’ children put it, “to make a baby’s puddle” …. hardly enough to warrant boarding the place up when there is a housing waiting list of thousands, many of whom are desperate for a decent home.

Squatting sadness

The story of Southwark’s squatters is a sad one. NOT just because the squatters’ hopes for decent homes are being frustrated the Borough Council sticking to the rules of bureaucracy – though that may
true.
NOT just because some families in really desperate need are being kept waiting because houses intended for them have been taken instead by squatters – though that may be true.
BUT BECAUSE the Council and the squatting associations are in conflict and are
frustrating each other’s activities IN SPITE OF THE FACT that their aims are basically the same – to improve the housing situation in Southwark.
THE REASON for this is simply that the two sides are not cooperating with each
other.
THE BLAME for this non-cooperation non-cooperation is the Council’s. The Southwark Family Squatting Association wants to cooperate: the Council does not

SQUATTING IN CAMBERWELL

Camberwell’s first squatters are in Cuthill Road, Allendale Road and Kerfield Crescent. Before the squatters moved in, the 4 houses were boarded up and there was no way of finding out exactly what was going to happen to them. The whole area, including Dane ville Road & Selborne Road,is due for redevelopment in 1974. It seems un likely that houses should be kept empty for that long – but it has been known to happen before.

THE BOROUGH COUNCIL

The Press Officer at the Town Hall when asked why these houses had been boarded up, said he had no details of particular properties, but that most such houses were in development areas due for demolition. Southwark now has about 1600 empty houses, 1200 of them due for demolition this year, and the other 400 due for repairs.

The Asst. Town Clerk, Mr Thomas, said that the four houses in question aimed at putting people into property were in fact due for “patch repairs. And he complained that the squatters, by taking over the houses before the repairs were done, had deprived other families at the top of the waiting list of their rightful tenancies.

When asked what repairs needed to be done, Mr Thomas said that he could not give details – not that there was any secret about it, but because with hundreds of repair jobs either on the files awaiting approval or in the hands of various sub-contractors this would be difficult.

Why did the Council not get the repairs done before the squatters moved in? Because, apparently, there is always “considerable delay what with decisions and the sub-contractors’ – with architects’ plans and committees decisions and sub-contractors’ own schedules.

THE SQUATTING ASSOCIATION

When given Mr Thomas’ information that the houses had been due for repairs, Mr Barry Stone, of the Southwark Family Squatting Association said that if only the Association had known that in advance, they would not have taken them over: “WE are only too pleased if the Council are going to USE a house.
If they would only tell us which empty houses they do not intend to use and which are awaiting repairs, we will vacate the ones they want to use. Our programme is aimed at property  that is not going to be used again.
But the Council refuse to give us any information”.

The squatters have also told the Council that if the Council would co-operate, they would give an undertaking only to house people on the Council’s housing list, and in consultation with an officer from the Council.

THE SQUATTERS OWN STORIES:

Aston and Zoila Bartley are now at 13 Cuthill Road, having squatted previously at Gordon Road Peckham, where they had an eviction order. Prior to that they were in Bermondsey, but the flat was damp and unhealthy and in their opinion “No place for the kids!!
They have 3 children, the youngest a baby of a few weeks born by Caesarean.
In Bermondsey Mrs Bartley had pneumonia and a lot of bronchitis – due
to some extent at least to the damp.

Joseph and Joan Peters are at 44 Allendale Road. They too have squatted before, and been evicted, having left a fiat in Lausanne Road that they found far too small for the whole family.
The Peters have had trouble even getting on the housing list at all,
apparently through letters to and from the Council going astray somewhere along the line. This has been more than usually frustrating, since one of their children is “in care” and not allowed home until “suitable accommodation” is found. But they are hopeful of hearing good news from the Council before too long.
Gloria McFarlane of 25 Cuthill Road lives there with her husband Lloyd and their 4 children. They too were evicted from Gordon Road, having already been evicted from a flat in Bermondsey when their landlord wanted the flat for his own family.
The McFarlanes were offered accommodation in Barry Lodge in Sydenham.
They refused it –  “It was so filthy!”

John & Beryl Lindsay… 22 Kerfield Crescent. They had a flat in Southwark from which the
landlord evicted them in September.
The Council refused to offer them a place at all – for the unfortunate reason that, although they have been together as man and wife for 8 years they are not officially married, and are therefore classed as an engaged couple!
Since they moved into Kerfield Crescent, they have been offered a place in Chaucer House. “But the state of the place was so bad”, said Mrs Lindsay, “that I wouldn’t take
children in there. A friend of mine was sent there –  just for 6 months
they told her – she’s been there four years!”
(Report from Camberwell Candles magazine, St Giles Camberwell Church, Feb 1971)

The were some 1600 empty street properties in the Borough of Southwark at the time. Southwark Council refused to do deals with squatters as other councils had – the local authority was old-Labour controlled, John O’ Grady (later infamously to join the gentrifying redevelopers of the London Docklands Development Corporation) was in charge, and their approach to housing and local politics in general was “we do stuff FOR people, they don’t do it for themselves.” They evicted the Camberwell squatters and trashed the houses to stop them being occupied, claiming the houses could be patch repaired & used for people in the normal way, and that squatters were “queue jumping”.

In response the squatters launched a campaign for the Council to recognise the squatters, and give them licences… their tactics included marches, demos, and deputations to the Town Hall. On 21 April 1971 FSA families invaded the Town Hall Council Chamber, 50 people barricaded themselves in and held an alternative council meeting. When Council Leader John O’ Grady tried to speak the squatters’ Mayor ruled him out of order!

They also occupied Transport House (the Walworth Labour Party HQ) on 10 May 1971, 30 people were involved, waving a banner reading: ‘Labour Southwark fights the Homeless’.

The Council still refused to deal with the squatters, and pressed on in court, but good legal defences meant cases got adjourned in many cases… Some Council social workers were in fact supporting the squatters,  despite pressure from above. Southwark applied for injunctions to stop named squatters entering council property (a tactic revived by Southwark against squatters in the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle in 2006) – but in fact made a mess of this.

We’ll continue this story round the corner in Grove Lane…

BACK TO DENMARK HILL, TURN LEFT, WALK UP HILL TO FRONT OF MAUDSLEY HOSPITAL

Camberwell’s association with mental health care/imprisonment goes back centuries: there were two large ‘lunatic asylums’ on Peckham Road in the 18th-19th centuries… (Which we’ll come to later)

The Maudsley

The Maudsley Hospital dates from 1907, when Dr Henry Maudsley offered London County Council £30,000 (subsequently increased to £40,000) to help found a new mental hospital that would:
– be exclusively for early and acute cases,
– have an out-patients’ clinic,
– provide for teaching and research.

The Hospital was always intended to be a progressive centre of treatment and research rather than confinement and “asylum”. World War I intervened and the Hospital didn’t open until 1923. A specific Act of Parliament had to be obtained (1915) to allow the institution to accept voluntary patients.

The Maudsley continues to provide in-patient and community mental health care to local people in Southwark and Lambeth and nationally across the UK, though contested, and problematic, (see below) In close proximity to the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London it is also a contributor to both psychiatric research and the training of nursing, medical and psychology staff in psychiatry.

As part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust (SLaM) it also has close links with Bethlem Royal Hospital – the original “Bedlam”.

Reclaim Bedlam, and Mad Pride

“In 1997, the Bethlem and Maudsley NHS Trust marked the Bethlem hospital’s 750th anniversary with a series of celebrations. Pete, who had been a patient at the Maudsley, saw nothing to celebrate in either the original Bedlam (“a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty,” in historian Roy Porter’s words), or the state of mental health care.
“How can you celebrate LOBOTOMY, LIFETIME INSTITUTIONALISATION – TAKING YOUR OWN LIFE – DEPRESSION – DRUG DEPENDENCY ECTS…” (Survivors Speak Out)

1997 saw the 750th anniversary of ‘Bedlam’ – the asylum which was the precursor of the Maudsley. Inside the Maudsley were anniversary “celebrations”, outside was a big demo of mental health survivors under the banner of  “reclaim bedlam”, organised by Pete Shaughnessy.

Reclaim Bedlam organised ‘Raving in the park”, a picnic/rave/a sit-in outside the original Bedlam site at the Imperial War Museum to protest.

“Maudsley & Bethlem Mental Health Trust saw itself as la crème de la crème of mental health. In 1997, it was more like the Manchester City of mental health. Situated in one of the poorest areas of the country, it put a lot of resources into its national projects, and neglected its local ones.

It’s history went back to the first Bedlam, the first institution of mental_health. If you pop down to the museum at Bethlem Hospital, you will see a picture proudly displayed of the 700th celebrations in 1947, with the Queen Mother planting a tree. Well, not exactly planting, more like putting her foot on a spade.

So, when some PR bureaucrat came up with the idea of 750th_celebrations, it must have all made sense. An excuse for a year of corporate beanos. The Chief Executive could picture the MBE in the cabinet. There was only one problem: in 1947, the patients would have been well pleased with a party, in 1997 some patients wanted more.

In the so-called ‘user friendly’ 90s, I thought ‘commemoration’ was more appropriate. So, a few of us went to battle with the Maudsley PR machine. It was commemoration vs. celebration.

I think for the first time, we were taking the user movement out of the ghetto of smoky hospital rooms and into the mainstream. We spoke at Reclaim the Streets and political events. We would gatecrash conferences to push the message. I know we pissed users off by our_style; personally I found some users more judgemental than the staff we talked to. They were even a few users who wanted to have their stall at the ‘Funday’ and cross our picket line. Frustrating. When that proposal was put to me, I lost my nut, which meant I threatened to_bring Reclaim the Streets down to smash up their stall. Because of that remark, I had two police stations hassling me up to the day_of our Reclaim Bedlam picnic and the picket at the staff ball, the_appropriate opening event of the celebrations, had to be dropped.

We had our first picnic at Imperial War Museum, one of the sites of Bedlam Hospital; Simon Hughes MP came and spoke. Features in Big Issue and Nursing Times, and we were afloat.

Our next event was to screw up the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s_Cathedral which a member of the Royal Family was attending. BBC2’s ‘From the Edge’ got in on the act for that one, and it’s widely_thought that because of our antics on the steps of St Paul’s – as well as stopping the traffic at 11am with a boat forcing Tower Bridge to open – that the Chief Exec didn’t get his MBE.

Our next event was to join up with ECT Anonymous and the All_Wales User and Survivor Group and picket the Royal College of Psychiatry. It was the first time Reclaim Bedlam had been involved in International Direct Action. Keeping up the pressure on the Royal College of Psychiatry we hijacked their anti-stigma campaign, ‘In Every Family in the Land’. The soundbite I used was: ‘the psychiatrist is patting you on the head with one hand, and with the other hand he /she is using compulsory treatment to inject you up the bum.” (Pete Shaughnessy)

Hundreds of mental patients around the country supported Reclaim Bedlam, and the BBC2 series From The Edge made a programme about it. At a time of many community- care horror stories, a very different message was finally getting out.

Pete and others around Southwark Mind organised a demo against SANE head-quarters in 1999 “opposing their support (at the time) for compulsory treatment orders being proposed by the government – to no small part because of SANE’s lobbying – things started to get serious. We managed to get 200 people turning up to the SANE march – which at the time was an unprecedented figure for a ‘mad’ demo. We had whistles, drums, a 7-foot long syringe together with a kitchen table, corn-flakes and milk, tridents (because we’re the devil), banners, flyer you name it – we pulled out the stops. SANE didn’t know what the fuck had hit them. They dropped their support for CTO’s and to this day, they’re still reeling from this event.”

Then Pete went on to found Mad Pride with Robert Dellar, Simon Barnett and Mark Roberts.

Mad Pride orchestrated a campaign of publicity and protest – holding a vigil on Suicide Bridge in Archway, to remember all of the people who’ve died there and all of the other people who commit suicide – ‘murder by society.’; protesting against the pharmaceutical industry’s predominance over psychiatric services; organising a Mad Pride open-air festival in Stoke Newington in July 2000; the publication of a book ‘ Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture,’ which was highly acclaimed and successful… “we got user-led mental health issues into the media as never before, and we inspired many people. We also, without a doubt, moved the paradigm of the British ‘user movement’ left-wards.”

Pete Shaughnessy tragically took his own life in December 2002.
Sadly Robert Dellar also died in 2016.

See Into the Deep End, Pete’s chapter for Mad Pride – A Celebration of Mad Culture. Edited by Ted Curtis, Robert Dellar, Esther Leslie & Ben Watson.

A plaque we left here in memory of Reclaim Bedlam

At the time this walk was originally thought up, South London mad folk were up in arms about the closure of the Psychiatric Emergency Clinic at Maudsley, the 24 hour emergency service for mentally ill people in crisis. mental health trust, the South London and Maudsley Trust, ran up surpluses in the preceding year, and was told it had to find £8m of savings the following year, because the two primary care trusts which fund the NHS locally were cutting their mental health budgets. The Maudsley’s walk-in emergency clinic, the only 24-hour self-referral service of its kind in the UK, open since the 1950s, was targeted for the cuts. The Maudsley said that King’s College Hospital A&E, just across the road, was creating a separate area to deal with this, and that voluntary sector providers were coming in to run an information service: None of which has happened. Rallies, demos, of mad and allegedly sane alike followed for two years, but the clinic closed for clinical admissions and treatment in January 2007.

The chief executive of King’s admitted that they never had any intention of creating a separate area to replace the emergency clinic. I’d rather be mad than a lying bureaucrat.
The campaign to re-open an emergency clinic continues.

Madness, Creativity, Individuality

“Creative Routes have identified normality as a mental health issue.”

Between 2006-2008, Creative Routes, an arts charity, run by the mad for the mad, organised the Bonkersfest on Camberwell Green: a free annual one day summer arts and music festival, illuminating and celebrating madness, creativity, individuality and eccentricity; combating stigma and promoting good mental health – A day of loony celebrations for everyone – mad or not… Sadly missed.
Creative Routes celebrated and promoted the unique creativity of mad people, promoting mental well-being, and creatively campaigning against discrimination and for the acceptance of individuality in society.

… they also believed MADNESS should be viewed positively facilitating an outpouring of immense and unique creative energy. Wahey!

WALK BACK DOWN DENMARK HILL, TURN RIGHT INTO DE CRESPIGNY PARK, ALONG TO THE INSTITUTE OF PSYCHIATRY

Institute of Psychiatry – the South London Animal Movement picketed here regularly in the early 1980s, protesting the Institute’s policy of testing on animals. At this time we think Mike Chitty, undercover police spy run by the Special Demonstration Squad (remember them, from Camberwell New Road, above?) was infiltrating this group. The Animal Liberation Front also raided the lab here in 1984, releasing caged rats, destroying computer tapes and trashing the lab.

PAUSE AT NO 30 

No 30 De Crespigny Park used to be a long term squat, a very large house, squatted on and off for many years in the 1980s and 1990s, lived in by lots of lovely people; finally evicted in 1999.

CONTINUE DOWN DE CRESPIGNY PARK TO GROVE LANE, TURN RIGHT, WALK UP TO NO 93

Continuing the story of squatting locally (started at Daneville Road, above)…
93 Grove Lane was the site of Southwark’s Homeless Families Department

On 2 June 1971, the office of Edna Cummings (head of the Department) was besieged, then occupied by Southwark Families Squatting Association. 25-30 people got inside, while other squatters stood outside with placards. The occupiers answered phones, and claimed they’d set up a new council squatting department! They demanded Edna Cummings’ resignation and more housing for homeless families. The 5 hour-occupation was eventually removed.

Eventually after the 1971 elections, younger, left Labour councillors who supported the squatters pushed through deals and many squats got licences. In July 1971 the council made deals with the Family Squatting Association, which led to the creation of Southwark Self Help Housing. 30 houses were initially given over to them, many of which had been previously scheduled for demolition. It is still going today, having bought all its housing stock from the Council.
The council office at no 93 was later closed and has been turned into flats.

A plaque left here celebrating the occupation of the homeless families department.

WALK BACK UP, TURN LEFT THROUGH PASSAGE NEXT TO HULL COURT/GROVE COURT, TURN RIGHT UP CAMBERWELL GROVE,  TO NO 201

In the 1980s many of Camberwell Grove’s huge Georgian houses were lying empty, in decline. They were in a very bad state of repair, rising damp, wet and dry rot, leaking roofs, gutters/ downpipes knackered, smashed windows. But their old spiral staircases had been listed, so the Council couldn’t just knock them all down, to their great dismay.

Originally several houses, at least numbers 201 to 218, were squatted in 1983, and a community built up, which worked very communally and collectively, at least for a while. Organic gardens, growing vegetables were set up, and many houses shared power supplies with each other – some of it obtained in slightly unorthodox ways:

“I lived for a couple of grim years, in a gigantic pile on Camberwell Grove, just round the corner from the top secret government listening station (easily identified by the large graffiti we used to place on local road signs reading “This way to Top Secret Government Listening Station”). I became adept at tapping neighbours gas and water supplies. At one point a resident eight houses down was supplying 40 squatters with power from the spur that ran the train layout in his garden shed. I think he had half a dozen Hornby Dublo models that, for the six months before they caught us, were drawing more power than the British Rail London to Manchester line…”

In 1984 Southwark Council offered them a deal: short-term tenancies of 18 months up to 5 years though Hyde Housing Association. This sparked a furious debate over what to do; since many squatters in those days, especially those influenced by anarchism and other similar ideas advocated refusing to co-operate with councils and other authorities at all. A leaflet was circulated urging people to do no deals, and a meeting (at no 207 in November 1984) urged this position. The majority voted to accept the deal with Hyde, though. Nos 201-218 were ‘shortlifed’ (given indeterminate licences to remain with no guarantee of rehousing or proper rights, but free from immediate eviction) in February ‘85. They formed a Housing Co-op. Some houses were taken to the high court for eviction proceedings in July 1985, and many were evicted around 1989-90, though some squatting survived and sporadically still houses in Camberwell Grove were being occupied into the 21st Century. I’m not sure when the Co-op was evicted if it was…

We left a plaque here to commemorate the Camberwell Grove squats

BACK DOWN CAMBERWELL GROVE TO GROVE PARK, TURN LEFT AND WALK DOWN TO NO 2 (ON THE RIGHT)

This was known as Groove Park, c. 1991-2? A large squat centre/gig venue, occupying a Council children’s home (which closed down after a scandal due to mistreatment of kids in September 1990, and immediately squatted). It was renamed Groove Park, and put on gigs, cafes, raves, and other fun and games. “Human-sized ducks hang from the ceiling. Parachutes in others; industrial waste grows into metal sculptures and the walls have been decorated by a dozen Jackson Pollocks.” 20 odd people lived here, and formed an ‘Arts Co-op’. leafletting the neighbours claiming to be all teetotal non smoking vegetarians (somewhat inaccurately)… Many locals signed their petition to be allowed to remain in the building, including neighbour Terry Jones of Monty Python (though he later came round to complain about the noise, apparently!).

CROSS ROAD TO GATE TO NO 113

113 Grove Park was formerly a Listening station, run by a MI6/Police/MI5 combination.

MI6 Telephone intercepts were for some time handled at the London Station or VBR, by a group of specialists and linguists known as UKZ and operating with a team of specially cleared BT engineers known as the OND. Metropolitan Police Interception and Special Services Centre was situated at 113 Grove Park, Camberwell, London SE5 and served as a joint MI5/MI6/MPSB/C7/GC & CS unit. This had been in operation as ‘Grove Park’ since around 1919 and was still a covert listening site well into the 1980s.

Some operations were transferred to Sandridge near St Albans in the late 1930’s and that base was taken over by GCHQ in 1946. A fleet of detector vans was based there throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. By 1970’s had reverted to Home Office control and had became a Surveillance Research centre developing equipment for Grove Park and other users.

WALK BACK DOWN TO FENCE AROUND NO 123

The large house (a former youth offending training centre) and extensive land here has been empty for a while. The supposed owners are trying to sell it on for 10.5 million as it is, with the planning permission granted. They got a 4 million mortgage from the Secretary of state for communities 2 years ago.. (an expect to make a 6.5million profit when they sell).

There has been a community campaign to prevent the sale and save the land and the trees; hopefully as a community space. The house was squatted previously, and the house and land was squatted as part of the campaign (around 2017); and re-named GroveArk… Check out their wonderful facebook page

The squatters lost in court in August 2019; but on 6 November 2019, they resisted eviction: “squatters and Rebel’s barricaded and climbed on the roof, safe for now.#homes4all Resist ALL evictions. Calling for anyone to come and support tomorrow morning in case bailiffs return. Needs tree climbers , rebel feast tonight. Musical protest resistance tomorrow morning onwards. Wish list people, rebels , pallets, wood, rope, chains and locks, lock ons, food, paint tools, super glue, long ladders, transport, empty building addresses, musicians ( for round the fire in massive tree grove garden .) Cake ,flap jack, torches, bring friends hang out on the frontline for free Adrenalin. Save one of the last groves in this part of south London. Please network to media and social media” 

The building was evicted in January 2020: “The large house on Grove Park that has been squatted on and off for the last couple of years is currently being cleared. Started about 8.30 this morning. About 50 bailiffs and private security and another 30 or 40 police and community support officers. Seemed pretty disproportionate to me. Grove Park itself closed to traffic. Given the general shortage of visible policing in Camberwell and Peckham it seemed a bit galling that so many are able to turn up to oversee the needs of a private landlord. I know they are there to monitor the bailiffs too but it seemed like a lot. By the property owner’s admission the squatters only occupied the property when his maintenance team left the place unlocked. That huge area of mature woodland behind the house will, I guess, shortly be cleared for more ‘luxury’ housing.”

There’s a petition to save the space

BACK TO CAMBERWELL GROVE AND DOWN TO CHURCHYARD PASSAGE, THROUGH PASSAGE TO CHURCHYARD

St Giles Church features the first recorded black presence in Southwark, as being in Camberwell, in its records of the African John Primero, servant to Sir Thomas Hunt, baptised April 3 1607, buried St Giles Church 3 Feb 1615. (Obviously this only means that earlier records may no longer exist).

West Indians began to settle in numbers in Camberwell in the early 1950s, an offshoot of the Brixton community, though there were more Pakistanis and Indians mixed in here. Caribbeans moved in mainly to the north of Camberwell Green, ie in the poorer parts of the area, mostly in run-down, short lease 2-3 storey houses. The black community here was less dense, more scattered than the more obvious Brixton West Indian community; Camberwell was maybe a slightly more favourable climate than Brixton in some ways. There seems to have been less racial tension, maybe partly because the incomers were less clustered and noticeable as a group.  The long association of Harold Moody and his family here as local doctor and activist may have also contributed to a more accepting attitude (see below, Wren Street).  Camberwell Borough Council were said to be more positive towards the migrants than Lambeth. A figure of 1500 black residents comes up for 1956, perhaps though, this was for the Borough of Camberwell as a whole.

Since then clearly the population has grown, and black people now number some 20 per cent of Camberwell’s inhabitants, according to the stats.

Racism and fascism have reared their head in the area; anti-racism has been around for just as long. We will return to this later on…

Timothy Brown is also buried in St Giles Churchyard: he lived nearby at Peckham Lodge, Rye Lane, in the early 19th Century. He was known as ‘Equality’ Brown due to his outspoken democratic views. Among other things he insisted on calling a meeting of parishioners in the Church to get a resolution of sympathy for Queen Caroline, around 1820: th estranged wife of king George IV had become a cause celebre for opponents of the monarchy and establishment. But the parish churchwardens wouldn’t allow this meeting to be held on church grounds… Inspired by Brown, a deputation set out from Peckham with an address of support for the Queen; ‘Equality” Brown, however, is said to have died in the very day it set out…

NIP BACK DOWN CHURCHYARD PASSAGE TO CAMBERWELL GROVE, THROUGH MARY BOAST WALK, (THE PASSAGE BY THE SIDE OF THE GROVE TAVERN), BACK TO GROVE LANE; TURN RIGH & WALK UP TO NO 45: CAMBERWELL HALL

Behind the Grove Tavern, at 45 Grove Lane, Camberwell Hall, built in 1748, was by the mid-19th Century used as a venue for social activities, including the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute, who held classes and lectures here. Dickens included it in Sketches by Boz.

The Working Men’s Institutes were set up initially by middle class reformers to oversee education of working class men; partly to help them improve themselves, though also to try to wean them from either drink, immoral behaviour and crime, or from extreme radical politics. They mainly encouraged adult education, sobriety, self-improvement; but they also did provide a venue for many artisans and working-class men to come together and discuss ideas and knowledge. Although politics was generally frowned upon, many groups of working men drew upon this experience, and became radically political active; some groups split directly from WMIs to form self-organised working men’s political and social clubs.

Radical groups met at Camberwell Hall: for example a meeting of the Freedmen’s Aid Society at Camberwell Hall was held to hail the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Art critic John Ruskin lectured here in 1865, it being a short walk from his house Born in Herne Hill, Ruskin lived at no 163 Denmark Hill at this time, opposite modern Ruskin Park.

John Ruskin, 1819 -1900, lived most of his life in Herne Hill and Camberwell, and 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 judgemental. He supported the pre-Raphaelites when they were widely disapproved of as being too avant-garde, and was particularly outspoken in support of Millais’ “blasphemous” paintings of Christ.

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 their 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, 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.”

Fundamentally Ruskin condemned the division of labour, which formed part of the heart of capitalism. His ideas were crucially influential on the development of William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts Movement; he also influenced the setting up of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Following a crisis of religious belief Ruskin abandoned art criticism at the end of the 1850s, moving towards commentary on politics, under the influence of his great friend Thomas Carlyle. In Unto This Last he expounded his theories about social justice, which influenced the development of the British Labour party and of Christian socialism. 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.

Ruskin lectured at the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute; his talk on “Work and Play” was given on January 24th, 1865, and took this theme: that work had to be useful, fulfilling and enjoyable.

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.

Fors Clavigera: 89th Letter (1873) 

”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?”

Like so much of London’s interesting underground geography, Camberwell Hall has now sadly been sold off for housing for the rich. In an advert for the sale of the building, some of its history was regurgitated as sanitised heritage, to help bump up the developers’ profit.
More on Ruskin

We left a plaque remembering the Hall’s past

WALK DOWN TO CAMBERWELL CHURCH STREET, TURN RIGHT, STOP AT 84 CHURCH STREET, (CURRENTLY HEAVEN SENT NURSERY) WHICH USED TO BE THE LABOUR CLUB

The old Labour Club, at 84 Camberwell Church Street was squatted for gigs & parties in November 1990 or so… Some of crew involved had previously run the pioneering Peckham Dole House Squat 1989-90, one of first inner London Squat rave venues.

The Labour Club was described by Southwark Squatting/Housing Comic Ship News thus: “Conscientious types, world muzak, Country and western etc… Scenewise, a bit off the beaten track. Labour party nipped back in to resquat their ideological home while occupants were out…”

According to one of the organisers/residents:

“Not much I can remember about the Labour Club, bit too tripped out. Got pigged one night when Eat Static were due to play… The Caff was on a Friday called ‘Fresh From The Skip…’ or something similar… Bands that played included Poisoned Electrick Head, Back To The Planet, RDF, Brain Of Morbius… we also used to put gigs on in what is now The Stirling (or is it The Castle), over the road, even persuaded the Levellers to play for nout…The saddest thing about the place was that we weren’t evicted, we all fucked off to a festival one weekend and when got back to London the owners (the labour party) had squatted it and were turfing everything out onto the road (we’d all moved out by then, squatting somewhere a lot cleaner in Peckham, the Labour Club was very difficult to use as a home although good as a venue). This was after some woman from their head office when it was up Walworth road turned up at the door and ordered us out, then returned with the police a few minutes later after we told her to fuck off. They couldn’t be bothered and told her to take us to court. The police also turned up to check our leccy supply about a month after it was squatted, thinking we were abstracting (not at that point) as our door bell was a length of flex

hanging out the top floor window attached to some empty beer cans; if they’d bothered to look at the flex they’d seen it was attached to nothing. Thick cunts!!…”

A plaque was put up here to remember the Labour Club squat

WALK EAST DOWN CHURCH STREET/PECKHAM ROAD TO CORNER OF HAVIL STREET

Unemployment

Under the old Poor Law systems that preceded the Welfare State, the poor who were unable or unwilling to work were the responsibility of the Parish authorities. These local worthies being ratepaying respectable folk, responsible to their fellow ratepayers, tried to spend as little as possible on unnecessary expenses like relieving the skint and destitute. Poor folk were often forced out of the parish if not native, or incarcerated in Workhouses, which increasingly became prisons for the lower orders, feared and hated. Especially `after the New Poor law was introduced in 1834, the Workhouse was made as inhospitable and repressive as possible to discourage people from resorting to it unless they had no other option. Men and women were split up, families divided, backbreaking labour was normal and the food was usually scanty and of dubious quality.

The old Workhouse, Havil Street

Camberwell’s old Workhouse stood here on the corner of Camberwell Church Street and Havil Street. The Workhouse had been built in 1727-8, despite opposition from local worthies, who didn’t see why they should pay for it. It was rebuilt several times here, most notably in 1827. This latest building was “very hot in the summer and particularly draughty in the winter.”

Over the years, the Havil Street site became increasingly important as a hospital. In 1873 a large new infirmary was erected at the north of the site, at the junction with Brunswick Road. Its central administrative block was five storeys high and contained offices, staff accommodation, and special wards.

The infirmary buildings were further extended in 1899-1903 with new ward blocks, operating theatre, and nurses’ home. A large administration block fronted onto Brunswick Square (now St Giles Road). The Board of Guardians, the Borough Council officers responsible for giving out ‘relief’ (benefits)and administering the Workhouse, had their office built on the site of the old Workhouse… (maybe not just because the land was vacant:  presumably the Workhouse site would have had enough bad resonances with the poor to scare some off from applying for relief!?) The Workhouse buildings were demolished in 1905.

In 1930, the Havil Street site was taken over completely by the London County Council and renamed St Giles’ Hospital. Many of the original buildings have now been demolished to make way for flats.

In 1878, Camberwell erected a new workhouse at a site to the west of Gordon Road, Peckham. [Aside: this was the old site of the convent at Nazareth House; after the Workhouse closed its derelict sheds became a dosshouse known as the Spike. The empty hospital buildings were partly demolished for flats in the 1990s, the other half of the site became a scrap recycling project and was then squatted in 1999, to become the famous Spike. Several people lived here, had parties, and organised many projects until its eviction in 2009.]

The Right to Live

Camberwell had a long tradition of unemployed organising themselves to fight for more generous systems of benefits. (Interestingly Myatt’s Fields Park was bought & turned into a landscaped park, after over 10 years of local campaigning, and laid out 1887-8. The work was actually done by the unemployed. After unemployed rioting in the West End in 1886, the authorities set up work-for-your-charity schemes for the doleys to try to stop them causing trouble. The park opened in 1889.)

During the high unemployment of 1905, a Camberwell Joint Unemployed Committee campaigned locally for more relief from the Guardians, having a membership of 1,500.

In the early 1920s Camberwell Green was also the starting point for rallies and demonstrations against unemployment, and against government measures which hit the unemployed hard.

After the First World War, unemployment rocketed. Partly this resulted from the change in the economy from the ending of the War/munitions industries, partly employment and economic figures had been distorted with hundreds of thousands of men in uniform. With large numbers of unemployed ex-servicemen looking for work, and firms laying people off, many working class people were thrown into poverty. This was not taken lying down however. From 1920 on, local unemployed committees organised against government measures to restrict money for relief of poverty and unemployment; against local authorities who were administering these restrictions (and in many cases adding some of their own) and against firms who were laying workers off, or working lots of overtime… Many of these committees were organised by trade unionists and socialists and communists who had been active in the strike movements before, during and after the War, and many members were unemployed ex-servicemen, who had spent years in the trenches only to come back to hardship.

In 1921, most of the Committees combined to form the National Unemployed Workers (Committee) Movement or NUWM.

The early to mid 19th Century saw a sharp rise in the number of people diagnosed as insane and committed to institutions; possible reasons for this include the social dislocation and pressures of industrialisation, urbanisation, with vast numbers of people being forced off the land and flocking into factories and slums to survive; although higher numbers being diagnosed may have contributed.

Rebellious, awkward or unorthodox behaviour could also land you in the asylum; poverty and increasing turbulence of life also drove many people mad. No adequate figures exist, but large numbers of people were forced into asylums as social control, or as a cheap alternative to workhouse.

The alternative to the Workhouse… the Madhouse

As mentioned above, Camberwell has hosted institutions for the treatment/incarceration of people with mental health problems for centuries. Two such ‘hospitals’ used to stand on Peckham Road:

Camberwell House and Peckham House

Camberwell House, a huge private establishment, stood on the north side behind the Town Hall, occupying the land as far as Southampton Way (where the Sceaux Gardens Estate is now). Built originally as a school, it was converted into a ‘lunatic asylum’ in 1846. Holding up to 483 inmates it was the largest of its kind in the metropolis in the late 19th Century.

A painting of Camberwell House

The institution was held to be “the epitome of the enlightened approach to mental disorders at a time when the public asylums were busy creating the ignorance and brutality, the mistrust, that still lingers in the public mind today of mental homes” (Blanch); the proprietors’ pioneering regime contrasted with the cruel and barbarous conditions prevalent in Bedlam and other asylums. “The utmost liberty, with safety, is permitted”, it was said of the regime there.

While it was said to cater to ‘all classes’, the private paying guest was clearly at the forefront of the proprietors’ minds… Not only was care emphasised, but the hospital also provided some pretty plush facilities for its ‘patients’: 20 acres of grounds (some of which were over Peckham Road, where Lucas Gardens are now) cricket, football and hockey pitches, tennis and squash courts, croquet; there were garden parties, dances (in a purpose built ball room!) theatricals, concerts, billiards… Camberwell House eventually closed in 1955: the building are now part of the University of the Arts.

Peckham House, on the other hand, (which stood on the site now occupied by the Harris Academy, Peckham, was clearly intended for the more plebeian end of the market. An old mansion till 1826, it then became a public asylum, in response to the urgent need for “a suitable establishment for the insane poor”; and to the urgent need for local parishes to cut the cost of sending their mad poor to public asylums north of the river.

It was smaller than Camberwell House, holding around 350 people; again it was supposed to be for “all ages and classes”. but in 1844, there were 203 pauper and 48 private inmates.  Pauper inmates were sent from various parishes, (an allowance was paid for their upkeep – 17s. 6d. in 1874, though not sure if that’s per year, per week or what?)

Being a public asylum, Peckham House was regularly checked out by the authorities that paid for it. Although much more so than today, you have to read between the lines, the inspectors reported that the accommodation was ‘excellent’, but consistently there were complaints about the food. Even the stingy worthies who pulled the purse strings were stirred into action: “this house has always been a source of trouble to us upon the subject of diet…”

Peckham House in the 1950s (south elevation)

In 1844, patients received on alternate days either meat, potatoes and bread, or soup and bread. It was described mouthwateringly: “the soup is made from the liquer in which the meat from the whole establishment (private paupers and servants) is boiled the previous day.” Please sir, can I have some more?

All in all, despite its ‘excellent’ accommodation, Peckham House was considered to be in a bad state in 1844, and may have only stayed open because the vestries who paid for it realised that the only alternative place for most of its poor inmates would be the workhouse – at their expense.

Class and money divided those interned here. In 1874, ‘Private’ patients whose “friends paying from one to one and a half guineas for their board, lodging and attendance” lived in separate blocks, in better circumstances than paupers… According to a South London Press reporter,  “the rooms are light and cheerful, ruddy fires burn in the grates. Here are bathrooms, with a supply of hot and cold water, and a bagatelle table for the amusement of the patients… In connection with this block is a pleasant strip of garden…” In the next ward “we rise a step in the social scale. ‘People who have moved in a superior station” my guide whispers as we enter. They are quiet and orderly people… The apartments are superior to the last… lounges and couches give a decided air of home comfort to the place.”  The final ward was “a long and elegantly furnished room…” About 42 ‘ladies’ inhabited this ward, paying fees of 5 to 20 guineas a week… Every comfort was allotted to them.

The asylum in 1874 had clearly improved from thirty years previously  – so that it “can be fairly compared with any similar establishment in the kingdom….”
Peckham House closed in 1952.

ALONG PECKHAM ROAD TO CAMBERWELL COLLEGE OF ART

 Camberwell unemployed in 1920 occupied Camberwell School of Art, as part of a campaign for free places for the unemployed to meet.

“Their local strength was reflected in the fact that they could ‘pack’ a Labour Party meeting in the Camberwell Baths and get the following motion carried: ‘We the workers at this meeting, under the guidance of the Mayor, realise the impossibility of any proffered solution to unemployment during the life of the Capitalist system. We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of a workers Republic.”

On Sept 21st 1921 there was a mass march of local unemployed, from Camberwell Green to Peckham.

In 1922, Camberwell Board of Guardians (who administered relief) planned to stop milk for babies of the unemployed… On February 1st, Camberwell women marched to the House of Commons, as the order was rumoured to have come down from the Ministry of Health. A Ministry inquiry reversed the decision.

Unemployment being high, it became a hot political issue. In 1922, elections were held for the Board of Guardians (the Council body that administered not only relief but the Workhouses etc). A flurry of electoral leaflets from various candidates addressed the issue. Labour candidates Arthur Andrews and Louis Edwards campaigned on the platform of giving out full rations to those on relief (not as was current policy, on the Mond scale, half-rations). They also opposed giving out food instead of money as out-relief. Their leaflet invoked the class nature of unemployment: “Its is only our class that go to the Workhouse or Infirmary. Send the Labour candidates to make the institutions as comfortable as possible. They stand the same risks as you do of having to go there.”  They also amusingly advised: “Don’t wait for our car [presumably to pick up voters and ferry them to the polls]. We haven’t got one. Workers don’t own cars, they only make them.”

There were also two candidates from the ‘Camberwell Central unemployed’, Burnett and Smith, who stood on the basis of their long activism in local unemployment politics, having been members of delegations to the Board of Guardians several times… What were their affiliations? They disparaged political parties in their leaflet, who would make loud noises to get elected and then make no changes.

Workers Defence

In 1927 the Government introduced the ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work Clause’, as well as cuts in benefit. In 1931 the National Government introduced the means test, and more dole cuts … the response of the local NUWM branches was to organise more broadly-based organisations known as Workers Defence Movements. In 1931 the Camberwell WDM claimed an active membership of 1,000 and got even more support at meetings outside the Peckham Labour Exchange. With the support of the Labour MP, John Beckett, thousands marched along Peckham Road via the Unity Labour Club in Consort Road, to the Rye. (John Beckett later lurched to the right, joining Oswald Mosley’s British union of Fascists.)

Towards the end of 1931 Southwark and Camberwell Workers Defence Movement joined forces for a mass march of 4,000 local unemployed from Walworth Town Hall via Camberwell Green to the Rye. En-route factories and other places of work were visited and employers asked to sign a statement to the effect that they had no work to offer.

The Workers Defence Movement was also involved in preventing evictions, especially during rent strikes, for example in Peckham’s Goldsmith Estate in 1931-2…  They also supported NUWM-organised hunger marchers and passive resistance to public works not given to local unemployed.

Arthur Cooper, Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council after the Second World War, remembers that a common local tactic was to inform the police that the mass unemployed would converge on a local street such as Southampton Way. Hundreds of police would arrive to find Cooper addressing a meeting of ten outside the Samuel Jones factory (a waxed paper works, by Peckham Grove) while the bulk of the unemployed were attending demonstrations in the West End!

Interestingly, in 1999 the College was occupied again, on 10 March 1999, by students in protest at lack of tutors, equipment, space, grants and hours of access.  College management used various methods to harass them, including bogus fire alarms, threats to prosecute, turning off heating & hot water. 8 students were taken to court over the occupation.

During the wave of occupations of universities and colleges over the winter of 2010, part of a wider movement against increased student fees and cuts generally, students took over the upper main room at Camberwell Art College’s Wilson Street building, staying throughout the Christmas holidays.
More here

CROSS OVER PECKHAM ROAD, WALK BACK DOWN WEST TO THE CORNER OF VESTRY ROAD

During the cold war London was divided into 4 (later 5) groups, each reporting directly to Kelvedon Hatch,
in turn each group was subdivided into the individual boroughs, each of them having its own control centre. The South East Group War HQ at Pear Tree House, SE19 had six sub-controls, Greenwich, Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Lewisham & Southwark. The Southwark control, designated 51C5 was located beneath a health centre at the junction of Peckham Road and Vestry Road, SE5, almost opposite Southwark Town Hall. Local officers and councillors would have taken shelter here in the event of a nuclear attack, to ‘co-ordinate action’, while the rest of us died horribly.

After the bunker’s closure, the empty health centre was demolished in the late 1990s because, according to the Southwark EPO, local children kept breaking in to it. The bunker below remains intact. The plot of land is now derelict awaiting redevelopment, one side of the stairway into the bunker below has been filled with concrete leaving a six foot drop onto the steps. A hinged grille has been fixed over the remaining part of the well and this is kept securely locked.
More on the Bunker

Lucas gardens housing peace camp 1981

From October 8-12 1984, local housing activists set up a housing peace camp on the lawn of the town hall. The main focus of the protest was against the council’s introduction of PIOs (Protected Intending Occupier) against squatters, to allow police and council officers to evict them without going to court. (As happened to your current author, PIO’d from a Southwark council flat in the Browning Estate in December 1991. 8 days before Xmas…)

CROSS THE ROAD TO SOUTHWARK TOWN HALL

Peckham Action Group

From 1977 to 1982 the Peckham Action Group (PAG) led a campaign against the demolition of the north side of historic Peckham High Street for a new town hall and huge 4-lane high road.

Southwark council came up with a massive scheme to create a dual-carriage highway through the centre of Peckham, with an effectively realigned High Street and a new, grandiose, multimillion-pound town hall.

This led to the formation of a dedicated Peckham Action Group to campaign against the plan. Action included demos and leafletting, lobbying, and the cutting of a now iconic punk rock seven-inch single, ‘No Town Hall’, recorded by the band Crisis. The cover depicted a Southwark sledgehammer embedded in a building, and a coffin bearing the legend ‘RIP Peckham’.

Winning support from councillors, the campaigners were able to help change minds about the new town hall and highway scheme.

This campaign echoed the earlier fight to prevent the South London Cross Route being built through Peckham and Camberwell, which would have led to the demolition of thousands of homes locally. This was a part of the Ringways project, a plan to encircle the capital with concentric rings of motorway and dual carriageway, with radial motorways and links roads fanning out in various directions. Two major elements of the Ringways scheme got built – the M25 and the North Circular Road. The South Circular expansion got bogged down; so did the third and innermost proposal, the ‘Motorway Box’ which would have formed an ‘inner ring road’; this was to have meant the demolition of thousands of homes and the relocation of over 100,000 people. In the north of the city new eight-lane motorways on raised concrete pylons were to be erected through Dalston, Highbury, Camden, Canonbury, Kilburn, Shepherds Bush… The South Cross route of the new autobahns would have driven through Barnes, Balham, Battersea, Clapham, Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham to Kidbrooke and Greenwich.

But locals in all the neighbourhoods threatened with mass demolition got together and fought the ringway proposals in the later 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, opposition movements coalesced into the London Motorway Action Group. The massive economic cost and opposition eventually led to the vast majority of the ‘Motorway Box’ being shelved in 1973.

The only sections that got built of the inner ring road were the A102/Blackwall tunnel, and the tiny M41 in Shepherds Bush, (squatted for the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the motorway, during another wave of protests against roadbuilding).

But interestingly, the so-called Barrier Block, Southwyck House in Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, was built with a startling resemblance to a Swedish Prison, with few and tiny windows and few entrances on the road facing side, because the motorway was expected to bulldoze down Coldharbour Lane through central Brixton (The motorway, and the grotesque Brixton plan designed to go with it, would have also reduced all of central Brixton to a Birmingham Bullring style raised interchange surrounded by 50 storey tower blocks. Its collapse left 1000s of compulsorily purchased street housing empty for several years, which was then gradually squatted for housing, projects and centres, and blues clubs, contributing much of the area’s counter-cultural life for the next four decades.

On 7 March 1990, Southwark Town Hall was stormed by 500 local anti-poll tax rebels, during setting of poll tax rate.

BACK DOWN TO HAVIL STREET, TURN RIGHT, WALK DOWN TO DALWOOD STREET, TURN RIGHT DOWN ONTO THE SCEAUX GARDENS ESTATE; WALK DOWN TO LAKANAL HOUSE

“It began with a faulty electronic appliance starting a fire in a flat. But the flames spread across the outside of the building, taking hold on cheap composite panels, not compliant with building regulations, which had been fitted during a refurbishment. Terrified residents called emergency services and were told to stay put in their homes, where they later died.

In the aftermath, questions were asked. How did risk assessments miss this? How did the system of building regulation allow the refurbishment to take place? How could this happen so close to the wealthiest part of one of the wealthiest cities on earth?

In social housing right now it seems history repeats itself twice as tragedy. Because this is not a description of the Grenfell Tower disaster, but Lakanal House – a fire eight years earlier …” (Inside Housing)

Lakanal House was built in 1959: a 14-storey tower block containing 98 flats. Southwark Council had previously scheduled the building for demolition in 1999, although later it was decided not to demolish it.

On 3 July 2009, a fire broke out a flat on the ninth floor of Lakanal House, caused by faulty television.

One single central stairwell was the only way in and out of the building – this filled quickly with thick dark smoke, making escape – and rescue – difficult. Around 150 people were evacuated or rescued from the flats. The Fire Brigade rescued a number of people from the flats. Many were taken to Guy’s Hospital, King’s College Hospital and Lewisham Hospital with injuries including smoke inhalation.

The fire killed three people in their flats – three people died of their injuries in hospital. Nine other people were treated at an emergency centre set up by Southwark Council. One firefighter was also admitted to hospital after being injured while fighting the fire.

The dead were three adults and three young children: Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her children, six-year-old Thais, and Felipe, three; Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; and 31-year-old Catherine Hickman.

The Fire Brigade had responded with a total of eighteen fire engines attending, setting up an operational command centre was erected on the seventh floor. People within the flats calling 999 were told to remain in their flats instead of attempting to flee, based on the theory of ‘compartmentation’ – the idea that the structure of the building meant the fire could not spread from flat to flat, so staying in their flats would help protect the families while the blaze was contained. This was supposed to be safer than braving the smoke-filled stairwells and corridors.

However, the flames spread from flat to flat and between floors on the outside of the building, as cladding and insulation caught fire. The exterior cladding panels had burned through in less than five minutes.

Catherine Hickman spent 40 minutes on the phone with 999 responders who urged her to stay in her flat; at the end of the call the responder could no longer hear her breathing.

A Fire Brigade investigation into the fire later helped bring to light that it had already been identified, before the blaze, that the structure and layout of Lakanal House posed a risk of enabling a fire to spread, if one should occur in one of the flats.

An inquest into the deaths at Lakanal House found that the rapid spread of the fire, due to the igniting of the exterior cladding, had trapped people in their homes. As in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire eight years later, residents were advised to remain in their homes in the event of a fire. The inquest also concluded that substandard renovations had removed fire-stopping material between the flats – a problem not uncovered by any Southwark council’s fire safety inspections carried out before the fire.

The layout of the flats made escape in case of an emergency difficult. The two-bedroom maisonettes were based on a two-storey interlocking design. The flats are entered from the right or left side of a central access corridor. On the access level, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom. There are stairs to the upper level where a lounge and kitchen stretch across the full width of the block. This means that the lounge for each flat is above one of the bedrooms of that flat and one of the bedrooms of the flat on the opposite side of the access corridor. The flats were built with fire exits from the lounge and the kitchen to ‘exit balconies’ on either side of the building, and also a fire exit from the largest bedroom into the central access corridor, separate from the front door.

The block had no central fire alarm system – not required by virtue of the then Building Regulations Approved Document B for England And Wales.

Southwark Council claimed after the fire that it had recently spent £3.5 million on refurbishment to meet current fire safety standards.

Residents evacuated from the flats sheltered in nearby community centres, helped by donations and solidarity from other locals and people much wider afield. Some of the residents found alternative accommodation with relatives although the majority were provided with accommodation by Southwark Council. Lakanal House was boarded up. Refurbishment work commenced in 2015, and the block had reopened to residents – many of those who lived there prior to the fire found it too painful to return, however. Southwark spent millions on refurbishment of several blocks after the event.

A number of tower blocks of a similar design exist: Marie Curie House, also nearby, is of identical design to Lakanal.

Despite many calls for a proper investigation and inquiry into the causes of the rapid spread of the fire, no public inquiry has ever been conducted into the Lakanal House fire. At the inquest it was concluded that no realistic prospect of any corporate manslaughter charge was possible, despite many clear failings by the council. However, London Fire Brigade eventually brought a case against Southwark Council to court, eight years later. The Council pleaded guilty in February 2017 to four charges concerning breaches to safety regulations. It was fined £270,000, reduced from £400,000 because it had pleaded guilty, plus £300,000 costs.

Less than four months later, Grenfell Tower caught fire, and the blaze spread in a very similar way, up flammable cladding & insulation on the outside of the building. Again, people were told to stay in their flats as this should protect them from fire better than trying to escape down the stairs.

This time 72 people died.

But might Grenfell never have happened, if proper notice had been taken of events in Lakanal? Recommendations for changes in construction and fire regulations, and to how fires are dealt with by the emergency services, after Lakanal House burned were never acted on at national level, leaving thousands of residents living in potential death traps.

After the 2013 inquest into Lakanal, Coroner Judge Frances Kirkham wrote to Southwark council, the London Fire Commissioner, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a series of recommendations to prevent a similar disaster occurring in future.

She made more than 40 recommendations, including that more guidance should be given to residents in high rise blocks, including clear advice on how to react if a fire breaks out and what to do if circumstances changed – for example if smoke starts coming into a flat.  She also recommended that block layouts should be given to emergency workers responding to fires.

The Department for Communities and Local Government, led by then-minister the (Right Corrupt and Frankly Disgusting) Eric Pickles, was asked to publish national guidance on the confusing ‘stay put’ principle and ‘get out and stay out’ policy.

The government was also asked to provide guidance on building regulations and check the safety of materials and whether refurbishment work can reduce existing fire protection, and to consider retrofitting sprinklers across high-rise blocks.

The government published a response committing itself to publishing new building guidance and committing to make fire safety and priority. This was a smokescreen – no review ever came.

Grenfell repeated Lakanal – but on a scale many times worse. The impact has been massive – on residents, families, friends, communities. A wave of support and solidarity for the affected; an upsurge in social housing tenants organising, especially in blocks with similar issues. Huge lip service has been paid by politicians, corporations and councils, in response to the outpouring of outrage. A Public Inquiry has been quickly set up this time. But yet again campaigners and those most involved in the after-effects have been saying for nearly three years that this should never have happened, warnings were there before the fire, and the evacuated have been increasingly marginalised by the authorities. Cynics (AKA people with some experience of the housing system) have been expressing the view that despite everything, they suspect that things will go back to the way they were before. Deaths, outrage, inquiry, recommendations, burial, silence, normality. Repeat.

Why? How can people die in horrific fires – caused by the institutions supposedly there to look after their interests, and by the large corporations contracted to carry out the building work… and no-one puts into practice any lessons learned? How does it happen again: much, much worse?

Could it be because the people in charge of housing and housing policy overwhelmingly do not live in social housing, have never lived in social housing, will never live in social housing, and consider those that do as at best a nuisance to be ignored or ‘managed’, or an impediment to the proper and ‘vibrant’ commercialisation of inner city land, to be shifted, shafted and short-changed? Housing is for profit not people’s need, and the people had better get used to that?

Some say we need another way of living…

Justice for Grenfell

Grenfell United

We didn’t visit Lakanal on our original walk, (the fire hadn’t yet happened) and so didn’t put up a plaque. Mind you – we can’t see any other memorial to the dead on the block. Is there one anywhere?

BACK DOWN TO HAVIL STREET, TURN RIGHT, WALK DOWN TO BRUNSWICK VILLAS, TURN LEFT HERE, NEXT LEFT INTO ST GILES ROAD, AND NEXT RIGHT INTO BRUNSWICK PARK; WALK DOWN TO 16

Una Marson lived here

“No more moaning and groaning, No more self-hatred masquerading as integration. No more rejecting your own Ethiop’s child for somebody else’s Barbie doll. You are part of a strong African-Caribbean influenced literary tradition. Affirm your right as an individual, a woman and a writer to be both Black and British.”

Una Marson (1905-1965), Jamaican writer, feminist, activist, lived in 29 Brunswick Square (now 16 Brunswick Park) for a short while in the mid-1930s.

Born in a middle class rural Jamaican village, her pioneering social work in Kingston’s slum yards, and her expatriate life in London at war, Una Marson (1905-65) became a fighting partisan of Black poetics and politics.

She came to England in 1932, originally for a few weeks, but like many other migrants this turned into many years. She was the first Black woman programme maker at the BBC, where she worked from 1939 to 1946 and helped many service men and women and Caribbean people during the war. West Indies Calling was her maiden programme in her five years of association with BBC, 1940 to 1945. She founded her own programme, Caribbean Voices, in March 1943, and became the BBCs first Black woman producer. But, she became increasingly sceptical and disenchanted with the “internal battles and troubled moments” with BBC managers, who thought only of promoting British authors to Caribbean listeners, influenced by government policy to requisition colonial labour and resources while stifling nationalist activism.

Two main issues provoked her poetic work. She captured the calypsonian air of topical stories, sounds and music; and she exposed colonial fears and prejudices. She combined themes of cultural identity and female sexuality, of self-doubt and disadvantage… “her Black poetics and politics offer a firm basis for a writer’s commitment to a fair and equal world”. Marson explored the multi-layered heritage of Blacks in colonial Jamaica, emphasising ancestral African roots. In Songs of Africa (1930) she applauds the music of Afro-Creole people of the Americas that fosters race pride and the determination to be free. Fragments of colour, people, places and warmth form an intricate pattern. Again, in There will come a time (1931) she cries out for racial equality as the foundation of her dream of the oneness of the world’s diverse peoples. Marson illustrates how women used poetry to express their sufferings and avoid terrible retribution, like the Black preacher during slavery. Her first collection of love poems Tropic Reveries (1930), set in Jamaican colonial culture, explores women’s political and subversive yearning for freedom from cultural domination. Marson honed her skills in political poetry. Her narrative wartime poem Convoy salutes “my own blood brothers/ Brown like me.”

Una Marson became well known in London as a feminist and anti-racist activist, putting her energies into helping disadvantaged Black people in south London. She worked as secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, the first Black-led political organisation in England, in the company of activist CLR James and welfare officer & cricketer Learie Constantine. Believing that building Black solidarity around the world could open the road to Black Freedom, Marson welcomed Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanist message of “African liberation, at home and abroad”. As a writer, she kept in touch with the icons of the “Harlem Renaissance”, African Americans writers Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.

She railed against the maltreatment of women workers, students and nurses, (in particular the discrimination against black nurses) and joined the radical Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Later as secretary to Haile Selassie she traveled to the League of Nations with him in 1936 to plead for Abyssinia, when it was invaded by Italy; and later still the 1960s she worked in Israel. Una has gained a pioneering literary reputation, as the first major woman poet of the Caribbean and a playwright.

See The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965, by Delia Jarrett-Macauley. Manchester University Press 1998. http://www.deliajarrettmacauley.com/

Here’s a plaque we left there in 2006 – though in 2009 an official blue plaque was put up on her former home

Some other well-known feminists who have lived in Camberwell

Mary Hays:  a novelist and early feminist, friend of Mary Wolstonecraft, (author of Vindication of the Rights of Women, the first great feminist text) lived in Camberwell 1807 – 1824. Born in Southwark, almost nothing is known of her first 17 years. She took up writing, probably spurred by an early love affair with a man her parents disapproved of, who shortly afterwards died. her to take up writing. Throughout the 1780s she wrote essays and poems. A short story “Hermit: an Oriental Tale” was published in 1786. It was a picturesque tale, which warned against feeling too much passion. She exchanged letters with Robert Robinson, a minister who campaigned against the slave trade. She attended the “Dissenting Academy” in Hackney in the late 1780s (founders & members of which were very active in the reform and anti-slavery movements)

In 1792 Hays was given a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, which made a deep impression on her, and she became friends with Wollstonecraft. Hays next wrote a book Letters and Essays (1793) and invited Mary Wollstonecraft to comment on it before publication. She was inspired to leave home and support herself by writing. After borrowing a copy of Enquiry concerning Political Justice by William Godwin, she became friends with its radical author, who became a guide and teacher. About this time Hays started writing for the Analytical Review, a liberal magazine, of which Mary Wollstonecraft was fiction editor. She is popularly credited with introducing William Godwin to Mary Wollstonecraft; the two married in 1797. When Mary Wollstonecraft was dying, due to complications following the birth of their daughter, Mary (later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), Mary Hays helped to nurse her and also wrote an obituary of Wollstonecraft for the Annual Necrology. Hays and Godwin drifted apart after Wolstonecraft’s death.

Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), probably Hay’s best-known work,  draws on the experience of her affair with Cambridge mathematician William Frend, and possibly her relationship with Godwin. The heroine falls in love with a penniless man Augustus Harley, and offers to live with him as his wife, without getting married. She is rejected and then turns to Mr Francis, a character based on Godwin. They exchange philosophical letters, but in the end he advises her against becoming too emotional. The critical response to the novel was divided along political lines. Free love is seen to be aligned with social revolution, and domestic repression is shown as upholding the political order.

Her next novel The Victim of Prejudice (1799) is emphatically feminist and critical of class hierarchies. The backlash against the French revolutionary terror led critics to slate the novel as too radical and hysterical. In 1803 Hays published the six volume Female Biographies, detailing the lives of 294 women. However by this point Hays perhaps realised that it was politically dangerous to praise Mary Wollstonecraft, and somewhat bottled it by omitting her from the book.

Moving to Camberwell, Hays associated with many leading literary figures of the age, including Charles and Mary Lamb and William Blake. The last 20 years of her life were somewhat unrewarding, with little income and only her work increasingly ignored. She is buried in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington.

Hays lived in 9 St. George’s Place, Walworth (although Hays refers to the house as being in Camberwell), a short row of houses along Amelia Street, 1803-6, then after moving around alot, then moved to Champion Hill, 1832 -1842.
More on her life and letters

We put up a plaque to remember Mary Hays

Vera Brittain: Camberwell Versus Death. From a well-to-do Derbyshire family, Vera Brittain later became a feminist and pacifist. She served  as a nurse during WW1 at the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell from October 1915-September 1916, as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) member of the British Red Cross.

Her fiancé, Roland Leighton, her brother Edward and many of their friends were killed during the war.

Returning to Oxford after the war to complete her degree, Vera found it difficult to adjust to peacetime. It was at this time she met Winifred Holtby, a close friendship developed with both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene, and the bond developed between them until Holtby’s untimely death in 1935.

Brittain’s first published novel was The Dark Tide (1923). In 1933 that she published Testament of Youth, detailing her war experiences, (which features the Chapter Camberwell Versus Death) followed by the sequels, Testament of Friendship (1940) – her tribute to and biography of Winifred Holtby – and Testament of Experience (1957), which spanned the years between 1925 and 1950. Vera Brittain wrote from the heart and based many of her novels on her experiences and actual people.

In the 1920s she became a regular speaker on behalf of the League of Nations Union, but from 1937, after previously speaking at a peace rally with Dick Sheppard, George Lansbury, Laurence Housman and Donald Soper. she joined the Peace Pledge Union. Her newly found pacifism came to the fore during World War II, when she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers.

During WW2 she worked as a fire warden and travelled around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union’s food relief campaign. She was widely denounced for speaking out against saturation bombing of German cities in her 1944 pamphlet Massacre by Bombing.

Vera Brittain died in 1970.

WANDER DOWN BRUNSWICK PARK

Squatting in Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove

Many empty houses were squatted in Brunswick Park & Vicarage Grove in the 1980s, most of which were initially divided into flats. There were 70 squatters in Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove, around 1984-87. It was very much a community: squatters set up an active group here, based at 9a, Brunswick Park, in March 1984. Plans for a communal centre in the basement of no 4 were being worked on in October 1984. The Council had no plans for the houses, but tried to evict squatters at first, though by April 1984 they had come to an unofficial deal (after some defeats and adjournments in court) that they wouldn’t evict them till they had plans for the houses. The squatters regarded themselves as “unofficial licensees” after this… But the Council was constantly undecided as to what to do with the buildings; there were rumours (eg one which spread in in November 1984) of plans to evict and gut them, make them unusable. In early ’85 there were still odd attempts to evict individual houses… none succeeded. Cases usually got suspended.

On 24 October 1985, Council officers and workers turned up and evicted two squats here, helped by a van load of cops… and a High Court Sheriff. He claimed there had been notice given, which was a lie. 30 squatters soon gathered outside. Several houses were evicted, people’s belongings were chucked out and their homes boarded and steel-doors attached. Then the Council and their lackeys buggered off… leaving the squatters to immediately re-occupy the houses!

The Brunswick/Vicarage Squatters group still existed in 1987, at this point it had its own van. Some squats were turned into galleries and museums.  But by January ’87 Southwark Council had evolved a pilot scheme to evict Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove squats, do them up and use them for shortlife housing, ie to evict some young single homeless to make room for other young single homeless. This was to become Borough wide policy for long term empties.

25 squatters from the two streets here went to a Housing Committee meeting in August ’87; local council tenants had signed petition on support of them… But the scheme got voted in, and there were no more negotiations. Between 1987 and 1990, many of the squats were evicted, with some legal and not so legal resistance; several got adjournments in court on the grounds that they had had licences from the council, also the council had done work on them while squatted.

Some squatters in Brunswick and Vicarage formed housing co-ops, some of which I think still exist; and squats were still popping up in these streets occasionally until very recently.

Many other streets and estates in Camberwell have known squatting, over the last 40 years: especially the Elmington Estate, Crawford Estate off Coldharbour Lane, and the Southampton Way Estate (many of whose blocks have now disappeared), in Caldicot, Bavent and Cutcombe Roads near Kings College Hospital (many former Lambeth Self-Help Co-op flats, whose long-term residents were moved out by the Hospital, on the grounds that they were planning to demolish them to extend the Hospital for much needed ward space, were squatted, then evicted in 1999 en masse; then sold off for huge profits.)

Skyrocketing house prices, changes in housing legislation, sell-offs of council property, and inner city gentrification (as the middle class decided that decades after leaving areas to the poor, now they want it back) have made self-help housing initiatives like squatting and housing co-ops endangered species, but who knows what will happen, with the so-called credit crunch and increasing council inability and unwillingness to house anyone at all. There are fewer empties than there used to be, but many newly built so-called luxury flats are now lying unused or unsold… Squatting residential property was made a criminal offence in September 2012.

Here’s another 2006 plaque to remember the squats here

DOWN TO BENHILL STREET TURN RIGHT, & TURN RIGHT AGAIN INTO ELMINGTON ROAD

Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Camberwell

Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts reappeared on the streets of South London in 1957, having been defeated in their post-WW2 agitation (mainly against Jews) by the Jewish ex-servicemens 43 Group, which battered them off the streets.
Several parts of Lambeth and Southwark had by now a growing West Indian community, which replaced their earlier focus on Jews as their main target for race hatred. By 1961 organisations such as the European Union of Fascists and the British National Party (Mark 1) were meeting regularly in the area. In October 1961 a rally on Peckham Rye organised by the British National Party was attended by 60 people.  The BNP’s John Tyndall, later National Front leader and later still in the 80s, fuhrer of a reborn British National Party, used to speak publicly on Camberwell Green… Never will again though eh, since he popped his little nazi clogs a couple of years back.

In the 1970s the National Front achieved a much larger membership and influence than the hard right groupuscules they emerged from, and became more confident and provocative. The NF did gather a lot of members and sympathisers in South London, though the massive turnout against them in Lewisham in 1977 showed how much opposition there also was. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party election victory in 1979 to some extent cut their support as she adopted many of their policies.

The Front marched from Camberwell to Peckham, a number of times, in the 1970s, in, 1980, and on Oct 23 1982.

Local anti-fascists opposed the rise of such racist groups: Southwark Campaign Against Racism and Fascism was set up in 1976. In 1979 SCARF secretary Rod Robertson was prosecuted under the Representation of the People’s Act, for a leaflet suggesting people not vote for the NF.

But rightwing racist ideas continued to have some local support in Camberwell…

In July 1991: The British National Party (Mark 2) stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for the council by-election in Brunswick Ward, which mostly consists of the Elmington Estate and some surrounding streets. Their campaign was vigorously opposed by local anti-fascists, leftwing groups, and some squatters who lived in the area. etc, However, they did manage to march in force round the estate.

At the time, the Elmington was very run down: Southwark was one of the poorest boroughs in London. The Estate’s local housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known socialist, (also a Labour councillor in Lambeth at the time). The BNP campaign was aimed at attacking her and squatters living on the estate. ” [Rachel Webb} is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”  “Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was seen round the estate at the time. There had also been racist attacks on the estate with dogs set on black kids, and black families had their windows bricked; residents and even passers-by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear, who it appeared had links to the BNP… At the time BNP were doing paper sales in East Street Market and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruiting disaffected white working-class residents.

10 or so people had to sign backing them from the ward, some of whom were living on the estate. It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of nazi streetfighting group Combat 18, lived here at the time – he was officially living on the Elmington a couple of years later.

The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action, who took the position you have to oppose their presence wherever it shows its head, as it leads to/feeds on racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time, even if electorally they were not likely to win the election. A variety of other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors were involved in the opposition to the BNP; others, like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), informed us the BNP were irrelevant, a distraction from the real issues (tell that to the people they were attacking). The SWP later reversed this position and their reformed the Anti Nazi League.

The campaign consisted mainly of leafleting the area, talking to people, a rally on the estate, and public meetings (at least one of which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions).
Tone march against the BNP; the BNP themselves had a march of about 70 people round the estate, which anti-fascists found out about too late and could do very little to oppose.

BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.

A picket was held outside Town hall during the election count. The BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, quite a lot for a fringe candidate in a council by-election. Police heavily protected Nazis at the count.

Some dodgy white residents who were strongly suspected of being among those who signed BNP forms burgled squatters living on the Elmington who were involved in Anti Fascist Action: the squatters were forced to move…

The BNP presence was not massively sustained and built on, as they never stood again. But their strategy of standing in elections did grow after this, to the point here they finally got a neglected councillor a couple of years later in East London.
A longer, and much more thought out, response to this anti-fascist campaign in 1991, can be read here

Since 1991 the Elmington estate, has changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has radically altered the class mix here. Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London these days than fascist boots.

DOWN ELMINGTON ROAD AND TURN RIGHT UP LOMOND GROVE; CROSS NEW CHURCH ROAD TO RUST SQUARE

In 1974, squatters moved out of the famous Elgin Avenue in West London, were rehoused by the Greater London Council (which then owned 1000s of houses and flats all over the capital) in Rust Square, New Church Street, St George’s Way, Jardin Street and Albany Road, around the western edge of Burgess Park. 170 people were rehoused in 14 properties. These squatters had fought a long and widely publicised campaign for rehousing by the GLC, and arriving in South London, they of course got active and made links/caused trouble locally. They were still living in the houses in April 1976. At this time Kathleen Hoey and her family were squatting in Kitson Road (behind Addington Square/Rust Square). The council took them off the waiting list because they were squatting council property; however the Housing Dept were at the same time sending homeless people down to the Rust Square squatters group with letters of recommendation!  A widely publicised campaign was waged on behalf of the Hoeys.

Eventually the Rust Square squatters got rehoused again; some on the Aylebury Estate.

BACK DOWN LOMOND GROVE TO THE SITE OF CAMBERWELL MAGISTRATES COURT

Camberwell magistrates Court was opened in 1971 (on the site of houses demolished by a WW2 V2 rocket) and said in the 1990s to be the busiest Magistrates Court in the country. Outside of the usual, some occasions it has seen heavy use include: after the Brixton uprising of April 1981, other riots/rebellions of July 1981, after the 1985 Brixton riot, and during the Poll Tax, when not only were non-payers from Lambeth prosecuted there but anti-poll tax rioters from various shindigs in 1990 at Lambeth Town HallBrixton Prison etc, were had up. Anti-poll tax activists generally supported non-payers here, 1991-93, including a (somewhat damp squib, by my memory) demonstration called against the first prosecutions for non-payment in Lambeth on February 14th 1991: ‘St Valentine’s Day… Massacre the Poll Tax!” 

(More personally the author has known the cells there, more than once, one time for criminal damage after being interrupted painting anti-poll tax graffiti on a wall in Angell Town in Brixton… sadly before the said graffiti made grammatical sense!)

CROSS THE ROAD TO CAMBERWELL ROAD AND tTO NOLLYWOOD: THE SITE OF THE OLD FATHER REDCAP

“ the Redcap in its heyday was an ideal mix of performance and people of every bent — cheap, cheerful and sleazy, a sort of beatniks’ Silver Buckle.”

After its incarnations as a music hall, this building used to be the Father Redcap pub.

Here’s a poem on a fight in the pub in the 1960s

A number of pubs in this part of South London were well-known by the 1960s as gay venues including the Union Tavern on Camberwell New Road and the Father Red Cap, here on Camberwell Green, both of which put on regular drag nights. The Redcap gave one of the founders of the gay disco movement his first big break. On 1st July 1971 Richard Scanes (DJ Tricky Dicky), took to the decks at the Father Red Cap and began to play the new disco sound to the local crowd. His aim was to bring disco to a local audience making things more intimate and friendly (compared to what were known as the ‘gay ghettoes’ in town). Scanes said: “At my discos the gay boys and gay girls can dance together and no-one is going to say a word. This time last year you wouldn’t have seen gay people dancing together.” (Check out this issue of Gay News for an interview with Tricky Dicky) In 1975 Tricky Dicky went on to found a purpose-made gay disco, Fangs, which led the way for the first gay superclubs like Bang which opened the following year. Tricky Dicky was famous for finishing his sets at the end of the night by playing what he called a ‘Camp Revamp,’ winding down the crowd with a camp classic – like Marilyn Monroe’s ‘I wanna be loved by you’ for example – something which became a tradition in gay discos everywhere.

The landlord was Charles Holmes who was proud of his pub’s status and put up a Take Courage sign outside saying ‘The Father Red Cap, the Gayest Pub in Town’. Both men were In 1974 Holmes and the manager of the Redcap were pulled up before the courts and each fined £100 for permitting and abetting in running a ‘disorderly house’ after the police had moved in to stop the gay discos.”

But they weren’t discouraged for long and other venues began to follow their lead.

The Redcap closed as a gay pub – around 2007 ? By early 2008 it had re-opened, as the Red Star, putting on dance music and edgy club nights, including gigs by Alabama 3 and other Brixton faves. However, behind the Red Star were the owners of the Brixton Dog Star, a dubious bunch, highly implicated in the gentrification of Brixton… The Red Star lasted a few months, then the building lay empty for a while.

In 2010 the building was squatted and turned into a squat centre, as the Rat Star. The then owner allowed them to stay without threat of eviction. At this time, for a couple of years, Camberwell again became South London’s squat central. Following the Black Frog in Warham Street, and the Library House, the Rat Star was one of a series of local squat centres, with lots of events, gigs, meetings, film nights, part of London’s anti-capitalist scene… Opposite the Rat Star on the other side of Camberwell Road, several other buildings were occupied, and a thriving radical squat scene sprang up.

The Rat Star squat was raided on 27/4/2011, along with two other Camberwell squats and other squat centres, in the wake of the large anti-cuts demo on March 26th that year, which had led to some occupation of shops, damage and fighting with police, and mass arrests.

The raid against Ratstar was carried out under a Section 18 warrant to search for ‘stolen goods’; the TSG officers at the scene appeared find no evidence of theft. 14 arrests made were for “electricity abstraction” (connecting to the electricity supply while neglecting to pay the bill. Another Camberwell squat tradition – see Camberwell Grove above!) Twelve hours later, dozens of cops were still searching the premises for anything incriminating. Members of Counter Terrorism Command, S015, were present at the eviction making use of spotter cards to try and identify possible suspects from March 26th.

Hopefully more on the Ratstar and other nearby squats will be added to this post later…

The Redcap/Redstar/Ratstar is now ‘Nollywood’.

DOWN THE SIDE OF THE GREEN TO CHURCH STREET; CROSS OVER THE ROAD TO WREN ROAD – WALK UP TO ‘THE COLONNADES’ FLATS AT THE SOUTHERN END

Camberwell Green Congregational Church used to stand here. Dr Harold Moody’s funeral was held here on 1st May 1947. Dr Moody (1882-1947) was a doctor, activist, and founder of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1882, the son of a pharmacist, He came to England to study medicine at King’s College.

He was completely unprepared for the colour bar in Edwardian London. He found it hard to find lodgings; after winning many prizes and qualifying as a doctor in 1910, he was rejected for the post of medical officer to the Camberwell Board of Guardians, despite being the best qualified candidate, because the matron refused to have a ‘coloured’ doctor working at the hospital’: he was told ‘the poor people would not have a n****r to attend them’. In February 1913, he started his own practice in Peckham which became very successful.

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

He was instrumental in overturning the Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925, a discriminatory measure which sought to restrict subsidies to merchant shipping employing only British nationals and required alien seamen to register with their local police. Many Black and Asian British nationals had no proof of identity and were being laid off.

Moody and other black activists founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 in London, with the goal of racial equality around the world: the League was a powerful civil rights force until its dissolution in 1951.Though the League’s primary focus was black rights in Britain, it also pursued other civil-rights issues, such as the persecution of the Jews in Germany. In 1933, the League began publishing its civil-rights journal The Keys.

At the inaugural meeting, the League established four main aims:

  1. To protect the social, educational, economic and political interests of its members
  2. To interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world
  3. To improve relations between the races
  4. To cooperate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to coloured people

In 1937, a fifth aim was added:

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

From the League’s founding until the outbreak of World War II, its primary focus was eliminating the colour bar in the British workplace, in social life, and in housing. Throughout Britain in the 1930s, black people were refused service in many restaurants, hotels, and lodging houses, and also found it extremely difficult to find a job in many industries; the medical profession in particular drew the attention of the league, most likely due to founder and president Dr Moody’s personal struggles in that area. By 1935, a branch of the league focusing on equality in the shipping industry had grown to over 80 members. During the 1930s, The League of Coloured Peoples struck many blows for black people’s rights in the workplace.

Dr Moody died in 1947 at the age of 64. He lived in a house in Peckham on Queens Road which now has a blue plaque dedicated to him. Many hundreds of mourners attended his funeral here.

We put up a plaque to Dr Moody here.

WALK ALONG CHURCH STREET TO NO 18 (NOW TUCKERS SOLICITORS)

The League of Socialist Artists.

Based at 18 Camberwell Church St in the 1970s, the League favoured ultra-marxist realist art, and sound today hilariously dogmatic. “Our art must serve revolutionary politics. We place our art unreservedly at the service of the working class.” By which of course they meant “under the overall leadership of the  Marxist-Leninist party….”

In some ways they echoed Ruskin’s view of the role of art and the artist: “Within [the] overall tasks of the proletarian socialist revolution a role of unprecedented importance devolves upon… creative artists. For it is precisely through art that science., the knowledge, understanding and experience of the laws of motion of the universe, including particularly of human society, is distilled… artists, whether of the visual or the dramatic arts, are no less than “engineers of the human soul” {JV Stalin}… Quotes from Stalin, in the 1970s, no less.

“Proletarian socialist art is a reflection in artistic form of the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie… The method of artistic creation of proletarian socialist art is therefore proletarian -socialist realism…”

They had some great rhetoric: “we Socialist Artists declare our aims and work to stand completely apart from and in irreconcilable opposition to the formalism and commodity fetishism of capitalist art which serves at one and the same time to mystify the movement  and conflict of social classes, to preach and inculcate the helplessness of man before the “unknowable” universe, and the  “atomic chaos” of the “existentialist” society – as also to provide the effete, luxury loving ruling class with those soporific, sensationalised and alienated titbits which might, for an hour or a day, provide an anodyne to bring forgetfulness of the moment of doom for their class which the approaching proletarian-socialist revolution is bringing ever nearer.” And so on…

Socialist realism was the only path, “In place of the pop art, mobile junk, psychedelic and other fringe lunacy of decaying capitalist art we will erect an art which expresses the dignity of working people, into which life is breathed from out of their very struggles…”

Maureen Scott was a member of the LSA. We love her portrait of Pat Burke, formidable former landlady of the Prince Albert in Brixton

We left a plaque to commemorate the LSA (though we should have made it more abstract/pop-arty)

WALK TO ARTICHOKE PLACE AND DOWN TO THE LEISURE CENTRE

Camberwell Public Baths was officially opened here on 1 October 1892.

The baths were built as a public resource by the then Camberwell Borough Council, at a cost of £28,575, with two large swimming pool halls, one behind the other.The original facilities at the baths in 1892 were vital for locals, many of whom had no bathroom, or even running water, in their homes, or shared bathrooms and laundry rooms with other families. In the early years, facilities included:

  • Men’s First Class: 24 private baths, one public swimming bath 120 feet (37 m) by 35 feet (11 m) with 81 dressing boxes at the side
  • Men’s Second Class: 40 private baths, one public swimming bath, 120 feet (37 m) by 35 feet (11 m) with 65 dressing boxes
  • Ladies First Class; 12 private baths
  • Ladies Second Class: 20 private baths
  • Public Laundry: 78 compartments
  • Establishment Laundry

Camberwell was one of the first baths with electric lighting, powered with its own generator. There was an apartment at the rear of the building for an engineer who also served Dulwich Baths.

By 1903 the baths were officially reported as failing to achieve their goal of being self-sufficient, being in deficit by £7,000.

This may be linked to an attempt to close the baths in 1907 (see picture) – defeated by local women, it would appear.

The baths were also used as a venue for various political events, including on 11 December 1908, an exhibition of protest banners by the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

During World War 1 the baths serve as the local recruitment centre for volunteers to sign up to join the army; and when conscription was brought in from 1916, Conscientious Objectors were arrested and brought here as the first step to forcing them to serve, or the first step to prison or a detention camp.(See the story of Arthur Creech-Jones, above.)

In 2001 there was controversy when lifeguards at the baths refused to support nude swimming sessions of the Gay London Swimming group. The group agreed to provide their own lifeguards.

From the 1970s, the baths began to fall into decline. Although even then many people locally had no access to a bath or only to shared bathing in their homes. Gradual improvements in domestic arrangements, council refurbs, people having bathrooms put in, buying washing machines, and so on, led to a fall off in income from what had once been a self-financing operation. By the late 1990s, Southwark Council was arguing the building of new facilities at Peckham Pulse meant the baths were no longer needed.

Friends of Camberwell Baths was formed in 1998 to defend against closure.

Save Camberwell Baths Campaign march, 2006

The campaign laster several years. From May 2006 until October the Council planned that the Baths would receive £5m to £6m for full refurbishment. In January 2007 the Council had decided to “provide up to £1.5 million capital funding to ensure that the Centre stays open with its current facilities” – ie, no new money to improve the building. Funding of £1.45 million was however, later confirmed on 31 March 2009 for improving the centre with the total refurbishment budget from all sources amounting to £4.7 million. Additional funds came from the Southwark Investing in Leisure programme of more than £2 million and the Youth Capital Fund allocated £576,000 in May 2009 for a council managed youth programme within the site. The building was closed from Wednesday 25 November 2009 till its re-opening in 28 February 2011.

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That’s all for now… More another time…
maybe END AT A PUB: THE HERMIT’S CAVE? assuming it re-opens after all this Corona Caboodle.

All this week in London radical history, 1926: fighting in Southwark during the General Strike

The 1926 General Strike in Southwark

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of workers taking action themselves without them…

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off. Since then the General Strike has entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain.

This text describes some of the events of the General Strike in the then Metropolitan Boroughs of Bermondsey, Camberwell and Southwark, now united into the London Borough of Southwark.

Scenes of clashes between strikers and police at the Elephant and Castle and surrounding areas were immortalised in photographs taken at the time, and the Thames seemed to many as a barricade between the plutocrats of the City of London and the insurgent working class south of the river.

The General Strike was of course a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages add conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

This text was originally published by Southwark Trades Council: unsurprisingly then it concentrates mostly on the activities of local Trades Councils and unions. It describes some of the main events & the atmosphere reasonably well. 

The TUC leaders sold out the Strike, but despite their anger, support for the miners and resentment towards the TUC, neither the Councils of Action, the Trades Councils, the militant left, nor the insurgent workers they claimed to represent, significantly broke out of the official structures, to either broaden the Strike while it was on or to continue it after it had been called off.

Party-obsessed lefties like Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein in their “Marxism & the Trade Union Struggle” have argued for nearly 80 years that what was lacking was a strong centralised Communist Party to direct the struggle. The Communist Party of Great Britain that existed in 1926 was small and weak, for many reasons, including its own rightwing idealogy, the complex history of British communism, the social & economic conditions of the time, and state repression immediately before 1926. But clearly no party however strong or centralised is a substitute for a working class organising for itself. When the union leaders called the strike off, millions of workers, after an initial upsurge, obeyed, whatever their feelings. Workers told not to strike or to go back to work even before the Strike ended, did as they were told. And the CPGB in fact made little attempt to challenge the TUC running of events in fact calling for “All power to the General Council.” There’s an an analysis of some of the reasons for the failure of the Strike here

… and here’s a roundup of events in London during the Strike

1000s of working people fought the cops and scabs for nine days, all over the country. But only by breaking out of TUC control and extending the struggle on their own behalf could the outcome have been any different.

NINE DAYS IN MAY

the national scene

On May 1st 1926 the main industrial dispute in the country was the battle between the miners and the coal-owners, and it was this battle which was to lead to the calling of the General Strike. This dispute was the focus of the power struggle between the owners and the workers. In the coal industry the owners had, for over a year prior to May 1926, been attempting to force reductions in wages and increases in hours worked. On July 31st 1925 the Tory government was forced, in return for industrial peace, to offer a nine month subsidy to the coal industry, a condition of which was the withdrawal by the coal-owners of notices of wage reductions. This subsidy ran out in April 1926 and immediately the coal-owners posted lock-out notices in the face of the total refusal by the miners to accept any reduction in wages or increase in hours worked: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.”

By this time the masses of the workers were calling for a General Strike in support of the miners’ struggle, which they saw as their own. They forced this view on the General Council of the TUC, who proposed “coordinated action” – and this proposal was endorsed on May lst at Farringdon Hall by a conference of Trade Union Executives representing 4 million workers. The leaders of the Trades Union Congress were still intent on negotiating with the Government. The government, however, broke off negotiations on the morning of May 3rd on account of the action taken by the printers of the Daily Mail ~ who refused to print the editorial which attacked the steps taken by the Trade Unions. The leaders of the TUC were left with no alternative but to call a General Strike to begin on May 4th.

OVERWHELMING SUPPORT FOR THE STRIKE

That day-saw a response to the call which surprised everyone. All transport ground to a halt, no papers appeared, manufacturing industries stopped, workers who were not called out by their unions came out independently (Note 1), and many who were not even in a union joined the strike.

Of the two sides, the Government was definitely the better prepared. Since the previous year they had been working to ensure that they would be the victors in any protracted industrial struggle. In September 1925 they formed the ‘Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS) composed of upstanding members of the middle class, run by retired army officers. Its function was to collect lists of volunteers who would be willing to run the country in the event of a General Strike. On May lst the Government declared a State of Emergency, which suspended civil liberties and allowed them greater freedom to arrest and imprison so-called ‘dissidents’.

WORKERS ORGANISE COUNCILS OF ACTION

On the other hand, the organisation of the TUC was totally inadequate for the requirements of a General Strike, which could only mean that they thought, or indeed hoped, that the strike would be lost very quickly. At a local level, however, the Trades Councils responded by organising in an impromptu but efficient fashion. They formed themselves into Councils of Action and altogether there were 131 of these throughout the country.

The various functions taken over by the Councils of Action included: control of traffic, picketing factories that were on strike to ensure that the “volunteers” didn’t get in, picketing factories not on strike in an attempt to persuade the workers to join the stoppage, distribution of food and information, and alleviation of cases of great distress. In many places the Councils of Action became the only authority, the nearest thing to local control and autonomy in the history of modern Britain. And they had the support of the vast majority of workers in most cases. Their main headache was the constant need to convince workers who hadn’t yet officially been called out to go back to work.

This spontaneous development of the Councils of Action worried the Government more than anything else, and it was these organisations that were subjected to the toughest repression by the police. The possession of a newsletter produced by a Council of Action became a crime that could lead to two or three months hard labour – whilst the rather tame organ of the TUC, ‘The British Worker’, which urged the strikers to go for walks in the country, was allowed to continue printing after an initial five hour stoppage.

…AND THEN THE BETRAYAL

After days of secret negotiations with the Government, the TUC informed Baldwin, the Tory Prime Minister, that the strike was off, and the news was broadcast at 1 pm on May 12th. The news shattered the strikers and the Councils of Action, who saw the strike gaining in strength every day and the probability of success with it.

It seems it was precisely this strength that intimidated some members of the TUC General Council such as J.Thomas, who said he “dreaded” that the strike would “get out of the hands of responsible executives”.

When the strikers discovered that the settlement had not included any guarantees about reinstatement they initially decided to stay out, and on May 13th there were actually more workers on strike than on any other day. But the end had come and the workers were left to barter with their individual employers over the terms of their return, with the result that many people didn’t get their job back and many others had to “eat dirt” in order to do so.

Only the miners were left on strike, remaining out until November when they were finally starved into submission and forced to accept the owners’ terms.

Fighting at the Elephant & Castle during the Strike

The strike: south of the river

In 1926 the borough of Southwark was very different to the one that we know now. In the area presently covered by Southwark there were the three Metropolitan Boroughs of Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell.

The major industries in the three boroughs then were the docks, transport services, engineering works and printing. The workers in these industries were well organised, as shown by the example of Hoe & Co. Hoe and Company Ltd, were a printing press manufacturers in Borough Road, Southwark. They employed 900 men, and the printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London. There were three large engineering firms near the Elephant: Hoe’s, Waygood-Otis, and Durants.

In early January 1926, the 900 employees at Hoe’s began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase. The employers threatened a national lockout in the engineering sector involving 500,000 men. (South London Press, March 26 1926) And the workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout.

During the General Strike the workers were militant in their picketing of the firm. Stan Hutchins reports that only 20 apprentices remained at work and that they later contributed to a 100 per cent turn out.

TOUGH CONDITIONS FOR THE JOBLESS

Unemployment in the three boroughs around the national average of 12 per cent. The situation of the unemployed was hard. In 1926 unemployment benefit was about 15 shillings per week for a single man. This rate applied for 26 weeks only, after which unemployed received Poor Law Relief administered by the Board of Guardians for the Borough. After this was exhausted many of the unemployed in Southwark were sent to Labour Camps at Hollesey Bay and Belmont in Surrey, where they were forced to work under overseers.

A statement in the House of Commons (reported in the South London Observer, Wednesday March 24th, 1926) disclosed that one man in seven, and one woman in three were refused benefit at the Labour Exchange, and left to starve or apply for Poor Law Relief. The unemployed also had to sign on every day of the week.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWCM) was very active in the area in organising unemployed workers before and during May 1926. Membership was very high in Southwark and meetings were held outside the Labour Exchange, where speakers would address the people waiting to collect their money. Many members of the organised unemployed were sent to prison during the period 1925-6 because of their political activities.

SOUTHWARK AND CAMBERWELL IN CONTRAST

There were, however, noticeable differences between the three boroughs, especially in the question of social conditions and political organisation, being dominated by different political parties.

Southwark was the smallest of the three, and it also had the worst and most densely populated housing of any metropolitan borough. Its population density was 160 people to the acre, compared with 77 for Bermondsey and a very low 59 for Camberwell. The conditions in one part of Southwark are described in ‘The Book of Walworth’ published in 1925: “It is in the blocks especially in and adjacent to the New Kent Road that we have the greatest concentration of population. Here in streets that are little more than gulleys when their narrow width is compared with the great height of the buildings, live hundreds of people with no outlook in front except the gulley, and none in the rear except a still narrower gully into which at one time inconsiderate tenants threw their rubbish to everyone’s inconvenience.”

On the other hand the borough of Camberwell, with its coat of arms emblazoned with the motto “All’s well”, could, in its official guide book of 1926, proudly boast of the quality of life that its inhabitants enjoyed, with magnificent green spaces, fine educational institutions and other attractions offered to people wishing to move into the area. The handbook states that the council had purchased land for housing up to the tune of £300,000 and mentioned in particular a new estate of 7 houses and 174 flats that were occupied by “the more thrifty and respectable members of the class for whom they were intended” and that at a rent of 10 shillings to ll shillings per week, the estate was more than self supporting with the account showing a “substantial surplus” after paying loans and interest etc.

BERMONDSEY’S LABOUR COUNCIL

Bermondsey Borough Council was distinguished not only from the other two but also from the vast majority of the metropolitan boroughs by the fact that it had a Labour controlled council. lt was also distinguished by its policies, many of which ran counter to the London County Council, with which it was having a continual running battle.

One particular fight was highlighted in the October 1925 edition of the Bermondsey Labour Magazine. The council had applied for permission to build a housing project covering four acres; the LCC first tried to block it by withholding permission until it was almost too late, but then gave permission for the same amount of dwellings to be built in an area of one and a half acres, ordering the council to sell the rest of the land. Some facts about the health of the people show the way that the Bermondsey administration was changing the quality of life in the borough. During the three years from 1921, while the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had been in the majority, the average death rate dropped by 30 per cent and the infantile death rate dropped from 16 deaths per thousand to 76, whilst the death of mothers in became the lowest of all London boroughs.

HOW THE THREE COUNCILS RESPONDED TO THE STRIKE

Obviously the political and economic structure of the boroughs colored their response to the General Strike, and it is noticeable that the three boroughs had very contrasting attitudes during that period.

Southwark Council’s response was rather limited, not in intensity but certainly in its democratic base. The mayor was the subject of a special meeting called on May 19th “to consider the action of the Lord Mayor Alderman J.R.Want”, who’d called off all the council meetings, taking power into his own hands, and had sent threatening letters to all local authority workers warning them not to strike. A motion regretting this action as “thereby depriving the elected councillors of their right to share in the government of the borough” was defeated & an amendment expressing “entire confidence in the Lord Mayor” was passed by 49 votes to 14.

Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel.

Of the three boroughs it is not surprising that Bermondsey showed the closest cooperation between Council and strikers. As soon as the strike was announced, “the Borough Council, being Labour, formed an emergency sub-committee which was in close touch with the Council of Action and both the Town Halls [ie Rotherhithe and Bermondsey] were passed over to the Trades Council during the strike, which were used for strike meetings and strike committees.”

In fact, the Council in effect suspended itself and delegated all its powers to this Emergency Committee, which consisted entirely of Labour members.

A comparison of the minutes of the London councils just before and after the strike shows very clearly how they responded to the situation.

Various local authorities passed motions and then circulated them to other local authorities to be endorsed. Of the many, two reflect their contrasting nature. Hackney requested all other Councils to join them in urging the Prime Minister to ensure that after the strike the local authorities would be able to discriminate against the strikers in favour of blacklegs. Southwark and Camberwell both agreed to endorse that Motion. However, the motion from Bethnal Green condemning the action of the government in breaking off negotiations with the TUC on May 2nd was consigned to the waste paper bin; whereas Bermondsey’s Emergency Committee seems to have passed a resolution in support of the Bethnal Green Trades Council motion. The Government had to appoint a retired Army Captain as its Food and Fuel Agent in Bermondsey, because cooperation was not forthcoming from the Council.

TRADES COUNCILS WERE AT THE HUB OF ACTION

At the outset of the General Strike responsibility for the coordination of the strike in the locality fell to the lot of the Trades Councils, which were in the main very unprepared. Bert Edwards writes about Southwark that: “It’s hard to say how the Trades Councils became the centre of things. The only thing you can say is that the publicity had indicated that the Trades Council would be ‘the centre … We had no machinery set up … we didn’t have a typewriter or a duplicator.” There had been a lot of general debate throughout the country about the possibility of a strike and this of course had been a subject of discussion in the Trades Councils. However the actual declaration of the strike on May 3rd caught everyone on the hop. “On the first day of the strike I went around to the Trades Council offices – and I saw to my amazement that there was quite a crowd of people wanting advice. Nobody knew what they had to do.” However, “there was immediate response to the appeal that the Trades Council turn itself into a Council of Action. The Council of Action formed sub-committees dealing with press and propaganda, a contact committee for keeping in touch with the TUC, a finance committee and an enquiries committee.”

We have very little information on how Camberwell Trades Council organised themselves. There is however a letter to the TUC from G.W.Silverside, General Secretary of the Dulwich Divisional Labour Party in which he explains that at a meeting on May 3rd it was decided to collect money and distribute literature. Also “the question of the possibility of duplication arose” and Mr. Silverside explained that he had been in touch with the “Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council who informs me that there are three duplicators available and that they are prepared to duplicate anything that may be necessary.”

In Bermondsey, where the great majority of the population of the Borough were behind the strike, the cooperation between the Borough Council and the Trades Council was much closer than in the other two boroughs. The Trades Council formed a Council of Action which was given the use of the two Town Halls which were put to use every day as meeting rooms, committee rooms and for giving out strike pay. Each afternoon meetings of strikers’ wives were held, and each evening there were mass meetings of strikers, “always packed to suffocation, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, unable to get in.” The Council of Action “sat continuously from day to day and endeavoured to coordinate all local efforts for forwarding the strike.” It also had the use of the local Labour Party offices and their stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment.

GETTING OUT THE NEWS

The production of news-sheets was a very important part of the work of the Councils of Action. All national newspapers had ceased publication on the first day of the strike, although some managed to produce limited editions with scab labour. These were not widely distributed and of course were in opposition to the strike. The Government also produced a news-sheet, ‘The British Gazette’, under the editorship of Winston Churchill but this was naturally very hostile to the strike and carried only very biased or false information. The local papers in South London were also opposed to the strike. The ‘South London Press’ (SLP) was the most widely distributed paper in the Southwark area. When it was unable to produce a full issue it came out with a single sheet ‘Strike Bulletin’.

On May 7th its front page, announced: “We offer no apology for issuing this week the South London Press at half its normal size. The fact is, we are under a double obligation – firstly to our readers to give them as full a statement as possible in the circumstances which led to the country being plunged into a deplorable strike and unwarrantably involving this journal in the dispute, second to our Advertisers …”

The paper constantly referred to pickets as “hooligans”, “gangs of ruffians” etc. On May 7th it reported that “A great deal of trouble was caused by women who, shouting hysterically, flung themselves into the fray”. Headlines on May 14th announced “How Rowdyism was overcome by Police and Specials”, followed by praise of the cheerful way in which the uniformed forces restored order with their three-foot riot-sticks.

A scab car overturned at Blackfriars

The issue of Friday 21st carries an article on “The SLP in strike time – how it met the great blow against Liberty and Freedom”. The report states that by the night of Wednesday 5th all composing and mechanical staff of SLP were out “most of them unwillingly”. The following week the SLP was without linotype operators except one lion apprentice and two compositor apprentices. All nine members of the machine and stereotyping staff were on strike. So the directors and four of their sons, together with ‘volunteers’, produced the paper and distributed it by using disguised vans.

The only other form of communication was the BBC radio service, but this was entirely under the control of the Government.

There were a number of publications produced by the Councils of Action with varying degrees of success. This was because the Government tried to suppress the strikers’ news-sheets and prison sentences were handed out to those producing, selling or even possessing such publications.

In Camberwell at least two publications were brought out. The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reports that a man was convicted of selling the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’ which was produced in Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham, by Ernest Baldwin (Secretary and Agent for the Peckham Labour Party) and James McLean. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”.

Inspector Hider also saw copies of the ‘Camberwell Strike Bulletin’ also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the Peckham Labour Bulletin.

Southwark Council of Action also produced a news sheet but this was done with some difficulty. To start with they had no duplicator or typewriter, but Tommy Strudwick, a member of the Council Of Action from the National Union of Railwaymen managed to provide this equipment. It was hidden away in a recess in one of his room but after only a few issues the police raided his house and found it. He was arrested and sentenced to two months’ hard labour for spreading disaffection. Strudwick was also involved with two other publications, called ‘Juice’ and ‘The Young Striker’.

Bermondsey Council of Action was much better prepared than the other two. They not only had the stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment belonging to the Labour Party, but also those belonging to the Borough Council. They produced a daily news-sheet, 6000 copies of which were distributed from seven official points. Much of the information for the Bulletin was collected by Dr. Alfred Salter, the Labour MP for Bermondsey. He spent much of his time during the strike collecting “every scrap of authentic news available in the House of Commons and from the TUC head office, and reported it in detail to the nightly meetings in the Bermondsey Town hall” or phone it in for the news-sheet in the afternoon. According to Fenner Brockway of the ILP Bermondsey was probably the best informed centre in the whole country during the nine days of the strike.”

STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF THE SOUTHWARK AREA

The three Boroughs were strategically very significant during the General Strike. Bermondsey included the Surrey Commercial Docks. Camberwell was important because it housed Tillings Bus Co., one of the largest in London, (1200 people worked here, making it one of the biggest local employers) and many of the main roads from the south coast passed through the borough. Southwark’s significance lay in the Elephant and Castle, which was the meeting of six major roads which were used by many bus routes and by lorries coming in from the docks and the south.

The police were often evident at the Elephant chasing the people away, by riding at them swinging their long truncheons – but the crowd would reform. According to Stan Hutchins there were stewards from the Council of Action, distinguished by red arm bands, who tried to ensure that only traffic with permits from the TUC were allowed through, but many blacklegging volunteers would try to force their way through, and this led to several occasions of violence and even some instances of death. The Sunday Worker on May 9th reported that a volunteer driver who panicked when the crowd tried to stop him, knocked down a motor cyclist and drove onto the pavement, killing two people. On another occasion a bus driven by a blackleg and escorted by police and special constables was stopped by the strikers, emptied of its passengers, and set on fire.

Another bus met this fate in St. George’s Road (just north of the Elephant & Castle) where a No.12 on its way to Dulwich was seized and burned. All in all, the bus service, even with the help of the many volunteers (including students from Guys Hospital and Dulwich College who were recorded as heartily laying into strikers, shouting: “Up College!”) was very limited. [3]

By May 5th it was reported that forty-seven General Omnibus vehicles had been immobilised and, according to a TUC intelligence report, Lord Ashfield, Chairman of the General Omnibus Company, was resisting Government pressure to get More buses on the road. He was only willing to allow the oldest type out because of the danger from volunteer drivers and pickets.

The trams were in the main kept off the roads, but there was an attempt to bring them out of Camberwell Depot on Wednesday May 5th. This was possible once local electricity generating stations had been brought into use with the help of naval ratings. However a large group of strikers and their wives had gathered outside the depot and even the very large numbers of police and OMS could not stop them from smashing the tram windows and pushing it back. The British Worker (the daily paper put out during the Strike by the TUC) reported: “BANNED TRAMS SCENE: An unsuccessful attempt was made shortly after four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon to run LCC tramcars from the Camberwell depot.

Earlier in the day two lorries with higher officials of the tramways Department and OMS recruits arrived at the Depot, where a strong force of police had been posted.

A large crowd, including tramwaymen, their wives and sympathisers, collected, and when the first car came out of the Depot gates in Camberwell Green there was a hostile demonstration.

Some arrests were made. Following this incident the cars were driven back in to the Depot to the accompaniment of loud cheers.” (British Worker, 5th May.) [4]

Buses were also stoned in Camberwell on the Saturday night (8th May).

There was also rioting in Tower Bridge Road, in fact there seems to have been fighting here several times. 89 people were hurt in one police baton charge here.

No vehicle could proceed far without a permit issued by the Councils of Action. Main roads were barricaded and cars which did not have authorisation turned back. If a driver attempted to defy the strikers, his car would soon be lying on its side. Bermondsey Labour MP Dr Salter (a staunch supporter of the strike) only just missed this experience. He was driving down the Old Kent Road without the usual Council of Action symbol on his windscreen: strikers on the kerb threw stones which broke the car’s windows and, as it slowed down, they rushed into the road yelling “Throw ’em over.” However they apologised when they recognised Salter (a popular figure locally) The car was speeded on with the cry of “Good old Alf!” [5]

POLICE AND SPECIALS ATTACK WITH BATONS

This wasn’t the only incident reported in Camberwell. Charlie Le Grande, a striker from Stockwell who received his strike pay from the Camberwell Bus Depot talks about the huge public meetings held at the triangle near the Eaton Arms and at Peckham Rye. [6] Another eye-witness account describes the police activity during a public meeting at Camberwell Green as terrifying. He was ten years old at the time. He had been taken by his father and was standing on the edge of the meeting only to see waves of police with drawn truncheons marching on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

It wasn’t only on the streets that the strikers were subjected to attacks from the police. On the 6th May police invaded the Bricklayers Arms, a pub on the Old Kent Road used as a meeting place by the National Union of Railwaymen members working from the Bricklayers’ Arms Depot (an important centre of picketing), and arrested strikers. On May 7th the police raided another pub nearby, the Queen’s Head, and it was reported to the House of Commons by Dr. Haden-Guest, Labour MP for Southwark, that police had attacked people in the pub and had later chased and attacked women and children in the street. [7]

Another important area of activity during the strike was the Surrey Dock. Two thousand men were employed here, and yet only seven dockers turned up for work on the first day of the strike. Lock gate staff continued to work normally, and electric and hydraulic power was kept going by one foreman, but there were no tugs operating. and three ships with food stuffs were held up with no-one to unload them.

As a bonus – the Transport and General Workers Union reported a response of “wonderful solidarity” from the Port of London Authority clerical and supervisory staff in the Surrey Dock – their first-ever strike. The gates of the dock were effectively closed by a very strong mass picket stationed there from the beginning of the strike. The need to open the docks soon became acute as food began to get short in London, but it seemed an impossible task for the Government, given the large pickets at the Surrey Dock.

“Eighty men taken to the riverside to unload foodstuffs on May 7th refused to move without protection from a large and hostile crowd, the police protection was so long in arriving that when it had arrived the eighty men were found to be missing and the cargo was still awaiting their attention”. Later on, a party of Naval ratings were put into Surrey Dock, followed by volunteers brought in from Westminster by boat, who spent the weekend unloading food stuffs to be taken further up river on barges.

STUDENTS AS BLACKLEG LABOUR

Tooley Street, which saw heavy picketing every day, was also the scene of solid resistance to the police and blacklegs and on Thursday May 6th there was a police baton charge that led to thirty-two arrests. Here too the government were determined to open Hays Wharf and ferried in blackleg labour, mainly undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge.

As a group, students were some of the most active blacklegs. On Thursday May 6th the South London Press reported that many students from Guys Hospital had signed on as special constables “being involved with a strong sense of patriotic duty”. On Saturday May 29th the South London Observer reported that the Governors of Guys Hospital had from the secretary of the TGWU branch at Lower Road, Rotherhithe, a protest against the blacklegging by students and a statement that the branch would no longer contribute to the hospital’s funds.

Hays Wharf

The South London Press of May 14th reported that “Oxford undergraduates, numbering 250, together with 400 other volunteers, are unloading foodstuff from ships at Hays Wharf Ltd., Tooley St. The manager of Hays Wharf said: The undergraduates are receiving the usual pay of dockers. They moved between 1500 and 2000 tons per day. Normal output at the wharves is 5000 tons a day’.”

THE END OF THE STRIKE – UNCONDITIONAL SELL-OUT

Mass support for the strike was growing in the three boroughs throughout the time it lasted. Bermondsey reported to the Labour Research Department that on May 12th there was no sign of weakening whatever. The workers were more solid the last day than on the first. The spirit of the workers, both men and women, could not have been better. When the “sell-out” was announced “there was a feeling of complete shock and disappointment in Southwark. The Labour Party passed a message through the Council of Action to the TUC urging them to continue the strike.. Then everything collapsed, it collapsed as suddenly as it started. The Council of Action went back to the original small organisation. The employers said on account of the stoppage, they couldn’t take everyone back.”

There were many cases of victimisation and attempts by employers to break the strength of the unions. On May 14th the South London Press reported that Tillings Ltd., the privately owned bus company which employed 1200 men on 400 buses (many of who has struck) had posted the following notice at their depots. “Men should realise that there is no agreement in existence, the Union having broken this. They should also understand plainly that we do not propose to make further agreement with the existing Union as this is the third occasion on which they have broken the agreement. Every man should fully understand these conditions before restarting.”

At Hoe’s engineering works, the employers refused to take the men back as a group “because they were no longer employees”, but agreed to take them back if they applied individually, at their former rate of payment and for their former jobs. Hoe’s said “They are being taken on as vacancies are available.”

The Labour Exchanges received instructions that those who withdrew their labour were disqualified from benefit on the ground that they left their employment without just cause. Sections of the workers were luckier and/or stronger – for instance, the dockers and railwaymen held out for agreements against victimisation. The dockers at Surrey Dock maintained their pickets until May 15th when Ernest Bevin came to an agreement with the employers.

Within a week of the ending of the strike, only the miners were still left out. They remained out until November when the employers finally starved them into submission and forced them to accept their conditions of less pay for longer hours. Bermondsey Council however continued to support the miners families even after the ending of the General Strike and all in all they contributed £7000 to the mining village of Blaina in Wales.

NOTES

1) Strikers were initially called out on strike in waves, so that not all workers were out straight away. Large numbers of people wanted to join the strike but were ordered by the TUC & the unions to continue working, the idea being they would join later if the strike dragged on – the TUC General Council of course hoped (and made sure) this would never happen.

2: Hoes employed 900 men; their printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London.

They had struck in the 1922 engineers lockout; from then until the General Strike workers here were said to be in “open revolt”. In 1925 Amalgamated Engineering Union members here began an overtime ban in a campaign for higher wages; as a result in January 1926 some were sacked and replaced by non-union labour. This led to both shifts starting a stay-in-strike: Hoe’s then locked out all 900 workers, who began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase.. Hoe’s went to the Employers Federation, who threatened a national lockout in the engineering involving 500,000 men, unless the Hoe’s men went back to work. (South London Press, March 26 ‘ 1926) Hoe’s workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout, but the AEU ordered a return to work, saying the men had been morally right but technically wrong. Bah!

During the General Strike Hoe’s workers struck straight away, though not called out by the AEU, and were militant in their picketing of the firm.

After the end of the General Strike, Hoe’s workers were forced to re-apply individually for their jobs. The firm considered they had sacked themselves.

3: A large number of posh scabs volunteered from Dulwich College. Sons of whores, literally, since 17th century actor Edward Alleyn founded the College with help from the profits off his brothel in Bankside. Shame the suffragettes failed to burn it down in 1913, eh?

4: Note on Camberwell Green: Rumours spread by the South London Press that women pickets stopped trams by putting kids in front of the vehicles seem to be just typical SLP rightwing proper gander?

Trams were also attacked in other areas: in Old Kent Road, near the Dun Cow pub, a tram was overturned by crowds. The passengers were pulled off and scab drivers assaulted. In Walworth Road, crowds blocked tramlines with railings: bricks and bottles were chucked at police when they cleared the lines.

5: Salter, a convinced Independent Labour Party pacifist, did not like this violence, but according to Fenner Brockway he “recognised that it was only incidental to the real significance of the struggle. He was thrilled by the sacrificial solidarity of the workers. “Something happened,” he wrote, “that had never happened in the world before. Millions of men and women deliberately risked their livelihood, their future, their all, to win a living wage for their miner comrades.” Not a man or woman in Bermondsey expected to gain a penny, yet “eagerly, joyfully, unflinchingly,” they came out. “I felt humbled and overwhelmed when I saw what was happening. A transformation of character seemed to be taking place. Small men suddenly became great, mean men became generous, cowardly men became heroes. Self‑regarding thoughts were brushed aside, and ‘our brothers of the mines’ filled every heart. The strike was the most Christlike act on a grand scale since Calvary. I can never pay high enough tribute to the Bermondsey folk amongst whom I moved during those never‑to‑be‑forgotten nine days. The working people of this district are capable of the mightiest acts of effort and heroism if only their best instincts can be touched and roused.” “

6: Mass meetings were also held at Peckham Winter Gardens. Several thousand strikers, families and supporters met there for a social gathering organised by Peckham Labour Party on the evening of Sunday May 9th.

7: Queen’s head Pub, Southwark: 2 lorries full of cops ordered drinkers out of the pub & beat them up, when strikers ran in here after ‘allegedly’ roughing up a special constable at the Power Station…

8) W F Watson: A leading activist in the militant shop stewards movement during World War 1. In 1918-19 he was at the heart of the syndicalist London Workers Committee, an attempt to co-ordinate workers committees in different industries, along the lines of the Clyde Workers Comittee. He wrote a column in Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Dreadnought, which served as an unofficial organ for the Workers Committees 1917-19. Watson was jailed for sedition (for a speech encouraging soldiers not to fight against the Russian Revolution) after the LWC office was raided in March 1919, but on his release it emerged he had given information to Special Branch in return for cash – though he claimed he’d fed them useless info and used the money for righteous causes. The arguments this scandal caused led to the LWC’s collapse. Watson had dropped out of politics shortly after. He was widely distrusted but must have been a capable organiser, & not entirely suspect, if as Stanley Hutchins says he was allowed to carry on working in the Council of Action’s office.

For more information on Watson and the London Workers Committee, see Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst.

9) Archbishop’s Speech: On May 7, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement suggesting the dispute should be settled by negotiation, “in a spirit of co-operation and fellowship” – effectively a return to the pre-Strike status quo, ie end the Strike, continue the mining subsidy, and the mine-owners to withdraw their wage-cuts. In the event the Government ignored the speech, feeling they had the upper hand anyway (and just to make sure the speech had no influence they leaned heavily on the BBC not to publicise it).

Barclay & Perkins Brewery: only 2 workers on strike according to the South London Press: others enrolled as specials.

This text was originally published as part of a pamphlet by Union Place Community Resource Centre/ Southwark Trades Council, 1976.

Republished 2005 with new pictures and a new foreword by Past Tense

 

Today in London’s unruly history, 1848: a Chartist riot in Camberwell

In the early 19th Century, with working people being increasingly forced off the land and into urban areas, with the growth of factories and massive spread of Cities, working class people were rapidly becoming politicised and conscious of themselves and their class interests. Working class organisations, radical clubs and early Trade Unions formed a growing network across many cities… London was no exception.

The Chartists are usually quoted to be the’ first national movement of British working class’: they aimed broadly at an increase in political power for working class people, excluded from the vote or political process. Although many of their leaders nationally were of middle class (or even aristocratic) origin, (actually in London they tended to be more artisans or working class) they were a hugely broadly based mass movement, organised around six major demands for political reform that had been the program of the British reformers and radicals since the 1760s…

  1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The ballot —To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament—thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

The Chartists’ tactics included huge monster meetings, and a petition to Parliament, presented and rejected three times between 1838 and 1848. The movement was made up of thousands of local branches, whose activities went far beyond pressing for reform, but built a whole culture, of education, songs, history, their own ceremonies and open discussion; they were conscious of their links to radicals of the past and similar movements abroad. and included all kinds of people, women and men, black people… Although many did not advocate the vote for women, others did, and female democratic associations formed a part of the movement.

As their petitions and political pressure failed, many Chartists began to advocate a working class seizure of power by armed force, and divisions split these ‘Physical Force’ Chartists from their ‘Moral Force’ counterparts. Several Chartist uprisings were planned in 1839-40, which failed or were repressed. Plotters,and Chartists involved in organising rallies, strikers and other actions were jailed, transported to the penal colonies.

The Chartists held mass meetings in South London in the 1840s, mainly on Kennington Common, especially in 1842, and then in 1848, the year of the last great Chartist upsurge, when they prepared the third petition. While the plans for presenting the petition were developed, physical force Chartists again prepared uprisings; in London in ‘48 several riots ensued when rallies were attacked by police. Through the Spring and early Summer the capital was in a state of alert: the authorities feared revolution (which was breaking out in France and across Europe), and Chartists hoped and worked for a popular rising to achieve their rights.

Chartist Riot?

In March 1848 this climate led to a riot after a Chartist meeting – which seems to mainly ended in some opportunist looting…

A week after 3 days of riots in newly opened Trafalgar Square in early March, another Chartist meeting was convened, on Kennington Common for 13th March: on the platform were a number of the Chartist leaders. The authorities had taken extensive precautions and troops were under orders to be called out, if necessary, with General Brotherton in command, and the mobilisation of police totalled an extraordinary 3,88i, including eighty mounted men and one hundred in plain clothes, in the vicinity of the Common; 1,141 on the Surrey side of the bridges; and the remainder in reserve.

In the event, no obstruction was offered to 400 or 500 men who about noon – for which time the commencement of the proceedings was announced – departed, so the Camberwell Division of Police later reported, on a signal being given ‘by raising a Pole’. The band took in their Route the most retired arid unfrequented byeways supposed for the purpose of’ avoiding the observations of’ the Police and Special Constables until they reached Bowyer Lane where they commenced an attack upon the small Shop Keepers by breaking their Windows and in some cases forcing down the Shutters and carrying away a quantity of their Goods.

The shops rifled in Camberwell consisted of a pawnbroker’s, three boot and shoemaker’s, a tailor’s, a clothes shop, a confectioner’s, baker’s, broker’s and three general dealer’s. The looters were armed with ‘staves of barrels, and sticks of all descriptions’, including palings. One of the shoemakers told them:—I am a poor man; if you want something, don’t come to me” – 1 said 1 was no maker of laws, I had nothing to lose, and begged them not to distress me.’ He persuaded fifty or sixty to pass on, but when the main body came up they beat in his shop-front arid removed 162 pairs of boots and shoes, worth £35 16s. The principal target was the premises of a pawnbroker and silversmith. His shutters and doors were attacked with ‘Hatchets Hammers Shovels and other offensive and dangerous weapons’ to cries of ‘Hurrah for Liberty’ and ‘Come on, my brave boys, we’ll have our liberty’;”” and ‘watches were thrown into the street over the heads of ‘the people’. He estimated his loss at upwards of £900, including as it did 200 watches and 170 rings.

The whole episode occurred within the space of an hour and only nine arrests were made (by a party of’ mounted police, assisted by special constables) at the time, but since a number of the rioters had been recognised by the locals twenty-five were brought to trial in April. Several witnesses identified among the leaders Charles Lee, a gipsy (not apprehended until a year later), arid David Anthony Duffy,a ‘man of colour’ and unemployed seaman, known to the police as a beggar in the Mint, where he went about without shirt, shoe, or stocking’. (Benjamin Prophett, known as’Black Ben’, was another ‘man of colour’ and seaman.)’ Eighteen men, of’ whom four had previous convictions, were sentenced to from seven to fourteen years’ transportation and three to one year’s imprisonment. The ages of all twenty-six (including Lee) are known: only ten were aged twenty or over (Prophett at twenty-nine was the eldest) and the youngest were three thirteen -year-olds. The Camberwell police superintendent dismissed the offenders as: ‘All Labourers and Costermongers’; yet of the twenty-five tried in 1848 a substantial number had trades, even though most of them were still in their teens. The occupations were: four labourers, three seamen, one fishmonger, costermonger, hawkboy, errand boy, brickmaker, ginger beer maker, bonnet box maker, baker, carpenter, bricklayer, sealing wax maker, glass blower, printer, tailor, currier, shoemaker, twine spinner (rope-maker), and brushmaker (and seller of ‘brooms and brushes).

Although the Camberwell riot was of short duration it was intense and also of historical importance, for it contributed to the hysterical prelude to 10 April 1848 in London” and it was upon 8 and 10 April that the minatory sentences were imposed upon the rioters. It has, however, been overlooked by virtually all historians – and others. The Northern Star did not carry a report of either the riot or the resultant trials. Mayhew mentions the pillaging of a pawnbroker’s shop but assumes that it took place on 10 April (while his collaborator John Binny transcribed the autobiographical narrative of Charles Lee after his return from transportation for life).

The participation of black radicals in the riot is interesting: the early 19th Century radical movement was notable for the involvement of prominent activists of African descent. One of the leaders of the London Chartists was William Cuffay, a Black tailor whose father had been a slave from St Kitts in the Carribbean. Cuffay was prominent in the April 1848 Kennington meeting, and was then arrested in August of that year, accused of involvement in the planning of a Chartist Uprising and transported to Tasmania for life.

There’s a post here on Benjamin Prophett’s transportation,

Chartists in Camberwell

Camberwell had by 1848 become a stronghold of Chartism in South London. Chartists we know of include John Simpson, of Elm Cottage, Camberwell, a local agent selling tickets for a Chartist-sponsored soiree in honour of radical MP TS Duncombe in 1845; and David Johnston, born in Scotland, a Weaver, then apprentice baker in Edinburgh and Camberwell; he married a Soho baker’s daughter and, with her dowry, bought a baker’s shop in Camberwell; he was elected Overseer of the Poor in St. Giles, Camberwell, 1831, ‘by popular vote’;  and ‘was a keen (moral force) Chartist until rowdies from Kennington wrecked my shop in 1848’. We have to wonder if this wrecking was the same riot of 13th March above?
Johnston left in 1848 for Chicago, Illinois, after labouring work in New York and Philadelphia. Lived and worked in Chicago till 1890, when he died. (Autobiographical Reminiscences of an Octogenarian Scotchman (Chicago, 1885)

John Simpson, mentioned above, was also a subscriber to the Chartist land Plan: a list of those who subscribed a little money to the Chartist Land Company, Feargus O’ Connor’s scheme to settle workers on land to make them self-sufficient. O’Connor was undoubtedly the most influential Chartist leader in the 1840s; but his grand scheme failed (after attracting thousands of poor subscribers). After some years of propaganda the Chartist Co-operative Land Society (later the National Land Company) was founded in 1845. O’Connor’s vigourous propaganda work collected a mass of subscribers and donations, and in 1846 “O’Connorville” was founded at Heronsgate, near Chorleywood, northwest of London. Other estates were bought and let out in smallholding to subscribers picked by ballot. But by the end of 1847, the financial difficulties facing the scheme and the incompetence of its directors, became obvious. In 1848 a House of Commons Committee reported that the Company was illegal, its finances in a state of chaos, and its promises impossible to fulfill.

Other Camberwell Land Plan subscribers included

  • John Cheshire, of James St, Camberwell New Rd,
  • Richard Ackenhead, who lived in Arms place, Coburg Rd, and also (later) in St Marks Place, Kennington, was a cordwainer
  • William Clipsham, a joiner, of Nelson St, Spilsbys, Camberwell
  • William Cook, a labourer, of 5 Westmoreland St, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • William Coombes, 9 Regent St, Camberwell, a labourer
  • George Cooper, a labourer, also of Regent St
  • Daniel Dempsey, labourer, 12 Regent St Camberwell

Regent St seems to have been a Chrtist hotspot

John Counningham, Susanna Cotts, James St, Camberwell, and William of the same name – brothers?

  • William Greengrass, labourer, James St Camberwell New Rd

(Again, James Street a sounds a very radical place…)

  • George Richard Day, a law clerk, 1 Surrey Place, Camberwell
  • Baziel Fisk, shoemaker, 1 Tangue Place James St Camberwell New Rd
  • Thomas Heath, joiner, Portland St Camberwell
  • John Keen, tailor, 13 Neat St, Coburgh Rd,Camberwell
  • John King, waiter, 15 Neat St
  • Edward North, carpenter, Windham Rd, Camberwell

who may have been same as Edward North, who lived in Bereford Place, Wyndham Rd, Camberwell, but later listed as a hawker…

  • James Rhodes, dairyman, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • George Rutherford, 3 Pitt St, Camberwell

(There’s also a George Rutherford listed in Wyndham rd as a labourer…)

  • John Wilkins, baker, 1 Acorn Place Camberwell

There’s an interesting pattern tho if you look at where these addresses mostly if not all are – all north of Camberwell Church Street, probably poorer housing then as it is now, if you compare it to what lies south of Church Street. Check out Booth’s Poverty maps and you can see that class-wise, Church Street/Camberwell New Road broadly marked a boundary, delineating something of a north-south wealth divide in Camberwell.

 

Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991

Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991…

In July 1991 the far right British National Party stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for a council by-election in Brunswick Ward. Much of this ward consisted of the large and run down Elmington Council estate, in Camberwell. The BNP campaign was vigorously opposed by an alliance of local anti-fascists, left groups, Anti-Fascist Action, supported by local residents including a number of squatters; however, the BNP did manage to march in force around the estate.

At the time the Elmington was in a somewhat dilapidated state; Southwark was (and still is) one of the poorest boroughs in London. The estate had large numbers of empty flats, and a large population of squatters, as did many of Southwark’s estates (it was thought to be the most heavily squatted borough then, at a time when London’s squatting population was variously estimated at 20-30,000). Much of the estate was in disrepair. The Estate housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known leftwing activist, who was also a Labour councillor in neighbouring Lambeth at the time [She was, if I recall right, one of the remaining councillors from ‘Red” Ted Knight’s administration of the early 1980s, the majority of who had been disbarred and banned from standing to be councillors again, over the Rate Capping battle against the Thatcher government… a group alleged to be an entrist faction of trotskyites originating in the Socialist Organiser group].

The BNP campaign was partly aimed at attacking Rachel Webb, as a known leftwing activist, and also Southwark’s Labour council, and at targeting squatters living on the estate. A BNP election leaflet ran: “ [Rachel Webb] is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”

A candidate for council elections needed ten sponsors from the council electoral ward in question. Anti-fascists later obtained the list of Tyler’s sponsors; not all lived on the estate. But there was a group of white residents with BNP sympathies and more, who lived on the Elmington. This group was linked to racist attacks on the estate: dogs had been set on local black kids; black families had their windows bricked; passers by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear.

“Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was painted up around the estate at the time.

It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of BNP splinter hooligan firm Combat 18, lived on the Elmington at the time – he was officially living there a couple of years later. Tyler, himself was a long-standing BNP activist and perennial candidate, who stood in general elections in nearby Bermondsey several times in the 1990s.

At the time BNP were doing regular paper sales in East Street in Walworth, and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruitment; disillusioned working class residents living in poverty were seen as a good recruitment pool; ‘lefty’ Labour councils were easy meat, and migrants, especially black people, loudly blamed for the myriad social problems.

The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action [which your author was then active in]. We took the position you have to oppose any fascist presence as it was clearly shown to directly or indirectly lead to racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time) – even if electorally they were not really likely to win, or even come close. We did a lot of leafleting of the ward, and talking to local people. Crucially, some of the South London AFA group lived on the estate or in the wider area, though the majority lived across South London (many in nearby Brixton).

Leafletting and talking to residents received a mixed, though largely positive, response. If some people hated squatters and others were racist, many were also ex-squatters or hated Nazis. On one memorable occasion someone put an anti-fascist leaflet through a door and a large west indian man came running out of the flat with a hammer, then did a double take and looked closer at leaflet in his hand and went ”oh, ANTI fascist action…” !

BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 o’clock in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.

The anti-fascists held one rally on the estate. Anti-Fascist Action also organised a public meeting in the Walmer Castle Pub on Peckham Road (now defunct), which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions, all turning up to spout their own political line on fascism, slag each other iff, slag us off, and generally offer nothing practical. Any non-aligned locals turning up were generally bemused by the maze of initials, groupuscules and counter-claims, and the bitter shouty row that the meeting descended into.

Some other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors (eg Ian Driver) were involved in the opposition to the BNP; other groups, like the Socialist Workers Party, informed us that small fascist groups were a distraction from the real issues facing the working class, and that Anti-Fascist Action were fighting an irrelevant enemy, the real danger in terms of racism being the state structures, police, etc. This was a line the SWP had been taking pretty much since the party hierarchy closed down the Anti-Nazi League in the early 1980s; while it is true that institutional racism is more powerful and pervasive than small fascist parties, the threat that black people, migrants and other groups faced from racist attacks is very real, and demands resistance. Not long after this the SWP would totally reverse their position, and set about reforming of the Anti Nazi League, which, while making a lot of noise and seeking and gaining widespread publicity, was generally about as much of a threat to the Nazis as a slightly deceased rabbit.

The coalition of anti-fascists organised one local march against the BNP; the BNP in fact themselves staged a march, of about 70 skins and assorted swivel-eyes (mostly imported from outside the area) round the estate, on July 20th, a few days before election day. This demo became a bit of a sore point later. It was not publicised in advance – unsurprisingly, as the BNP were afraid that opposition could be rallied and the march could be blocked, attacked or possibly even banned by the cops. Anti Fascist Action had had word that the march was going to take place, but most of the South London AFA group on the ground were not informed very much in advance until it was realistically too late to organise much opposition. We could do very little to oppose them marching (although their transit did get its windows bricked on the day). The day of the march consisted mostly of running around chasing shadows and rumours, not an untypical day out where anti-fascist activity was concerned… Anti-fascists went into the nearby Orange Tree pub on Havil Road, which was a bit of a mistake, as the reception was not too friendly, seemingly because there were some black people in the anti-fascist group. Ho hum.

A Picket was held outside Southwark Town Hall during the election count on July 25th. Police heavily protected the nazis at the count, and Steve Tyler barely put in an appearance, so we didn’t get near them, but the day did end in a fight – farcically, this barney was between two of the anti-fascist picketers, as some were local squatters, while another was one Steve Willis, the housing officer from Peckham’s Friary Estate, whose favourite hobby at the time was going round kicking in squatters’ doors and evicting them illegally.

Meanwhile the BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, which was quite a high vote for a lunatic fringe candidate in a council by-election. This turnout, on top of their largely unopposed march and foray into an area not generally thought of as BNP material, reflected something of a minor coup for the fash.

Shortly afterwards, some dodgy white residents on the Elmington estate, who were strongly suspected of being among those who backed the BNP, burgled a couple of squatters who were heavily involved in the AFA activity: the squatters decided the wisest course to move on…

After all this estate housing officer Rachel Webb did try to evict some of the people who’d signed the BNP list; which was something that divided the anti-fascists, an Official state-backed anti-fascism seemed to us to be playing into the hands of the BNP’s ‘oppressed white people’ narrative’. It seemed to us that local dissatisfaction with the Labour Council’s neglect of the estate had partly helped open the door to the BNP; some of us felt anti-fascism was not enough really, it had to be linked to opposing the council’s running down of the area.

The BNP presence was not however massively sustained and built on, as they never stood for election again.

What we should have done?

There was some talk afterwards about setting up an anti-fascist group local to the area, one that specifically also would take on the problems that were making some people susceptible to supporting the BNP, including crap housing, poverty etc, but one that would also challenge racist and scapegoat solutions aimed at dividing people on the basis of colour, or splitting tenants from squatters. Our thought was that the deprivation and disrepair that the Elmington was experiencing were in part causing some to fall into the Nazis arms, and especially to blame squatters, and in some cases black residents, for the poverty and misery of life there…

Allying with Labour and especially Labour councillors, in the struggle against the BNP during the election, we thought, may have been something of a mistake, given the Labour council’s image as being at least partly to blame for the state of the housing… We became identified with the people residents directly dealt with, complained to, and in the end blamed. Not a good tactic.

However, these discussions came to nothing, as discussions often do, partly because the individuals active in our group, who lived on the estate, mostly squatting, were burgled shortly after, by neighbours who we think had links to the BNP, and didn’t feel safe staying there any longer, partly because there were other political struggles going on (eg the anti-poll tax movement was kind of winding down but non-payers and rioters were still being targetted and sent to prison…)… also other anti-fascist things were kicking off, with a surge in racist attacks and resistance in South East London, notably Thamesmead, but also in Bermondsey (see below). Most if us became active in this also.

In retrospect, our analysis may have been partly correct, in that a voice that linked support opposition to organised racists with opposition to the council could have been useful; however, us being largely transient outsiders, it would very likely have not got off the ground – it also underestimates the simple racism of the core of the BNP support, and – to be brutally frank – the distrust of squatters by some long-time residents, who saw us at best as fly-by-nights who would piss of elsewhere soon, and at worst as anti-social junkies. Both of these judgments were not in any way wholly true or wholly false – squatters, like tenants, were mixed bag and some were twats who gave not a fuck for their neighbours, just as some tried to put down roots, or were even local themselves.

There was an abortive attempt to put our tentative plan into effect on a wider scale, which we were involved in, later that year, as a group called Southwark Community Action was founded, to try and gather something of the anti-poll tax spirit as well as address racism and other issues… But it opened itself up to too many diverse views too quickly, became a talking shop, and foundered in irrelevance within months.

Problems within AFA

Some of us also had problems with some Anti Fascist Action practices, with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense. The problem was that in practice anti-fascism kind of became all consuming ; to be involved in AFA couldn’t be part time; to the exclusion of other struggles. At that point you could easily go to four office AFA Meetings a fortnight – all London AFA meetings, South London AFA meetings, AFA stewards group meetings, South London and southeast London AFA liaison meetings regarding the particular fascist problem in Bermondsey at that time…

There was quite a lot of pressure, I would say to be part of all those things, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, or be considered lightweights.

AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members were often isolated within AFA.

AFA’s structure was increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 It had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-sydicalist Direct Action movement, and  Trotskyist group workers power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.

Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.

These were political, organisational problems, Which played out in the communication problems that we found with regards to the Elmington experience – not hearing about information on the ground, information being kept tight to some people’s chests. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people , on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.

Another factor at work was that in London, AFA had a concentration on the East End, Brick Lane and certain parts of Bethnal Green in particular, which they saw as the frontline of anti-fascism. And I think they considered Camberwell to be not a crucial battleground, or somewhere where the fash weren’t as much of a threat. I don’t know if that played into some leading AFA people’s calculations as to how much effort to put into the struggle on the Elmington. Some of us not in the centre of AFA felt that a decision had been taken not to spend too much in terms of time and resources on the Elmington campaign. For us, while anti-fascism was something we had been involved in already, this was close to home and represented an invasion of sorts… and linked in to other activities we were also involved in – squatting, housing struggles against local councils…

Although it did not play out at all in the brief Elmington tussle, there were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…

These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.

Despite the AFA programme of opposition to fascism being both physical and ideological, the physical activity was almost inevitably given higher priority. Anyone who talked about doing more ideological work, more campaigning work, was likely to be accused by Red Action of basically just wanting to be in the SWP. And despite there being no justification for those smears, and when and it was supposed to be the programme of the organisation, that the ideological opposition was supposed to be another – vital – arm of defeating fascism, especially within the white working class communities, which are susceptible to fascist influence, the physical approach was generally in effect dominant. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough.

Ironically Red Action later came to the same conclusion themselves, later on setting up the independent working class Association. They had come to the same conclusion we had in Camberwell – that to oppose fascism not physically and ideologically you had to be there addressing the economic and social issues that fascists tried to exploit and helping to turn that discontent into collective action instead of racism and division. The IWCA made a more effective job of this than we Camberwell anti-fascists ever did, though there were lots of problems with their process too.

The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.

Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the fash were bearable on the street and not as hard as they claimed. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but it laid itself open in reality to downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking, and to an emphasis on being harder than the nazis. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had even been a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.

My parachute didn’t open

The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they cane in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.

The Elmington election was in some ways an opening salvo in what was to prove a few years of wider anti fascist struggle, as the BNP  rose while the old National Front declined, and proved itself more adept at both physical violence and electioneering. Two years after the Elmington the BNP won its first elected councillor, in the Isle of Dogs – a feat the NF had never achieved even in the 1970s. Racist attacks were beginning to spike, especially in Southeast London, notably around Welling, Thamesmead and Eltham. The presence of the BNP’s bookshop/HQ in Welling was seen as at the very least cashing in on the wide racist atmosphere in parts of this area, and quite possibly whipping it up. A long drawn out struggle against fascist presence, racism and the bookshop’s existence ensued.

Bermondsey Blues

Another event in the summer of 1991 that South London AFA we’re involved in reinforced a sense that parachute anti-racism was not in any way the answer – in fact could be actively counter-productive.

Both the National Front and BNP we’re heavily active in Bermondsey at this time. The Front had been active there for several years. Both sold their newspapers in the local market at the ‘Blue’ in Southwark Park Road.

As in Thamesmead & Welling, the fascists swam in a sea of wider racism and encouraged it by their activity; racist attacks were on the increase, especially around the Silwood estate…To some extent Southwark Council’s longstanding ‘sons and daughters’ policy, originally designed to house council tenants near other members of their families, had helped increase racial division in the borough, as white council tenants had been housed in Bermondsey and black people further south, generally in Peckham or Camberwell. A sense of ghettoisation had developed; not entirely helped by a real insularity and clannishness many Bermondsey locals tended to evolve anyway. Like on the Isle of Dogs, the hereditary dock work, added to a feeling of long-rootedness and spiced with a (usually genuine) grievance against official neglect of the area, helped forge a certain inward looking  culture, with a suspicion of outsiders which was not always racist but tended to fall that way often enough.

In recent years a gradual move towards housing more black people in Bermondsey had been met with hostility and a growing racist backlash from some white residents.

There were people on the ground attempting to counter this from the grassroots.

AFA (the South London and SE London branches) did make some attempts to liaise with people locally. But the situation was becoming seriously aggravated.

In the meanwhile a largely opportunistic march was called for Saturday 24th August 1991, by the ‘National Black Caucus’ was organised in protest at the racist attacks. This group had few links on the ground, and made little attempt to do any local liaison or co-ordinate with those who had a first-hand grasp of the lie of the land and had been trying to organise solid anti-racist work.

The march from the start was announced as a march on ‘racist Bermondsey’; from outside, with little consultation of what people living there were doing, and in practice was staged as a march into and out of an area, disconnected, with no thought of what effect it might have… It played nicely into the hands of the organised racists in Bermondsey, who were able to go round and play on the idea of outsiders coming in to tell them how racist they were… [we accept that part of the problem was that many were racist]…

As an organisation AFA we’re suspicious of the politics of the match organisers; we were suspicious of the tactic of marching in like a hostile force generally; but given that we were involved in fighting fascism and racism in South London we decided to attend.

This was a mistake…

The march was a disaster. The organisers has promised 150 professional stewards to ensure the safety of demonstrators – this didn’t materialise. Given the level of racist abuse in Bermondsey this was totally irresponsible, and in fact relied either on police protection (a laugh, considering both the racist sympathies of many cops then – and now – and the blustery anti-police rhetoric of the organisers). The fascists had leafletted the area and struck a note popular with locals , that do-gooding leftie poshos we’re coming to tell them how to live. Local anti-racists we knew said they were avoiding the demo – partly from disgust at the bad planning of the Black Caucus and partly as they had to live there… As a result the demo walked down Rotherhithe New Road through the Silwood Estate, which was festooned with union jacks and George crosses, 100s of locals residents mobilised against us by racists. Some folk decided to burn a Union Jack on the March at this point, not something we have out against as a rule, but definitely a red rag to the huge crowd hanging off every balcony. Then we turned left into Southwark Park, where, thanks to a myopic miscalculation by the organisers, we got faced with an additional fun complication – 300-500 or so Millwall fans, as Millwall were playing at home that day, and also having a large dodgy hooligan firm and friends who had a decidedly racist element… Again the fash had only to spread the word, where the march organisers had not enough local nouse to think to check the fixture list… (which AFA at least with its left hooligan base would have done first of all!) The Park was also a terrible point to end the demo, a trap basically.

We shat ourselves. Really. The numbers against us were large and hard and the majority on the march were not seasoned street-fighters. It looked very much like we were going to get a kicking. I remember a few of us searching under the trees for hefty fallen branches to use as weapons… An SWP member and a local black woman walking in the park were viciously attacked.

Anyway, it didn’t come to a mass beating. The police escorted us out of the park and the area. A humiliating retreat, in some ways worse than a battering. We marched back to Peckham to the jeers of the odd fash on the sidelines, with a long running battle behind us as nazis and friends tried to get at us and chucked bottles… When we got back to the Peckham park we had marched off from, and a mini rally, the organisers were trumpeting ‘We marched on racist Bermondsey’ like it was a victory, rather than ending in a huge encouragement of racist politics.

The BNP were in their element. They held their own rally in Southwark Park, with Steve Tyler (the BNP candidate in Camberwell) haranguing the crowd: “All blacks are muggers, all blacks have got AIDS, we want them out of our country, we want white power…” The crowds went off to smash up some shops and attack black drivers.

We heard that the level of racist attacks around the area that night and in subsequent days went up sharply – no shit, sherlock. The march had actually encouraged that: parachuting in and then running out, leaving the people living there to face the consequences.

AFA folk seemed to be among the few thinking this was a defeat and a disaster, a PR victory for the Nazis in Bermondsey, we regretted feeling like we had to go on the march. In the pub afterwards we had our heads in our hands – given AFA’s policy of beating fascists off the streets, but also winning working class white people away from fascism and racism, we knew this was a major reverse, on both counts.

We knew it and the fash knew it. A few weeks later we were blockading a large BNP papersale/mobilisation in Brick Lane and a chant of ours – ‘Cable St, Cable Street!’ was met with a riposte of ‘Bermondsey, Bermondsey’. They rightly saw that day as a feather in their cap… It galvanised them to pour a lot of effort into the Bermondsey area. Silwood Estate already had a high rate of racist attacks; this spiralled upwards in the early-mid 1990s following the march; the stood a candidate here in May 1994 local elections. The fash still see this area as having potential, there were NF marches once a year or so into the 2000s.

The sense of confidence that this undeniable propaganda coup gave the nazis was only really reversed at the Battle of Waterloo in September 1992, where anti-fascists gave boneheads gathering for a Blood & Honour gig a total pasting…

Since 1991 the Elmington estate, and Bermondsey too, have changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has changed the Elmington immensely; the rebuilding of dockland derelict industrial sites as gentrified swathes of blandness, have transformed both areas… Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London than fascist boots.

The breaking up of older more established working class communities in areas like Bermondsey has reduced the cohesiveness of the white racist narrative in some ways – so hurray for gentrification?! Er… no. But while some white Bermondseyites whinged ‘foreigners are getting all the council houses’ they failed to notice that the middle class and corporate land grabbers had nicked the houses.

There’s no telling how many of the more affluent ‘incomers’ occupying some of the riverside nicenesses along Bermondsey’s riverfront are attracted to the new shiny alt-right currents, as in contrast to the skinheaded street fights of old much racist and rightwing agitation now goes on online.

Every day I learn lesson… less?

As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?

It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of our struggle on the Elmington, South London more widely, and of the experience of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.

Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’. Both AFA (at its least effective) and the National Black Caucus march on Bermondsey laid themselves open to being seen as outsiders, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).

Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.

At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fashion efforts and preventing events from taking place: AFA did have impact.

Secondly, anti-fascism has to be linked and intrinsically linked to at the very least a sense that fascism is based in the material oppressions of daily life; the material social and economic conditions that allow fascism to flourish. Beyond that even, anti-fascism, I would say, has to have a specifically anti-capitalist ethos. Deprivation, alienation, despair, the feelings of total abandonment that attracts some working class people to fascism, the listening to loud voices offering what seems like a solution, people to blame like foreigners, Trade Unions, migrants, refugees, women, etc, have tobe understood and argued against. The real issues that make people susceptible to fascist influence have to be addressed.

It’s not enough to challenge fascism in isolation; it has to be an explicitly grassroots socially conscious anti fascism. The kind of liberal, ‘fascism is bad, defend democracy, vote anyone but BNP’ toss commentators from the Guardian to the Daily Mail come out with masks the reality – fascism and democracy are forms that capitalism takes, cloaks worn over the expropriating skeleton. Capital will happily wear the democratic form when it can, but will turn to the fascist costume, as needed; depending on how necessary it sees authoritarian social organisation to be. Usually, historically, in response, usually, in response to an upsurge of working class struggles and pressure for social change from below. The main reason why fascism flourishes and becomes powerful and ‘captures’ state power has, in the past, been because it achieves backing by the capitalist class, or certain elements of the capitalist class, who see it as a bulwark against the threat of revolution.

In order to resist fascism, you have to that you have to be aware of that. Patriotic liberal anti-fascism will always denounce militant class based anti-fascism, the violence necessary to keep fascism from growing, because at heart it recognises a dynamic it won’t even admit to itself – that anti-capitalist anti-fascism is also the enemy of patriotism and liberalism.

If liberals want to fight fascism let them do it in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, where fascism originates and has many of its leaders, where the profit of fascism is reaped.

Points three and four are connected, and on the face of it, not exactly contradictory, but two connected poles  which an effective and truly anti-racist movement has to both steer between and draw on…

The third factor to bear in mind is that anti-fascism and anti-racism and any movements it emerges from has to be aware of, have a consciousness of, this country’s history, the history of the British Empire, of the history of colonialism and genocide, why this country became so wealthy, the exploitation of developing countries, the plundering of resources across the world, institutionalised racism… the complex reasons why communities migrated here. Anti-fascism has to have that as a central part of its perception. It’s no good saying white working class communities are where we need to address fascism, but trying to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, or without honestly examining and critiquing the reasons why white working class people identify with an imperial past, develop or transmit racism and xenophobia, feel that they are racially or nationally superior to other people from across the planet… All those ideas and social relations have to be tackled. Material conditions alone don’t lead people into sympathy and support for fascism – racism, white supremacism, nostalgia for lost white pasts (whether they existed or not) – all that does exist in many communities, has been fostered for decades – in the interests of preventing clear thinking working class internationalism. Lexity British jobs for British Workers bollocks is just lefty-Trade Union slang for racism.

Anti-fascism is both anti capitalist and internationalist. And to be internationalist, you have to have a conception of why migration happens. Why people have come here. What are people coming from, running from, running towards, from other parts of the world?

Point four goes hand in hand with point three, its bi-polar other half: you have to also have an open mind, and approach people, work with people on many levels. It’s that the addressing the material conditions, in that sense means often working with people that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything politically. Crucial to countering the attraction of fascism is being part of those struggles, on an organic level, on a day to day level, against the grinding reality of poverty and despair. And vital to that is not simply denouncing people immediately for holding some ideas you might consider reactionary and breaking off with them, but being able to address them, debating and discussing, where you do share some common interests or ideas with them.

Reactionary ideas, prejudices, bigotry exist: racism, misogyny, homophobia and all the other shit. But to overcome that cannot only be a matter of bashing people. Organised fascism has to be fought – yes, and sometimes physically. Decisions have to be made about who you consider on your side and who is on the other. And who do you ‘No Platform’ and who do you debate… But alongside that necessity, there also has to be the ability to enter into discussions with people whose ideas you on some level disagree with. Folding your arms and going, I’m not having anything to do with them because you’re this and you’re that blah, blah, blah, phobic – in the end, you can end up walling yourself off from a lot of people, potential allies. This kind of happens too much, in many ways, not only where anti-fascism is concerned – the ability to build a sense of solidarity with people who don’t think exactly like yourself is limited, and it can lead people into retreating into a kind of woke gated communities. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of recognising the power structures that exist in the world, and addressing them. But shutting yourself off from those discussions and debates, to set yourself apart working with people who you agree with on many things but disagree with on some levels is, I think, generally counterproductive. And in the context of rising racist and right wing movements could be dividing our forces in the face of dangerous enemies.

Finally, and bearing the previous point in mind, I think anti-fascism does to be specifically anti hierarchical, organised at a grassroots level, decentralised. There has to be a healthy suspicion of leftist political organisations; you have to dissect the practice of groups like Red Action, to critique the way that the SWP uses political fronts like the Anti-Nazi League or Stand Up to Racism in order to funnel people and resources into their own orbit; uses people’s struggles and for its for their own interests.
Anti-fascism has to be free from the from the manipulations of the left, and also the assumptions of the left that from some politically advanced position they know better and can waltz in and save the day… In the fight against the BNP on the Elmington the multiplying swarm of left factions all offering a slightly different position and arguing that in place of putting aside differences was confusing, depressing – and is repeated in almost every arena constantly. There has to be a recognition that wafer thin theoretical point-scoring cannot come at the expense of actually getting anything achieved.

Some of these points may seem slightly contradictory, and its true they are thoughts that clash and sit together awkwardly, maybe. Some times and places and actions demand a different balance of tactics, influences and approaches. Maybe we in AFA, acting on the Elmington, and the organisers of the disastrous march to Bermondsey, were doing the only thing we could have done at that time; its certainly taken me nearly 30 years to set the thoughts above in any kind of order and make time to write it down (although it represents the sum of many conversations between various people). Sometimes its only years later you realise what the right thing to do is. But you have to keep thinking, as well as acting.

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In a Postscript to the thoughts on anti-fascism today: There are factions of ‘antifa’ willing to identify as fascists, or at least rightists deserving physical opposition, anyone who does not sign up to specific positions on other issues. This has emerged notably in the current ‘debate’ on transphobia and the fierce argument between gender-critical feminists (labelled ‘TERFs by some) and an element of the trans rights movement and some allies. No platforming – physically preventing known fascists from speaking, debating, as well as gathering or meeting, a central plank of anti-fascism, is being extended to women who attempt to meet to discuss how the push to recognise ‘self-identification’ as the only necessary or acceptable definition of whether someone is the ‘gender’ they say they are. ‘TERFS’ are derided as nazis, bigots for whom the same treatment is needed. This process involves mainly targeting of feminists, often women who have been in the social movements we have built for many years, and has included blockading meetings, threats both online and in person, ostracism, exclusion. Anyone who suggests that there may be a discussion to be had as to how women’s rights and trans rights intersect and may in some cases collide, gets attacked – but its women who get the runt of the abuse. Some anti-fascist groups, taking a lead from the USA, where this process is several years further along, are openly lumping ‘terfs’ – ie feminists who disagree with some aspects of some transgender ideas – in with fascists. I think this is a mistake.

Many of us draw lines, if only in our heads – these people are on my side, these people are on the other side. The line changes over time for many of us. And depending on where you come from and where you place your politics, your sense of self, that line is going to be drawn in a different place. But if you want to come together to form social movements, either to oppose processes taking place or to fight for a positive change, those lines have to be re-thought. If I’m honest there are elements of the ideas of some gender critical feminists and of pro-trans rights activists that I fully agree with and some in both camps I find repulsive and nasty… but overwhelmingly I would view these movements as BOTH being part of a wider culture I would support. Where rights and interests meet and clash and mix within what I see as social movements with wider common goals is, I suggest, a point for discussion and debate, questioning and dialectic – not ostracism and no platforming.

In some ways this is a symptom of a wider syndrome, paralysingly epidemic at the moment – a closing down, a bunkering, into ideological fiefdoms, from which we can all take potshots at each other for not being in our corner on everything. Meanwhile the environment goes to shit, the exploiting classes gleefully suck more of our blood and rightwing movements are on the rise. People drawing lines in the sand might want to consider where the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ really lies.

 

 

 

 

Today in London entertainment history: annual rowdy Camberwell Fair kicks off, till the middle class get it banned…

From 1279 to 1855 Camberwell Fair was held, every August, It is first recorded in 1279. Originally the Fair was probably held in ‘Gods Acre’, the immediate grounds of St Giles Church, now off modern Camberwell Church Street – which used the event to raise funds…

The Fair apparently moved out of church grounds in 1444 (when the Archbishop of Canterbury banned fairs and other manifestations of Mammon in church property) into Church Street itself, opposite the Cock Pub (which was by the corner of Denmark Hill); by 18th century it had moved to Camberwell Green, the open space in the centre of the village.

Originally the event ran for three weeks, from the 9th of August to September 1st (the latter date being feast of patron saint St Giles).  By the 1800s the Fair, with it’s catchphrase; ”Rare doings at Camberwell”, was only 3 days long – the 19th, 20th, and 21 August. The village had become more middle class, farming had declined, and the Fair’s traditional rural economic functions had eroded; the Fair became more a place of urban pleasures: illicit sex, debauchery, drink and food, and bizarre circus acts…

It teemed with stalls of food, stuff like oysters, pickled salmon, fried plaice, gingerbread, with ‘pedelerie’ (junk), toys; with exhibitions, weird and performing animals, bizarre deformities, plays, merry go rounds, shies etc…hawkers, pickpockets, jugglers, performers, magicians… All in all a great sprawling rowdy bundle. “All was dust heat smells and bother”.

People from all over South London flocked to the event, with carts, donkeys, old nags, offering rides, often the drivers singing songs or bantering with each other.

But the growing middle class of 18th-19th Century Camberwell hated this plebeian disruption.

“For these three days the residents of Camberwell were compelled to witness disgusting and demoralising scenes which they were powerless to prevent”

There were constant attempts to control and restrict the fair and people’s enjoyment of it. Fairs at this time were a major source of moral outrage, asbo material of the day.

Although the 1840 ‘Kalendar of Amusements’ said that “the Camberwell Fair is one of the most amusing and orderly occurring near the Metropolis” , this may be not saying much as many fairs at this time were all out annual riots-cum-orgies.

Nearby Peckham Fair was also held in August annually – for the three days following Camberwell (22nd – 24th August), and was similarly troublesome. Given that both fell in the same parish, costs, planning etc came down to a headache for the same parish officers every year.

Applications were made at Bow Street Magistrates Court in the early 19th century for “12 officers to keep the peace at the Fairs of Camberwell and Peckham, at  5 shillings per day.” The two fairs together were seen by the local authorities and well-to-do as big one 6 day nightmare.

There were certainly serious incidents in 1802 at the end of Peckham Fair; a “numerous and desperate gang of pickpockets” robbed & assaulted respectable folk en masse as they were leaving the Fair. The gentry and middle classes attending the Fairs were seen as fair game (pardon the pun)…

In response to the attempts at repression and control, an interesting letter from ‘an Englishmen of the Old Type’ in the Morning Chronicle in 1806, attacked the magistrates’… it described one of Camberwell Magistrates as “a most zealous and distinguished reformer of the vices of the poor; who is so conscientious he will even sneak into a little shop on a Sunday and purchase a pennyworth of pastry or fruit, in order to punish the vender, and thereby discourage Sabbath-breaking… To the profound legal knowledge of this pious man, the poor fair people were indebted for the enforcement of some obsolete law, by which all the noisy minstrelsy of the Fair… was struck dumb in a moment. Not a blind fiddler was even suffered to exert his dangerous influence…”

In 1807 a Notice was pasted up: “Notice is hereby given that no drinking, booths, unlawful exhibitions or music, will be permitted at Camberwell or Peckham Fairs. That the constables have strict orders to prevent all gaming, or seize and carry away all implements used or employed therein, and to apprehend all the offenders, and that no dancing or music will be permitted at public houses, which are required to be close shut at eleven o’clock at night.
By order of the magistrates.”

Apparently “officers from union Hall Police Office and the Patrole from Bow St, attended… some trifling incidents occurred, but none of serious importance.”

There were several concerted attempts during the early 19th Century to shut the Fair down. In 1823, a Camberwell Vestry meeting was held to see what authority there was, in the form of an old grant or charter, to hold the Fair, This backfired, as evidence was produced in a Petty Session case to support its right to be held. Another attempt was made in 1825; in 1827, the Vestry managed to ban Peckham Fair for good.

They had another try at Camberwell Fair in 1832: “such institutions were Intended to be marts for trade and not sources of Dissipation and Riot” … The Fair was called a “Universally admitted evil.” Well, not universal – the poor loved it. It was a source of income for many of the poor and working classes, both legally, and through crime and the conning of fairgoers; there’s no doubt that it also brightened up people’s lives, an explosion of wild relief of the daily grind of poverty in a huge party. Lots of the rising middle classes emerging, as rampant British capitalism created all sorts of administrative and order-giving jobs, were moving out from the city to places like camberwell, and as the middle class like to do, whining about the people who lived there already and trying to change them/move them on. Which is a popular pastime today too!

By 1855, the Fair’s days were numbered: a local Committee for the Abolition of Camberwell Fair was set up by leading residents, who pressurised the parish authorities into buying the Green, and closing down the fair, with the help of the police.

The Green, said before then to be a Waste, was bought from the Lord of the Manor, landscaped, turned into a proper park… the Fair was no more, to the glee of one middle class historian: the Green was “encumbered for the last time with its horde of nomadic thieves, its coarse and lewd men and women and this concentrated essence of vice, folly and buffoonery was no longer allowed to contaminate the youth of the district and annoy the more staid and respectable residents.”

The closing down of Camberwell Fair should be seen in the context of a widespread campaign in the early 19th Century, to impose social and moral control over the growing working classes. National government, local vestries and parish authorities, officials of most churches, and various bourgeois organisations such as the Constitutional Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, were broadly united in attempting to control and ‘reform’ the ‘immoral’ behaviour of the working classes, especially the poor, through encouraging/them forcing them into hard work, proper respect for authority and religion, and by attacking ‘vice’, disorder and immoral behaviour. This meant repression of ‘vice’ in the forms of pubs, prostitution, those who radically challenged religion or the political establishment.

Fairs, widely viewed as hotspots of immorality, disorder and in many cases satirical political plays and speeches, were a prime target. Not only this, but in an era of political upheaval and widespread radical agitation among the working class, any gathering of the poor was seen as dangerous. The open spaces where Fairs traditionally took place were also under attack, through the enclosure of commons, Greens and the increasing landscaping into parks, or development into housing. The physical alteration of space was seen as having a moral effect on the disorderly behaviour of the poor: proper ordered open space replacing ‘waste’ and common was believed to encourage respectability…

For local Vestries, the high cost of policing the Fairs and cleaning up afterwards were also a factor…

But the Green’s tradition as a place of entertainment and hedonism has continued. It has long been a site of public meetings, rowdiness, rallies, protests, and parties.

Not only in terms of its continuing use by street drinkers, who, as in many other parks have gradually reclaimed open space in defiance of those who would keep them socially cleansed and invisible.

Festivals and parties have also taken place on the Green over the years.

For instance: in June 1998, during Camberwell Arts Week, a Summer Solstice party was held, featuring a three-quarter size model of Stonehenge, made of fibre-glass. Several hundred urban pagans reproduced their own Stonehenge Festival… during which a slightly inebriated reveller fell against one of the stones and, as they were all roped together) nearly dominoed the whole lot! We all got pissed and then went into the hermits Cave to watch Argentina beat Jamaica 5-0 in the world cup.

Most recently between 2006 and 2008, ‘Bonkersfest’ was held on the Green annually, celebrating madness and creativity, two of the main traditional aspects of Camberwell life.

Interestingly in the 1990s a junk/boot fair revived in the grounds of St Giles Church where the Fair began, held every Saturday – the local skint and desperate selling scrap crap and tat to make a thin living. Since also deceased.

Camberwell Fair has now been revived as an arts and cultural event, and was held on the Green in 2018, though is set to move to Burgess Park in 2019…

More on this blog on fairs – next week…

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London squatting history: Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog evicted, 2007

“On the 10th March 2007, we climbed a high ladder and entered the empty building at 190-192 Warham Street in Camberwell, South London. It took five minutes to put life back into a building that had been left empty for 9 months.”

Camberwell, South London, has played host to a number of squatted venues and social/political spaces and centres over the last few decades.

We aren’t going to talk here about the old Dickie Dirts store (squatted four times for planning Stop the City, gigs and more), the Labour Club, Groove Park, the old Muesli Factory, Area 7, Crawford Street, and later the Ratstar, the Library House… Just some of the ones we can recall…

One squatted space in Camberwell several of your past tense mob were involved in was briefly in existence from March to August 2007, at 190-192 Warham Street, off Camberwell New Road, opposite the union Tavern (and also opposite the site of the old Duke of York pub, once used for meetings by a local group of the National Union of the Working Classes in the early 1830s).

The old Good Food Cafe in Warham Street was squatted in march 2007, by a group of mainly anarchist rebels and troublemakers living locally, some who had been involved in many alternative, radical and activists projects for years (including longer-running squats and social centres such as Brixton’s 121 Centre, 56a Infoshop, use Your Loaf in Deptford…) plus some folk who had been around slightly less time. Your typist had previously known the place as a greasy café – very greasy. Also very small. It had closed down the previous year, and lay empty and unused.
After months eyeing it up but having no time, some of us jumped the tracks and climbed in through an upstairs window using a ladder.

“As we descended the stairs, we began to put a reality to the dream we had all dreamed as we watched the building sit lifeless for all those months. We dreamed of opening up the dead lifeless space and bringing in living bodies. Bodies that could talk, have ideas, disagree, learn how to fix up and build a living space. Bodies that could share the space and enjoy it and extend an open invitation to others to be part of the new life in the building. Bodies to cook and eat together. To get drunk on what possibilities we can create here.

What’s the point of a fridge without any food in it? What’s the point of a bowl without any soup in it? Exactly, So, what’s the point of a building without anybody in it? Well, actually we know the answer to that one. It looks like this: Make £££££££. Well we choose another answer. Our answer: Make life. Surely that must be the point.”

On first sight the place did look unusable:

“The water pipes were open leaving water to run through two floors. Everything was soaked and stained with mould. The toilets and shower were smashed. The wiring was ripped out and walls were smashed.

No-one cared about the place. There was only one thing they cared about. Standing in midst of the debris that early Saturday morning, we almost turned back. We almost abandoned our dream.

We breathed in mould and looked at each other for a number of minutes. In silence. But we are dreamers…and what is the point of a dream that cannot be turned into something real?”

The chairs and tables, though, were still there from the old caff, and those with a sharp eye and long squatting nous reckoned it could be turned around with a couple of days work.

“With a passion we put our backs into the work. Others soon got involved and we fixed up the building. We brought fresh air and human warmth back inside. It’s a work in progress. There are always two questions – What needs doing? What can you do? Actually, there is a third more vital question: Are you enjoying yourself?”

The downstairs was quickly done up, replumbed and rewired, painted, and opened up, soon to host weekly cafes, a bar, film nights, benefits, meetings, parties, booksales and discussions… (the building also housed several people upstairs.)

A large argumentative collective ran the space: so quarrelsome among ourselves that Monday night weekly meetings sometimes lasted 3 hours, as we berated each other about every single detail of running the centre… While many of us knew each other, some didn’t – but the arguments came more from different ideas about what a space was, the politics behind it. Direct democracy in action, painful but absolutely consistent, and a really useful experience in how you get things done when your ideas can be almost diametrically opposed. Disagreements ran as basic as the name of the place: some of us called it the Camberwell Squatted Centre, some wanted to call it a Social Centre but others had no time for that term. Some called it Black Frog, for what reason I can’t now recall (of there was one). We never did settle on a name and the building lived under several aliases; appropriate, in a way, as it also focused diverse ideas of what the place was, what it was for. Ideas that clashed, as we argued, but also ended up complementing each other. Sure there was a lot of argument – there was also a lot of love, which brought people together in interesting and inspiring ways, helped to create new openings. Possibly the fact that a core of us had spent a chunk of the previous 15-20 years or so involved in one squat centre or another, or hanging out at others, helped us avoid some of the traps ’twas easy to fall into… although another advantage was the sheer smallness of the space. You literally couldn’t do loads of things, like having huge parties, gigs etc, that often caused aggro in squatted spaces…

We organised events, showing films every week, cooking food and holding bars, discos, discussions, history nights, workshops for various skills. Hundreds of people came down, both locals and from further afield, and many widely varying happenings followed. Some weeks we could have a totally different crowd in every night. We showed ‘The Brixton Tapes’ about the 1981 Brixton Riot, and had to turn large numbers away, as we could only fit so many in. We had talks from activists from as far afield as South Africa – from land squatting movement Abahlali base Mjondolo: “Richard Pithouse who did the talk on that day made some good connections about occupation, land and squatting etc. That was a particularly meaningful event and encounter for me – to bring such connections between two different but engaged land / housing battles but esp to hear about the self-managed politics of Abahlali.”

The space rang to live music from local session gods the No Frills Band, as well as from visiting Australian folks…

We held language classes, swapped seedlings, hosted Indymedia training, shared basic plumbing skills, heard talks on Camberwell radical history and underground Lambeth, on German anti-capitalist fascism and queer slang… The very dodgy old white nationalist geezers who lived opposite very likely took the pictures of us that ended up on some ultra-right website…

We lent the space to the Brixton Ritzy cinema workers to hold a social after their first strike over crap wages and conditions. (A struggle still going on ten years later). Novelty of novelties, we tried to have a varied decent selection of beers on offer… When Mayday came around instead of joining the leftie ramble through central London we held our own Mayday march to Kennington Park and erected a maypole there and danced around it… among much more…

“Early on, we had the unfortunate presence of two policemen inside the place with all their usual prejudices: squatters are junkies, squatters are all unemployed, squatters are this, squatters are that. They made it clear that they thought we were just rats. But who cares what they think!

‘Why can’t you live like normal people?’, they asked. But what is normal in these days? Speculating on a ruined building whilst others are homeless or can’t afford a decent place? Does it seem normal surviving another round of the working week? Labouring – commuting – shopping – resting – back to work. Some money but no time. A little time but no real enthusiasm. A two week holiday as some kind of escape. Yes, this is the normality of ourselves too! It was at this end point of the policeman’s questioning, that one bright burning spirit amongst us replied: ‘We are dreamers…’ and the words hung there, in silence, with nothing else needing to be added. Neither seeking approval nor apologising for what we are, this was a moment that we could have almost let go of but instead our good friend had let something loose amongst us all. Something that remains in the air. It pervades the building. It inspires. It fixes. It rebels.

As dreamers, we try to refuse what passes for being ‘normal’ because no-one is ‘normal’. We try to make alternatives to the daily grind. We try to open up escape routes here, now. Everyone knows that this grind cannot continue. We are all looking for a way out. For us, it cannot be an individual solution as we are all in this together. So the dream we dream is a collective one.

None of us wish any longer to slump exhausted in front of TV because that’s all our body can do at that point. None of us wish any longer to drink ourselves senseless in lonely isolation. None of us wish to feel any longer the crushing despair of the lives we are supposed to lead in 21st century London. None of us wish any longer to substitute our passions and our dreams or our desires for things, objects or trinkets. No more!

We are no longer interested in the decisions made elsewhere by waste of space politicians because we have our own decisions to make. We are no longer interested in the lives of rich celebrities because we have our own lives to be interested in.

In less than two weeks, we have created a beautiful living breathing alive space once more. What else could we do? We put in floorboards. We dried out rooms for people to sleep soundly in. We scraped off mould and put up paint. We built a kitchen. Built a café space. Put in toilets. Put in sinks. Put in ideas. We might have exhausted ourselves, some of us working 9-5, some of us working precariously but we always found more energy to keep building. What we discovered (once again), is that far from there being a scarcity of energy, knowledge, ideas, there is always a beautiful surplus available when we make our own decisions. We didn’t need a shop-bought plan nor a foreman. There was no book to tell us what to do. There was only our imagination and the fantastic possibilities that dreamers tend come up with.

We know that one day, near or far, we will be forced out of here and the building will once again be sealed off from light fresh air we bring in. We know that but it does not stop us working hard for the dream. Here now. And again. And again…And…

As one of our posters says: ‘As everyone knows, the dream is dead. The dream, the desire, the hope for a better world. And yet we are dreamers. We too should be dead, then. But if we are not mistaken…HERE WE ARE’.

But it is very much an open dream. Be here too. It is every dreamer’s space. Be occupied! This has been your invitation.”

It turned out that the building was owned by some small-scale property developers, and bizarrely they included, or were being fronted for, by a guy some of us knew vaguely, him having been the landlord of two Brixton pubs a number of the local squatters/musicians had drunk in/played in, Brady’s and the Queen. A wheeler and dealer, someone we thought we could maybe make some kind of temporary arrangement with. Before we could approach him the place was invaded by him and a couple of crap heavies, and a stand-off took place inside and outside, turning into an argument. When the cops turned up they reluctantly told the owners they’d have to go to court to get us out. Some negotiations took pace a few days later but came to nothing. So we just carried on as usual, making the best of the place while it lasted.

So after holding them off physically we were taken to court and lost, but carried on using the space as long as we could.

The Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog/Warham Street was eventually evicted early in the morning on 30th August, 2007:

Oh there is something inevitable about squatting and that is the free rude awakening you can get at 4am one Thursday morning on 30th August after losing legal ‘possession’ of the place. So yeah the Black Frog residents were turfed out by bailiffs in the end, as is the end of most squatting centre stories. What can we say? There just isn’t space here to go into everything that feels like it should be said. How can we answer those great questions that came up: Are you free to do whatever you like in a free space? Why do people make a dogma out of the number of ‘local’ people coming in, or worse, what some activists call ‘normal’ people? (ho ho ho). Is it a social centre or a centre? Words on a page cannot do justice to what we felt and lived at the Black Frog and we all know there’s no justice in the world.”

The building was smashed up to prevent us going back in; eventually, though planning permission for their grotesque flat and shop complex was repeatedly knocked back, a new block of flats sprouted on the site.

All in all it was a fun and mind-expanding experience for the people who ran and frequented the space, re-invigorating some people’s energy for collective rebelliousness and putting us in contact with others locally who felt like us. Unlike some previous squatted social spaces the Black Frog/Squat Centre very open, wide in its appeal, welcoming and broad-ranging in what went down there.

So it only lasted five months – it was an intense ride, and some of us were knackered afterwards. Sometimes a short sharp burst can be useful. Some of the folk involved went on to be involved in other squatted centres that followed in the area, notably the Library House. In some ways Warham Street signalled a renaissance in political squatting in that part of South London which had been quiet for a while.

Its also worth mentioning “the solidarity extended to us from Abahlali after their visit. They were very moved by seeing the images of the shack dwellers we put in the walls for their visit.”

They sent a message after hearing of our eviction:

“Solidarity from Abahlali base Mjondolo   05.09.2007 18:59 Abahlali baseMjondolo would like to extend solidarity to the Camberwell Comrades. Qina!   We acknoweldge and respect what you have done and understand your pain at this time. Keep up your courage.  

Message from S bu Zikode to Activists in London The time has come for poor people all over the world to define themselves before someone else defines them, thinks for them and acts for them. Do not allow others to define you. We are pleading to University intellectuals and NGOs to give us a chance to have a platform for our own creativity, our own politics. Our politics is not a politics that originates from institutions of higher learning. It originates from our lives and experiences. We are asking the academic intellectuals and NGOs for a work space to think and discuss – not for them to think and speak for us. We are not prepared to hear from anyone on a point of order. Not government, not NGOs. No one.”

We like to think we built something of our own. We remember it fondly, anyway. As the graffiti which quickly went up on the empty shopfront for the eviction read: “Missing You…”

“Face to face is better, so maybe we will have these discussions at the next Black Frog…see you there! Or better still squat your own place and we will pop round for a cuppa!!

We fix. We build. We occupy. TOGETHER.”

Above quotes are usually excerpts from ‘Yes We Are Dreamers’, a text written by one of our number for a social centres round up.

and another related text

And a related text with some critical observations on social centres and their relationships to ‘non-activists’ and our own history

Here’s more on the radical history of Camberwell

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

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Today in London radical history: fighting in Camberwell (and elsewhere) during the General Strike, 1926

In May 1926, nearly 2 million workers all over Britain joined a General strike, called in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per

cent, after the ending of a Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike, but were pushed into it, afraid that large numbers of workers would take action themselves.

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off.
The TUC General Council’s policy, of hesitation, lack of preparedness and capitulation, doomed the General Strike to defeat – a defeat that left long echoes. Most immediately, many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages and worse conditions; union activists were victimised; workplace agreements and union recognition were badly hit by a boss class on the up. The miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

A national struggle; reflected, of course, in thousands of local areas, small scale battles and differing conditions on the ground. Locally Trades Councils or Councils of Action co-ordinated the union branches and workers involved in the Strike. Union branches and workplace militants quickly organised picketing, attempting to assert control over food distribution, and transport, to try to paralyse the state.

To take just one locality as an example: in Camberwell, then a metropolitan borough in South London.

Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel. This contrasted with other local boroughs, eg nerighbouring Bermondsey, where a left-wing Labour local Council supported the Strike and refused to co-operate with the Government.

Camberwell Trades Council organized the Strike locally. A letter to the TUC from G.W.Silverside, General Secretary of the Dulwich Divisional Labour Party, reveals some of the activities of the Trades Council as the dispute began. He explains that at a local Labour Party meeting on May 3rd, the first day of the General Strike, it was decided to collect money and distribute literature. Also the question of the possibility of duplication [of leaflets etc] aroseand Mr. Silverside explained that he had been in touch with the Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council who informs me that there are three duplicators available and that they are prepared to duplicate anything that may be necessary.”

According to a post-Strike Report by the Trades Council: only a fortnight before the strike, [we] obtained a roneo duplicator and a typewriter. When the possibility of a strike loomed up we made three tentative preparations for this eventuality, viz:
(a) We enquired for an office, which we might take for a month as a minimum.
(b) (b) We obtained a lien on a hall where we might have a large meeting and would run no danger of the hall being cancelled by opponents.
(c) We made arrangements for a Committee meeting to be called the day after the general Strike began, if it did so begin. On May Day we thought the importance of demonstrating was sufficient to warrant us paying for a band, banner bearers etc, and for us to give a lead in having a good turn out. This we had organised and we secured a fine response from Camberwell workers. Whilst on route to Hyde Park came the news of the General Strike declaration – truly a fitting send off, thus demonstrating to the rich loafers in the West End out power and solidarity.”

The Strike Committee organised effective picketing of workplaces. Tramwaymen and busmen, who made up 3000 of the 8000 workers affiliated to the trades Council, were solid, as were roadmen of the Borough Council also came out, (bar one depot where men were reported working.) Tillings Bus Co., however, of Peckham, a major local employer, was a black spot: large numbers of police specials were stationed to ensure these buses were never stopped from running.

Reports which came to the Strike office as to the need for pickets were transmitted to the Strike Committee concerned at once by an organised messenger network.

The Trades Council concluded that: “we were not ready. We quickly improvised machinery… Everything had to be found on the spur of the moment, and we rose to the occasion fairly well in our own estimation., considering the difficulties of lack of our own premises, voluntary workers, and having to set up, equip and run an office after the Strike had commenced.”

In the Borough of Camberwell as it was then, two strike bulletins were produced, the Camberwell Strike Bulletin and the Peckham Labour Bulletin – both from Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham.The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reported that a man was convicted in court of selling the Peckham Labour Bulletin. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”. [A feeling of fear among scabs, possibly?] Inspector Hider also saw copies of the Camberwell Strike Bulletin also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’.

There were huge public meetings in support of the strike at Camberwell Green, as well as at Peckham Rye and at the triangle near the Eaton Arms, Peckham. An eye-witness account describes the police activity during a public meeting at Camberwell Green as terrifying. He was ten years old at the time. He had been taken by his father and was standing on the edge of the meeting only to see waves of police with drawn truncheons marching on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

There was street fighting in Camberwell between police and strikers and their supporters virtually every day of the strike. On May 5th, strikers halted commercial vehicles in the streets & trashed them. Trams, a vital form of transport in London, were in the main kept off the roads, despite a huge effort to run them by the OMS, the government’s anti-strike corps, manned by middle class volunteers, & backed by police .

Altogether there were 12 attempts to run trams from Camberwell Tram Depot to New Scotland Yard – resulting in crowds of pickets and supporters attacking scab trams, smashing their windows and pushing them back inside, preventing them from running. Newspaper reports that women pickets stopped trams running by putting kids in front of the vehicles seem to be rightwing propaganda spread at the time (by the South London Press, which was resolutely opposed to the Strike) – there is no evidence for it! Not that the South London Press is still producing rightwing propaganda 90 years later. (Oh wait.. it is!)

Buses were also stoned in Camberwell on Saturday 8th May, which despite being the weekend was a day of strike mass activity all over London. Mass meetings were held in many areas, (though in some areas frustrated – as in Victoria Park, occupied by the military to prevent meetings there). In Wandsworth the left wing Councillor Andrews, a member of the Council of Action, was arrested after addressing a meeting at the Prince’s Head pub, Falcon Road. (When the local Council of Action tried to organise a meeting there the following day, the police banned it). On the 8th Strikers were also baton charged by police in Battersea and Paddington; fought the police in Deptford Broadway, (which was ‘rendered impassable by a dense crowd’) and in Lambeth, Sidcup and numerous other areas. There was also fighting in Camden Town in the evening.

Camberwell Borough Guardians (the local bigwigs then responsible for any distribution of benefits) also took a hard line during and after Strike – issued ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work’ forms to stop strikers getting any relief (the dole).

After the TUC General Council called off the strike, there was confusion in the area, as almost everywhere, people couldn’t believe that some form of victory hadn’t been achieved. Crowds of workers gathered at the Tram Depot, not knowing what to do. Many wanted to continue the Strike and the TUC General Council were widely denounced.

At the end of the Strike Camberwell Trades Council sent £10 to the Miners from the funds collected during the Strike, continued that support as the miners fought on alone after the TUC sellout.

As the scale of the sellout became clear, employers took advantage of the capitulation to drive back against union activists and strip away gains won over years of struggle. Many workers had to sign a form on future conditions of service, hours and wages before being allowed back to work. Some never got their jobs back at all.

Following the defeat of the Strike, the Government brought in the Trades Disputes Act, known as ‘the blacklegs Charter’, which outlawed all General or solidarity strikes and prevented many civil service workers from affiliating to Trades Councils. Camberwell Trades Council formed a Trade Union Defence Committee to oppose the Act – without a lot of success.

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Since the defeat of the General Strike the events of May 1926 have entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain, most notably the  selling out of the miners by a TUC General Council desperate to prevent the Strike from moving out of their control. However, more fundamental problems with the way the strike was run at grassroots level in fact doomed it to end in a government victory. More than simply being a conscious betrayal by the union leadership, the Strike was hamstrung from the start by the nature and structure of the trades councils and union branches, the dedication to the miners’ cause and to the ideal of class solidarity notwithstanding, and by workers’ willingness to remain within these structures.

Check out a more detailed discussion of how the Strike was lost, and a round-up of local action in London during the Strike.

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

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Today in London welfare history: Camberwell unemployed protest end of milk ration for babies, 1922.

South London’s former Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell had a long tradition of unemployed organising: during the high unemployment of 1905, a Camberwell Joint Unemployed Committee campaigned locally for more relief from the Guardians, having a membership of 1,500. Interestingly too, Myatt’s Fields Park in the Lambeth end of Camberwell was built in 1887-8 by the unemployed! After unemployed rioting in the West End in 1886 the authorities set up work-for-your-charity schemes for doleys. Locals had been campaigning since 1874 for pastureland and market gardens here to be turned into a park. It opened in 1889.

In the early 1920s Camberwell Green was also the starting point for rallies and demonstrations against unemployment, and against government measures which hit the unemployed hard.

After the First World War, unemployment rocketed. Partly this resulted from the change in the economy from the ending of the War/munitions industries, partly employment and economic figures had been distorted with hundreds of thousands of men in uniform. With large numbers of unemployed ex-servicemen looking for work, and firms laying people off, many working class people were thrown into poverty. This was not taken lying down however. From 1920 on, local unemployed committees organised against government measures to restrict money for relief of poverty and unemployment; against local authorities who were administering these restrictions (and in many cases adding some of their own) and against firms who were laying workers off, or working lots of overtime. Many of these committees were organised by trade unionists and socialists and communists who had been active in the strike movements before, during and after the War, and many members were unemployed ex-servicemen, who had spent years in the trenches only to come back to hardship.

In 1921, most of the Committees combined to form the National Unemployed Workers (Committee) Movement or NUWM.

Camberwell unemployed in 1920 occupied Camberwell School of Art, as part of a campaign for free places for the unemployed to meet.

“Their local strength was reflected in the fact that they could ‘pack’ a Labour Party meeting in the Camberwell Baths and get the following motion carried: ‘We the workers at this meeting, under the guidance of the Mayor, realise the impossibility of any proffered solution to unemployment during the life of the Capitalist system. We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of a workers Republic.”

On Sept 21st 1921 there was a mass march of local unemployed, from Camberwell Green to Peckham.

In 1922, the Camberwell Board of Guardians (the Council body that administered not only relief but the Workhouses etc.)announced plans to stop distribution of free milk for babies of the unemployed. On February 1st, Camberwell women marched to the House of Commons, as the order was rumoured to have come down from the Ministry of Health. A Ministry inquiry reversed the decision.

Unemployment being high, it became a hot political issue. In 1922, elections were held for the Camberwell Board of Guardians. A flurry of electoral leaflets from various candidates addressed the issue.

Labour candidates Arthur Andrews and Louis Edwards campaigned on the platform of giving out full rations to those on relief (not as was current policy, on the Mond scale, half-rations). They also opposed giving out food instead of money as out-relief. Their leaflet invoked the class nature of unemployment: “Its is only our class that go to the Workhouse or Infirmary. Send the Labour candidates to make the institutions as comfortable as possible. They stand the same risks as you do of having to go there.” They also amusingly advised: “Don’t wait for our car [presumably to pick up voters and ferry them to the polls]. We haven’t got one. Workers don’t own cars, they only make them.”

Not a line that would pick up votes today.

There were also two candidates from the ‘Camberwell Central unemployed’, Burnett and Smith, who stood on the basis of their long activism in local unemployment politics, having been members of delegations to the Board of Guardians several times. What their affiliations? They disparaged political parties in their leaflet, who would make loud noises to get elected and then make no changes.

Another interesting snippet on Camberwell unemployed organising…

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

Today in London’s art history: Camberwell Art College occupied by students, 2010.

During the wave of occupations of universities and colleges over the winter of 2010, part of a wider movement against increased student fees and cuts generally, students took the upper main room at Camberwell Art College’s Wilson Street building, staying throughout the Christmas holidays.

“University of the Arts London, Camberwell College of Art is now OCCUPIED! We now have an Amazing space at Wilson Road (SE5 8LU) which is occupied…!! The Lecture Theatre will become a space for students to plan action, make, work and perform. It will act as a student union and catalyst to create ideas for action and organisation. We call for more support and involvement! The space is open and everyone is invited to be involved in discussion making and workshop building. Open meeting today: 6.12.10 at 3.30pm”

Arts groups such as London’s Radical Education Forum and Ultra-red presented workshops at Camberwell as part of an open program. Food and support were brought by local groups in solidarity.

A Statement from the Occupiers:

“We, the students of Camberwell College of Arts, believe that if the massive cuts proposed for education happen, it is unlikely that academies such as ours will continue to exist. Arts and humanities courses are being targeted with the largest cuts, while still requiring a great deal of funding, which even a rise in fees will not cover. In response, we have decided to occupy the Wilson’s Road building at our college.
We see the arts as occupying a vital place within society, one which benefits us all, both culturally and economically. If arts education ceases to be a viable route for students, that benefit will be lost.

An artless society is a heartless society!

We oppose the transformation of education into a market. Education should be a forum for all publics, not just those who can afford, to learn, experiment and debate.

Therefore, we call for all arts students, especially those from UAL to join this occupation, and call for more arts-led occupation and actions. We propose to use our space for a practice led resistance.  We will run workshops, performances, debates and experiments, creating a collective space of generative discourse. At no point will we disrupt any fellow student’s education, allowing all scheduled lectures to continue. We wish to propose, rather than simply oppose!

We demand that UAL:

  • Issue a statement condemning all cuts to Arts education, and the rise in tuition fees and defending the value (economically and culturally) of Arts education for society, and its place within government funded education.
  • Put pressure on the MP of every borough that UAL has a college in to vote against the educational reforms.
  • Guarantee that there be no more course closures, or course amalgamations. This includes, if possible, the re-instatement of the Ceramics course at Camberwell.
  • Safeguard all jobs for our teaching, research and support staff.
  • Issue a statement guaranteeing no further cuts in access time to workshops and facilities. This means no losses of current facilities, studio space or access time to workshops.
  • Provide full details of the existing budgets, and any projections of how the budget is likely to be spent if cuts and fee reforms do happen.
  • Provide all cleaning, catering and security staff with a full living wage package, again with no loss of jobs or hours, and that all outsourced staff and services are brought back in-house.
  • Provide a more effective, regular structure for student feedback which effects positive change, in the normal running of the University.
  • Do not victimize anyone taking part in this occupation.
  • Allow free access in and out of the occupation for all students, staff, speakers and other visitors.

The Occupiers, Camberwell College of Arts.”

Over two-hundred students and lecturers from Goldsmiths, the Slade, St Martin’s, Camberwell, and other art and fashion colleges also occupied Tate Britain during the live, televised presentations of the Turner Prize.

Some more info related to the Camberwell occupation here

Here, a lecturer discusses the movement against cuts in arts education, in its wider context:

“The college occupations were not something that occurred while lessons ceased, but were themselves a reimagined artistic and educational alternative in action. In one go, boundaries were dissolved – the borders separating one discipline, subject area or medium from another, one year from another, even one college from another, as well as the divisions between so-called theory and practice, and between students and teachers. Education became a critical problem-posing process necessary for the immediate task in hand, and one which therefore opened up naturally to a much wider curriculum. Something emphasised on the Slade Occupation blog is how valuable the physical space offered at art college is in educational terms – studio space being precisely something which from a marketing outlook becomes a quantifiable commodity, and therefore under threat from more ‘resource-efficient’ courses. So a declaration of what is precious becomes simultaneously a new use of space as a communal forum rather than something to be individually allotted, or fought over (one thinks of the annual scramble for degree show space). In Deleuzian terms it was a question of nomadic distribution rather than monadic division. The profound change that occurred, mirroring the more general mood of the historic moment, was the shift from the individual to the collective, signalled by the proliferating use of the word ‘we’ – an inspiring transformation in an environment that prizes individualised development and the authorship of isolated works. One RCA student spoke of ‘an enormous sense of togetherness and empowerment’. Occupying BA students at the Slade honed particular skills towards the collective good, with mini-groups working on banners, on ‘outreach’ (making contact with other organisations), on Twitter, on video production etc.

It may in fact have been the culture of openness at these relatively more ‘privileged’ art schools – with regular group seminars and less emphasis on processing students through units and modules – which facilitated the move to occupy and the sense of shared ownership which came through that. Also, while the Slade occupation was not ‘militant’ – it was described to me as more like an extended sleepover; no regular activity was disrupted and it ended when a court order was issued – students did become politicised precisely through their communal experience, issuing declarations of solidarity with public sector workers and demanding a London living wage for UCL service staff, who might otherwise have remained a fairly invisible entity. It was, as one Slade student put it, an ‘awakening from apathy’.

Like all substantial communities, the college occupations, teach-ins and other events were formed in clear and meaningful opposition to something – in this case the education cuts and the coalition government. One can imagine a privately run experimental art school operating loosely along the lines of collective production and debate, free of grinding state-imposed assessments, with porous borders between departments, year groups etc. And yet without the political dimension of opposition and resistance, which seeks in the singular instance a universal application (such as the welfare state allows), would not such a school be a parody of the radical and experimental, and, in all likelihood, boil down to a Summerhill-style bastion of eccentric privilege, or else a bargain basement ‘alternative’ attempting to out-price competitors in the new education market (lack of resources masquerading as a radical new DIY programme)? Those like Mike Watson (Polemic AM342), who see the education and arts cuts as an opportunity for both art colleges and artists to escape the bureaucratic marketisation of art in the form of funding and accreditation criteria, are simply playing to the government’s ‘big society’ agenda, turning New Labour tragedy – the artificial marketisation of education through the state (auditing, monitoring, personal development plans, satisfaction league tables etc) – into Tory catastrophe: the total privatisation of education through the withdrawal of the state.

The truth is that for all the moaning about business-model bureaucracies on art courses, the ‘professional development’ skills of personal branding and self-promotion fit extremely well with an ultra-competitive art world beholden to the market. What, I wonder, would independent art colleges alter in this respect except perhaps to eliminate clunky assessment criteria from personal career plans, the better to make a fine art out of the informal commodification of personal relations that comes with the prestige, value-by-association economy that operates in the art world, while exacerbating the entitlement to success of those who already possess money and connections? An effective change in art education requires not just the removal of the business-model assessment culture, but a change in the culture of art. Take the recent Save the Arts campaign. Compared with the grass roots, radical approach of the education protests, the campaign against cuts to arts funding was not only limp (‘cut us don’t kill us’) but distinctly top down and conservative, adopting a two-pronged strategy of art star endorsement and claims for the economic benefit to the nation; in other words, a strategy which, despite its promotion of ‘art for everyone’, fits smoothly with the neo-liberal agenda of status-driven individualism and economic profit as the measure of value.

The historical moment of the student protests of winter 2010 is bookended in the public imagination by the breakaway storming of Millbank Tower and the ‘prodding’ of the Duchess of Cornwall – both in their own ways an irruption of the real into a media-generated spectacle of normality at a time of the most brutal, ideologically driven attack on the population. The stakes could not be higher. What John Beagles has called the ‘incomprehensiveness of art education’, that is the increasingly homogeneous social class make-up of fine art students, will almost certainly be exacerbated under a system where fees are justified according to the market rationale of returns on your investment, ie a higher earning capacity. Will a fine art education become a luxury only the rich can afford? And isn’t the spirit of art education already poisoned when the college is essentially a business, with customers (students) being administered to by service-providers (lecturers)? The substantial challenge the anti-fees movement represents is not simply to education cuts but to a whole neo-liberal agenda whose rot set in a long time ago.

In terms of art the task should not be to defend what already exists – a socially divided, economically driven and hierarchical art system – but to affirm what art might be, a universal, potent and seductive alternative to the status quo. The social case for art and its public funding should be far more bold and challenging. For example, its democratic function in contributing towards a public sphere, drawing on a provocative, critical and imaginative avant-garde lineage to fight the crushing corporate agenda of self-interest propagated by the media. Great art finds common value with collective action in its ability to take us beyond ourselves. Rather than sitting on the periphery figuring out ways to survive, art should be at the heart of the fightback against the total privatisation of existence. This is not a time for ‘opting out’, but for collectively reclaiming what is ours, and for making everything new.

Dean Kenning is an artist and visiting lecturer at Central St Martins.

First published in Art Monthly 343: February 2011.

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