Today in London radical history, 1795: a monster rally for political reform, Islington

The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was an important political movement that fought for political reform in the 1790s, that increasingly became more radical, and involved more and more working class men, and faced vicious repression by a government that felt threatened by its ideas.

The Society had been founded in January 1792, by nine ‘wellmeaning, sober and industrious men’ called together by shoemaker Thomas Hardy, who became its first secretary. Its early membership consisted of working men, was politicised by economic hardship & influenced by the movements for reform of the electoral system in Britain, as well by the American & French Revolutions. The LCS was not new as a political debating club: what was new was that its subscription fees were low enough to allow working people to get involved. The emphasis on corresponding with likeminded groups in other towns was crucial: “It was a definite step forward in the rise of the political consciousness of the masses when they no longer felt that they were engaged in an isolated effort” (Robert Birley) The LCS was in contact with similar groups in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, Coventry, Newcastle & Norwich, Bath, Rochester, Hertford, among others.

Their basic demands were aimed at Parliamentary reform: universal suffrage & annually elected parliaments. They attacked the system of rotten boroughs with few or no residents being represented by MPs, while large developing industrial towns were not represented at all. These last were reasonably widespread complaints among more moderate reformers. But they also developed ideas well ahead of their time: eg MPs to be paid & recallable by their electorate…

But beyond that the LCS also recognised class antagonism: their demands for reform were aimed at the working class & lower middle class, because they knew the aristocratic elite had a vested interest in obstructing change. The class basis of the organisation was described as “tradesmen, mechanics & shopkeepers.”

The LCS expected that an ‘honest parliament’ elected under the system they proposed would enact popular legislation: notably an end to enclosure of land by the wealthy & the throwing open of common land already enclosed, as well as legal reform to make justice cheaper & more available to the poorer classes.

The LCS was split into divisions throughout London, sending two delegates each to a General Committee. The divisions & the General Committee met weekly. The divisions contained between 16 and 45 members; they divided into two on reaching 45. In September 1792 the Society was said to have 5000 members.

The Society, together with other reform-minded groups, sent messages of fraternity & support to the Convention in France, which was pushing forward the French Revolution. Though they drew back from some of the ‘excesses’ like the massacres of aristocrats in Paris in September 1792, they supported the Revolution against the foreign armies intervening to restore absolute monarchy in France.

The LCS & the Constitutional Society co-operated in rallies against the threat of harsh repressive laws. However the government’s legion of spies & informers were at work, putting together a picture of a revolutionary society prepared to overthrow the state…

In 1794, Government spies reported LCS members making speeches at meetings presented as seditious & republican: and the government acted. Parliament backed repression against LCS meetings, and three Society notables, Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were all arrested and charged with treason. Hardy’s house was also attacked by an officially-backed ‘loyalist’ mob – his wife died in childbirth as a result.

Many LCS members were frightened off by the increased repression, but others joined out of solidarity, Hardy, Tooke & Thelwall were tried in November 1794, but the evidence was weak & they were acquitted: of treason: charges were dropped against several other radicals. There were great celebrations, but Hardy & Tooke both largely dropped out of activity after this however.

But the Society was growing again: from 17 divisions in March to 70 or 80 in October. In 1795, a failed harvest led to rising food prices and massive hunger throughout the country, which resulted in growing anger against the class of landlords which working people perceived as caring little whether they lived or died and denying them any voice in how society was run. (bearing in mind that massive enclosure of common fields, woods and marginal land, running at a record pace, was depriving thousands of bare subsistence and impoverishing the rural poor,,, driving many into the cities to look for work). This merged with an increased resentment against Britain’s war against revolutionary France, which had not only pulled in thousands of men to fight as soldiers and sailors, but also led to steep rises in taxes which were seen to impact heavier on the poorest folk. The Corresponding Society’s stand against the war and the power of the landlords chimed in with the general resentment – they pointed out that the people benefitting from both high food prices were the same people sitting in Parliament, the same people in whose interests the war was being fought…

One of the LCS’ main organising tactics was holding monster rallies, mass meetings to show the strength of the movement for reform, inspire others, and undoubtedly to demand the attention of the government and persuade it that it needed to make concessions. In 1795 they held several massive rallies in London, centring their demands to the government ministers, that the war be stopped, that a program of parliamentary reform be put in place, and that attention be paid to the hunger in the country.

The king and the government ignored their petitions.

On 21st October the LCS issued an advertisement for a general meeting on 26th October, to be held on Copenhagen Fields, the grounds of Copenhagen House, which stood on the hill to the west of Islington; a well-known place for political meetings to be held.

They listed the business of the meeting – to vote on an address to the nation on the state of public affairs, a remonstrance to the king on the disregard shown toward the address of 29 June… Admission was free; members were urged to ‘exert their usual efforts with strangers to preserve that order and decorum’ which had placed the LCS above the intrigues of their enemies…

This was a very large meeting, possibly the largest of the era, with somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 or more attending. This meeting, addressed by LCS leaders John Gale Jones, Richard Hodgson, radical lecturer John Thelwall and John Ashley, a shoemaker, was possibly the one caricatured by Gillray in cartoon (see above), though alternatively this could represent the monster rally held in the same fields a few weeks later in November that year.

The government had been alarmed by the plans for the June monster meeting, but the 26th October rally seems to have appeared less threatening to them. Nevertheless, the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, directed John King to issue orders to Lt. Col Herries of the Westminster Light Horse Volunteers, to the Lord mayor and to Col Brownrigg to have their military forces in readiness: and to the police magistrates to retain extra constable and to send an observer to the meeting.

The LCS published two accounts of speeches made at the rally shortly afterwards, the following is taken from both these accounts.

Proceedings of a General Meeting of the London Corresponding Society,
Held on Monday October the 26th, 1795, in a field adjacent to Copenhagen-House, in the County of Middlesex

The Indifference with which the late Address from this Society to the King was treated; the rapid approximation of National destruction, thro’ the continuation of the present detestable War;- the horrors of an approaching Famine;- and above all, the increased Corruption, and Inquisitorial measures pursued and pursuing, by those who hold the Country in bondage – obliged this Society to appeal once more to their fellow Countrymen… [Accordingly a meeting was advertised.]

Previous to this meeting, the London Corresponding Society, had taken into consideration numerous Communications from different parts of the Country, suggesting the utility that would result from more active and direct communications between the people in those several places, and this Society, by the appointment of Members on deputation to open and regulate Societies for Parliamentary Reform; which was likewise a measure submitted to the public Meeting.

About half an hour after twelve o’clock, the People assembled on the Ground, according to the concurring calculations of several persons, amounted to more than one hundred and fifty thousand persons, at the same time that the Roads in all directions were still covered with people thronging to the meeting.

John Gale Jones opened the meeting by announcing that Citizen John Binns, ‘a well known and long tried Patriot, and an Honest Man’, had been nominated as chairman. After being unanimously approved, Binns took the chair and addressed the meeting, stating that he hoped the contempt shown to their last address would not provoke them,

“… but that you will now coolly and deliberately determine upon a further notice of proceeding, which shall enforce those Ministers, that when the voice of a United People goes forth, it is their duty to attend to it: and if they do not they will be guilty of HIGH TREASON against the PEOPLE…

Three points will be brought forth for rejection, amendment or unanimous approbation: an address to the nation, a remonstrance to the king on the contempt shown to the LCS address presented to his ministers, and resolutions applicable to the present crisis.

Address to the nation

Once more, dear friends and fellow citizens, in defiance of threats and insults – of base suggestions  and unmanly fears – are we met in the open face of day, and call the heavens and earth to witness the purity of our proceedings. Amidst the dreadful storms and hurricanes which at present assail the political hemisphere of our country, with firm and unabated vigour we pursue our avowed and real purpose – the grand and glorious cause of PARLIAMENTARY REFORM!

The rude gales of opposition, and the howling blasts of persecution have served only to assist our career; and where we might have lingered, from choice or indulgence, we now steadily from the heavy pressure of inevitable necessity!

With anxious minds and agitated hearts, we are again compelled to address you, and to solicit your patient attention. There was a time, when we might, perhaps, have been startled at the idea of rendering ourselves so conspicuous, and have fought for refuge under the veil of obscurity. When the timid apprehensions of our friends, the loss of our most valuable interests and connections, the threats of guilty Ministers, and the hostile preparations of armed associations, might have forcibly urged us to remain in silence, and to retreat from the eye of observation. But, alas, it is now too late! When the welfare of society is at stake, what private consideration ought to avail? We have been severely persecuted, it is true, but is our cause became lss clear? We have been cruelly and unjustly treated, but has the majesty of Truth suffered in the shameful contest? No. Away then with the lifeless apathy and pale-faced fear; let every friend of liberty must boldly deliver his real sentiments; and while he professes the virtuous principles of a patriot, assert his independence like a man!

Four months ago we peaceably assembled to deliberate upon the best and most probable of recovering our rights, and redressing our numerous grievances: we addressed you, and we petitioned the king. We believe, if we may judge from the rapid increase in our numbers from the last public meeting, that our sentiments and conduct experienced almost general approbration. From one particular quarter, however, we have not received that attention and regard which as Britons and Freemen, we might not have expected. The late Address to the king has either been artfully and prematurely suppressed, or passed over with contempt. If the former, we hesitate not to say, that HIS MINISTERS have proved themselves GUILTY OF HIGH TREASON against the Lives and Liberties of the Nation! If the latter, his Majesty should consider the sacred obligations he is bound to fulfil, and the duties he ought to discharge; he should recollect, that when he ceases to consult the interests and happiness of the people, he will cease to be respected, and that justice is a debt which the nation hath a right to demand from the Throne!

IN vain do we boast of a Constitution, if its genuine principles be not actively alive in our bosoms; in vain do we talk of rights, if we want courage and firmness to assert them. The true Constitution of a country is the undaunted spirit of its people! The principles of liberty must be established on the solid basis of rational conviction, and the virtues of patriotism cherished and supported by continual exertion! When once the citizens of Britain are become careless and indifferent about the preservation of their rights, or the choice of their representatives, from that moment arbitrary power is essentially introduced, and the utter extinction of individual liberty, and the establishment of general despotism, are inevitable and certain.

To delineate a faithful portrait of the awful situation of our poor distracted country, would only be to exhibit a scene of misery and desolation; a frightful picture of horror that would sicken the imagination, and appal the stoutest heart. The history of the last few months presents indeed to our view, a rapid succession of ill-fated mismanagement, unexampled calamities, and unparalleled disgrace! Baffled and defeated in every miserable project, they have either designed or undertaken, Ministers seem determined to display their pre-eminent power of doing mischief, and as they cannot compass the ruin of France, to contrive at the least, the destruction of England. Emigrant armies and foreign expeditions have been hastily planned and equipped, to ensure only to the one, an horrible and undistinguished carnage; and to the other, a premature and untimely grave! The manufacturer has been seduced from his loom – the militia man swindled from his domestic employment – and the humble cottager kidnapped from the plough. The bread that should support the industrious poor has been exported, either to be abandoned on a foreign shore, or consigned to the bottom of a fathomless ocean – while the helpless widow and orphan are consoled for their irreparable loss, by the scanty allowance of an insolent donation, or a charitable bribe!

The comfortable and pleasing prospects resulting from an abundant harvest have turned out to be vain and fallacious – and were probably held up only to lull the public mind into a delusive and fatal security! The approach of famine seems to be inevitable, and we have almost the melancholy and indubitable assurance of being soon in want of bread.

What is the cruel and insatiate that thus piecemeal tears and devours us? – Wherefore in the midst of apparent plenty are we thus compelled to starve? – Why, when we incessantly toil and labour, must we pine in misery and want? – What is this subtle and insinuating poison which thus vitiates our domestic comforts and destroys our public prosperity? – It is Parliamentary Corruption, which like a foaming whirlpool swallows the fruit of all our labours, and leaves us only the dregs of bitterness and sorrow.

Those whose duty it is to watch over the interests of the Nation, have either proved themselves indifferent to its welfare, or unable to remove the pressure of these intolerable grievances. Let them however be aware in time – Let them look to the fatal consequences – We are sincere friends of Peace – we want only Reform: Because we are firmly and fully convinced, that a thorough Reform would effectually remedy those formidable evils: but we cannot answer for the strong and all-powerful impulse of necessity, nor always restrain the aggravated feelings of insulted human nature! – IF EVER THE BRITISH NATION SHOULD LOUDLY DEMAND STRONG AND DECISIVE MEASURES, WE BOLDLY ANSWER – “WE HAVE LIVES!” AND ARE READY TO DEVOTE THEM, EITHER SEPARATELY OR COLLECTIVELY, FOR THE SALVATION OF OUR COUNTRY.

We trust, however, that Reason and Remonstrance are alone sufficient to produce the desired effects. We have laboured long, and we hope not unsuccessfully. Our Numbers have increased beyond all human expectation: and many who once professed themselves our most inveterate Enemies are now converted into sincere and faithful Friends. A little more Patience, and a little Perseverance, Fellow Citizens, the business will be accomplished, and out Triumph complete. The LONDON CORRESPONDING SOCIETY SHALL BE THE POWERFUL ORGAN TO USHER IN THE JOYFUL TIDINGS OF PEACE AND REFORM; AND UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE AND ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS SHALL CROWN OUR SUCCESSFUL EXERTIONS!

JOHN BINNS, Chairman.
JOHN ASHLEY, Secretary.”

LCS member and longtime moderate radical activist/government informer, Francis Place, in hindsight labelled this address ‘an absurd declaration… filled with commonplace topics’. In terms of its language he though the speakers ‘did little more… than copy from their betters’ meaning Parliament.

“The Reading of this Address was, from time to time, interrupted by such loud applauses as are but seldom heard, even in public places – and being ended amidst the warmest and most unanimous acclamations of approbation, the Chairman proceeded next to read

THE REMONSTRANCE TO THE KING.

To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.

The humble and earnest Remonstrance  of Two Hundred Thousand, and upwards , faithful, though greatly aggrieved, Subjects, associated ad assembled  with the CORRESPONDING SOCIETY of London, in a constitutional manner, in behalf of themselves and others.

Sire!

When the treacherous duplicity, and intolerable tyranny of the House of STUART had roused the long-enduring patience of the British People, the expulsion of one restored into their hands into their hands the primitive right of chusing another, as their Chief of many Magistrates.

[At that period the privilege of remonstrating with the Chief Magistrate was established. When Queen Anne died without heirs, the pubic called to kingly office the head of the house from which you are descended. The preservation of the rights, reconfirmed at the Revolution, then became part of the obligations of George I. In spite of the smallness of the majority which established the Hanoverian succession, the nation has supported the decision of their representatives on that occasion. The people of this country hoped that an eternal gratitude would bind your house (transplanted from poverty and obscurity to dignity and opulence) to support the freedom and happiness of this country.

Our present object is to renew a complaint delivered in an address to you, which we put into the hands of the Duke of Portland on 15 July. In that address we expressed our belief that your ministers have plunged the nation into its present calamities and should be dismissed; and that only a reform in representation can restore this country to vigour and happiness.

Our address was not attended to by your majesty’s servants as it should have been. Are we to suffer and not complain? What have we not to fear if there is an impenetrable barrier between the oppressed and the magistrate? Alas, we hoped to find the third sovereign of the Brunswick line an example of royal virtue. We wished you to consider whether your duty to your royal progeny and to your people, whose industry provides the funds for their princely support, will be accomplished by pursuing the measures of odious ministers or by giving the people liberty, peace and reform.

“Listen then, Sire! To the voices of a wearied and afflicted people, whose grievances are so various that they distract, to enormous that they terrify. Think of the abyss between supplication and despair! – The means of national salvation are in your own hands – it is our right to advise as well as supplicate: and we declare it to be our opinion, that a Reform in the Representation of the people, the removal of your present Ministers, and a speedy PEACE, are the only means by which this country can be saved, or the attachment of the People secured.”

Signed by Order of the Meeting,

  1. BINNS, Chairman
  2. ASHLEY, Secretary.

 This being received with an equally unanimous approbation, the Chairman then read the following RESOLUTIONS.

RESOLVED.

1st. That the present awful and alarming state of the British Empire, demands the serious attention of our fellow countrymen.

2nd. That its unexampled distresses call for immediate and effectual redress.

3rd. That we are fully persuaded the present exorbitant price of the necessaries of life, (notwithstanding the late abundant harvest) is occasioned partly by the present ruinous war; but chiefly by that pernicious system of monopoly, which derives protection from the mutilated and corrupt state of the Parliamentary Representation.

4th. That the enormous load of axes, under which this almost ruined country groans, together with its unparalleled National Debt, (which has been and will be greatly encreased by the present war) threatens the British Nation with total ruin.

5th. That the inflexible obstinacy of Ministers, in continuing the present cruel, unjust, and disgraceful war – a war which was has stained the earth and seas with so much human blood – calls aloud for the execration of every friend of humanity.

6th. That the present Government of France, is capable of maintaining the accustomed relations or peace and amity with the King of Great Britain, as with the Elector of Hanover.

7th. That we remain fully convinced that the permanent peace, welfare and happiness of this Country, can be established only by restoring to our fellow Countrymen their natural and undoubted right; Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments.

8th. That we are determined at the next general Election, to support such candidates only as will pledge themselves to a radical reform in the Commons House of Parliament.

9th. That the evasive conduct of His majesty’s Ministers, respecting our late Address, convinces us that our fellow countrymen have little to hope from the Executive part of our Government.

10th. That the only hope of the people is on themselves.

11th. That the period is not far distant, when Britons must no longer depend upon any party of men for the recovery of their liberties.

12th. That the publicity of our conduct evinces the purity of our intentions, and is a testimony of our love of peace, and of the sacrifices we would make to spare the blood of our fellow countrymen.

13th. That the events of every day are clearly proving, that we have gained the good opinion of our fellow countrymen, notwithstanding the opposition of our persecutors and calumniators.

14th. That, in order the more effectually to obtain the co-operation and assistance of the whole country, deputies shall be sent from the Society to the principal towns in the kingdom, for the purpose of explaining to our fellow countrymen the necessity of associating, as the only means of procuring a parliamentary reform.

15th. That strong in the purity of our intentions and the goodness of our cause – regardless of the calumny and threats of our enemies – we again solemnly pledge ourselves to the British nation, never to desert the scared cause in which we are engaged, until we have obtained the grand object of our pursuit.

The chairman having left the chair, a motion was made and seconded, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to the Chairman, which was accordingly put and carried into motion.

A motion was also moved and passed, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to Citizen Jones, Thelwall, Hodgson &c for their exertions this day.

Both these Motions were unanimously passed, amidst the greatest acclamations. A little after Five o’clock the Meeting broke up, when the immense Company that was present separated, and proceeded to their respective homes: the utmost harmony, regularity and good order prevailed during the whole time, each and every individual seeming to be impressed with the Idea, that it was a Day SACRED TO LIBERTY.”

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However peaceful and amicable the account above makes the end of the meeting sound, the language used certainly contains veiled threats. The address to the king, for instance, informs George III that his kingship is subject to the approval of the whole people of the nation, and this is a compact than can be revoked unless he wins the people’s approval; also that all the ‘inherited’ wealth of the king and the luxurious living he and his family enjoy is based on the labour of the lower orders… Despite the protestations of loyalty, and appeals to the old trope that the king is being betrayed in his duty to his subjects by the evil ministers that surround him (a well-versed theme going back to the Peasants Revolt), there is a passive-aggressive threat contained in almost every line. And the authorities cannot have missed the use of the title ‘Citizen’ – the term the French Revolutionaries had used, a title that in its very nature implied a people NOT subject to kingly authority, that threatened the guillotine without even mentioning it.

The speakers also threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster on the 29th, when the king would go to the houses of parliament, to protest the king and government ignoring their petitions. This suggestion would directly lead to a riot and an attack on the king.

We will cover more on the Corresponding Society In October 1795, on October 29th

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Today in London radical history, 1768: 2000 Thames watermen picket Royal Exchange & mansion house, 1768, over a decline in trade.

Ah, ’68, year of tumult, hope and rebellion.

No, not 1968 – 1768.

In London, in 1768, a number of movements came together, grew together, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets. One dispute or flashpoint would influence another, spreading like wildfire… The authorities would attempt to repress some elements, but were afraid to move against other movements.

On the political level 1768 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, a populist journalist, a rake of dubious morals, a scandal-mongering writer and agitator, who championed reform of the political system, but won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished in the early 1760s, for challenging the establishment by libeling the king; in 1768 he stood for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (and consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London. Middlesex merged into London: huge crowds flocked there to support him, believing he had their interests at heart. The establishment fear of the potential that Wilkes and his supporters led to a crackdown on the crowds, including soldiers shooting and killing pro-Wilkes demonstrators.

This sparked riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents, which spread to general attacks on the rich and those who refused to light their windows in support of Wilkes. Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But Wilkes’ pro-reform and incendiary speeches got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time).

1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, and food riots, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though in reality, he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. [He would end his days as comfortably, and respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down the people who had once been his constituency, the mob attacking the Bank of England during the 1780 Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…]

To add to the fears of the ruling classes in 1768, there was unrest and rumours of sedition in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”… If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. But in the end widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept soldiers from mainly joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. Unloading and moving coal was dirty, backbreaking, and utterly vital for the city to function; wages were low and the trade was organised by magistrates linked to the powerful city merchants. A wage dispute in spring 1768 led to serious violence between strikers and scabs, with pitched battles, arson, murder and hangings. The strike spread to the sailors on ships in the London docks, and became even fiercer.

The disorder and atmosphere of general combination and collective action spread. At any one time throughout the year, but especially between April and July, there seem to have been a cross-hatching of diverse, if often overlapping, crowds, roaming the City, attempting to bargain with employers, impose of negotiate new wages or conditions, as well as bashing opponents of Wilkes. No doubt there was an element of opportunist looting, agro and turbulence mixed in as well. And why not?

Many of the numerous London trades got in on the action.

On the 9th May 1768, “a numerous body of watermen assembled before the mansion House, and laid their complaint before the lord mayor, who advised them, to appoint proper persons to draw up a petition to Parliament, which his lordship promised he would present; upon which they gave him three huzzas and went quietly home. The same night a mob of another kind assembled before the Mansion-house, carrying a gallows with a boot hanging to it, and a red cap; but on some of the ringleaders being secured by the peace-officers, the rest dispersed.” (Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1768)

The watermen were partly cabbies of the day, rowing people up and down the Thames, and across from London and Westminster to the south bank of the river. London’s lack of bridges and rolling marshy landscape to the south and east were perfect for access by boat and the Thames was the main thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. When there was just London Bridge spanning the Thames, their monopoly on people getting around on/over the water made them powerful. In the 16th century, the Watermen’s Company, was set up, with power to

to set tariffs and reduce accidents, and with jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor (in Berkshire) and Gravesend (in Kent). The Act allowed the London mayor and aldermen to yearly choose eight of the “best sort” of watermen to be company rulers, and to make and enforce regulations: this obviously created a hierarchy with links to the City powers.

Watermen now had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship in order to gain an encyclopaedic knowledge of the complex water currents and tides on the Thames. Watermen freeman were also ordered to pay quarterage – paid quarterly contributions. This was a constant source of grievance and dispute with company rulers who were frequently accused of taking bribes to “free” apprentice watermen.

As in many of the London guilds and companies, the watermen experienced an internal struggle between the company elite and the grassroots over working conditions, and representation, who controlled the trade and set the rules. This had forced the introduction of a form of indirect democracy in 1642, seeing the watermen at the 55 “leading towns and stairs” empowered to each year choose representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to become company rulers. This form of government survived, with vicissitudes, until a new Act of Parliament in 1827 restored an oligarchical rule within the company.

Through these struggles, in a kind of proto-trade union movement, Thames watermen developed tactics that both promoted the trade and encouraged collective organisation, notably the use of petitions or “petitions of grievances”. They won important concessions above and beyond the immediate trade: pointedly, in 1644, they were exempted from land service—the use of watermen in land armies—as a direct result of their pressure (the flip side of this was their tendency to be persuaded or forced into naval service, because of their skills on the water).

Their ability to get together and bargain collectively became legendary, and influenced the way they dealt with authority.

The 1768 protest should be seen in a context of a changing river and altering city. More bridges were gradually being built across the river; more non-company watermen were active, and this was all having an effect on the rate watermen were able to command. This was only to get worse in the following century, as more bridges were built, railways and road transport mushroomed, and steam power revolutionised water travel. The watermen’s hold over Thames trips was soon broken.

It is also worth noting that while famous for their collective defence of their trade in their own interests, the watermen also had a general reputation for patriotism… Not so dissimilar from the black cab drivers of our own era… ? Not sure which newspaper the 1760s watermen mostly read though.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history, 1649: executed mutineer Robert Lockyer’s funeral becomes a Leveller demonstation

“I am ready and willing to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.” (Robert Lockyer, 1649)

Robert Lockyer (also spelt Lockier) was born in London in about 1626. He received adult baptism in 1642, when he was 16, together with his mother, Mary, into a sect of the particular Baptists in Bishopsgate, then a suburb on London’s northeastern edge. This seems to have been where Robert grew up and had several relatives – it would also be the scene of the mutiny that would result in his execution.

Although this area had some ‘fair houses for merchant and artificers’, it had experienced a rapid building boom in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and along with Spitalfields and Shoreditch the Bishopsgate area had long also been associated with migrants, often denied entry to live or work in London, with various forms of criminal subcultures, and those looking to evade control or close scrutiny by the City authorities… Since 1500 the area’s population had increased, and refugees from the increasing enclosure of common lands, dislocation in the countryside, and the desperate seeking work, had swelled the streets around Bishopsgate. It’s unclear what Lockyer’s background was, whether his family had been resident for generations, or were relatively newly arrived… but the mix of classes, wealth and poverty side by side, the inevitable mix of ideas and resentments that arise in such ‘barrios’ may be relevant to his story.

His background in, or choice to enter, a separatist sect, the particular Baptists, is typical of many of the radicals of the English Civil War. The religious ferment, the spreading of ideas, creeds, the multiplying of branches of the protestant faith and offshoots from it, forms a vital backdrop to the English Revolution. It wasn’t just that freedom to worship as they chose, in small and self-directed congregations, without interference from the Anglican Church authorities with their secular backing from the king, was a huge demand that bubbled up for decades before the 1640s. Many of the sects were also developing radical critiques, both is purely religious terms, and when applied to the social order around them. This was harshly repressed for a century after the Reformation, but with the struggle between parliament and king out in the open, would erupt in a multi-shock volcano of ideas, proposals, and programs, and manifest in word, print and action. They saw themselves as the Saints, God’s own, though their views often diverged at to what God approved of and what kind of world He would want them to build, and as to what role the Saints themselves had in doing God’s will on Earth…

The Baptists in particular produced many political radicals in the English civil war period, as they had in the 16th century, when, known as ‘anabaptists, usually by their enemies, many had held extreme political views, and been involved in insurrections, revolutionary plotting and spreading of subversive social theories. But while the general suspicion of the Anglican church and state authorities, was that Baptists were basically dangerous extremists likely to do a ‘John of Leyden’ and introduce communism and bloodshed against the wealthy at the drop of a hat, many baptists were in reality quiet-living and law-abiding, so long as they could worship as they chose.

The range of ideas among the puritan and other sects was wide – many who sought independence from the established church for their own sect deplored tolerance for others (and catholics could basically whistle), but also feared and denounced the social rebelliousness that seemed to follow religious questioning. Many on the parliamentary side in the war were happy to enlist religious radicals to fight the king’s army, but had little intention of allowing this to imply the radicals had any right to either determine their own congregational path, or worse, start offering opinions on how wider society might be reshaped to the benefit of a wider swathe… A clarion call for freedom of conscience as a battle standard was a dangerous strategy, and it was to backfire on the cautious reformers and even many of the more devout leaders, as they saw subversive ideas spreading among the lower orders…

On the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Robert Lockyer joined the Parliamentary Army (Roundheads) and served as a private trooper. It is telling that he joined the regiment commanded by Colonel Edward Whalley, having first served in Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Ironsides’: this regiment was filled with hardcore puritans and sectaries, who saw the struggle against the king as doing God’s work, but also debated and discussed among themselves, around campfires and on the march, the kind of society the Godly should help create. And by the mid-1640s they were coming to radical conclusions. Richard Baxter, a leading puritan preacher and theologian, chaplain to Whalley’s regiment in 1645-46, observed this, to his horror: “Many honest men of weak judgments and little acquaintance with such matters… [were]… seduced into a disputing vein… sometimes for state democracy, sometimes for church democracy.” Baxter would spent much time denouncing this kind of uppityness among the common sort, who ought to listen to the learned and stop thinking they had the right to question or offer up opinions of their own.

Some regiments in the victorious New Model Army elected Agitators or agents, who, in alliance with the London Levellers, drew up the Agreement of the People, a program for a widening of the electorate and some measure of social justice. Its four main proposals were to dissolve the current Parliament (suspected of lukewarm sentiment for change and many of whose members had been intriguing with the defeated king Charles to work against the power of the army), radically redraw constituencies to better represent the country, more regular elections, freedom of religious conscience, and equality for all before the law. (To this was added, in later editions, the vote to be extended to all adult male householders, and the exclusion of catholics from freedom of conscience. There are limits, after all.)

It’s not known when Robert Lockyer became a Leveller sympathiser, or whether he was heavily involved in the New Model Army agitators campaign for democracy of 1647, though it is assumed he was involved, as Whalley’s regiment was at the heart of this ferment. It was later said of Lockyer, after his death, that he had supported the Leveller Agreement of the People, and had been present at the abortive mutiny at Ware in November 1647, which had broken out as the more radical elements in the army began to realise that the leadership were outmanoeuvring them and had no plans to implement anything like as ground-breaking a program as the Agreement. The mutiny had followed on from two weeks of argument among the army leadership and agitators at the Putney Debates. Here the Army leadership made it very clear that they very opposed the idea that more people should be allowed to vote in elections and that the Levellers posed a serious threat to the upper classes. As Oliver Cromwell said: “What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.”

Lockyer’s regiment was in fact stationed at Hampton Court, (guarding the imprisoned king, though Charles escaped on the 11th November), which was near enough for Lockyer to have ridden to Ware, (though he would have been AWOL at best, risking serious punishment if caught, up to the death sentence for desertion), if he was involved in the plans for a mutiny to impose the Agreement; but this may also be backward-myth making. We will never know. In any case the mutiny was quashed, as the majority of the troops present were persuaded to remain loyal to the Army Grandees, and Leveller/Agitator leaders Thomas Rainborough and John Lilburne realised that active support for a democratic army coup was weaker than they had thought. If Lockyer was present, it was not be the last mutiny he saw.

The Army leadership, represented most vocally by Oliver Cromwell, had ensured that the possibility of the army taking up arms against parliament on the basis of the Agreement could not happen, and in fact a Second Civil War followed as royalists rebelled in Kent and elsewhere. The threat in fact drove Grandees and radicals into temporary alliance against resurgent royalism and its sympathisers in a Parliament determined to put the army back in its place. But the rapprochement lasted only as long as the Second Civil War and the resulting purge of Parliament. When the king and his supporters were again beaten, Leveller demands for some quid pro quo for falling in behind Cromwell and co during this crisis, and rapidly led to the arrest of leading Leveller spokesmen.

This took place in early 1649. But the Grandees continued to pursue radicals in the army who attempted to push for the ideals set out in the Agreement of the People. In March 1649 eight soldiers from various regiments were court-martialled for petitioning the army’s nominal top brass General Fairfax to restore the more electoral structure the army agitators had briefly achieved two years before. The humiliating punishment five of them received – being paraded held up on a wooden pole, their swords broken, and then cashiered – made it clear that protest for democracy – in the army, or society in general – were not to be tolerated.

This formed the immediate background to the confrontation that cost Robert Lockyer his life. Future attempts by grassroots soldiers at independent action, on any issue, would be squashed.

A few weeks later, Captain Savage’s troop of Whalley’s Regiment, then quartered in the City of London, was ordered to quit these quarters and join the regimental rendezvous at Mile End, in preparation to march into Essex. On hearing this, 30 troopers seized the troop’s colours from the Four Swans Inn at Bishopsgate Street where it was stashed, and carried it to the nearby Bull Inn, a noted haunt of radicals at that time. Captain Savage demanded they bring out the colour, mount their horses and proceed to Mile End but they refused, fighting off his subsequent attempt to wrestle the flag off them. Lockyer told Savage that they were ‘not his colour carriers’ and that they had all fought under it, and for all that it symbolised (which could be interpreted in a number of ways, given the widespread debate about what the civil war had been for and how what many soldiers had felt were its aims had been closed down). Lockyer’s companions echoed his words, shouting ‘All, all!’

That a stance by just 30 men worried the army hierarchy can be seen in the quick reaction of Colonel Whalley and Generals Cromwell and Fairfax both hurried to the Bull. Whalley, arriving first with other regimental officers, and a large force of loyal troopers, negotiated with the 30 men. The ‘mutineers’ complained that they had not been paid enough to pay for the quarters they had been occupying in the city. This was a major grouse among civilians who housed soldiers in their homes – whether voluntarily, or in many cases, by force. The army was notoriously slow to cough up pay to its troops, sometimes arrears would run to months or even years, and the cost and inconvenience of quartering soldiers was a severe economic burden for householders. Seeing themselves as they did, as a kind of citizen army, the armed wing of righteous public opinion, some of the democratically-minded among the army were angry that they often could not pay their way, and this issue was a huge one at this time (not to mention the expenses mounted troopers like Lockyer’s company had for themselves – ie gear, horses, which often came to half their daily pay by themselves) . However, there is little doubt that both the 30 men and their superiors both saw this as the tip of a large iceberg, with all the repressed demands of the agitators and levellers looming threateningly below the surface. It was not what Lockyer and his comrades DID that required rapidly putting to an end – it was the potential for an insurrection that could spread to the city, and the wider army.

Although Whalley offered a sum of money to pay these arrears for quartering, the troopers pushed for stronger guarantees that he would offer, and Whalley lost patience, ordering Lockyer to mount, and when he refused, arresting him and fifteen of the other men. A crowd of civilians sympathetic to Lockyer and the rebels had gathered, but were scattered by men who obeyed Whalley’s order to disperse them. At this point Fairfax and Cromwell turned up, and ordered all fifteen to be taken to Whitehall to be court-martialled.

At the court-martial, one man was acquitted, three left to the discretion of the Colonel, five sentenced to ‘ride the wooden horse’ (the same punishment the five soldiers in March had suffered) – and six, including Lockyer, condemned to death. The six petitioned General Fairfax for mercy, promising to be obedient in future, and he pardoned five, but upheld the sentence on Lockyer. This was, Fairfax said, because at the court martial he had attempted to defend himself using the argument that their was no legal justification for the imposition of martial law (in reality, military control of the state) that the army grandees were operating under, in a time of peace – a clear challenge not just to daily gripes about pay but about policy and about whose interests the army were now representing. This defence enraged the court, and his death sentence was upheld not just to punish him, but to give an example to the alliance of army radicals and civilian activists that the Grandees feared was still active and brewing. A group of women supporters of the Levellers who had been visiting Parliament to petition for the release of the civilian Leveller leaders (ignoring the advice of MPs and Grandees to go home and mind their wifely duties and not meddle with the affairs of men!) had gathered outside the court-martial at Whitehall; they greeted the soldiers as they came out of the court, saying that there would be more such men as the accused in other places soon, and that Lockyer was a godly man and a Saint, who the authorities were going to murder.

The brief mutiny had aroused support among the discontented in London, and the possibility of a mutiny becoming an uprising had to be cut off. Whether Lockyer was in fact the ringleader of the protest or not, he was picked out to be a dreadful example for any potential rebels.

On April 27th, Robert Lockyer was marched to St Paul’s Churchyard by soldiers of Colonel Hewson’s regiment, to be shot. Speaking before execution, Lockyer is said to have announced

“I am ready and willin to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.”

He added that he was happy to die if his fellows could be spared, but was troubled that he had been condemned for something so small as a dispute over pay, after fighting for seven years ‘for the liberties of the nation’. Refusing a blindfold, he spoke directly to the soldiers assigned to shoot him, “fellow-soldiers… brought here by your officers to murder me.. I did not think you had such heathenish and barbarous principles in you as to obey your officers in [this]” Major Carter, commanding the firing squad, being visibly shaken by this, Colonel Okey, who had been on the bench at Lockyer’s court-martial, angrily accused him of attempting to incite the firing squad to mutiny, and seizing his coat belt and jacket, distributed them to the firing squad, who then announced themselves ready to obey their orders. The sentence was carried out.

Lockyer’s funeral, two days later on Sunday 29th April, took the form of a political demonstration, a reminder of the strength of the Leveller organisation in London. Lockyer’s coffin was carried in silent procession from Smithfield in the afternoon, slowly through the heart of the City, and then back to Moorfields for the internment in the New Churchyard (underneath modern Liverpool Street Station – recently excavations here for the Crossrail train line has disturbed the bones buried here, presumably including Lockyer, and his fellow civil war radical, John Lilburne). The coffin bore blood-stained rosemary and a naked sword (a threat aimed at the Grandees of the potential for armed rebellion?)

Led by six trumpeters, about 4000 people reportedly accompanied the corpse. Many wore ribbons – black for mourning and sea-green to show their allegiance to the Levellers whose colour this was. A company of women brought up the rear, testimony to the active female involvement in the Leveller movement. If the reports can be believed there were more mourners for Trooper Lockyer than there had been for the martyred Colonel Thomas Rainborough the previous autumn, or king Charles a few months before. As the Leveller newspaper, The Moderate said, a remarkable tribute to a person of ‘no higher quality that a private trooper’ (quality meaning ‘class position’ here).

But while Lockyer’s funeral procession showed the strength of the support for the Levellers and sympathy with army radicals, Lockyer’s execution in fact showed that the Grandees were firmly in control of most of the army, enough at least to put down discontent and isolate troublemakers. Radicals in Whalley’s regiment were scared into submission, many signing a declaration of loyalty in May, and they did not join the subsequent army mutiny at Burford at the end of May, whose (again rapid) defeat marked in reality the end of any threat of an concerted army rebellion in favour of democratic ideals or Leveller principles. Three soldiers were shot 24 hours after the Burford mutiny, after another drumhead court-martial.

Written protest from Leveller spokesmen John Lilburne and Richard Overton, and a petition from Leveller women activists, at Lockyer’s execution fell on deaf ears – the Grandees were secure in the saddle, and knew it. They no longer needed the support of the radicals against the king or the moderate parliamentarians, and knew they could cow much opposition by executions, and ignore objections that martial law was no longer legal. They had also perceptively realised that their preparation to use terror and force was not matched by a similar determination on the radical side – as Colonel Hewson observed: “we can hang twenty before they will hang one.”

As with the other ‘radical’ army mutinies of the late 1640s, the way that Lockyer and many of his fellow soldiers saw themselves – as representing both the righteous of the nation, but also doing God’s work – gave them the justification for asserting their voice against their commanders; many of their commanders shared their background among the Saints, and so they also felt that this argument would be understood, at least. But diverging views as to what the interests of the nation and God’s work consisted of had been opening up since the beginning of the civil war – based on class interests, as much as interpretations of scripture. The actions of Cromwell, in particular, enraged the godly radicals, as they had seen him as one of them, a betrayer of the ‘good old cause’: but his class background meant his practical cleaving to the defence of the ‘men of property’ was always likely.

In the end, the program of the New Model Army agitators and the Levellers was forward thinking, and garnered wide support, but at a time of weariness of war, divisions and violence, not enough backing to push through into actual social change. The army mutinies all failed because, whatever widespread sympathy radical views inspired, only a minority were prepared to defy orders, whether for immediate grievances, or for larger social aims. Many of the reforms that the Levellers fought for, and Robert Lockyer and his comrades argued over in the army in the later 1640s, were later won, and are now widely help up as our democratic rights. Whether Lockyers of today would accept that, or push forward for more radical interpretations, for a wider redistribution of the wealth, power and responsibility in society… we can only speculate.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history, 1870: a Land & labour League unemployed demonstration.

On 15th April 1870, a Land and Labour League unemployed demonstration took place in London. The winter of 1869-70 had seen a large rise in unemployment, and on Good Friday the League organised a demonstration of the jobless, which aroused considerable comment. League members wore “broad scarlet sashes…around the waist, in the exact pattern current among the sans culottes of the first French Revolution, and, in a further imitation of that class, poles were born aloft with the emblematical caps of liberty”. (The Times, 16 April 1870)

The Land and Labour League had been formed in October 1869, by a group of radical trade unionists affiliated to the International Working Men’s Association. The meetings had been proposed by the O’Brienite National Reform League and were attended by a variety of working class radicals, as evidenced by the somewhat eclectic programme. Its formation had been sparked by a discussion of the land question at the Basle Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the ‘First International’) earlier in the year.

The League advocated the full nationalisation of land, in the interests of the people that worked it; its membership was associated with many of the working class activists and trade unionists who formed the backbone of the political reform movements of the 1860s-70s, (it has been described as the successor to the Reform League) the secularists and the shortlived working class republican network in London.

Although originally concerned mainly with land nationalisation the League became the leading left republican organisation in Britain.

Patrick Hennessey, an Irish trade unionist, was the Land League’s President. The secretaries were Martin J. Boon (who had been strongly influenced by the group that grew up around the former Chartist socialist James Bronterre O’Brien, based at the Eclectic Hall in Soho) and John Weston, and the treasurer was Johann Eccarius, well known figure in the English section of the First International.

Boon’s involvement in the formation of the League is illustrated in the presence in the original principles of the L&LL many of the demands of the ‘O’Brienite’ wing of Chartism – nationalisation of the land; home colonization; equal electoral rights and payment of MPs, along with more more generally radical aims – free compulsory state education; abolition of standing army; state limitation of working hours. To this was added a plethora of concessions to the rising tide of currency reformism (single tax; nationalisation of the banks; abolition of national debt).

Members of the IMWA’s General Council were noticeably active in the League. These included JG Eccarius, then a disciple of Marx, George Odger, John Weston, Martin J Boon and Tom Mottershead. Marx was a member of the League, joining on 30 November 1869, but did not play a prominent part. Charles Bradlaugh, the secularist, was also a leading figure.

‘The Republican’ (1 September 1870 to 1 February 1872) was the de facto publication of the League. Daniel Chatterton, former Chartist, secularist speaker, fiery communist orator, later of ‘Chatterton’s Commune’ fame, was the proprietor.

The Land & League reached its organisational height due to wide spread public sympathy with the new French republic declared in 1870 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. At a League rally on the issue of the war and the French Republic in January 1871, “a dense sea of human faces…men- workers primarily and a few women ‘daughters of Labour’ – understanding the speeches and keen about them; and on the platform a small knot of men, the Irreconcilables of English policy”. The latter included Beesly, his friend Harrison, Bradlaugh, Odger and Applegarth. (Eastern Post, 14 January 1871).

Originally neutral, the League later helped organise an Anglo-French Intervention Committee to press for military action against the Prussians – at this meeting a motion for war if Alsace Lorraine was annexed was passed. This latter action and the outbreak of the Paris Commune brought dissensions. More moderate (Odger, Bradlaugh) and more radical (Weston, Boon) elements broke off. Competition from the middle class Land Tenure Association stole many of the surviving adherents. A rump of currency cranks lingered on until the end of the 1870s.

Despite effectively petering out by 1873 the League had some radicalising impact on the Land Tenure Reform Association established by John Stuart Mill, which adopted a policy of taxing the unearned increment on land value under pressure from the League.

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Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland

Drawn up: by JG Eccarius on about November 14, 1869;
Published: as a pamphlet Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 1869.

This address is in fact the programme of the Land and Labour League; drawn up by Eccarius who was on the commission preparing it, and edited by Marx, and this found expression in the League’s programme.

Fellow-Workers,

The fond hopes held out to the toiling and suffering millions of this country thirty years ago have not been realised. They were told that the removal of fiscal restrictions would make the lot of the labouring poor easy; if it could not render them happy and contented it would at least banish starvation for ever from their midst.

They rose a terrible commotion for the big loaf, the landlords became rampant, the money lords confounded, the factory lords rejoiced — their will was done — Protection received the coup de grâce. A period of the most marvellous prosperity followed. At first the Tories threatened to reverse the policy, but on mounting the ministerial benches, in 1852, instead of carrying out their threat, they joined the chorus in praise of unlimited competition. Prepared for a pecuniary loss they discovered to their utter astonishment that the rent-roll was swelling at the rate of more than £2,000,000 a year. Never in the history of the human race was there so much wealth — means to satisfy the wants of man — produced by so few hands, and in so short a time as since the abolition of the Corn Laws. During the lapse of twenty years the declared value of the animal exports of British and Irish produce and manufactures — the fruits of your own labour — rose from £60,000,000 to £188,900,000. In twenty years the taxable income of the lords and ladies of the British soil increased, upon their own confession, from £98,000,000 to £140,000,000 a year; that of the chiefs of trades and professions from £60,000,000 to 10,000,000 a year. Could human efforts accomplish more?

Alas! there are stepchildren in Britania’s family. No Chancellor of the Exchequer has yet divulged the secret how the £140,000,000 are distributed amongst the territorial magnates, but we know all about the trades-folk. The special favourites increased from sixteen, in 1846, to one hundred and thirty-three, in 1866. Their average annual income rose from £74,300 to £100,600 each. They appropriated one-fourth of the twenty years’ increase. The next of kin increased from three hundred and nineteen to nine hundred and fifty-nine Individuals: their average annual income rose from £17,700 to £19,300 each: they appropriated another fourth. The remaining half was distributed amongst three hundred and forty-six thousand and forty-eight respectables, whose annual income ranged between £100 and £10,000 sterling. The toiling millions, the producers of that wealth — Britania’s cinderellas — got cuffs and kicks instead of halfpence.

In the year 1864 the taxable income under schedule D increased by £9,200,000. Of that increase the metropolis, with less than an eighth of the population, absorbed £4,266,000, nearly a half, £3,123,000 of that, more than a third of the increase of Great Britain, was absorbed by the City of London, by the favourites of the one hundred and seventy-ninth part of the British population: Mile End and the Tower, with a working population four times as numerous, got £175,000. The citizens of London are smothered with gold; the householders of the Tower Hamlets are overwhelmed by poor-rates. The citizens, of course, object to centralisation of poor-rates purely on the principle of local self-government.

During the ten years ending 1861 the operatives employed in the cotton trade increased 12 per cent; their produce 103 per cent. The iron miners increased 6 per cent; the produce of the mines 37 per-cent. Twenty thousand iron miners worked for ten mine owners. During the same ten years the agricultural labourers of England and Wales diminished by eighty-eight thousand one hundred and forty-seven, and yet, during that period, several hundred thousand acres of common land were enclosed and transformed into private property to enlarge the estates of the nobility and the same process is still going on.

In twelve years the rental liable to be rated to the poor in England and Wales rose from £86,700,000 to £118,300,000: the number of adult able-bodied paupers increased from one hundred and forty-four thousand five hundred to one hundred and eighty-five thousand six hundred.

These are no fancy pictures, originating in the wild speculations of hot brained incorrigibles; they are the confessions of landlords and money lords, Recorded in their own blue books. One of their experts told the House of Lords the other day that the propertied classes, after faring sumptuously laid by £150,000,000 a year out of the produce of your labour. A few weeks later the president of the Royal College of Surgeons related to a jury assembled to inquire into the causes of eight untimely deaths, what lie saw in the foul ward of St. Pancras.

Hibernia’s favourites too have multiplied, and their income has risen, while a sixth of her toiling sons and daughters perished by famine, and its consequent diseases, and a third of the remainder were evicted, ejected and expatriated by tormenting felonious usurpers.

This period of unparalleled Industrial prosperity has landed thousands of our fellow-toilers — honest, unsophisticated, hardworking men and women — in the stone yard and the oakum room; the roast beef of their dreams has turned into skilly. Hundreds of thousands, men, women and children, are wandering about — homeless, degraded outcasts — in the land that gave them birth, crowding the cities and towns, and swarming the highroads in the, country in search of work to obtain food and shelter, without being able to find any. Other thousands, more spirited than honest, are walking the treadmill to expiate little thefts, preferring prison discipline to workhouse fare, while the wholesale swindlers are at large, and felonious landlords preside at quarter sessions to administer the laws. Thousands of the young and strong cross the seas, flying from their native firesides, like from an exterminating plague; the old and feeble perish on the roadside of hunger and cold. The hospitals and infirmaries are overcrowded with fever and famine-stricken: death from starvation has become an ordinary every-day occurrence.

All parties are agreed that the sufferings of the labouring poor were never more intense, and misery so widespread, nor the means of satisfying the wants of man ever so abundant as at present. This proves above all that the moral foundation of all civil government, “that the welfare of the entire community is the highest law, and ought to be the aim and end of all civil legislation”, has been utterly disregarded. Those who preside over the destinies of the nation have either wantonly neglected their primary duty while attending to the special interests of the rich to make them richer, or their social position, their education, their class prejudices have incapacitated them from doing their duty to the community at large or applying the proper remedies; in either case they have betrayed their trust.

Class government is only possible on the condition that those who are held in subjection are secured against positive want. The ruling classes have failed to secure the industrious wages-labourer in the prime of his life against hunger and death from starvation. Their remedies have signally failed, their promises have not been fulfilled. They promised retrenchment, they have enormously increased the public expenditure instead. They promised to lift the burden of taxation from your shoulders, the rich pay but a fractional part of the increased expenses; the rest is levied upon your necessaries — even your pawn tickets are taxed — to keep up a standing army drawn from your own ranks, to shoot you down if you show signs of disaffection. They promised to minimise pauperism: they have made indigence and destitution your average condition — the big loaf has dwindled into no loaf. Every remedy they have applied has but aggravated the evil, and they have no other to suggest, — their rule is doomed. To continue is to involve all in a common ruin. There is but one, — and only one, — remedy. Help Yourselves! Determine that you will not endure this abominable state of things any longer; act up to your determination, and it will vanish.

A few weeks ago a score of London working men talked the matter over. They came to the conclusion that the present economical basis of society was the foundation of all the existing evils, — that nothing short of a transformation of the existing social and political arrangements could avail, and that such a transformation could only be effected by the tolling millions themselves. They embodied their conclusions in a series of resolutions, and called a conference of representative working men, to whom they were submitted for consideration. In three consecutive meetings those resolutions were discussed and unanimously adopted. To carry them out a new working men’s organisation, under the title of the “Land and Labour League”, was established. An executive council of upwards of forty well-known representative working men was appointed to draw up a platform of principles arising out of the preliminary resolutions adopted by the conference, to serve as the programme of agitation by means of which a radical change call be effected.

After mature consideration the Council agreed to the following:

  1. Nationalisation of the Land.
  2. Home Colonisation.
  3. National, Secular, Gratuitous and Compulsory Education.
  4. Suppression of Private Banks of Issue. The State Only to Issue Paper Money
  5. A Direct and Progressive Property Tax, in Lieu of All Other Taxes.
  6. Liquidation of the National Debt.
  7. Liquidation of the Standing Army.
  8. Reduction of the Number of the Hours of Labour.
  9. Equal Electoral Rights, with Payment of Members.

The success of our efforts will depend upon the pressure that can be brought to bear upon the powers that be, and this requires numbers, union organisation and combination. We therefore call upon you to unite, organise and combine and raise the cry throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, “The Land for the People” — the rightful inheritors of nature’s gifts. No rational state of society can leave the land, which is the source of life, under the control of, and subject to the whims and caprices of, a few private individuals. A government elected by, and as trustee for, the whole people is the only power that can manage it for the benefit of the entire community.

Insist upon the State reclaiming the unoccupied lands as a beginning of its nationalisation, and placing the unemployed upon it. Let not another acre of common land be enclosed for the private purposes of non-producers. Compel the Government to employ the army until its final dissolution, as a pioneer force to weed, drain and level the wastes for cultivation, instead of forming encampments to prepare for the destruction of life. If green fields and kitchen gardens are incompatible with the noble sport of hunting let the hunters emigrate.

Make the Nine points of the League the Labour programme the touchstone by which you test the quality of candidates for parliamentary honours, and if you find them spurious reject them like a counterfeit coin, for he who is not for them is against you.

You are swindled out of the fruits of your toil by land laws, money laws, and all sorts of laws. Out of the paltry pittance that is left you, you have to pay the interest of a debt that was incurred to keep you in subjection. You have to maintain a standing army that serves no other purpose in your generation, and you are systematically overworked when employed, and underfed at all times. Nothing but a series of such reforms as indicated on our programme will ever lift soil out of the slough of despond in which you are at present sunk. The difficulty can be overcome by unity of purpose and action. We are our opponents are few. Then, working men and women of all creeds and occupations, claim your rights as with one voice, and rally round, and unite your forces under, the banner of the “Land and Labour League” to conquer your own emancipation!

John Weston, Treasurer
Martin J. Boon, J. George Eccarius Secretaries

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Thanks to Keith Scholey for some of this post… Readers interest in the secularist, republican scene in London between the 1850s and 1880s, especially the followers of Bronterre O’Brien, could do worse than read Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London, by Stan Shipley. EP Thompson’s biog of William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary, and The Slow Burning Fuse, by John Quail, pick up the threads of this, describing how many of these elements went on to form the early English socialist and anarchist movements.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in radical history, 1848: the last great Chartist rally on Kennington Common.

Sometimes called “the first great British working class political movement”, the Chartist movement, which spanned the late 1830s to the early 1850s, was in many ways the culmination of a diverse collection of radical and reform movements that had been developing in Britain for the past 70 years. Pressure for political reform, a wider franchise, and a greater say in how society was run for the ‘lower orders’ (almost everyone except the aristocracy and the high bourgeoisie) that had been slowly gathering pace since the early 1760s. This movement had been re-galvanised by the ideas of the first French Revolution of 1789, and spiced with the coagulation of resistance to rapid and traumatic economic change and the imposition of capitalism, by the people most impacted, the industrial working classes – still wet behind the ears from recognising its own existence.

The movement combined the traditions of political liberty with the struggle for economic power in a bewilderingly altering society, adding in a powerful influence from the scene of blasphemous writers, seditious preachers and agitational journalists that had articulated rebellion against religious and social restrictions and raged against enclosure, the dispossession of people from the land, and in some cases, slavery… The movement that had built the mass opposition to the stamp tax on newspapers…

Chartism inherited and amplified the demands and the language of these traditions, but was also heir to the deep divisions over tactics, methods and – ultimately – the true goal. Like groups as far-ranging as the London Corresponding Society and the National Union of the Working Classes before them, the movement argued about whether ‘moral’ (campaigning) pressure could win the vote for working men, or whether the aristocracy and the increasingly dominant capitalists would ever allow this. Could middle class and working class reformers really work together, given the obviously divergent interests? Was representation in parliament enough, or was total working class power needed to ensure their aims? And if radical means were required, how was it to be done – underground plots, mass strikes, grasping control of the land en masse?

These questions had been fought over within and around Chartism since its birth, and had already produced one abortive general strike, and a wave of desperate plans for uprisings of which only one had really got going (in Newport in 1839). The defeats of 1839-40 did help send the movement into something of a decline nationally, but it this masks a different reality locally – the ideas of the movement were spreading into the daily life of millions of people, adding to and enriching a working class political and social culture, in self-education, history lessons, songs, alternative ceremonies and the creation of meeting places and social spaces. We don’t have space to go into this here, but in many ways the historical concentration on the big petitions, the monster rallies, the secret plots, highlights the less significant aspects, at the expense of how Chartism helped change a way of thinking in millions of people… (Something this blog with its concentration on ‘events’ and anniversaries also tends to fall into, we admit…) However, the big events served as a focus for the grassroots level, a coming together, building from the bottom up, so the two are not really separate.

“Not a small active party with a large passive membership but a movement which deeply affected every aspect of people’s lives. It was an inclusive organisation with popular leaders who were Catholics, Protestants and Freethinkers. West Indian and Asian people were prominent and in fact the organiser of 10th April was William Cuffay, a black Londoner, who was subsequently deported for his efforts. The Irish, in the midst of the great potato famine at home had good reason to take part and did. There were also women’s groups in spite of the charter only demanding male suffrage. Chartist meetings sometimes had a carnival like atmosphere, and at other times were preceded by hymn singing and processions. There was a Chartist culture which had its own christenings and funerals and its own songs. It was a counter-cultural experience that changed people’s perception of themselves… through this process they became conscious of a profound and unifying new urban class identity.

The main political strategies of Chartism became the petition and the monster rally. The petition also grew to be a monster and assumed the status of an unofficial referendum. The great rallies were a show of strength which also gave the participants a direct sense of community.

… it was such a collective network of groups that it is difficult to reduce to conventional narrative history, partly because the fieldwork is still being done and partly due to the class bias of historians and their publishers who have done their best to undermine its importance.” (Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy, Stefan Szczelkun)

In April 1848 the Chartists’ national profile had been in eclipse for some years, but was visibly reviving. The third great Chartist petition codifying the 6 demands of the People’s Charter was gathering pace. The revived Chartist movement was growing stronger: a many thousand strong Third Petition to Parliament.

The petition for The Charter had grown huge, by then it had between three and six million signatures depending on which side you choose to believe. A carriage, bedecked with garlands, was needed to transport it. Parliament was to be presented with this petition, for the third time, after a monster rally on Kennington Common on the 10th April 1848.

The Chartist Convention, meeting in Fitzrovia, had seen some intense debate between those advocating moral force and those believing armed uprisings might be necessary, especially as an attack by police or the army was anticipated.

This moment in the struggle for democracy was recorded in a historic photograph. William Kilburn, an early portrait photographer, took two daguerrotype plates of the Kennington Common rally from a vantage point in The Horns, (the famous pub on the edge of the Common, long a venue for radical debate itself) – the oldest surviving photo of a crowd.

But mirrored to the enthusiasm from a mass of working people, for the upper and respectable middle classes, the increasing agitation induced probably the greatest fear of the lower classes since the Gordon Riots. Revolutions and uprisings which were breaking out all across Europe gave the usual violent rhetoric from some of the Chartist leaders a slightly more threatening edge, to the ears of the authorities and the middle classes, and the government made elaborate preparations to resist any attempted insurrection. Thousands of troops and police were moved into London, and hundreds of middle class volunteers and special constables were signed up (reminiscent of the Volunteers of the French Revolutionary wars, and foreshadowing the specials of the General Strike eighty years later).

“In the morning (a very fine day) everybody was on the alert; the parks were closed; our office was fortified, a barricade of Council Registers was erected in the accessible room on the ground-floor, and all our guns were taken down to be used in defence of the building.” (Charles Greville, Diary)

Bundles of old copies of the Times were also used to barricade buildings on the river adjacent to the bridges, in case of armed attack by insurgents.

The royal family were even moved out of the capital. The bridges and important and strategic buildings were barricaded:

“The bridges were the chief points of defence, of which Blackfriars-bridge appeared to be a sort of centre, as it had the strongest force..” “About 300 gentlemen of the Stock Exchange were sworn in special constables, 100 of whom attended under their respective leaders in the Royal Exchange, from whence they were marched to Blackfriars-bridge…”

“The proceedings in its neighbourhood were nearly as follows:- By ten o’clock a considerable crowd had collected in Farringdon-street and New Bridge-street, and at the point where Fleet-street and Ludgate-hill join this line of street. The stable-yard of the Rose Inn, in Farringdon-street, had previously been occupied by a body of cavalry. Special constables were also mustered in great force by the authorities of the ward, but kept out of sight. Soon after ten the crowd assumed a “processional” shape, and by half-past ten began to pass over the bridge. Men who had been talking together in groups joined arm-in-arm, and the march commenced. From half-past ten till half-past eleven one continuous stream of people crossed the bridge – the pavement on the east side being occupied by the more systematic procession, and the roadway being thronged by a closely-packed body. At the latter hour vans, decorated with flags, and containing some of the leaders of the “demonstration,” made their appearance, and passed on without any appearance of confusion. With the exception of a few closed shops, there were, in this locality, no signs of alarm, and no symptoms of disorder.”  (Illustrated London News)

The Chartists’ national leadership was divided as to how to proceed. Some were for all out pressing ahead while the movement was on the up; others were scared by the clear willingness of the government to arm itself. On the one hand this was recognition that where force was concerned the stare had the upper hand; but the more radical elements also accused some of the more vocal mouthpieces of the movement of being happy to shout and bluster but not being really up for real confrontation. The fiery orator Feargus O’Connor, always more mouth than trousers, came in for much criticism. The Chartist Convention, meeting in London, was riven with argument.

William Cuffay, the black tailor delegated from the London Chartists to represent them at the Convention, was notable in calling for radical action and denouncing the vacillators. Cuffay’s actions around this time illuminate some of the division, suspicions and rows the Chartist leadership was falling prone to.

For Cuffay, as for so many other working people in western Europe, 1848 was ‘the year of decision’. He was one of the three London delegates to the Chartists’ national Convention that met in April. From the start of the proceedings he made his left-wing position plain. Derby had sent as delegate a sensational journalist and novelist called George Reynolds (he gave his name to the radical magazine that eventually became Reynolds News) and Cuffay challenged the middle-class newcomer, demanding to know if he really was a Chartist. Cuffay also at first opposed the granting of credentials to Charles MacCarthy of the Irish Democratic Federation, but the dispute was settled, and MacCarthy admitted, by a sub-committee of which Cuffay was a member. The convention’s main task was to prepare a mass meeting on Kennington Common and a procession that was to accompany the Chartist petition, bearing almost two million signatures, to the Commons. When Reynolds, moved an amendment declaring ‘That in the event of the rejection of the Petition, the Convention should declare its sitting permanent, and should declare the Charter the law of the land’, Cuffay said he was opposed to a body declaring itself permanent that represented only a fraction of the people: he was elected by only 2,000 out of the two million inhabitants of London, He moved that the convention should confine itself to presenting the petition, and that a national assembly be called – “then come what might, it should declare its sittings permanent and go on, come weal or come woe.” At length the idea of a national assembly was accepted. In a later debate Cuffay told his fellow delegates that “the men of London were up to the mark, and were eager for the fray”. 

When a moderate speech was made, Cuffay burst out: “This clapping of hands is all very fine, but will you fight for it?” There were cries of ‘Yes, yes’ and cheers. Appointed chairman of the committee for managing the procession, Cuffay was responsible for making sure that “everything… necessary for conducting an immense procession with order and regularity had been adopted”, and suggested that stewards wear tricolour sashes and rosettes. Things had now come to a crisis, he said, and they must he prepared to act with coolness and determination. It was clear that the executive had shrunk from their responsibility. They did not show the spirit they ought. He no longer had any confidence in them, and he hoped the convention would be prepared to take the responsibility out of their hands and lead the people themselves. At the final meeting, on the morning of the demonstration, Cuffay opposed endless debate.

“The time is now come for work,” he insisted. An observer recorded that, as the convention broke up and delegates took their places on the vehicles, carrying the petition, Cuffay ‘appeared perfectly happy and elated’ for the first time since the proceedings opened.

In contrast, Feargus O’Connor, facing the reality of the forces arrayed against the march, was getting cold feet:

“Presently Mr. Mayne [Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) appeared on the ground, and sent one of his inspectors to say he wanted to speak to Feargus O’Connor. Feargus thought he was going to be arrested and was in a terrible fright; but he went to Mayne ‘ who merely said he was desired to inform him that the meeting would not be interfered with, but the procession would not be allowed. Feargus insisted on shaking hands with Mayne, swore he was his best of friends, and instantly harangued his rabble, advising them not to provoke a collision, and to go away quietly-advice they instantly obeyed, and with great alacrity and good-humour. Thus all evaporated in smoke. Feargus himself then repaired to the Home Office, saw Sir George Grey, and told him it was all over, and thanked the Government for their leniency, assuring him the Convention would not have been so lenient if they had got the upper hand. Grey asked him if he was going back to the meeting. He said No; that he had had his toes trodden on till he was lame, and his pocket picked, and he would have no more to do with it.”

O’Connor and other leaders abandoned their attempt to process to Westminster to hand in the petition.

When the crowd at Kennington Common heard this, many of them were very angry. There were shouts that the petition should have been carried forward until actively opposed by the troops then withdrawn altogether on the ground that such opposition was unlawful. One of the protesters was Cuffay, who spoke in strong language against the dispersal of the meeting, and contended that it would be time enough to evince their fear of the military when they met them face to face! He believed the whole Convention were a set of cowardly humbugs, and he would have nothing more to do with them, He then left the van, and got among the crowd, where he said that O’Connor must have known all this before, and that he ought to have informed them of it, so that they might have conveyed the petition at once to the House of Commons, without crossing the bridges. They had been completely caught in a trap.

However thousands of demonstrators did attempt to march across the river, and were blocked off at the bridges, leading to clashes with police. Blackfriars Bridge saw the most vicious fighting –

“After the meeting on Kennington-common had dispersed, an immense crowd on their return straggled irregularly along Blackfriars-road. Upon arriving at Stamford-street, they of course came face to face with the mounted police, who refused them passage, and ranged themselves across the road. Together with these were the police and special constables. Many strenuous attempts were made by the Chartists to get across the bridge. As fresh numbers arrived from Kennington-common, those in advance were pushed forward, but were immediately driven back by the horse-patrol without drawing their sabres. The metropolitan police made use of their staves, and, from time to time, repulsed the crowd, which grew thicker and thicker every minute. In about an hour and a half, however, the mob, which, by this time, reached as far down as Rowland Hill’s Chapel, made many vigorous attempts to force their way through; and, notwithstanding the cool steady courage of the police, the latter were, at intervals, separated. The special constables at these times were very roughly handled, a great many of them having their hats broken and being deprived of their staves. Showers of large stones were every few minutes thrown on the bridge, and the police received many severe blows, but gave more than equivalent in return with their batons. A great number of men who were seized by the police for throwing stones were rescued, and the yells and shouts were deafening. At half-past three o’clock the pressure of the concourse was so great that the line of police was forced, and a great many of them carried with the throng over the bridge, holding their staves up as they were borne along. On the City side of the bridge a great many arrests were made, and the mob, which seemed inclined for a minute to make a stand, were uniformly repulsed by the horse patrol, the sight of whose drawn sabres, wielded over the heads of the mob, soon put the more noisy and impudent to flight. Both on that and the other side of the bridge there were numbers of men with their heads bleeding, who were led away by their friends.” (Illustrated London News)

Preventing the demonstrators from reaching parliament defused some of the ‘pre-revolutionary tension’ the ruling class was suffering from… Although there was localised fighting around different working class areas of London and wider afield all summer, usually after Chartist rallies were attacked by emboldened police, given their head to disperse any challenge.

This forced the still determined radical elements of the movement back into the old pattern of insurrectionary plotting for an armed seizure of power, which while it did have some support, was by necessity more fractured and hard to pull off.

Small numbers of physical force Chartists met throughout the summer of 1848, planning a revolt, but their organisation was heavily penetrated by police spies, one of whom was actually a member of the seven-strong ‘Ulterior Committee’ that was planning an uprising in London. William Cuffay was one of those on the Committee. But the plans were not to bear fruit.

On 16 August 1848, 11 ‘luminaries’, allegedly plotting to fire certain buildings as a signal for the rising, were arrested at a Bloomsbury tavern, the Orange Tree, near Red Lion Square. Cuffay was arrested later at his lodgings. At the Orange Tree, a regular Chartist meeting point, a meeting was raided; cops found “a number of loaded pistols, pikes, daggers, spearheads, and swords, and some of the prisoners wore iron breast plates, while others had gun powder, shot and tow-balls.” Cuffay, Fay, W. Dowling, W. Lacey, William Ritchie were convicted of ‘levying war on the Queen’, and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life; 15 others were jailed for 18 months to 2 years.

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1848 represented Chartism’s last big push; although the movement survived several years longer it increasingly split and fell into factions, which withered in a more prosperous economic climate in the 1850s.

But it had sown many seeds in the among working people, which were to continue to influence future movements. Many Chartist activists continued to fight for social change for decades, taking part in the more obviously ‘successful’ reform movements in 1866-7, which did win an extension of the franchise, in the secularist and republican agitations, in trade unions and the co-operative movements, and can be seen in the early british socialist and anarchist groupings. Chartism should certainly by seen as partly a product and itself an influence on a didactic working class culture that evolved, often through local clubs and discussions/debates, and which was to continue changing and producing bursts of political energy into the 20th century.

It’s difficult to analyse the events of 10th April, especially if you view it through the prism of ‘revolutionary moment missed’ as it is tempting to do. Was it really an opportunity for radical upheaval? In many ways the chance to overthrow the state in one great push was an outdated ideal, especially in Britain. Across Europe, where more autocratic regimes had not yet experienced anything like the UK’s experience of industrialisation and the bourgeoisie forcing the aristos to share power with them, the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 etc were always more widely supported by the middle class, eager to get their share of influence. Here, the traditions of the 1689 ‘glorious’ settlement, social change in the 18th century, and the 1832 reform act had already broadened the spread of power to the newer wealthy capitalist classes. Chartism was in reality never going to win cross-class support (leaving aside the many working people who loyally stood by their ‘betters’ or who religion persuaded to abide in their ‘place’). Can insurrections by themselves, without a base in a mass agitation already prepared to take power, succeed? Chartism had a mass base but the preparedness to build any kind of dual power was not there. In many ways the earlier Plug Riots of 1842 had been more threatening, although too localised; and there too the authorities had been able to repress and arrest many activists. Possibly it was not a ‘revolutionary moment missed’ because revolution would have needed to be more organic, growing from below towards the centre, only succeeding because it was already inevitable by the time of a mass confrontation like April l0th. It’s worth reflecting on the Chartist idea of a ‘sacred month’ or general strike, compared to Rosa Luxemburg’s later conception of how such a movement might win working class power.)

But perhaps looking at April 10th this way is to take too narrow a view of events. As Stefan Szczelkun has observed:

“The fact that the events of the 10th April 1848 did not herald a British Revolution or immediate voting reforms has been held up by official historians as the ‘failure’ of Chartism. But the success of Chartism should not be measured in such terms but rather in the effects it had on the consciousness of the millions who took part. This is something historians have found difficult to register. There was a real democratic culture and powerful desire for social justice behind The Charter which remains unrealised to this day.”

Check out a really good site on Chartist history

And a local group working to commemorate April 1848 and the Chartists

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Today in London’s festive history, 1832: National Union of the Working Classes mock government-sponsored day of fasting and prayer

Cholera first arrived in England at a time of significant political change that affected the way it was understood by various groups within Britain.  The poor, the ill-defined middle-classes (comprising diverse groups of people from small business owners and clerks to owners of large factories and many professionals like lawyers and doctors), and the traditional land-owning elite were all in the process of redefining their access to political power through the gradual extension of the right to vote.  The cholera epidemics, poorly understood by medical experts of the time, were understood by these groups in different ways as government and the medical profession experimented with responses.  Cholera provides a useful lens to see how an externally generated stressor like an epidemic intersects with other cultural and historical forces, giving insight not only into medical but also political and cultural history.

Between 1832 and 1866, four cholera epidemics struck Great Britain, as part of pandemic outbreaks that affected the entire globe. In 1817, before the first British epidemic, there had been a smaller epidemic that spread in Europe but did not cross the channel. The 1832 epidemic was the first one to enter Britain—and also spread to the Americas and Australia—and wreaked panic as well as high death rates where it struck.  The 1848 second epidemic was global and caused high death rates in Britain.  By the mid-1850s, Britain was more ready when cholera again entered the islands but still suffered considerable mortality.  The last and least, but still murderous, British epidemic was in 1866.  After that, in the 1870s and 90s, cholera did sweep across the European continent again but did not cross the channel in epidemic force.” (Pamela K. Gilbert, “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England”)

In the spring of 1832, London was experiencing a serious outbreak of cholera, the waterborne disease that at that time killed 1000s. The second great cholera pandemic of 1827-35 was raging across Europe.

“In the 1830s, the disease was still unfamiliar in most of the world beyond parts of the Indian subcontinent.  Terrified patients had never seen such symptoms before, and doctors were helpless to do anything but try remedies that they thought had worked for other diseases.  These remedies, from the relatively merciful giving of opiates to more aggressive approaches such as bleeding or burning the skin, were largely worthless, as were most theories of how the disease was transmitted (including, but not limited to, bad weather, foul smells, electro-magnetism and divine vengeance). We now believe cholera to be a waterborne disease caused by a comma-shaped bacillus called vibrio cholerae, which is transmitted between humans via the fecal-oral route. It usually enters the body through contaminated water or food and then multiplies in the intestines.  Although easily treatable today in developed areas with abundant clean water and medical care, cholera remains an important epidemic disease in parts of Africa, India, and Latin America and it has recently taken thousands of lives in Haiti. Untreated, it can kill within a few days through rapid dehydration, caused by copious, uncontrollable diarrhoea.  As the disease progressed, the diarrhoea becomes a clear, straw colored fluid, described in the period as resembling “rice water.”  It is hard to see and can quickly soak bedding and floor coverings.  As people in the 1830s did not understand what caused the disease nor, indeed, know about germs (which were not understood until much later in the late-nineteenth century), caregivers did not even know to wash their hands after tending the sick.  In an era without running water in most homes, and with many people living in small spaces, it was easy for contamination to spread.  And in industrial early nineteenth-century cities with rapidly growing populations and no sewer systems, most people disposed of their waste in cesspits or in the streets. From there, it eventually ended up in rivers that provided drinking water, spreading it far beyond its origin.  Because dehydration was so rapid, apparently healthy people became weak very quickly.  Their appearance was frightening: skin shrivelled, eye sockets collapsed, and complexion blue from oxygen deficiency.  Patients first screamed and thrashed as their muscles spasmed, then lay exhausted and unresponsive, and soon died—sometimes within the first 24 hours.  Mortality for cases who reached the stage of weakness and “collapse” was around fifty percent.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)
Scientific investigation into the causes of cholera was still in its infancy; it would be another 17 years before John Snow suggested that cholera had a microbial origin, and that drinking contaminated water caused the spread of the disease.

But in 1832, the church of England and the government had a solution. “Seeking to conciliate knaves and fanatics on the one hand as well as to feed the gullibility of the ignorant on the other”, they solemnly called for a mass fast, a day of refraining from eating, to show God (from whom all plagues come) that the population were worthy of being spared. They set 21st of March for the National day of prayer and fasting, as  “the disease … was proof of the judgement of God among us”.

The Fast was announced in Parliament after the Strangers’ Gallery had been cleared; a speech deplored the sins and state of the nation, the ‘houses of the nobles and gentry entered and robbed’.

“When cholera was first discussed by the British public, as it marched across the continent in 1831 and 32, Britons were already preoccupied with a big political topic: Parliamentary and voting Reform.  Reform had been a perennial focus over the last several years, but in the form that finally became law it had been hotly debated from June 1830, when dissolute King George IV died.  After long discussion, it was passed in Commons and then defeated in the House of Lords in 1831. Rioting ensued, and a revised Bill was brought forward subsequently that year.  Through the spring of 1832, the Lords dithered and the mood of the country grew increasingly tense.  When it finally passed, on 7 June 1832, it gave more representation to large cities that had gained population as a result of the Industrial Revolution and eliminated representation for areas where the population had diminished to the point that a Member of Parliament was often elected by only a handful of landowners.  Most importantly, although it didn’t increase the size of the electorate that much—it is estimated to have raised it from about 400,000 to 650,000, allowing one out of six adult males to vote—it began to redistribute some power from landowners to the mercantile and manufacturing class, as it allowed those who did not own, but merely rented valuable property (as was common in towns, for example), to vote.  The full title of the Reform Bill was An Act to amend the representation of the people in England and Wales. (Separate reform bills were passed in the same year for Scotland and Ireland).

As authorities argued over cholera’s causes, treatment, and prevention, various publics formed their own opinions of what was going on.  Middle-class and working people who hoped that Reform would bring them representation in Parliament suspected that the talk of cholera was being used to distract the populace from Reform in the interests of the elite retaining control of political power.  Many people were not sure the cholera was even real; perhaps it was a bugbear invented to let the powerful take control of the poor’s few belongings, or even their bodies. After all, scandal was rife about medical schools paying grave robbers for bodies to use for dissection.  In Scotland, William Burke and William Hare had been convicted in Edinburgh in 1829, not only of grave robbing to sell to anatomists, but of providing themselves with merchandise through several actual murders in 1827 and 1828.  Outrage against graverobbing spurred Parliament to deliberate on a “Dead Body Bill” or Anatomy Act, passed in 1832 (See Richardson).  The Act, which provided that bodies of paupers not claimed within 48 hours by family members able to pay for interment would be available for dissection, was designed to prevent grave robbing by providing a steady source of bodies, but it also had the effect of making the poor particularly vulnerable to the seizure of their bodies after death.  People diagnosed with cholera were often forcibly removed in the name of public safety to specially designated “cholera hospitals,” where, of course, many died, outraging the feelings of families and fueling suspicions that they were actually being killed. In response, many families hid their sick from inspectors or resisted their removal.  In the minutes of a meeting of the St. Olave’s District Board of Works, it is recorded that, “The bodies of those who have died have been removed as speedily as possible, but in the case of the young woman who died in Vine Street, about 200 and [sic] 300 persons collected to prevent the removal of the body.  It was, therefore, not persisted in” (“St. Olave’s District Board of Works” 4).  Although violence against doctors and government officials was not as prevalent as it was on the continent, there was still some rioting and vandalism of cholera hospitals.  Meanwhile, property owners compelled to spend money to clean up “nuisances” or merchants whose businesses were hurt by cholera panic were also suspicious of the motives of government.

So the first epidemic was immediately understood in a context of class struggle.  The clergy was the traditional source of local authority at times like these, but the Church of England was also under considerable stress from a religious reform movement, which had in the late 1820s sought to grant other Protestant denominations and even Catholics more political representation (historically, Catholics, for example, could not be Members of Parliament, whereas Bishops of the Church of England sat ex officio in the House of Lords). These religious disputes had a class component: although not always true, in general, Church of England members tended to be wealthier, upper class, and from Southern England, where power was historically seated.  Lower middle-class industrial and manufacturing districts to the North and West tended to include more dissenters, and Catholicism was associated with the Irish, both those in Ireland and the many poor Irish in England.  So, the same class hostility that was linked to political Reform was closely connected to religious conflict, and this undermined the authority of the established Church to speak for the larger community in this crisis.  When the Church of England, backed by Parliament, declared a day of fasting and prayer to ward off the cholera, which they attributed to divine punishment, labor organizations satirically declared a feast day for their readers, arguing that the poor had already fasted enough. Meanwhile, political Reformers observed, sometimes mockingly and sometimes in earnest, that if God was angry, it was probably because Reform was being stalled.  Radical press and labor organizations emphasized the absurdity of the solutions proposed by the upper classes for an audience in very different circumstances.  Henry Hetherington of The Poor Man’s Guardian—who himself died of cholera in 1849 (Durey 195)—ridiculed the notion of the general fast-day through several issues, beginning on 11 Feb. 1832: “a general fast is all very fair; for God knows that as yet the fasting has been partial enough . . . . if not merely fasting but if the most abject want be any propitiation for the evil, never would CHOLERA MORBUS have made its appearance among us!” (Hetherington 1).

Such gestures dramatised the opposing physical circumstances in which rich and poor lived.  Ballads that were printed on single sheets, and given away or sold for pennies on the street, promoted the views of Reformers: one example warns: “They tell such tales our hearts to fear/ Of Cholera raging here and there,/ But bread, pudding, and good cheer,/Will drive the Cholera Morbus . . . //But Reformers will not be deceived,/ For by them it is all agreed/ That one and all we shall be freed,/ In spite of the Cholera Morbus” (“A New Song”).  Meanwhile, by both the poor and merchants, the doctors and clergy might be seen as allies of the elite.  In one small town, for example, notices saying “No cholera at Ely/ The Parsons Liars/And Doctors Pickpockets” were pasted over cholera warning handbills distributed by the Board of Health (Holmes 32-33).  Thus, the middle-classes were often agnostic or actively skeptical on the issue of cholera’s threat and were inclined to be more concerned with gaining political representation and avoiding disruptions to trade.

Although most popular responses to the cholera were political and religious, public policy focused on two initial responses: quarantine to keep the cholera out of Britain and, subsequently, cleaning up “nuisances”: that is, things that were perceived as smelly and dirty.  Since disease was largely believed to be caused by atmospheric problems, and by bad smells, cleaning up open cesspits, garbage piles and so forth was thought to be a way to avoid the spread of disease.  This was viewed as more of an engineering problem (how do you get rid of this stuff?) and a legal problem (how do you make property owners clean up their property?) than a medical problem, per se.  After all, one didn’t need a trained professional to tell if something smelled bad.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)

The organised working class of London, many of who knew what it was like to refrain from eating (for economic reasons), felt that ‘causes that matured and extended the disease were greatly within the power of the government to remove’. The Poor Man’s Guardian replied ‘No, no; to tell the poor to fast would indeed be superfluous’, as they were lucky to eat meat once a week, let alone be able to forgo it’; they labelled the fast day a ‘farce’ day.

No sooner did the members of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) “hear of this farce, than they were actively engaged in asertaining [sic] how they could best show their contempt for this knavery or hypocrisy. They first thought of a public meeting on the occasion, but after consulting several eminent lawyers on the subject, they found that no exhibition of numbers could so effectually evade the laws, as by their walking peacibly through the streets of this Metropolis. They therefore resolved that a procession of the union should be held on this occasion after which they should adjourn to their classes or places of meeting and that the most able to afford it should help their poorer bretheren [sic] to feast and not fast on that day.” (See P. M. Guardian March 24 1832.)

Over 100,000 people were said to have joined the NUWC procession, from Finsbury Square, up Fleet Street and Chancery Lane, (the police barred the way up the Strand), to Holborn and Tottenham Court Road, where according to William Lovett “the police, coming down Howland Street, threw themselves across our procession.”

In a sly act of political theatre, the NUWC organised a number of feasts across the city, and the demonstration broke into parties that determinedly ate drank and feasted, to express their contempt of the government’s attempt to “father their own iniquitous neglect upon the Almighty”.

The same day, a crowd reported to be about 500 threatened to demolish the Bethnal Green Workhouse, but desisted, although only 25 police were present.
Soon after the procession, NUWC leaders, William Benbow, William Lovett and James Watson were arrested as the leaders of the procession and being bailed out, their trial took place at the sessions house Clerkenwell Green on Wednesday the 16th of May 1832.

Read some interesting accounts of the 1832 cholera epidemic as it hit in East London

Today in London suffrage history, 1907: the Women’s Parliament ends in scuffles at Parliament.

Topical, topical… In all the self-congratulation of politicians around the 100 years since (some) women got the vote, there is a lot of deliberate ignoring of the hard realities of the vicious violence meted out to the female suffragists. It began early in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s campaign, with abuse in the street from authorities and hostile men, developed into systematic police aggression, mass arrests, and continued as the militant campaigns against property got underway, with prison terms, force feeding, torture and innovative surveillance.

Another snippet from the campaign:

On 13 February 1907 the `Women’s Parliament’ met at 3 p.m., at Caxton Hall, Westminster.

Tickets for the event had been sold out well in advance… The WSPU planned to march from the Caxton Hall to Parliament following the rally, held the day after the King’s Speech.  In the north of England, WSPU organisers sought out women willing to go to prison, and arrangements were made for them to stay in the homes of London suffragettes.  Two days before the demonstration the WSPU held secret meetings at which 200 delegates were divided into fourteen groups, and each group was provided with a leader.

“Amidst great excitement, a resolution condemning the omission of women’s suffrage from the King’s Speech was passed, as was a motion that the resolution be taken to the Prime Minister.   Then Mrs Pankhurst’s cry `Rise up, women!’ was answered by shouts of `Now!’ and a procession of about 400 women was formed.   Mrs Despard led the marchers out into bright sunshine, and some of them sang, to the tune of `John Brown’:

Rise up, women! for the fight is hard and long;
Rise in thousands, singing loud a battle song.
Right is might, and in its strength we shall be strong,
And the cause goes marching on.

When the first contingents reached the green beside Westminster Abbey, the police announced that the procession could continue no further.   The women refused to halt.   As they went forward, mounted policemen began to ride through their ranks, in an attempt to break up the march, and constables on foot seized women and shoved them down side streets and alleys.   The struggle continued for several hours, as bedraggled women hurled themselves again and again against the police.   Fifteen women managed to reach the lobby, where they were promptly arrested.”

By 10 p.m. the melee had ended. For the first time, arrests had not been confined to a handful of WSPU leaders – fifty-one women had been arrested in addition to Charlotte Despard, and Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst.

The following day at Cannon Row Police Station, 59 suffragettes (including 2 men) were tried and most sent to jail for 2 or 3 weeks. In the first few months of 1907, 130 women were jailed for suffragette acts, some repeatedly.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London rebel history: Nicholas Jakes leads protest in London, 1450.

King Henry VI, nominally ruler of England between 1422 and 1461. was throughout his whole reign successively a child, then pious, frail and mentally unstable; he was never in charge of the government for very long before he fell ill. He fell under the influence of a succession of powerful aristocrats; some his own close relatives; while some were fairly pragmatic, others were rapacious power-brokers out for what they could grab into their own hands, both in terms of power and wealth.

In 1449 the King was almost bankrupted. The War in France was grinding to a halt through lack of funds and a succession of defeats at the hands of the French. Parliament refused to raise any more money for a government it distrusted. The cloth trade from City of London guilds was prevented from exporting to Flanders for fear of the French ships invading. The loss of trade and tax revenues crippled chances of recovery. The humiliation and retreat from France threatened to end the Lancastrian monarchy, running a deficit of £320,000 pa.

In the late 1440s, the power behind the throne was William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and his willing lieutenants the Bishops of Salisbury and Chichester. Suffolk however became wildly unpopular – widely blamed for a series of military disasters in the long war against France; to the point where he was accused of being a traitor and plotting to support a French invasion of England.

He was generally believed to have embarked on large scale corruption, embezzling vast sums of money which should have been spent on the war effort, and of allowing his personal retainers in East Anglia to run riot.

Suffolk was also accused of using his lieutenants in Kent and Sussex to evict tenants unlawfully from their land. His arbitrary conduct was enforced by Stephen Slegge, Sheriff of Kent 1348-9.

A combination of populist discontent at the disastrous turn the French war was taking, and the collapse of the economy, sparked widespread unrest, and in early 1450 this became violent.

On 9 Jan 1450 a furious mob of unpaid soldiers attacked Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, a partisan of Suffolk who had been accused of embezzlement, and murdered him.

Days later, Suffolk was impeached by Parliament accused of trying to surrender Wallingford Castle to the French.

But this didn’t put a stop to protest. Around 29th January Westminster yeoman Nicholas Jakes led a protest in London against the government; thought there are no records of what the demonstrators said or demanded, whatever it was spelt death for Jakes: “…on the last day of Janeuer in the same year was oon Nicholas Jakes, a servaunt late of Bassingbourne, Squyer, drawen through London to Tibourne and there hanged, beheaded and quartered for treason of language…”

In the same week, Thomas Cheyne, a labourer from Newington, Southwark, led an uprising of people from Kent between Sandwich and Dover who had a list of men they wanted beheaded that included Bishop of Salisbury William Ayscough, Duke William of Suffolk, James Fiennes the Lord Saye, and Lord Dudley the abbot of Gloucester. They appointed other captains (who adopted nicknames like ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘king of the fairies’ to conceal their identities); two hundred people marched on January 26, but thousands were said to have joined as they marched to Canterbury where an anti-clerical group attacked St. Radegund’s abbey hospice. However Cheyne was captured in Canterbury on January 31.

A week later on February 6th, Cheyne, who had called himself Bluebeard, was taken outside Canterbury to Westminster, where he was tried with plotting the murder of the king’ leading counsellors, and faced the same fate as Jakes. His head was stuck on a spike on London Bridge.

It’s not known whether these attempted revolts were co-ordinated.

This disorder scared the government immensely. In February 1450, proclamations were issued in London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, banning all persons except lords, knights and eminent esquires from wearing arms or carrying weapons of any kind. Around the same time, the civil powers in Maidstone, Canterbury and Oxford, among other towns, were thanked by the King Henry’s Privy Council for sending in reports regarding gatherings of people ‘under untrue faines and pretense colours of intending to the common weal of the land’… The relevant authorities were ordered to break up any such rebellious gatherings.

But the ominous sense of impending rebellion hung about. In March, the King was finally forced to banish the Duke of Suffolk from the realm effective from 1 May. In April, the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex issued a proclamation denouncing the dissemination of false and seditious rumours, bills and libels, many of which had been fixed to the doors of churches and other buildings in the capital.

The duke fled to Eastthorp, his manor in Suffolk, but was chased there by the angry Londoners. As he was trying to get to the continent, the duke was spotted and men of Nicholas of the Tower boarded his vessel in the Channel and beheaded him on board. The body washed up on Dover beach.

However, all these events were to some extent just precursors to the more large-scale and dangerous Jack Cade’s revolt that took place in Kent in the summer of 1450.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in shopping history: naked demo in Selfridges demands release of naked protestor Steve Gough, 2003.

An account of a naked protest in Selfridges store, Central London, 2003.

“Steve Gough has been walking naked from land’s end to john o groats to highlight the issue that clothing should be optional in life. he has been arrested several times, with most charges subsequently dropped, he has been beaten up, and he is currently naked in inverness prison segregation awaiting a new trial, without exercise or access to a phone.

of the neglible mainstream reports of saturday’s selfridges naked protest, most confuse the fact that previous charges acquired by Steve Gough on his journey have been dropped, without mentioning that he is currently remanded unclothed in prison segregation. Thus giving the impression he is free as a bird with no worries, rather than incarcerated in isolation without access to even a phone. 

But worse is the obligatory, almost obsessive, need in the media to make the headline into a pun….. “naked protest over in a flash” being the most common. Flashing is an aggresive and sexual form of public nudity. A criminal act that predominantly targets and victimises women and children. It is exceptionally unhelpful and lazy, almost spiteful, of any journalist to add this association. Especially when there is zero balancing argument included in the reportage to underline our actual intent. 

my personal motives are as follows: There is nothing inherently bad or criminal in the appearance of the unclothed human body. I’m not some bloody hippy who wants to tell the world how ‘beautiful’ we all are, or how ‘natural’ and free it is to be naked. Naked protest is an extremely simple and direct political and philosophical action, that highlights the absurdity and extent of our corrupted social programming and the uniformed state that enforces it. 

Public nudity is a simple human statement that simultaneously invokes numerous important complexities. As Foucault pointed out: a culture’s power structures depend largely on how we look and are looked at. 

the initial premise for saturday’s selfridges naked protest in support of steve, was that an unknown number of people who had been notified of the event, would independently arrive and disperse themselves throughout selfidges department store, and at 2.30 we would remove our clothing and make our way to the exit. from there we would walk naked as an assembled group along oxford street and as far as we could without unnescessary police interference. 

the inside of selfridges was chosen as our starting point primarily because it had been the location earlier in the year for one of spencer tunick’s mass naked photo art events, in which around 500 people participated. and after selfridges became aware during the course of this week that todays naked protest was to begin there, it seemed as though they were generally cool about it. the police reaction however was another tired old matter. 

a group of 6 of us, who we knew would definitely participate, met earlier in the day. but it was hoped that by putting out the word to people, especially people who had previously been among the hundreds of naked participants in tunick’s highly publicised past art events, that the eventual numbers would be much higher. but it wasn’t really. 

i first got involved with naked protests and issues relating to the unclothed human appearance in public, on july 15 2000. it was a naked protest outside new scotland yard police hq. to date i have been arrested naked a total of 7 times without a single prosecution. this includes spending a month continuously unclothed remanded in prison segregation, until the charges (section 5 public order act) were dropped, jan 2001. (ref: guardian prison letter) 

last week, when i was first notified of the protest i was genuinely caught off guard having to contemplate going through the whole media and police circus-act yet again. it is obvious that having to endlessly repeat the justification and defence for public nudity, to the media (who mostly don’t really give a fuck about the issues, they just want a novelty story and a tiresome “the laws an ass” bum-shot photo caption) aswell as to the crown prosecution, it becomes an incredibly mind numbing mantra, and you need a break from it. 

vincent bethell, (who was tried naked in court for his january 2001 crown trial, and who was unanimously acquitted by the jury of men and women of the charge of ‘public nuisance’), was present today. but he was determined not to take his clothes off. he was present to give support and information, but he is still experiencing the stressful consequences of having been remanded continously unclothed for 5 months in prison segregation UNTIL he was acquitted by the jury. plus he is exhausted from years of organising protests that mostly end up as yet another futile “the laws an ass” bum-shot photo caption in the press, if it even appears at all. 

there was a general consensus among the handful of protestors saturday to comply if and when the police demand we get dressed. they don’t arrest you if you put your clothes on again. i’ve never complied before, and i found it difficult to imagine complying. the choice to wear clothes or not should be mine alone. so in the lead up to saturday i had decided it would be best if i therefore just remained clothed the whole time, if getting dressed on demand was going to be an issue for me. but as there were only 5 other definite participants, i felt it necessary to get undressed and go along with the consensus. 

at the allotted time i stripped somewhere on the first floor of the store. two store security people immediately approached me and asked me to get dressed. their request certainly wasn’t part of the deal, so i remained naked as they escorted me down the escalator to the main exit where a throng of police awaited. then the police demanded i get dressed or else i’d be arrested. (with of course officers trotting out that ridiculous old knee jerk reason that “there are children present among the public.” as if the sight of naked people could in any possible way matter.) 

now i have to tell you, i feel kind of soiled and empty after going along with the police demands on this occasion. this is no criticism of other people’s compliance, we’ve all got different limits, responsibilities in the rest of our lives, priorities and of course different fears, but i’ve never got dressed on demand before and i will never ever fucking do it again. 

so the whole event was brief. some photos were taken. some printed facts and thoughts were distributed. some questions were answered and written down in shorthand. blah blah blah, and mainstream reportage is bollocks as usual. 

back in the summer/autumn 2001, in the lead up to vincent’s and my last protest/arrest/trial, we had both decided and had begun publicly stating that if we were prosecuted (following our past acquittals in both crown and magistrate trials) we were prepared to commit to hunger striking to the death if necessary. but as it was we were subsequently acquitted AGAIN in our last bow street magistrate’s trial, october 2001. 

still hunger strike was and remains an obvious next level of commitment, among others, when media events and court acquittals are not enough to prevent unclothed people from being intimidated and arrested by the police and, as in the current situation with steve gough, remanded in prison segregation cells, then a more intense form of body protest is probably required in order to underline the seriousness of the issues and intent. 

Personally I have no great need to be naked in public, but at the same time MY ONLY NEED TO BE CLOTHED IS A POINTLESSLY IMPOSED ONE. I am neither a naturist, a nudist, a streaker, an exhibitionist, nor an attention seeker. Labels belong to clothing. Concealment of the human appearance is entirely unnecessary and should only ever be optional as an individual choice. 

In reply to the often heard return that “people should also have a choice not to look at the unclothed body”, that is something similar to the bigotry that doesn’t want to see 2 men kissing. GET OVER IT. Visual prejudice and embarrassment is not an equally valid freedom. Similarly I often hear people stating that there are certain body shapes and sizes that they wouldn’t want to see. shame on you!. As for that other well worn cliche, “the need to protect children in public space”, THERE IS NO EVIDENCE AVAILABLE ANYWHERE TO SUGGEST THAT NON-SEXUAL NUDITY CAN IN ANYWAY HARM CHILDREN. For those of you who can only giggle and express dog-eared innuendos at the thought of visible genitalia. GROW UP. While to those who believe this whole thing to be a trivial matter, I can only reply that FREEDOM IS A PRECIOUS THING IN ALL ITS FORMS AND MUST BE VIGOROUSLY AND CONSTANTLY DEFENDED. In these present times we should especially appreciate that fact. 

I can not comment on the level of support that steve gough receives from his family, but when i was continuously unclothed in prison segregation awaiting trial, my mum wrote to tell me how proud she was of me for standing up for my beliefs. i was raised to believe that in life it is vital to always QUESTION EVERYTHING. 

meanwhile what is definitely certain right now is that some kind of new strategy is required. exactly what form it will take…….. we shall wait and think and see. but the use of naked protest within other protest campaigns, as a powerful expression of simple humanity is one option. 

Finally I’d include a mention of the issues related to contemporary clothing. Aside from the obvious insidious voluntary act of paying to turn ourselves into walking adverts, like so many corporately branded cattle, theres the issue of the exploitative labour involved in producing fashionable garments. 

Women make up 90 percent of sweatshop labourers. In some cases, women are allowed only two drinks of water 
and one bathroom break per shift. Sexual harassment, corporal punishment, and verbal abuse are all means used by supervisors to instill fear and keep employees in line. 

Isolation means that sweatshop workers are often unaware of their rights, and have little or no contact with unions. they are denied fundamental rights such as Respect. Safe working conditions. Affordable health insurance. Fair treatment. Paychecks that meet basic needs. The simple fact is that for big corporations, profit comes first. Sometimes clothing, shoes or other products can be produced most cheaply in a sweatshop in a Third World country, where there are lower (or no) health and safety standards, low minimum wages and restrictions on the workers’ rights to free speech and association. 

Corporations choose carefully which Third World country they will “invest” in next. Repressive governments can be more profitable than democratic ones, because repressive governments and their militaries keep unions and radical workers in line. 

all of which adds to the fact that there is something fundamentally disturbing and all too passive in the notion that we must conceal the human body at all costs.”

russell higgs

Nicked from Indymedia London. (Mistookenly in the hard copy of the 2017 calendar as 8th Sept)

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

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Today in royal history: Greek queen’s visit to Claridges leads to protests, 1963.

The State Visit to London of King Paul and Queen Frederica of the Hellenes, between 9 and 12 July 1963, occasioned demonstrations by pacifists, nuclear disarmers, Communists, militant Christians, Greek left-wingers, anarchists, and others.

Greece had been almost completely divided between left and right since the end of World War 2, when a civil war between a strong communist movement and a rightwing monarchist government backed by the US/Britain ended in massacre and exile for much of the left. In the early ’60s Greece was intermittently authoritarian and precariously democratic, sliding towards the 1967 Colonels’ Coup that would put a basically fascist military in power. Elements in the Greek monarchy and army were constantly active in keeping the left and working class movements down. Greece’s crucial strategic position was vital for NATO, meaning the US was keen to back them to prevent any possibility of Greece drifting to the left, or any social change that even hinted at such a thing.

Greece’s Queen Frederika was a notorious right winger, having been a member of the Hitler Youth during her early life in Austria. She neatly linked the national and international skein, having also had an affair with CIA director Allan Dulles; she was generally reckoned to be a powerful influence against the Greek left, through her husband king Paul, and then her son King Constantine.

Her visit to London coincided with two things. First the aftermath of the assassination of leading Greek left social democrat MP and peace campaigner Grigoris Lambrakis, that had caused international outrage. And secondly the national campaign run by the Communist Party for the release of Greek seafarers’ leader Tony Ambetelios, who had been imprisoned in Greece for 18 years. His wife Betty (née Betty Bartlett) was a former central leader of the British Communist Party, and toured the country gathering widespread support for the release of Greek political prisoners.

On a previous visit in April queen Frederica had been jostled by demonstrators and chased down the street – she was forced to hide in a nearby house to escape their attentions… This time the authorities were determined their royal guest would not be embarrassed by lefties.

For a week during Frederika’s stay every evening demonstrators assembled in Trafalgar Square with the ambition of marching down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Each time the police blocked them and there were running battles around adjacent back streets.

“They were protesting against the murder of Lambrakis by Fascists with police connivance, the brutal suppression of Greek anti-bomb marchers, the retention of political prisoners sixteen years after the civil war, Queen Fred’s membership of the Hitler Youth, Queen Fred’s support of EOKA in Cyprus, the expense of State Visits, the nastiness of States, and what-have-you. But for all their variety the demonstrators were not numerous. Three thousand at the most, well out-numbered by the five thousand or more police whose leave was stopped for the occasion.

Tuesday evening, the ninth, the demonstrators set out from Trafalgar Square to march along The Mall to Buckingham Palace and hold a silent vigil. But the ceremonial gates of The Mall were closed against them, so they marched down Whitehall to the Cenotaph and held a noisy riot. And from there they went by several routes to the Palace after all.

Wednesday, the Royal Party went to the Aldwych Theatre….” (Donald Rooum)

So that the royal party could see Shakespeare’s “A midsummer night’s dream” in security, the foreign office was driven to buy up all 1,100 tickets for one night’s performance at the Aldwych Theatre. A false report that a bomb had been planted in the theatre led to delays as police in evening clothes searched with a mine detector. Six rows of police held back thousands of protestors, who greeted the royal arrivals with shouts of “Sieg Heil!”. Leaving the theatre, Queen Elizabeth was seen to look startled and dismayed at being intensively booed.

“This time no attempt was made to keep demonstrators away, and the police found no difficulty in controlling them. It was a noisy demonstration of course — the King and Queen of Greece and the Queen and Prince Consort of Britain were roundly booed whenever they appeared — but it showed no sign of getting out of hand.

Then the Home Secretary, Mr. Henry Brook called a press conference. Mr. Brook is not an emotional man; one of the things that annoys his opponents is his apparent coldness. Now, however, he was reported (Daily Express, 10 July 1963) to be red-faced and trembling.

“The Queen of England was booed tonight,” he said, “and I am furious.” He went on to call on loyal citizens to “show contempt” for demonstrators.

I believe it was his fury which decided the police, when the Royal Party visited Claridge’s Hotel on Thursday the eleventh, to move all demonstrators well out of booing range. Whether his call to show contempt had any effect, I cannot say.” (Donald Rooum)

On Thursday 11th July, demonstrators outside Claridge’s were met with slightly more force. Several hundred people were arrested. One of the protesters was Betty Ambatielos, who burst through the police cordon to rush towards Frederika’s carriage shouting, “Release my husband!”.

However, one of the arrests would backfire spectacularly. Anarchist Donald Rooum, then cartoonist for Peace News, was nicked by the notorious Met police inspector Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor:

“At about nine o’clock on the evening of 11 July, I was captured by a big, stocky, flat-nosed man with a dark suit, boots, and a very-short- back-and-sides.

At the time I was behaving legally. Lines of policemen, shoulder to shoulder across the width of the road, hands clasped as for the Palais Glide, were clearing a huge area surrounding Claridges of all but police and a few press photographers. A Committee of 100 briefing instructed demonstrators stopped by the police to sit down, but I personally could see no point in a sit-down demonstration, or any demonstration, which took place beyond the ken of those for whom it was intended.

So when I was moved on by the police, I moved; but I moved in a circle, in the hope that if I could stay in the neighbourhood until the royal party arrived, I might be permitted to stand silently holding my innocuous paper banner.

I met Peter and Ann who were trying the same tactic, and the three of us did manage to get left behind, somehow, by two separate police-cordons following each other. I believe at one point we were the only people without police permits who could actually see Claridge’s doorway. But of course we were moved on, and at about nine o’clock we were emerging from South Molton Passage into South Molton Lane, still well within the cleared area but no longer within hailing distance of Claridges. The police stopped us again. One of them took my banner, and was making a great show of reading it (it said “Lambrakis R.I.P.”) when four plainclothes men came and took it off him. I waited until they’d all read it, then said politely:

“Can I have my banner back ?”

The big one with the short-back-and-sides stepped forward. “Can you have your what back ?”

“My banner.”

He smiled at me. “You’re fucking nicked, my old beauty,” he said, and gave me a terrific clout on the ear.

Then he grabbed me by the collar, thrusting his knuckles into my skull, and bustled off towards Claridges.

“Please, officer,” I protested. “I’m coming quietly.”

“Don’t say please to me, my old darling. I’ve got a stone ‘art.” (Rooum)

Calling Rooum ‘my old darling’ wasn’t a sign of Challenor’s particular affection for anarchist cartoonists: he apparently called everyone that.

Battering Rooum as he was carted off to West End Central, Challenor decided to add some icing to the cake to ensure the arrest would become a conviction.

“When we arrived at the charge room the big man called out ” I’ve got a desperate one ‘ere,” which someone took as a signal to open the door of a detention room. (A detention room differs from a cell, I’m told, in that it has no inside door handle). He frogmarched me in and the door was locked on the pair of us.

He pushed his face into mine and breathed hard. It was not as bad an experience as it might have been. No alcohol, tobacco or onions discernible.

“Boo the Queen, would you ?” he snarled.

“No,” I said quickly, “not at all.”

“Eh ?” he looked slightly worried, slightly disappointed. Then craftily, “But you sympathise with ’em, don’t you ?”

“No,” I said.

After the clouting up the stairs, I would have been too groggy to defend myself even if I had his weight and training. In any case, I knew that the feeblest attempt to defend oneself against a policeman is seen by magistrates as an unwarranted attack. Let him beat me up and get it over. But at least I could deny him the satisfaction of feeling justified.

None of his business who I sympathised with.

So he didn’t beat me up after all. Just three more clouts to the ears which knocked me flying again, but which after the punishment on the stairs, I didn’t feel.

“There you are, my old darling,” he smiled paternally, ” ‘Ave that with me. And just to make sure we ‘aven’t forgotten it … ” He took from his pocket a screwed-up newspaper, which he opened with a flourish. Inside was a bit of brick.

His smile widened. “There you are, my old beauty. Carrying an offensive weapon. You can get two years for that.”

Planting evidence was a crucial part of Challenor’s MO. After WW2 service as a commando in a unit that became the SAS (for which we won the Military Medal), he joined the Metropolitan police in 1951, working in the CID and Flying Squad. Moving to West End Central copshop in Mayfair in 1962. West End Central partly oversaw the policing of Soho, then infamous for crime, much of it to do with vice, prostitution, sex clubs, organised crime… At one point, he had a record of over 100 arrests in seven months and he eventually totalled 600 arrests and received 18 commendations. Challenor’s methods were fast and loose, as with much of policing then, involving threats, violence, ‘verbals’ (alleging you’d heard a verbal confession), mixed in with as much racism as possible.

By the end of his career, Challoner’s modus operandi included punching a suspect from Barbados while singing “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo”.Various of his accused claimed to have been beaten up or have had evidence planted on them but, at first, this did not prevent conviction.

“Within a matter of weeks he had smashed a “protection gang” who were extorting money from strip clubs. It did not matter that the defendants alleged that they had been beaten and weapons planted on them. They were not believed. Nor were other complaints.

From then on, the short, stocky Challenor was a self-appointed scourge of Soho, and in fairness, that is what his superiors wanted from him… It did not matter that he was loud and aggressive, so long as the arrests and convictions kept coming. It was said that in the witness box he could make Soho sound like Chicago, and he described fighting crime in London as “like trying to swim against a tide of sewage”.

Had Challenor stuck to dealing with the flotsam of the area, there is no knowing how long he would have lasted. In the 1960s, juries and magistrates were not inclined to believe defendants, especially if the officer in the case was a decorated war hero.”

However, Donald Rooum would turn out to be a fit-up too far. A member of the National Council for Civil Liberties, Rooum had read about forensic science.

“Only a week or so before, I had finished reading the cheap paperback edition of Science and the Detection of Crime by C. R. M. Cuthbert, sometime superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Laboratory (Hutchinson “Grey Arrow” edition, 1962). Most of this book is about instances of Edmond Locard’s Principle of Exchange, “Every contact leaves its trace.”

A brick in a pocket would surely be another instance; it would leave brick dust behind. So far there had been no brick in my pocket. If they neglected to put one there; and if this man persisted in his story that he found it there; and if I could prove this was the suit I was wearing; and if I could get it to the Metropolitan Police Laboratory before I had chance to clean the pockets … I might have a defence.”

He refused to sign for the brick as part of his property and, kept in custody overnight, handed over his clothes to his solicitor at the first court hearing the next morning; they were sent for lab testing. No brick dust or appropriate wear and tear were found which would indicate that a brick had ever even been in his pockets. Rooum was acquitted, although other people Challenor arrested at the demonstration were still convicted on his evidence.

Another defendant to appear before Robey called the same scientific evidence as Rooum but was found guilty, although his conviction was later quashed.

The furore over the visit forced the Labour Party’s leader, Harold Wilson, to agree to boycott a state banquet to schmooze the Greek party. Back in Greece, the protests had such a big effect that they caused a political crisis which brought down the Prime Minister, Karamanlis, (who had in fact advised against the royals’ trip).

The new Greek premier, Panayotis Pipinelis, gave Betty Ambatielosa 45-minute hearing. Shortly after, 19 Greek political prisoners – though not Betty’s husband Tony Ambatielos – were freed as a gesture. No doubt the deep impression of extreme hostility to Greece amongst the British public saw releases in an attempt to restore its image. A limited return to civilian rule was permitted and, in the thaw, Tony Ambatielos was able to return to Britain to be granted political asylum and be re-united with Betty for the first time for 18 years.

After the court case, Challenor’s mental condition deteriorated sharply – or more accurately, his superiors suddenly noticed that he was a bad bastard who could cause further embarrassment. Fair to say that while he was putting away ‘lowlife’ with scant regard to the rules of evidence, the Met hierarchy didn’t blink an eyelid, but getting caught out publicly in court can make the blind eyes open all of a sudden. By June 1964, when he appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with three others with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, he was found unfit to plead and sent to a mental hospital. His co-accused were found guilty and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

Some of this post was nicked from Donald Rooum’s account of his arrest.

And some info on Betty Ambatielios from here

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

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