Today in London strike history, 1739: Chips on their shoulders, Deptford shipwrights strike

“On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips…”

Deptford Dockyard was an important naval dockyard and base at Deptford on the River Thames, in what is now the London Borough of Lewisham, operated by the Royal Navy from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It built and maintained warships for 350 years. Over the centuries, as Britain’s Imperial expansion, based heavily on its naval seapower, demanded more and more ships, and the royal dockyards like Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham and Portsmouth were often busy, and grew larger and larger, employing more and more workers.

Until the 19th century, ships were largely built of wood, and shipwrights, skilled carpenters, were the backbone of Dockyard organisation. During peacetime in the 18th century it was estimated that 14 shipwrights were needed for every 1,000 tons of shipping in the Navy. There were 2581 shipwrights in the Royal Dockyards in 1804, excluding apprentices. Another 5,100 shipwrights were employed in Private English Dockyards.

“The tools of a working shipwright were those of the carpenter. In general, however, they were much heavier, as he worked in oak rather than soft wood and with large timbers. He used an adze, a long handled tool much like a gardeners hoe. The transverse axe-like blade was used for trimming timber. To fasten timbers and planks, wood treenails were used. These were made from “clear” oak and could be up to 36” long and 2” in diameter. The auger was used to bore holes into which the treenails were driven, and the shipwright had the choice of some ten sizes ranging from 2” down to ½”. A mall, basically a large hammer with a flat face and a long conical taper on the other was used for driving the treenails. Shipwrights also used two-man cross-cut saws as well as a single handsaw. Good sawing saved much labour with the adze. Other tools used were heavy axes and hatchets for hewing, and hacksaws and cold chisels to cut bolts to length. Iron nails of all sorts and sizes as well as spikes were available. Nails were used in particular to fasten the deck planks.”

Corruption and thieving were rife in the dockyards and remained so for many centuries; both in the administration, contracts etc (ie corruption of the well-to-do who ran the yards), and at a day to day level by the workers. Wages for ordinary shipwrights were low, though food and lodging allowances were often provided. For master shipwrights there were many supplements to the basic shilling a day.

Wages could fluctuate wildly, depending on many factors; and the men didn’t always get paid on time. Early in the reign of king Charles I, England was at war with Spain and France and, as the wars dragged on and the government coffers ran dry, the dockyards fell into chaos, and workers were not paid. The unpaid men stripped the ships and storehouses of anything they could cat or sell or burn for fuel. Accusations and rumour flew about, fed by envy and backbiting. The dominance of the Pett family, who were in control in all the Kentish yards, made one workman witness scared to speak out “for fear of being undone by the kindred”. In 1634 Phineas Pett was accused of inefficiency and dishonesty. The charges were dismissed at a hearing before the King and Prince of Wales but it was said that Pett was on his knees throughout the long trial. That same year the storekeeper at Deptford was charged with selling off the stores: he had not been paid for more than 14 years!

Over the centuries, the custom grew up of allowing the workmen to take home broken or useless pieces of wood, too small or irregular for shipbuilding, in theory to burn for fuel. This ‘perquisite’ of the job (or ‘perk’) was a part of their wage – in effect a way of paying the workers less in hard cash. These bits of wood were known as chips, giving an indication of the kind of size that was meant – originally pretty small, anything that could be carried over one arm. Over time, cheekiness, expectations and general resentment towards the bosses caused the offcuts being taken home to grow in size. By the 18th century the chips could be up to six feet in length, and the shipwrights had become brazen about their perks – often they would carry planks home on their shoulders, which was explicitly forbidden and considered theft. (Carrying ‘chips’ on your shoulder became a symbol of open defiance of the authorities… supposedly the origin of the term ‘chip on your shoulder’).

Canny shipwrights were having it away with ever larger pieces of wood, much of it far from broken… “Chips” were of obvious value for burning, when coal was scarce and expensive in Southern England. They were also used for building purposes: some old houses in dockyard towns can be observed to have an unusual, even suspicious, number of short boards used in their construction..!

By 1634 workmen were cutting up timber to make chips, carrying great bundles of them out three times a day, and even building huts to store their plunder. The right to chips was inevitably pushed to its limits, particularly when wages were low. Shipwrights took to sawing down full planks into ‘chips’ just below the maximum length – all when they were supposed to be working; and of nicking the seasoned wood, leaving green wood for the actual shipbuilding. The right was said to be cost the Royal Dockyards as much as £93,000 per year in 1726.

A lighter (a small transport vessel) was seized at Deptford containing 9,000 stolen wooden nails each about 18 inches long. The strong notion of customary rights was clearly expressed when the offender maintained that these were a lawful perk.

Not surprisingly, the shipyard bosses tried to restrict the taking of chips. They tried to replace the customary right with cash – paying the men an extra penny a day instead of chips. However the wrights simply took the penny and kept on carrying off the chips!
A regulation of 1753 specified that no more “chips” could be taken than could be carried under one arm. This provoked a strike at Chatham. Later, through precedent, this rule was resolved to specify “a load carried on one shoulder”.

The Navy Board was always ready to pay informers who would grass up thieving workers, but when two Deptford labourers asked for 150 guineas in return for information, they were told £25 was enough.

It wasn’t just wood that was being lifted. The list of abuses at the docks catalogued in 1729 included drawing lots for sail canvas which could be cut up and made into breeches. An informer said he had known 300 yards of canvas at a time to be taken by the master sail-maker. Bundles of “chips” could also conveniently be used to disguise the nicking of other materials; as could suspiciously baggy clothing. The Navy Board issued the following hilarious dress code regarding pilfering: “You are to suffer no person to pass out of the dock gates with great coats, large trousers , or any other dress that can conceal stores of any kind. No person is to be suffered to work in Great Coats at any time over any account. No trousers are to be used by the labourers employed in the Storehouse and if any persist in such a custom he will be discharged the yard.”

Women bringing meals into the yard for the workers in baskets, or allowed in to shipyards to collect chips for burning (much as rejected coal was gathered in mining areas) were often caught removing valuable items along with the “Chips” or more substantial bits of wood… This led to riots in Portsmouth in 1771 when the women were banned from entering the yard, having previously been allowed to collect offcuts on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

In a sudden search at all the dockyards that year, Deptford and Woolwich came out worst and the back doors of officers’ houses, which opened directly onto the dockyard, allowing for wholesale plundering of materials, were ordered to be bricked up.

Attempts to restrict or remove the right to take home chips provoked resistance, often in the form of strikes. In 1739, naval Dockyard workers at Deptford, Woolwich, and Chatham work in protest at the navy’s attempt to reduce night and tide work, the amounts of “chips” they could take as part of their wage, & over only being paid twice a year, often months in arrears. The navy backed down.

In October 1758, Deptford shipyard workers struck again, to prevent their ‘perquisites’ being removed. In 1764, marines were employed in the yard to dilute the skilled workforce; marines were also sent in in 1768, to break another strike over the threat to the shipwrights’ freebies; the wrights fought them off, however, and the Navy Board was forced to capitulate to the strikers.

A gallows & whipping post was erected to enforce the law against theft and rebellion – they were torn to pieces by the workforce.

In 1786, the conflict again provoked a strike, which seems to have begun on the 20th of October: “On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips. About four o’clock they were got to such a pitch of desperation, that the whole town was in the utmost consternation imaginable, and it seemed as if the whole place was struck with one general panic. But happy for the security of his Majesty’s subjects, an officer dispatched a messenger for a party of the guards, which fortunately arrived at Deptford at six o’clock, which secured the peace for the moment, but were soon found insufficient, and a second express was instantly dispatched for an additional supply, these were found not capable of keeping the peace; at eleven o’clock all the troops from the Savoy that could be spared arrived, which, happy for the town of Deptford, secured the place and restored peace.” (Report from 25th October 1786)

There came a point at which the authorities decided that, whatever the unrest it might provoke, the perk had to be finally brought under control. This was achieved at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when in July 1801, in the middle of a series of large-scale shipwrights’ strikes at Deptford, the perquisite was replaced by ‘chip money’ of 6d a day for shipwrights and half that for labourers.

NB: The struggles over ‘chips’ were far from unique to Britain – 17th century naval administrators in Venice fought to prevent local shipbuilders making off with offcuts called ‘stelle’, and similarly eighteenth century French shipwrights in Toulon jealously guarded their ‘droits de copeaux’.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Save Reginald, Save Tidemill: resisting new enclosures and the destruction of social housing in Deptford

Users of Tidemill Community Wildlife Garden in Deptford, South London, are currently occupying the garden round the clock, the latest stage of their long struggle to keep the garden from being destroyed by Lewisham Council as part of a regeneration plan which would also see the demolition of the neighbouring council block of flats. The battle to protect Tidemill Garden and Reginald House focuses several of the most crucial struggles being fought at the moment in London – resistance to the destruction of social housing, the privatisation, exploitation & destruction of open space, gentrification and the social re-ordering of many areas of the city. (NB: None of which is unique to London – being worldwide phenomena…)

Open space is vital in London, in the city. Literally a lifesaver, Parks, commons, woods, from the heaths to the slivers of green at the edge of the canals… Green places in the heart of London, places of refuge, pleasure, places for picnics, barbecues, learning, meeting, playgrounds for wildlife and people … When work and stress and all the other shite rises up and threatens to overwhelm you… you can lie on your back while the wind dances in the trees. When you’ve got no garden, when your family drives you nuts, sick of pointless work and all the abuse, exploitation and suffering in the world – or when you just love the grass. For the mad endless football matches, falling out of trees, hide and seek as the sun dapples the moss; for dancing round your phone in the summer evenings… wiping the tear away as your daughter’s bike wobbles round the lake for the first time, even for when you’re masochistic enough to go running on rainy mornings…

The benefits of having access to open green space are obvious, for exercise, physical and mental health and wellbeing, learning about and connecting to wildlife and nature (all too rare in the city), having somewhere green to just relax; quite apart from the playgrounds, sports facilities, water features, running tracks… even the bloody festivals sometimes when they don’t trash the grass and lock us out for half the summer…

Trees and plants also obviously contribute to air quality and help reduce pollution, as mature trees absorb carbon emissions from vehicles… not to mention just being beautiful, sometimes climbable, a relief from the brick and sandstone, concrete and glass…

The parks and greens maintained by councils and other official bodies are crucial enough, despite the bylaws that hem you in there, the financial pressures that lead to massive commercial festivals that lock the big parks off for weeks on end…

There’s the wilderness too, where it survives, or has fought back to wreath old factories or abandoned lots, half-demolished estates in green and growth… This wildness in London has been vanishing more and more, it made a comeback from post-world war two to the 80s, often on bombsites, or where industry was closed down… A strange hopeful beauty, we used to trespass, explore, and sometimes build in.

Even more precious than either of the above, maybe, is the space that people create themselves, communally, working together, learning and building and planning. Many such spaces were created from abandoned land, some were originally squatted or more or less occupied, often bit by bit, gradually taken over, where money and authority had forgotten or lost interest, or simply didn’t have the resources to exploit or use. Like the squatting of houses from the 70s onward, small scale community spaces were created, here and there, sometimes evicted or given institutional blessing and becoming ‘official’.

New enclosures

As with resistance to enclosures in previous centuries, the wholesale removal of access to vast areas of land for large numbers of people, in the interests of the wealthy, the nominal owners, the rich, urban free spaces can also become contested. If some were granted some kind of legal status, this has not protected them forever from the possibility of being cleared, built on, lost. Just as cash-strapped or money-hungry councils see big parks as piggy banks that can be milked, self-created spaces are often viewed as awkward, unproductive, not neat and tidy-looking, lowering the tone, run by amateurs who don’t understand. And taking up space that could be put to more profitable use. By people who know best and should just be allowed to get on with planning our lives for us.

The freely given and collective effort put into creating and maintaining small community-run spaces, and making sure they are kept free and open runs counter to this. It’s not always easy and can stall or lose momentum, but its spirit is often lovely and inspiring. Councils pay lip service to this spirit because they know it’s bad PR to say what is really often thought in the offices and boardrooms – that this spirit is annoyingly uncontrolled and gets in the way of properly ordered progress and fiscal good sense. In this sense, while in theory many larger or smaller open green spaces are ‘publicly owned’ – ie owned by public bodies like councils – there is a chasm, its not ours, in the legal sense, though people who use and enjoy space often feel that it is ours, collectively, emotionally. Enclosure was often resisted in two parallel strands – common land (always in fact owned by someone) had developed customary uses over time, which people took to be legal rights, and some went to court to oppose enclosure on that basis. Others felt that whatever the law said about who owned a piece of land and could do what they want with it, it was theirs, collectively, because they had always used it and so had generations before them, and would right to maintain that – often with direct action, sabotage, sometimes with violence. Both strands had their successes, in truth, in saving many places we still know and love today. But often people had to go beyond what the law said was ownership to assert the collective ownership they felt and had experienced, an often  contradictory jumble of realities which law, contract, statute and certificate don’t and can’t quantify. This remains a central question in many struggles, whether its about housing, space, work…

Tidemill and Reginald 

So – Lewisham council are planning to demolish Reginald House and Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, and on the site of the old Tidemill Primary School, which closed in 2012, near to the centre of Deptford.

The Tidemill garden was created in 1997, designed with the involvement of parents, pupils and teachers at Tidemill school. For a long time it was considered worthy of support by official bodies, being funded by Groundwork, the London Development Agency, the Foundation for Sport & Arts, Mowlem plc, Lewisham College — and Lewisham Council, which invested £100,000 in it in 2000.

The garden has matured, and now contains 74 well-established trees. In August 2017, it was cited as a case study for the importance of “Children at Play” in the GLA Greener City Fund prospectus, and it also has the support of organisations including the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the London Wildlife Trust. Pupils from the new Tidemill School have used the garden for many educational projects.

Some great pix of the Garden and some recent events here

Go, Move, Shift!

If the development plans go ahead, the residents of Reginald House will lose their homes, and a unique community wildlife garden will be destroyed. The vast majority of the residents of Reginald House and the users of the garden want the plans to be re designed in partnership with the community – to build the same or more social homes, but keep Reginald House and Tidemill Garden. The new plans trumpet the inclusion of new green space – but much of this will be private gardens (guess which tenure they will be for?) or playspaces for residents only, and the open access space planned is much smaller, includes no mature trees, much of it will be paved, sterile and free of the pesky wildlife and unplanned growth Tidemill hosts. And privately owned…

As Caroline Jupp has written: “The proposed green space to replace this extra-ordinary garden is named a ‘pocket park’ in the developer’s plans…. The sterility of many contemporary architect designed parks and gardens is not conducive to outdoor play. I have seen how the planted public areas on my newly built estate become dead zones. But here, in Old Tidemill Gardens, there are ponds, gazebos, tree houses, composting bins, greenhouse, sheds, climbing trees, undergrowth and wilderness, all to nurture play and kinship with nature. Why demolish this green space, used so regularly by schools and the community, and replace it with a neat pocket park? Local residents and visitors all value this community space, want to be its gardeners, and have a real stake in how it evolves. In contrast, most designs of contemporary green spaces don’t encourage the involvement of users, with with their choice of low-maintenance planting. No doubt, the keepers and sweepers of the proposed new park will be an out-sourced company…”
(from Buddleia Bulletin, no 4, ‘Tree House’, 2018, Caroline Jupp. The 5 issues of Buddleia Bulletin are well worth a read, and all proeeds from sales go to the Tidemill campaign…)

They and many supporters have been campaigning to prevent the demolition since 2014, when Lewisham signed a deal with Family Mosaic Home Ownership (a private spin-off of Family Mosaic Housing Association), which would have seen the currently ‘publicly owned’ land sold off cheaply. Through murky secret Development Agreements, Family Mosaic lies, council refusal to listen to the community’s protests or allow the residents of Reginald House to be balloted on the plan, the campaign has gained strength, drawing up alternative plans which would transform the re-development, keeping the gardens and allowing for more social housing. Since 2015, the local community has had a lease on the garden for “meanwhile use”, but despite granting this as a stopgap, Lewisham council, has refused to seriously entertain any alternative plan.

The subsequent new homes built under the initial plan would have had only 11% social housing, and the community resistance has forced the developers and council to increase this several times, and alter other aspects to try to deflect the opposition. Family Mosaic has since merged with Peabody Housing (housing associations are joining up to create ever large mega-monsters, raising rents and becoming more and more openly property companies). But the plan has remained, and the processes of planning and law have ground on.

Peabody now intends to build 209 units of new housing on the site, of which 51 will be for private sale, with 41 for shared ownership, and 117 at what is described as “equivalent to social rent”. This last is not in fact true –  rents on the last category will fall under London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent, around 63% higher than existing council rents in Lewisham.

Here’s an account by a resident facing losing her home: https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/2018/08/14/the-planned-demolition-of-your-home-has-so-many-repercussions/

The Middle Class Are Eating Your Street Again

It’s true there’s a housing crisis in London (and in the UK generally) – but currently councils, including Lewisham, are responding by planning homes that those who need them will never afford. The Tidemill proposals fall in with the trend to demolish social housing, with secure tenancies, and replace it mainly with private flats, sprinkled with some housing association tenancies or ‘shared ownership’, ‘affordable’ housing’ that isn’t affordable. A handy outcome of this is the slow replacement of working class people and those on lower incomes with more middle class or wealthy types, who help make the place more economically attractive to money, business and ‘exciting’ and ‘vibrant’. Ie everywhere starts to look as empty and soulless as everywhere else.

Many of the displaced end up crammed in to smaller spaces but paying more, moving to forsaken spots far out on London’s edge, or forced out of town entirely.

Deptford, for centuries a working class area, has stubbornly remained a mixed and interesting place, despite several decades of creeping gentrification. It’s a frontline of contestation, between profit and residents, planners and people, development and the precarious places and existences people make for themselves. There’s land there that greedy eyes see can be made much more of; but also where public officials see unproductivity that could be turned into assets. Occupied and used by people who they see as taking up space a better class of person could be making more of.

London needs homes, yes, but for rents we can afford, in the communities we want to live in, without destroying everything that makes those places a joy to live in. And there is plenty of housing lying empty in the capital. It’s owned by the wealthy, by property developers and corporations. Second homes and flats for business jollies. Palaces with hundreds of rooms for a couple of parasites.

Housing is not generally built for need, its built for profit. Attempts by councils, ‘social landlords’ like housing associations to alter this cannot be built on alliances with huge private developers or turning themselves into private developers and make any noticeable dent in the gradual erosion (now more of a landslide) of genuine social housing provision. Labour bollocks about ballots is smokescreening their complicity almost everywhere with social cleansing and love affairs with greedy property speculators.

It’ll take more than voting in any Corbyns or Sadiq Khans to push that back. It can only be based in people at the grassroots like at Tidemill and any number of struggles around London. And it’s hard, and often loses. It needs people to stand by them who aren’t facing that process themselves (remembering that social housing and open space are a collective legacy, a commons, the fruit of centuries of battling and campaigning, and belong not just to those who live or work or play there but to all of us, in common). And it needs to open the question of who the city is FOR, and challenge fundamental assumptions about housing, space, who owns things, who runs things…

The fight to keep Tidemill does closely echo the battle against enclosures of previous centuries. people have built up space, created uses for it, helped to survive through using it, built up emotional and practical ties to it. But the forces of cold financial or bureaucratic progress sees all that as irrelevant, counting only the hard cash or the planning gains. These days our years of struggle have made them more wary of proclaiming their contempt openly, so there’s lots of gloss and schmooze. But still bailiffs, fences and men with sticks to knock you down hiding round the corner, if you don’t buy their bullshit.

Ballots Not Bollocks?

Lewisham’s Labour council has refused to allow residents of Reginald House a ballot on the plans, though 80% of them don’t want their homes destroyed. This makes a mockery of Jeremy Corbyn and London mayor Sadiq Khan’s promise of ballots to all tenants on estates facing demolition. Khan endorsed the idea of ballots only for estates whose regeneration involves GLA funding – the Tidemill plan does involve GLA funding. But the mayor stealthily approved the destruction of 34 estates — including Reginald House — before his new policy took effect.  Lewisham also now has a stated policy of ballots on demolition: but not for Tidemill and Reginald. Tenants and leaseholders in Reginald House have also been effectively denied repairs since 2015 despite paying rent and service charges…

Instead, Lewisham Council’s cabinet approved the current plans last September, and terminated the community’s lease on the garden on August 29 this year.

Not Removing

Instead of handing the keys back, however, members of the local community occupied the garden, and are fighting court battles to prevent the demolition. They have crowdfunded over £10,000 to launch a Judicial Review of the planning application, but need more to help pay for this… In the latest court appearance, the judge confirmed the council’s right to possession of the garden, he ruled that it cannot take place until seven days after a High Court judge holds an oral hearing at which campaigners will seek permission to proceed to a judicial review of the legality of the council’s plans. This oral hearing will take place on October 17… they may be allowed to proceed with the Review, they may not…

Pledge some cash for this legal battle – the campaign’s Crowd Justice fundraising page is here: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/save-reginald-save-tidemill/.

The Garden is now constantly occupied, with events happening all the time, displays on the history and ecology of the garden, and treehouses being built, banners being painted, and much more… A lovely and inspiring fight. If the court case doesn’t proceed, it will not be the end – far from it…

Four years of campaigning are now coming to the sharp point – the community is determined to resist the destruction of the garden, and this may well come to blockading the garden and trying to prevent their eviction physically. They need not only cash for the legal challenge, but help, support, publicity…

Contact the campaign: savereginaldsavetidemill@gmail.com

Phone: 07739 469097

https://www.facebook.com/savetidemill/

There’s more on the campaign, and other interesting current events in Deptford, here too:

https://novaramedia.com/2018/09/13/the-battle-for-deptford-and-beyond/

http://crossfields.blogspot.com/

https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/

http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2018/09/28/30-days-into-the-occupation-of-deptfords-old-tidemill-garden-campaigners-celebrate-court-ruling-delaying-eviction-until-oct-24/

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The community demands:

“Refurbish Reginald House, give residents a ballot Reginald House residents have good homes, but council has refused to listen to them or to consider a plan which keeps their homes. Instead the residents have been lied to and harassed by council officers, and their homes run down. Lewisham Council should respect its residents’ needs and wishes and not break up communities. As in other developments, residents must be given a ballot on regeneration plans.

Keep Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden a community garden for ALL Any redevelopment must include, not bulldoze, the thriving Garden which was built in the 1990’s by local people, teachers, parents and kids from Tidemill School. An alternative architectural plan shows how the garden and Reginald Road CAN be kept by building on the playground and developing the old school buildings. This area has some of the highest pollution levels in London, which will only get worse if the garden is lost. And the green space on the site should be kept public, not transformed into private gardens as under the current plans.

Public land, and public money, should be 100% used for the benefit of the public Lewisham Council want to sell this land, meaning a valuable public asset will be lost forever. Millions of pounds of public money is being spent to subsidise this development, behind a cloak of secrecy due to the ‘confidentiality clauses’ of the Council’s private partners. This land should be redeveloped in partnership with the community – to build as many social homes as possible but keep our invaluable current homes and community Garden.

We want the council and developers to truly partner with the community to redraw the plans for the site!”

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In case you’re interested…

… check out some other posts on historical resistance to enclosure of open space in London

Today in London dole history: Greenwich/Deptford guardians offices occupied by unemployed, 1922.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement emerged as a powerful organisation of the unwaged working class in Britain during the post-World War 1. Although the NUWM later became associated with the huge national hunger marches, in its early phase it was based on local action by small self-organised unemployed groups, working on issues affecting the unemployed. Often this meant pressing for more generous ‘relief’ payments or other handouts. These were grudgingly dispensed by the local Boards of Guardians, local officials appointed by the parish, whose remit was to keep down the costs to rate-payers by restricting relief or by forcing people with no work into workhouses.

In 1921-22 local unemployed groups put pressure on Boards of Guardians for help for the poor. As just one example of this struggle, we reprint a snippet from Southeast London:

“The Greenwich and Deptford unemployed organised a deputation on 18th January, 1922, to the guardians’ offices with the intention of compelling the board to grant one hundredweight of coal to those who were on relief. This coal allowance had been promised three weeks previously, but had not been actually provided. The deputation, numbering twenty, were received by the board. Trouble started as soon as the deputation began to state their case – members of the board continually interrupting them and trying to tie them down to the discussion of only one item.

As the board would not listen quietly to their case the deputation decided on direct action. The doors were fastened and windows were guarded, and for an hour and a half the business of he board was held up whilst threats were hurled at the unemployed by the chairman for their unconstitutional action. Ultimately the police, who had been repeatedly rattling the door, forced it open, but strange to say, when the police entered the chairman asked them to withdraw. He then opened the meeting of the board, while the unemployed stood around the room. Within the space of two minutes he took a vote on the question of the coal allowance, deciding that it should be granted from that afternoon onwards and promising to call a special meeting to deal with the other points that the deputation had raised.” (Wal Hannington, Unemployed Struggles 1919-36)

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London policing history: PC Aldridge dies, after beating by crowd, Deptford, 1839.

When the Metropolitan Police were introduced into the streets of London in 1829, they were wildly unpopular with much of the working class, who saw clearly that the ‘Raw Lobsters’, ‘Blue Devils’ and ‘Peel’s Bloody Gang’ were there to protect the property of the wealthy and maintain the class system.

Officers were physically assaulted, others impaled, blinded, and on one occasion held down while a vehicle was driven over them. Two bobbies killed while on duty in the 1830s had their deaths judged to be ‘Justifiable Homicide’ by London juries, including PC Culley, killed while kettling a radical meeting. Ten years after the “new Police” first cracked heads in the capital, their unpopularity had not died down in Deptford, South London…

30 September 1839: “There had been a lot of rowdy behaviour in the Navy Arms pub in Deptford, a district in south London, that evening and the landlady had asked the police to intervene. Two of those who had been swearing and making a nuisance of themselves were brothers William and John Pine. William was twenty and his brother twenty-one. These two young men began larking around in the street after leaving the pub and PC George Stevens told them to calm down or he would have to arrest them. One thing led to another and John Pine punched the officer, who responded by drawing his truncheon and rapping the drunk man over the head before arresting him. In no time at all, a crowd gathered which was determined to rescue Pine from the police. At this point, constable William Aldridge appeared on the scene to help take charge of John Pine. Over 200 people surrounded the two police officers with, more arriving every minute as word spread around the neighbourhood that a ‘rescue’ was in progress. It was an ugly situation, but the two men were determined not to let their prisoner walk free.

As the constables continued to drag John Pine off, the crowd pelted them with rocks and stones. By this time, it was estimated by both the polie and local witnesses who later spoke to newspaper reporters that between 500 and 600 people were attacking constables Aldridge and Stevens. Two more police officers arrived to help, but the four of them were for ed to flee from the mob. PC No 204 William Aldridge went down, struck on the head by a large rock and he died at 4.30 the following morning.

Three weeks later the Pine brothers, who were well known to the police, found themselves on trial at the Old Bailey for murder. In the dock with them were two other men who had take leading roles in the riot: William Calvert and John Burke. The evidence was clear enough and the men were fortunate not to hang for their actions. As it was, they were convicted of th lesser charge of manslaughter. John Pine was sentence to transportation for life to Australia, along with Calvert, who was transported for fifteen years. The other two men received two years imprisonment each.”

(from Bombers, Rioters and Police Killers: Violent Crime and Disorder in Victorian Britain, Simon Webb)

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

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Today in London radical history: Albany community centre gutted by (probably fascist) arson attack, Deptford, 1978.

With racism on the rise in the area in the late 1970s, local community centre, the Albany, was an important focus for South East London’s anti-racists. South East London’s disaffected working class white communities, suffering the collapse of traditional industries, had proved a fertile ground for National Front and other racist groups seeking to persuade them that all their problems came from migrant communities. Racist attacks were frequent, the NF had focused on the area. In August 1977 an NF march in Lewisham had been besieged by 1000s of anti-racists and locals and led to serious fighting between New Cross and Lewisham.

The Albany had hosted more than 15 Rock Against Racism benefits, a three-day ‘All Together Now’ festival, at least one Scrap the SUS laws gig, and an anti-racist theatre show, Restless Natives. It seems this may have made it a target for racists.

On 14th July 1978, the building was destroyed by fire, with a note saying ‘Got You”, signed 88, left on the remains the next day. Anti-racists speculated that the 88 signified something to do with Column 88, a fascist paramilitary splinter. But Greenwich Police refused to take any notice of the note, and ruled that “the fire wasn’t arson, it was either an accident or natural causes.” The cops at that time, being diseased with racist ideas and actual fascist members, usually turned a blind eye to racist attacks when they could get away with it, and could rely on higher ups backing them up, too. Evelyn Street fire station judged that the relatively new lighting circuits had not caused the fire, and thought it had been arson. It was not unusual for racists to use arson against such targets – the nearby Moonshot Club in New Cross had been burned out in December 1977, shortly after local National Front members had discussed ‘taking action’ against it. Three years later in 1981, a fire at a teenage party in New Cross Road killed thirteen young black people (a survivor probably killed himself months later). Widely suspected to be a racist attack at the time, the tragedy was played by the police and ignored by those in power – but sparked rage, protest and organising from south London’s black communities.

Both the Moonshot and the Albany were rebuilt, although the Albany was moved from the trashed site in Creek Road to nearby Douglas Way (a move already planned before the fire). It is still going strong today.

Some more on Albany History

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

Today in London’s literary history: Playwright Christopher Marlowe murdered, 1593, Deptford.

 “Almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheisme, willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both God and His ministers.”

Playwright, poet, genius… he was the leading literary figure of his day. Until his violent death… In the late 1580s and early ‘90s, he had established a reputation as late Elizabethan England’s most original and influential playwright. At the height of his fame, aged only 29, Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in Deptford on 30 May 1593.

After his death, and building up in the subsequent centuries, a web of myth and legend has grown up around Marlowe, and his death. According to most historical opinion, he had worked for the state as a spy (recruited when he was at Cambridge: a cliché that would run and run); he was accused, a few days before his death, of holding atheistical opinions, and, it was hinted, he was homosexual. After his death, this picture of him was quickly promulgated, and used to blacken his name (and clear his killers).

Various theories have been put forward as to the circumstances of his death, with suggestions that he was caught up in the power struggles of the Elizabethan secret state, or that he was a freethinker, linked to a network of atheists and proto-enlightenment figures… or both of the above.

Marlowe had been arrested on Sunday 20th May 1593, on a charge of atheism, which was heresy, a serious crime for which the ultimate penalty was to be burned at the stake. Despite the seriousness of the charge, however, he was not immediately imprisoned or tortured on the rack, as his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd had been. He was granted bail on condition he reported daily to an officer of the Court. But he was killed just a few days later.

Marlowe was stabbed to death in a room that had been hired for a private meeting in a respectable house in Deptford (not in a tavern as the story usually goes), owned by Dame Eleanor Bull, a lady with Court connections. Besides Marlowe three men were said to have been present; Robert Poley: longtime government agent, who carried the Queen’s most secret and important letters in post to and from the courts of Europe; Ingram Frizer, personal servant and business agent of Marlowe’s patron, the wealthy Thomas Walsingham, (cousin of the recently deceased Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, who had created the espionage service which protected Queen Elizabeth’s life from the on-going Catholic assassination plots. Thomas Walsingham had assisted his illustrious cousin as his right-hand man and was himself a master-spy); and Nicholas Skeres: also part of the Walsingham spy machine.

Since Marlowe also enjoyed both the friendship and the patronage of Thomas Walsingham, (at whose estate, Scadbury in Kent, he was staying at the time of his arrest, having gone there to escape the plague in London), Walsingham therefore can be seen to be connected with all four of these men.

The official Coroner’s Report reveals what was supposed to have happened, but at the time it was not released to the ‘public’. Marlowe was rumoured to have been killed in a tavern brawl: the story was that Marlowe and the others quarrelled about the bill, Marlowe attacked Frizer, and Frizer stabbed him in self-defence.

“… after supper the said Ingram & Christopher Morley were in speech & uttered one to the other divers malicious words for the reason that they could not be at one nor agree about the payment of the sum of pence, that is le recknynge, there; & the said Christopher Morley then lying upon a bed in the room where they supped, & moved with anger against the said Ingram ffrysar upon the words aforesaid spoken between them, and the said Ingram then & there sitting in the room aforesaid with his back towards the bed where the said Christopher Morley was then lying, sitting near the bed, that is, nere the bed, & with the front part of his body towards the table & the aforesaid Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley sitting on either side of the said Ingram in such a manner that the same Ingram ffrysar in no wise could take flight; it so befell that the said Christopher Morley on a sudden & of his malice towards the said Ingram aforethought, then & there maliciously drew the dagger of the said Ingram which was at his back, and with the same dagger the said Christopher Morley then & there maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram two wounds on his head of the length of two inches & of the depth of a quarter of an inch; where-upon the said Ingram, in fear of being slain, & sitting in the manner aforesaid between the said Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley so that he could not in any wise get away, in his own defence & for the saving of his life, then & there struggled with the said Christopher Morley to get back from him his dagger aforesaid; in which affray the same Ingram could not get away from the said Christopher Morley; & so it befell in that affray that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid to the value of 12d, gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died; & so the Jurors aforesaid say upon their oath that the said Ingram killed & slew Christopher Morley aforesaid on the thirtieth day of May in the thirtyfifth year named above at Detford Strand aforesaid within the verge in the room aforesaid within the verge in the manner and form aforesaid in the defence and saving of his own life, against the peace of our said lady the Queen, her now crown & dignity…”

With his death now officially recorded, the body of Christopher Marlowe was hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas churchyard, Deptford. Ingram Frizer went to prison to await the Queen’s pardon, which arrived with brutal efficiency just twenty-eight days later. On his release, Frizer immediately returned to the service of his master,Thomas Walsingham, in whose service of Walsingham for the rest of his life.

If the whole story seems like a whitewash, well yeah, maybe it was… Three connected spies supported each other’s stories and an official cover-up follows… That wouldn’t happen these days though, eh? Although it is possible that they really did fight over a bill. But, if Marlowe was targeted for assassination, why?

It seems likely that his death, if it was planned murder, was connected to either his alleged work as a spy, or his supposed heretical views on religion, and links to a nebulous group of freethinking intellectuals. Perhaps he was killed because, already under threat of arrest and torture, the secret service who had employed him feared he might reveal something incriminating.

But Thomas Walsingham, to who all four present had close ties, is thought himself to have had links with the circle of freethinkers that grouped themselves around Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry Percy (the “Wizard” Earl of Northumberland), and Ferdinando, Lord Strange, which is labelled today The School of Night. Rumours of atheism, heresy, and black magic came to be associated with this group. In reality, they were, more prosaically, a band of advanced thinking noblemen, courtiers and educated commoners, including mathematicians, astronomers, voyagers who had explored the New World, geographers, philosophers and poets.

They had to meet behind closed doors, and were stigmatised as atheists and magicians, because the Ecclesiastical Authorities feared the spread of interest in scientific discovery, which was undermining accepted teaching, such as about Earth being at the centre of the universe. A most important member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle was the advanced thinker, brilliant mathematician and astronomer,Thomas Hariot. He was in the patronage of both Raleigh and the Earl of Northumberland, the latter nicknamed the “Wizard Earl” for his love of experimenting with chemistry for which he had laboratories built into all his houses. These Free Thinkers discussed a wide range of subjects and were avid in their pursuit of all knowledge. Such men, in the eyes of the church, were dangerous. The Earl of Northumberland had at an early age dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge. He was eventually imprisoned in the Tower of London by King James I for almost sixteen years on a charge of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot; Sir Walter Raleigh was also eventually jailed, charged, also by King James, with conspiring with the Spaniards. In fact, King James had a paranoid fear of these brilliant men because he suspected them of exercising magical powers, which the superstitious King held in terror. Both were accused of the “vile heresy” of Atheism.

Connection to this group may have led Marlowe to his downfall. He was arrested in May 1593, because he was implicated by fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. Kyd had himself been picked up on the orders of the dreaded Star Chamber (the high court which dealt with matters of heresy and was the English equivalent of the Holy Roman Inquisition. The only court empowered to use torture to obtain confessions, and operated without a jury, it was the all-powerful legal arm of the most reactionary elements of Church and State), as he had been involved in writing the collaborative play Sir Thomas More, recently rejected by the censor because it contained scenes of riots considered to be inciting, (in the light of apprentices riots that year). Among Kyd’s papers they found incriminating evidence in the form of a treatise discussing the Holy Trinity, which was immediately labelled as “Atheism”. Kyd was racked – under this torture he stuck to his original claim of innocence and claimed this paper belonged to Marlowe, who had been writing in the same room with him and had left it there, and it had got mixed up with Kyd’s own papers “unbeknown to him.”

Kyd was released, a broken man – he died a year later, but not before further blackening Marlowe’s name in an attempt to clear himself, regain this own reputation, and save himself from destitution. Since by then Marlowe was already dead, he was free to slag him off without fear of reply, as a man who was “intemperate and of a cruel heart, the very contraries to which my greatest enemies will say by me”.

After Marlowe’s death Richard Baines, an informer, recounted in a note to the Privy Council blasphemous statements he alleged Marlowe to have uttered, implicating him in the capital crimes of scorning Scripture and the Church, of homosexuality, and of coining (forging coins). According to Baines, Marlowe attacked religion itself, took the piss out of Christ, Moses and other major biblical figures; hinted at a sexual love of men…

Read the full Baines note here – it’s a cracking list which we find it hard to disagree with…

But did Marlowe really say any of it? It is tempting for us, as modern-day atheists, with all our sexual fluidity, to celebrate this image of Marlowe, the gay wit, the freethinking rebel. But most of the beliefs credited to him could just as easily be fabricated, since the only evidence emanates from his enemies. Piling on the accusations is a classic tactic – it is impossible to know how much of it represents what he might have really thought.

On the other hand, we like the sound of him arguing “that the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe.” A remarkably clear statement. Some of the other sayings Baines attributes to him really do smack of someone arguing pissed over a few pints: “Moyses was but a Jugler, & that one  Heriots being Sir W Raleighs man can do more then he… Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest… That St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ  and leaned alwaies in his bosome, that he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma.”

There is of course, also the inevitable theory, a modern creation, (though pre-dating the internet) that the whole killing was a fake, set up by elements in the secret service, and that Marlowe in fact escaped abroad, to continue spying, and – some say – to write any number of works generally credited to Shakespeare. In the same way as Jim Morrison and Elvis are sometimes still knocking around in secrecy.

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

Today in London radical history: Social Centre in squatted Dole Office resists eviction, Deptford, 2011

In mid-March 2011 local activists launched a new social centre in a squatted job centre in Deptford, southeast London:

“We have occupied the disused Deptford Job Centre as a response to the brutal cuts to public services being carried out at both a local and national level. We aim to clean the place up and convert it into Social Centre Plus: a new public space for members of the local community here in Deptford and the surrounding area, that we can share, contribute to, and create a truly social building and a hub of local opposition to the cuts programme.

This is a self-organised space, run by people from a variety of backgrounds and we are not in any political parties.

We have taken the space in order to also demonstrate our resistance to the cuts Mayor Steve Bullock and his Labour cronies, under the orders of the Tories in Westminster, are promising us. The Council aims to slash £88 million off of its budget within the next four years. Libraries, day care centres and early years centres will all be closed while we have to suffer from pay cuts and price rises.

However, we believe that we can and must fight back. We have seen the results of mass, popular revolt in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and its surrounding region, as well as militant action by students against the coalition government here in the UK. We want Social Centre Plus to be a catalyst for social and political change based on the principles of direct action, solidarity and self-organisation.

That said, we want this to be a free space for the community to use and we invite everyone inside with their ideas for the building and the wider world, or even just to chat over a cuppa. We plan cafés, film nights, workshops, and a million other things on which we’d love to hear your ideas!”

The Centre lasted around a month… It featured a cafe, meetings, organising against cuts, film nights and much more.

Attempts to kick them out were stoutly resisted:

“SOCIAL CENTRE PLUS, the occupied Job Centre on Deptford High Street, successfully resisted an attempted eviction the morning of Tuesday 12th.  Around 60 people gathered outside the space, linking arms and blocking the front door so as to prevent High Court bailiffs and builders – backed up by a vanload of police – from entering.

The victory was achieved following an hour-long stand-off, during which the bailiffs – from Locks Bury Services – met with Paul Jackson, the site’s landlord, were spotted outside the Deptford Project, the café opposite Social Centre Plus, whose owner also wanted the space for a high society art exhibition. There they made a series of frantic phone calls in which they spelt out their reluctance to confront the occupiers inside the anti-cuts space, some of whom were positioned on the building’s roof.

Eventually the police informed the bailiffs that they had no intention of intervening, and recommended that they come back another day.  Members of the local community remained outside SCP for most of the morning, savouring the success for South East London’s anti-cuts movement.

However, the SCP Collective is well aware of the continued threat to the space.  A second eviction attempt must be expected, and this time Locks Bury will come unannounced, and with the necessary tools and thugs to remove the occupiers.  Despite this, SCP remains committed to hosting and facilitating the local anti-cuts movement, even if they do have to move on from 122 Deptford High Street.

With this in mind, SCP hosted a public meeting the night before the eviction resistance in order to coordinate further activities against the government’s brutal cuts, both at local and national level.  The NHS, local education and attacks to quality of housing were amongst the issues discussed.  Local residents who want to join the borough’s fight back against the cuts are encouraged to get in touch or come along to one of our imminent Open Days.”

Under threat of eviction, the centre occupiers decided to move next door… “Following last Tuesday’s failed eviction attempt by bailiffs and builders sent by landlord Paul Jackson,” Jenny Wilshere said, “the SCP Collective decided to move out of number 122 into number 124 next door. You can currently find us by knocking on the door underneath the ‘Christ Life’ sign.”

The move was undertaken in order to maintain a safe space open to the community, Wilshere said on behalf of the anti-cuts group. “Despite the fantastic showing from almost 100 local residents in order to prevent the bailiffs from entering last Tuesday,” she continued, “we can’t be sure that the Locks Bury Services thugs won’t return with heavy tools and violent intentions. So we felt that the best way of keeping open a genuinely community-led space against the cuts was by moving into a new site which had no legal eviction order hanging over it.”

Both squats were, however, evicted, in early May:

“Social Centre Plus 1, the originally occupied Job Centre site on 122 Deptford High St, was finally evicted this morning [May 6th] by a group of bailiff thugs from Locksbury Services backed up by around 10 police officers. The idiots were so desperate to get into their building that they smashed a window on the front door of SCP2 next door, which had already been evicted by the court on Wednesday! Fortunately we managed to extract almost all of our possessions first…”

Read some of the daily stories of Social Centre Plus

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

Today in London’s radical history: riots break out as the Duke of Suffolk is banished, 1450.

William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was the effective head of the English government in the late 1440s. The king, Henry VI, was pious, frail and mentally unstable; during his reign a succession of his relatives or favourites largely took charge of affairs of state.

With the deaths in 1447 of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort, Suffolk became the principal power behind the throne.

However, Suffolk was 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 also accused large scale corruption, that he had embezzled 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.

“Whichever way Suffolk looked, there were only enemies to be seen. His appointment as the King’s Chief Minister would have given rise to jealousy and hatred among other greedy, ambitious and sometimes able men who would not have scrupled to pull him down and disgrace him if they could in the hope that they might replace him, or at least enjoy some of the power and the fruits of his office. The only way that Suffolk could have survived as Chief Minister for any length of time would have been to provide successful government, and his had been spectacularly unsuccessful… He owed his position to his friendship with Queen Margaret [a French princess, which made her immediately suspect to most ‘right-thinking’ Englishmen…!], who saw to it that her weak-willed husband, the King himself, accepted Suffolk as his favourite. ]There were even stories that Suffolk was Margaret’s lover]… Suffolk’s haughty demeanour had done nothing to endear him to the new up-and-coming men, often of humble birth, who felt that their talents, which were often considerable, entitled them to a say in public affairs. He behaved towards them as one of the ancient nobility towards the new parvenues, a view which was scarcely justified, because the de La Poles had only been ennobled during King Richard II’s time. Nevertheless, he treated them with all the contempt of the highly-born aristocrat and caused much resentment in those whose friendship he would have been well advised to seek.”

In short, popular feeling was against Suffolk, and in January 1450 he was impeached in Parliament, and locked up in the Tower. Tried for treason and embezzlement in March, he was banished from the realm for five years.

Riots broke out in the City and in Deptford (where Suffolk owned estates, and seems to have been widely hated) on 17th March as the sentence was announced… As the common people saw it, the sentence of banishment was only intended to get Suffolk out of the way for the time being, and at an appropriate moment in the near future, it would be lifted and Suffolk would be restored to the King’s Grace. When the situation seemed to be less tense, Suffolk rode for his mansion near Ipswich to use the remaining time before the 1st May to put his affairs in order before a long absence. He was waylaid by the London mob, aiming to seize and lynch him, which his strong escort, provided by Queen Margaret, had difficulty in beating off. There was a fierce scuffle, and lives were lost on both sides.

The Duke sailed from Ipswich on 30th April 1450 in two small vessels, bound for Calais. However, his ship was waylaid by some of the king’s ships, though on whose orders was never made clear. Suffolk’s ship was hailed by the ship, Nicholas of the Tower, and bidden to send Suffolk on board. Suspecting nothing, he duly went, to be greeted by her Captain with the single word “Traitor” and being put under close arrest. The seamen formed an impromptu ‘court’ and ‘tried’ Suffolk. He refused to plead before such an assembly, and not surprisingly, was sentenced to death. In mock deference to his rank, he was told that he would be beheaded rather than hanged from the yard-arm. The next day, his head was forced over the gunwale of one of the boats, and was struck from his body with one of the ship’s cutlasses. His headless corpse was thrown onto the Dover sands.

It seems likely Suffolk was largely fitted up, a victim of both populist disappointment with the course of the war in France, and the myriad mazes of court rivalries, caught up in the earliest deadly manoeuverings among rival aristos that would very shortly erupt into the War of the Roses.

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

Today in London’s radical past: A bread riot in Deptford, 1867.

You can’t live by bread alone… but we can have more than the crumbs from their tables…

In January 1867, at a time of high unemployment, with people going hungry, some folk in Deptford, in south-east London, revived the old tactic of the bread riot.

On the 23rd, parish officers from St Paul’s parish had been distributing bread to the needy, and a large number of people were clustered around their depot at Mary Ann’s buildings… When the bread ran out, and the announcement was made that there would be no more that day, the crowd got angry, and marched down Deptford High Street. They looted one baker’s shop of all its loaves; a second baker gave away everything in fear of his windows getting smashed. A third bakery was attacked near Deptford Broadway.

Police Commissioner Richard Mayne sent detachments of ‘A’ Reserve – mounted police – with one Chief Superintendent Walker in charge, who cleared the street, but the next day, crowds gathered again, and the bakers closed up shop.

This time the butchers were also attacked, one of whom saved himself by waving a cleaver at the crowd. Another was pushed aside by one ringleader who proclaimed to the assembled crowd, ‘There you are; walk in and help yourself.’ The crowd duly did so without the police interfering. A tobacconist was then burgled…

The crowds then marched off to the Greenwich Union Workhouse, to petition the Poor Law Guardians meeting taking place there. Police maintained a strong presence in the streets that evening, and the day after that, the crowds were not much in evidence. However five tons of bread were given away free that day, so ends achieved, you might say…

The bread riot has a long history. At times of high wheat prices and (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though, they were often led by women. In previous centuries, it was common for rioters to seize stocks of bread and force bakers to sell it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. Although the kind of moral economy that selling bread at a price considered fair, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour, clearly as late as the 1860s, hungry people considered that such a staple should be freely available, and were prepared to enforce that if charity wasn’t gong to meet their needs. In Deptford, they didn’t bother with negotiating a fair price – they just took what they could…

Once the disturbances calmed down, local businesspeople and magistrates were quick to vindicate local people. ‘The hardworking individual classes took no part in this disgraceful movement’, and J. J. Barker of the Council made it clear that non-locals caused all the trouble (those pesky outside agitators again!).
A convenient whitewash would thus save High Street business. That notwithstanding, sentences for those caught were harsh and clearly motivated by personal animosity towards ‘bolshie’ indentured apprentice boys. On 25 March the magistrate Mr Traill handed down a sentence of three weeks on ‘bread and water’ to fifteen-year-old William Yarnell, an apprentice of a Mr Russell of New Cross who had accused him of being ‘obstreperous’ and being ‘a perfect terror’. The actual offence was the careless leaving open of a door!

Worth a read: Jess Steele, Turning the Tide: A history of Everyday Deptford.

E.P. Thompson , The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (Past & Present No. 50 (Feb., 1971), pp. 76-136). It’s online at: http://libcom.org/history/moral-economy-english-crowd-eighteenth-century-epthompson

In a strange echo of these events, between 2002 and 2004, an empty bakery in Deptford High Street was squatted and used as a social centre, named, with terrible humour, Use Your Loaf. Among many other social, political events and more, it was at Use Your Loaf that the South London Radical History Group, a project closely tied to us here at past tense, began its life in 2003:

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html