Uncrowned Kings: Slavery, Wealth and Statues in London – Part 2

Slavery, Wealth and Statues in London – Part 2

Following on from our earlier post, on London statues that commemorate slave-trades, slave owners and slavery apologists and other racists…

It’s also instructive to illustrate that slave trading and slave plantation-owning meant big bucks – not all of it was invested in commissioning bronze or stone idols of the wealthy…

In London as in the UK as a whole – there’s just too much to even list when it comes to slavery-related wealth, and how that wealth was then ploughed into buying land, big houses, investing in industries.

Just to concentrate on ONE small area of South-East London – around Deptford, Lee and Blackheath – just as an example. You can broaden this out to any number of areas in the capital, and beyond; slave-sweated millions funded everything from educational institutions to art galleries, from factories to fashion… It’s estimated that the British Industrial Revolution could not have had anything like the scope that it did without the huge amounts of ready cash swilling around derived from slave-trading, supplying the plantations and selling the sugar and other products slaves made cheaply.

Deptford

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.

Deptford became an important seafaring and trading centre. Ships were built, fitted out and stocked with provisions here before being launched on voyages around the world, and were repaired here when they returned. Royal Navy ships sailing from Deptford protected Britain’s growing empire and trade routes. The early English Navy played a huge part in the beginnings of the Atlantic Slave trade.Traders and explorers also sailed from the dockyards. People interested in sea voyaging came to Deptford, hoping for support from the king or financial backing from rich London merchants.

Ships began sailing to Africa from here as early as the 16th century, and possibly before. While rumours of gold were an important initial impetus to enterprise with Africa and slaves became of paramount significance, other items of trade should not be overlooked. Hides, camwood, indigo, cotton, resin, soap and ivory from elephants and hippos also attracted London sea traders and their merchant backers to West Africa.

Many sea captains owned or stayed in houses close to the dockyard. During the seventeenth century many of the wealthy merchants involved in trade with Africa lived houses nearby in Deptford Green, Lee or Blackheath. Hoping to make big profits, they invested money in ships that sailed to Africa to trade for exotic goods and capture African people, who were shipped across the Atlantic to work as slaves on plantations in the British colonies in the Caribbean. The ships returned to Deptford where the sugar, tobacco and other crops produced by these plantations were unpacked and stored before being sold. This became known as the Triangular Trade.

Captain John Hawkins was the first English slave trader – historian Joan Anim-Addo describes him as “the English father of the Atlantic Slave Trade”.
Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake found fame as prominent ‘privateers’ (licensed pirates) operating against the Spanish Empire’s ships in the Caribbean, and gradually beginning to trade in the area.
“A feature of the shipping engaged in West Indian privateering… [was] the overwhelming predominance of Londoners. There are forty-one ships mentioned herein whose port of origin has been traced; thirty-one were from London.” (Kenneth Andrews) The Royal Dockyard at Deptford played a significant role in London’s privateering ventures.

He was appointed Treasurer of the Royal Navy and lived at the Treasurer’s House at Deptford dockyards. On his first voyage he captured 300 Africans and took them to the Caribbean, selling them to the Spanish settlers there in exchange for animal skins, ginger, sugar and pearls. These were very exotic goods then, and made Hawkins a fortune when he sold them to London merchants. This was the beginning of the triangular trade across the Atlantic.

Hawkins and other pioneering seamen found on the coast of Africa local people skilled in the manufacture of trading commodities such as pepper and cloth, and African traders, manufacturers and skilled artisans in organised communities. This was not widely reported: the distorted representation of African lifestyle and patterns of existence, portraying them as savages with no real culture; this was given prominence in the century to follow, as English slave trading took root. In fact, traders were met by organised groups skilled in defending the waterways, particularly the rivers leading upstream into the heart of Africa. The coastal Africans, they found, had an established maritime culture, with skilled handling of the canoe a speciality. Naval forces consisting of small, specialised African crafts were initially able to repel Europe’s sophisticated maritime war machinery.

Hawkins made four slave trading voyages to Sierra Leone, sailing from Deptford, between 1564 and 1569; Queen Elizabeth I backed him, sending navy ships to protect his slave ships.

John Hawkins Coat of Arms

When John Hawkins was knighted by the Queen he had a crest of arms drawn up that included a picture of an African bound with ropes, acknowledging the money he made from captured Africans.

John Hawkins’ brother-in-law Edward Fenton also traded for slaves in Sierra Leone. He was buried at St Nicholas’ church in Deptford, which is named after the patron saint of sailors. In the church there is also a statue of Hawkins’ brother William, another slave trader.

The Pett family were master shipbuilders in Deptford for several generations and built many of the ships that were involved in the Atlantic trade. The timber for shipbuilding came from their estate near Chiselhurst (now called Petts Wood). 

Deptford was a place of arrivals and departures. Many British people who owned or ran plantations and went to live in the Caribbean set sail from Deptford. Many people of African origin who came to Britain landed at Deptford. Some were sailors and some were brought to work in Britain as slaves or servants.

In 1652, Oliver Cromwell was a regular visitor to Deptford to oversee the building of two ships The James and The Diamond, ships which formed part of a fleet Cromwell sent in 1654 to capture Jamaica from the Spanish, where sugar plantations were established worked by African slaves. After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, Deptford royalist John Evelyn was appointed to the Kings’ Council for Foreign Plantations in 1671, set up to advise King Charles II on how to govern his new colonies (where slaves worked on the plantations). He was also treasurer of the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich, which is now the Old Royal Naval College and was not far from Sayes Court. John Evelyn’s wife’s family had been naval administrators for many generations and their home, Sayes Court, was sandwiched between the dockyard and the victualling yards.

Samuel Pepys, born in London in 1633, is famous for his diary, which records the details of his life from 1660 until 1669. In 1673 he was made Secretary to the Admiralty. Naval ships were sent by the Admiralty to protect British colonies, particularly to the West Indies with its profitable sugar plantations.

Samuel Pepys was also a shareholder in the Royal Adventurers into Africa, a company set up by London merchants, which traded with West Africa and transported enslaved Africans in company ships to work on plantations.

The Pepys Estate in Deptford is named after Samuel Pepys. From 1665 to 1673 he was Surveyor-General of the Victualling. Where the Pepys Estate now stands was the site of the Red House stores, where ships were victualled (stocked with food and other provisions). Records show that the Red House warehouses were also used to store tobacco grown and cut by African slaves, which had been shipped to Deptford from plantations in Jamaica.

Captain Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, set sail from Deptford on a later voyage in 1791, sailing for the South Seas to collect breadfruit trees from Tahiti. He landed 347 trees at Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1793. Bligh’s plan was to grow breadfruits on the plantations in the Caribbean as cheap food for slaves. The breadfruit grew well and became essential part of the diet of the enslaved Africans, along with yam and plantain. By giving slaves food that was cheap to grow, the plantation owners could make a bigger profit. What the enslaved Africans preferred to eat was not taken into consideration.

Robert Blake, statue, Deptford Town Hall

Deptford Town Hall, built in 1905, houses three statues of slave pioneers (and imperial heroes) Francis Drake, Robert Blake and Horatio Nelson:

  • Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 1596) was a pioneer of the slave trade making at least three royally sponsored trips to West Africa to kidnap Africans and sell them. Elizabeth I awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581 which he received on the Golden Hind in Deptford.
  • Robert Blake (1598 – 1657) was an admiral who served under Oliver Cromwell throughout the English Civil War. He fought the Dutch to secure the trade triangle between the Caribbean, West Africa and England. Cromwell was responsible for trafficking the first waves of

    Francis Drake statue, Deptford Town Hall

    enslaved people to and from the Caribbean; installing the plantation system in Jamaica; and the massacres in Drogheda (1649).

  • Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805), was a naval flag officer whose leadership is credited with a number of decisive British victories, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815). Nelson spent a large part of his career in the Caribbean and developed an affinity with the slave owners there, using his influence to argue against the abolitionist movement in Britain.

This building is now managed by Goldsmiths University

A debate has been going on there, stimulated by Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action, a BME-led student protest group launched in 2019. Their protests led to accurate descriptions being published on Goldsmiths website to ‘help reinterpret the building’s history through a contemporary lens”.

Goldsmiths Deptford Town Hall, SE14 6AF

Land and Lordships

The involvement of Deptford ships in slaving led to huge profits for some merchants – some of this money as spent buying up or building posh houses to show off and enjoy these ill-gotten gains.

Lewisham areas such as Lee and Deptford saw massive change as a result of a national thrust towards quick profits. Enriched slaving merchants used their new profits to buy land and titles, symbols of status and power. Areas like Lewisham, Lee and Blackheath were popular neighbourhoods with some of the men who made fortunes selling human flesh.

Take one example: the Manor House at Lee, near Lewisham. In Henry VIl’s reign the manor house of Lee was set in 575 acres of arable land, an area larger than some West Indian islands. Between the mid-16th century  and the early 1700s, the land was bought and sold many times over – often from one slave-trader to another.

A number of the wealthier local residents profited directly from the African Caribbean trade and plantations. John Thomson, son of Maurice Thomson, leased Lee House for three years after his father’s death. Like many whose wealth was founded on slavery, he became a member of ‘the mother of parliaments’, was knighted and was later made Baron Haversham. His wife, Frances Annesley, was a member of an old Lee family. Her father, Arthur Annesley, Earl of Anglesey, successively President of the Council of State and Treasurer of the Navy, amd Lord Privy Seal, had a hand in the many decisions affecting the governing of newly founded slave-based colonies in the West Indies, including petitions from Maurice Thomson and other merchants.

Another Lee resident, William Coleman, was a factor or agent based in London. Coleman’s wife was related to one of the Deputy Governors of the Caribbean island of St Christopher. He made a pile from trade with the West Indies, specifically arranging credit to individual planters, then importing their goods and exporting them supplies – for a fat commission. Coleman took up residence at the Manor House in Lee around 1750. Already 66 when he bought the property, Coleman made a number of further property purchases which extended the family estate locally. In February 1748 part of Lee Farm had been added. In April 1766 more land was acquired.

As a young man in the 1720s, Coleman had been the London agent for the West Indian proprietor and planter John Pinney and his heirs. Pinney was a plantation owner on the island of Nevis. (Pinney himself may have been associated with Lee).

John Pinney, a ‘respected and responsible’ planter with political clout in Nevis, treated his slaves in the manner of the times. Profit from sugar was all-consuming. Pinney is reputed to have made his (black) sugar boiler test the sugar before by making him dip thumb and forefinger into the scalding syrup to see whether the sugar that stuck had boiled to the right consistency.

Thomas Lucas was nephew and partner to William Coleman. Their firm, Coleman & Lucas, did lots of business with John Pinney in Nevis until 1773. (Some property purchased by Coleman at Lee was possibly an investment on behalf of Lucas). When Coleman died, some 88 years old in 1771, his chief heir was Thomas Lucas whose inheritance included not only the manor house at Lee but also property in the West Indies. Lucas’ influence with Nevis Governor Woodley ensured John Pinney’s son, John Pinney the younger,  was appointed to a seat on the council of Nevis.

Economic power in the West Indies meant wealth, which meant political power in the islands, and guaranteed political power in Westminster. The ‘West India Lobby’ evolved a connected, influential network which worked for their own interests above all. Thomas Lucas was elected an MP for Cornwall in 1780, became treasurer of Guy’s Hospital in 1764, and its president in 1775. When he lost his Parliamentary seat four years later, one of the new MPs for his area was Francis Baring, (who also succeeded him in his residence at Lee).

Lucas established a family tomb at St Margaret’s, Lee. His first wife was buried there in 1756 and his second wife in 1776. On his own death in 1784 most of his property passed to his third wife, Eliza, who subsequently married John Angerstein of Greenwich (see below), taking her inherited property into her marriage with him.

Francis Baring was apprenticed to the leading Manchester and West Indies merchant Samuel Touchet. Baring’s rise to power an influence was meteoric: he allegedly made his first money out of dealing in slaves while still a very young man of 16 (though where did he get the money to buy them?). He became a household name in banking and finance. He joined the Baring family business (oh, THAT’s where he got his money aged 16!); they traded in linen and wool. Francis developed this into a merchant banking house. (Capitalism being the bastard child of textiles and banking since its very birth). Baring was made a baronet in 1793: three years later he purchased the manor house and estate in Lee. He enlarged the estate and built the present day Lee Manor House. By 1815 Baring’s had become the largest and richest merchant banking house in the country.
Baring operated at the highest level of finance and politics for the time: director of the East India Company, adviser to government, financier in the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars… slave trading was only a part of his top-flight manipulation in the formative years of UK capitalism….
Barings Bank of course hit the international spotlight in 1995 when a single broker, Nicholas Leeson, caused its bankruptcy. Baring even got his own street named after him in Lewisham – Baring Road, Lee, which runs from the South Circular up to Grove Park.

A Lewisham maroon plaque commemorating Francis Baring was installed on the old Manor House, referring to him as a merchant, without mention of what the ‘merchant’ refers to.  In June 2020, after local pressure, Lewisham Council covered it up, pending a broader discussion about its future. The context of this was the series of Black Lives Matter protests across the country and the debate sparked by the depedestalisation of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.

The Slavers of Blackheath

In the 18th century, around 20 merchants lived in houses around the edge of Blackheath: a fair number of them were deeply involved in the slave trade and slave plantations.

William Innes lived in Grotes Place. He was a leading West India merchant and supporter of the slave trade. Thomas King, of Dartmouth Grove, was a partner in the firm of slave agents Camden, Calvert & King. At one time the company is thought to have owned one in every five slave ships that sailed from London to Africa. Francis Abbatt was a shipping merchant and made much of his wealth shipping slaves. He is now most remembered for founding the Royal Blackheath Golf Club, thought to be the oldest golf club in Great Britain.

Local historians think the golf course became an ideal place for merchants involved in the slave trade to share ideas and make trading agreements.

Members of the golf club included:
Thomas King, (see above)

Francis Baring, of Lee, above.

Ambrose Crowley, an iron merchant who manufactured iron manacles, shackles and collars used on slave ships. These were used to stop enslaved Africans from fighting back, and to stop them committing suicide by throwing themselves overboard, which some Africans chose to do to escape a life of slavery.

In 1744, Alderman Samuel Fludyer purchased the prestigious Dacre House in Blackheath, adding a cherry orchard to the estate. Samuel and Thomas Fludyer were partners in a well-known firm of warehousemen and merchants, who traded widely, supplying the West Indies plantations with goods.

In 1747 the wealthy alderman is reputed to have spent the considerable sum of £1,500 on his campaign to be elected for Parliament. Fludyer was an associate of William Beckford, Alderman, MP, and massive slave plantation owner – the ‘uncrowned King of Jamaica’. Samuel was elected MP for Chippenham in 1754.

The most famous of the Blackheath slave-owning businessmen was John Julius Angerstein, founder of Lloyds of London, set up to insure slave ships and co-owned plantations in Grenada.. A cautious businessman, Angerstein made much of his wealth through East Indian trade, but he inherited extensive West Indian business interests, through his wife’s earlier marriage to Thomas Lucas (see above). He owned a third share in a slave estate in Grenada, one of the islands that fell under English control at the end of the Anglo-French Seven Years War (1756-63).

Angerstein built Woodlands House, Mycenae Road, Blackheath between 1772 and 1774; in the latter year he drew up the policies on which Lloyds’ insurance business is still based. Angerstein’s painting collection later became the foundation for the National Gallery.

He was also a Churchwarden at St Alfege’s church in Greenwich. Inside the church, near the west door there is a memorial stone to him. Angerstein Wharf, Horn Road, in Charlton, also is also named for him.

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The above reflects a small part of the wealth slave-trading brought to one part of London. Pan that out across the capital, across the country. Whatever change the Black Lives Matter movement can bring to bear on the present and the future, understanding how kidnapping, exploitation and genocide of Africans profited the ruling elites in the UK, and fed into the culture, is crucial. It’s not erasing history to draw attention to statues, memorials and street names that honour these wealthy men, or to point out where their wealth came from, and what that money created and contributed to.

Some great investigative work has been and is being done in many areas… check out Inside Croydon with some research into slave-ownership, in another South London manor, Croydon…

More info on who owned slaves – not just who traded them and profited from this hour-industry – can be found at Legacies of British Slave-ownership 

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Set against the luxurious homes and self-congratulatory memorials of the golfing slave-trading elite, there is of course the mirror image of their lives – the lives of the Black Africans they shipped in, shipped out, bought and sold; ownership of and attendance from personal Black slaves and later Black servants was prestigious in itself, like a kind of exotic badge of your status. British plantation-owners, merchants and naval officers often brought their slaves with them when they returned to from their plantations.

But Black people and their descendants made independent lives as well, although expansive monuments to their passing through are fewer…

Deptford was the first place any slaves brought to England in the early days of the trade may have disembarked. African Olaudah Equiano – who fought to become a freed man and was one of the key figures in the slave abolitionist movement – was initially trafficked to Deptford, as related in his autobiographical Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’:

“we… arrived at Deptford the 10th of December, where we cast anchor just as it was high water. The ship was up about half an hour, when my master ordered the barge to be manned; and all in an instant, without having before given me the least reason to suspect anything of the matter, he forced me into the barge; saying, I was going to leave him, but he would take care I should not… he swore I should not move out of his sight; and if I did he would cut my throat, at the same time taking his hanger. I began, however, to collect myself and, plucking up courage, I told him I was free, and he could not by law serve me so… just as we had got a little below Gravesend, we came alongside of a ship which was going away the next tide for the West Indies; her name was the Charming Sally, Captain James Doran; and my master went on board and agreed with him for me; and in a little time I was sent for into the cabin. When I came there Captain Doran asked me if I knew him; I answered that I did not; Then, said he, ‘you are now my slave’.”

In 1772: “a Captain at Deptford beat his Negro boy in so cruel a manner that he died”.

The earliest known record of a black person living in Deptford is a record in the parish register of the burial in 1593 of ‘Cornelius a Blackamoor’ on 2nd March at St Margaret’s church in Lee. Black people were often referred to as “Negroes” and “blackamoors” at this time. There is no information in the record about Cornelius’s age, his job or his family.

There are no records to show how many black people lived in London in Cornelius’s lifetime: enough, though, to provoke decrees from Queen Elizabeth I that there were too many and they should be expelled. The total number of people living in London then is also unknown. Many historians agree that during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the number of black people living in London increased. Historian Steve Martin estimates that by the end of the eighteenth century London was home to 10,000 to 15,000 people of African origin, among a total of 800,000 residents. Enough lived around central London to form networks and communities: a number gathered, for instance, to hold a party celebrate Lord Mansfield’s court ruling in 1772 that transporting slaves onto British shores was demonstrably illegal.

From the evidence provided by parish registers we know that many black people lived in and around Deptford in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These records, now held in local archives, show that increasing numbers of black people were baptised or buried at St Nicholas’ church and St Paul’s church in Deptford; St Margaret’s Church in Lee and St Alfege’s Church in Greenwich. Deptford and Greenwich were home to a lot of people who worked at the dockyards or on board ships. It is likely that many were of African origin. Archaeological excavations at the burial ground at the old Greenwich naval hospital (now the Royal Naval College) showed that two sailors buried there were African. Parish registers show that black mariners were buried at St Paul’s church in Deptford. Other archive records show that a black seaman who lived in Deptford led a mutiny on the ship, the Zant in 1721, because “we had too many Officers, and that the work was too hard.”

Samuel Pepys, the famous London diarist, wrote in his diary in April 1669: “for a cookmaid, we have… used a blackmoore of Mr. Batelier’s, Doll, who dresses our meat mighty well.” We do not know any more of Doll’s story, but perhaps when she came to London she arrived at Deptford.

Not all black people who came to London were slaves. Many were free people and some decided to settle in or near Deptford, where the ships they arrived in had landed. Most people of African origin who lived in London had jobs and lived as ordinary members of the working class. Only a few, like Olaudah Equiano, were members of the middle and upper classes. Many black people in London, like many white people, lived in poverty, and there are very few detailed records of their lives. There are very few details of the lives of poor people living in London at this time as most could not write, and so were unable to write diaries, letters or books about their lives.

Belinda Charlton was baptised at St Margaret’s church, Lee on 13th June 1725. Her baptism record shows that she was born in 1705, and she was described as a ‘black maid lodging at Blackheath’. She was not described as ‘servant of’ or ‘belonging to’ someone, which might have been written in the record if she was a slave. In the eighteenth century it was thought that people who were baptised could not be made slaves, and baptism became a sign of being free. So Belinda Charlton may have been a free woman, perhaps working in one of the large houses owned by wealthy merchants in Lee and Blackheath. From the record in the parish register we do not know Belinda’s age, place of origin or when she died.

It is likely that some of the black people living in south London in the eighteenth century had been soldiers. Thousands of Black people who had fought on the side of the British in the American War of Independence in 1776 came to Britain. Slaves who had fought in the war were promised their freedom and a pension. The British government never gave them their pensions, so many were forced to become beggars. 

As opposition to the slave trade began to grow in the eighteenth century, black people living or working in south London added their voices to the call for abolition. One group who we know about were the Sons of Africa, who included Olaudah Equiano.

And in the centuries since, Lewisham, Deptford, New Cross and other parts of South East London have become home to large Black communities – many descended from the slaves shipped to the Caribbean by Angerstein, Hawkins and their ilk… The presence of so many Africans has always enraged racists, especially those who love to celebrate the Empire, Britain’s glorious naval past, etc – all built on selling human beings for profit. But attempts to drive Back people out from this area have met with fierce resistance – witness the Battle of Lewisham and the Black People’s Day of Action,

It’s racism that tries to erase history – not toppling statues. 

Spotlight on London’s radicals: The Deptford Infidels

The 19th century saw a ferment among working class radicals around freedom from religion and ‘freethinking’. Throughout the Victorian age, religion was a dominant force in the lives of the vast majority of the UK population. The Church of England exerted a powerful influence; the parson dominated the village. Until 1836 parsons received a tithe from residents of the parish. Social life for millions of people revolved around choir and Sunday School outings; employers insisted that their employees go to church and sacked those that didn’t, or would only hire orthodox believers. Most people were members of the Anglican or Presbyterian Church, although there were some Catholics and increasing numbers of Non-conformists, Quakers and Methodists. Until 1829, anybody holding public office had to make a public oath denying Catholic doctrines, which meant that Catholics could not be civil servants, Justices of the Peace or judges. No university would even admit a non-Anglican, let alone a non-believer.

On the one hand, religious ‘revivalism’ was massive – John Wesley’s Methodist Church and other newer strands of protestantism attracted many among the exploding urban centres, where millions dislocated by industrialisation were ripe for conversion…

On the other hand, doubt and questioning were filtering through society. The industrial revolution had broken numerous bonds that bound classes together, and a ferment of political and social subversion was spreading, especially among working class people radicalised by the naked exploitation of capitalism in its most voracious phrase. Belief in a supreme being was on the wane, particularly where people were already questioning belief in supremacy of the powers above them on earth…

A provocative and courageous tradition runs through the nineteenth century, influenced by Thomas Paine, but finding a solid focus around Richard Carlile, and from him spiralling out through the unstamped press agitation, cross-fertilising and feeding into the Owenite co-operative movement and the political movements it helped to germinate. Carlile’s bookshops around Fleet Street, and the lectures that took place at his Rotunda in Blackfriars Road (early on featuring the ‘Devil’s Chaplain’, Robert Taylor) were hugely influential in spreading the questioning of religion… Carlile acted as mentor to other ‘blasphemous’ writers and speakers, including the pioneering female secularist Eliza Sharples, who herself helped to form the ideas of the later titan of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh. As Chartism waned and economic prosperity led to a (temporary) decline in the movement for political reform, many old Chartists and radicals formed the backbone of a network of working men’s clubs, sprouting through the 1860s-70s, dedicated to discussion of ideas, self-education, through lectures, debate, sharing of publications and spreading knowledge. Many were infused with ideas from the co-operative and early trade union movements; motivating ideas ranged from liberalism through to a class-conscious revolutionary proto-socialism. The clubs formed part of a transition from Chartism to a radical/liberal milieu from which the earliest recruits to Marxism and anarchism later emerged, (eg the Social Democratic Federation). And a vocal questioning of religion formed an important strand in this tradition. 

Below we repost an article on the secularist movement in just one area of South East London, written by Terry Liddle, a long time socialist activist and writer on the history of secularism and radicalism. This kind of agitation was mirrored all around the capital and other cities, especially in the 1860s-1890s.

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THE DEPTFORD INFIDELS
Terry Liddle

This is not a concise history. Rather it is a thumbnail sketch of secularism and related radicalisms in South London and nearby areas of North Kent in the 1870s. This was the period between the decline of Chartism as a national movement and the rise of socialism. It was also the period of a short but intense republican agitation triggered by the fall of Napoleon le petit and the restoration of a French Republic.

The area has a long radical tradition. A Chartist organisation was formed in Greenwich in the 1830s. In the 1840s mass Chartist rallies on Blackheath were addressed by Fergus O’Connor and in the 1850s Chartist activities in the area were regularly reported in Deptford man George Harney‘s Red Republican.

As Chartism declined, many Chartists, freethinkers already, moved into secularism. (Note 1) The first secular society was formed in 1854 by Augustus Dinmore, a rope maker and Advanced Liberal. And in 1865 Le Lubez formed the Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society (DGSS) to join the Land and Labour League and a short lived branch was formed. In the 1860s the Deptford United Irishmen held a march in support of the Fenians while Woolwich and Plumstead secularists held a tea party and soiree to celebrate Thomas Paine. In March 1870 a Mr Babbs called on members of DGSS to join the Land and Labour League and a short lived branch was formed.

In 1873 a branch of the First International was formed in Woolwich, its secretary was H. Maddox. It stopped German workers scabbing on a strike by engineers at the Siemens factory.

By 1871 the National Reformer, a weekly edited by Charles Bradlaugh had a number of agents in Deptford including a Mr Laverick in Friendly Street. It also had three agents in Woolwich including one near the Dockyard gate. That year John Joseph of Woolwich was listed as an active member of the National Secular Society. 2
At a meeting held in March of that year G. French of 6, Naval Place, Amersham Vale, New Cross, was elected secretary. At the meeting there followed an “animated conversation” on PA Taylor opposing the dowry of Princess Louise. 3

In May of that year the Southwark Republican Club, secretary Belliston, held a public meeting. 4
In June 1871 the Greenwich Advanced Liberal Association (GALA) issued an invitation to a conference to be held in October to members of the Radical Party in and out of Parliament. The secretary was T S Floyd of East Street Greenwich. 5
The GALA, formed in 1869 at a public meeting of 500, wanted independent working class representation in Parliament, and so found itself in conflict with mainstream liberalism. A leading member the secularist William McCurly stated : “It was now time for the working classes to think for themselves and manage their own affairs.” Another leading secularist was E W Balbin who secretary of the Greenwich Reform League which agitated for the vote for adult male workers. In the Beehive of April 14, 1865 he wrote “Numbers of slaves (slaves of capital) and hungry bellies are the millionaires joy.”
Following a local agitation in support of farm labourers, members of GALA formed the Deptford Radical Association.
At the time the main form of propaganda was the open air public meeting. The Greenwich and Deptford secularists held these at Deptford Broadway. The National Reformer reported that on June 18, 1871 Mr Antill had spoken, giving his reasons why the gospel should be rejected. In July that year at a meeting in the Duke of Cambridge, Deptford High Street, a Mr Bishop lectured the Advanced Liberal Association on taxation and expenditure. 6 Also in July Mr Wade lectured on the Broadway on Republicanism and the Bible. The following Sunday at 7pm on Blackheath Mr Mesh lectured on the atonement. In August Mr Bishop was speaking on prophecies of the Bible. “There was a deal of opposition at the close”. 7

On August 28, 1871 Charles Bradlaugh spoke in Deptford Town Hall on the impeachment of the house of Brunswick, the title of his Republican pamphlet.“The lecture was loudly cheered at the close.” The following Sunday Robert Forder was speaking on the Broadway on gentlemen of the Bible. 8

In September Thomas Motteshead was speaking to South London Secular Society on the Commune and its mission. 9
By now the Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society was holding three open air meetings on Sundays at Deptford, Blackheath and Woolwich. Subjects included Dr Bate on the prophets, Kirby on moral evidence of Christianity and Forder on external evidence of the existence of Jesus. At the conference of the National Secular Society, G. French was elected a member of the council.

In January 1872 several members journeyed to Northfleet where they met the secular friends of that neighbourhood. The owner of the Royal Charlotte Music Hall had put a room holding 150 for a meeting. Soon after a Northfleet Republican Club was formed. 10
The National Reformer of May 26, 1872 reported a meeting in Camberwell of the Universal Republican League where ‘Citizen Chatterton’ spoke on ‘land and money lords’. Could this have been Dan Chatterton whose paper Chatterton’s Commune was filled with his Chartist memoirs and challenges to the clergy, usually not accepted, to debate?
Camberwell Republican meetings were held on Sunday morning in Church Street and in the evenings in the Rose and Crown in Acorn Street. 11

In July at a meeting of the Advanced Liberal Association Thomas Mooney lectured on the structure of the Swiss and American Republics. In Camberwell a Mr McAra was speaking on the necessity of the direct representation of the working class in parliament. 12
At meetings of the Kent Secular Union W Ramsey spoke in Rochester in the afternoon on ‘Hell and damnation’ and that evening in Chatharn on ‘God’s chosen people’. These were followed by meetings in Chatham where G W Foote spoke on Cromwell and John De Morgan spoke on the International. 13

By January, 1873 the National Reformer had two agents in Greenwich, three in Deptford, and one each in Plumstead and New Cross Gate.
On March 23 a Mr Riddle spoke to the Camberwell Discussion Society on land nationalisation and the following week G W Foote spoke to South London Secular Society on Napoleon. 14
At the Republican conference held in Birmingham on May 12 Le Lubez represented Deptford and Greenwich Secular Society. At a meeting of this body to be held in the Lecture Hall, Deptford the speaker was to be Harriet Law.

Come 1874 the National Reformer was advertising meetings of Deptford Radical Association in the Duke of Cambridge. At a meeting of the South London Secular Society held on January 11 a Mr Wood spoke on ‘was Christ an historical figure’.
In the spring of that year meetings continued on Deptford Broadway. Mr Hale spoke on the teachings of Christ to a “numerous and attentive audience”. Forder spoke on the improbability of the gospel history. 15
On June 14 1874, the Secularist Mr Antill visited Blackheath to find a temperance advocate holding forth. Antill suggested Jesus had manufactured wine at a wedding and a considerable debate followed in which Antill set out “at some length his objections to Christianity.” 16

In June a conference of Kentish Freethinkers was held in Northfleet, people travelling by river boat from Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich. There followed a tea at 5pm. 17
In August the South London Secular Society had debated spiritualism. A Mr Law denounced spiritualism and called on the audience not to put any credence on a system so palpably absurd and ridiculous. 18
By September a Woolwich Freethought Association had been formed and a member of the Corresponding Council of the NSS was duly appointed for Woolwich. “The Freethinkers of Woolwich, Plumstead and Chariton are now organised and there is every probability of a strong society being the result.” Information could be had from R. Forder at 36 Taylor Street, Woolwich. 19
Bradlaugh spoke in Woolwich on ‘is the Bible true?’. “Judging from the repeated cheers of a crowded audience and the weakness of the replies of three opponents, the answer was a decided negative.”
This was followed on October 13 by Mrs Law lecturing on ‘is the Bible a good book?’

In the Lecture Hall in Nelson Street, Greenwich M McSweeny had lectured on ‘heathen mythology, the basis of Jewish and Christian theology’. 20
Forder was elected secretary of the new group, J. Sinclair its president and a Mr Roberts its treasurer. It had members over the river in North Woolwich and Silvertown as well as in Woolwich and Charlton. 21
The Kingston and Surbiton Progressive Society had lectures on phrenology, the Bible and science not in harmony, and GW Foote on the “impeachment of Christianity at the bar of history” The secretary, T Edwards, spoke on ‘why I reject Christianity’. At meetings in Kingston the National Reformer was on sale alongside the Secular Chronicle and Republican Chronicle. In May 6 a tea party attended by 45 people was held “Mr Godfrey presided most admirably on the pianoforte”. 22

On April 4, 1875 Mrs Besant lectured in Powis Street, Woolwich on civil and religious liberty. Several soldiers attended in uniform. “The lecture was admirably delivered and excited great enthusiasm.” 23  On June 1 Bradlaugh lectured in Woolwich on the French Revolution. Local freethinkers agreed to form a branch of the NSS, which would be represented on the NSS Council by Robert Forder. Bradlaugh returned on June 19 to lecture on ‘Washington and Cromwell’ and on September 5 was speaking in Deptford Lecture Hall on the limits of human thought. 24
The secularists now came under attack in the local press. The Kentish Mercury published an article signed “a friend of the working class” accused them of “flaunting their atheism” and complained that people who brought their children to listen to temperance and religious speakers were upset by this. Three weeks later an article signed “a Christian” attacked a lecture by Mrs Law on ‘how I became freethinker and why I remain one’ delivered in Woolwich on September 21. 25

The Deptford Broadway meetings now encountered considerable opposition, speakers having to be taken by the police to the station to escape the mob. The secularists rallied to defend their pitch and peace was soon restored.
All was not doom and gloom. After a meeting to arrange a lecture by Mrs Besant, Mr E J Lee entertained members by submitting for their examination various interesting objects through his very powerful microscope. Mrs Besant “lectured on the marriage question on a wet net night to an audience of 250.” 26
The next week Bradlaugh spoke on ‘is the Bible a revelation from God?’.

Open air meetings continued on the Broadway and on Blackheath. Forder had been arrested for allegedly destroying fences in a protest at attempts to enclose Plumstead Common. The demonstrations had been led by John De Morgan a veteran Republican, anti-vaccinationist and member of the Magna Carta Association, who had been brought to Plumstead by a young solicitor Edmund Kimble. In 1876 Dilke, an apostate Republican, had raised the issue of Plumstead Common in Parliament. De Morgan and Forder were to have a very acrimonious fallout, which ended in a highly disorderly meeting in a Plumstead pub. Matters were not helped by De Morgan having been a stern opponent of Bradlaugh in the Republican movement. 27
Forder who worked in Woolwich Arsenal in the shell foundry was described as an “intelligent mechanic with extreme views ill fitting with the views of society at large” (W T Vincent, The Records of the Woolwich District, Vol 11, 1887). He was associated with the Advanced Liberals. Eventually, he was brought to trial in Maidstone charged with riotous assembly and malicious damage. Robert Martin, treasurer of the Forder defence fund which raised £46, and Le Lubez were defence witnesses. Forder was acquited while De Morgan was imprisoned for a month with a £50 fine or a further month. 28 Despite collections in the Arsenal, he was determined to stay in prison.
However, he was released after 17 days and returned to Woolwich where he addressed a crowd of over 20,000. Elected to the Leeds School Board in 1879, he failed to win the Liberal nomination in a by- election and emigrated to America. 29
Forder continued his career as a secularist speaker addressing meetings all over London. For example, he spoke on signs of the zodiac to South London Secular Society and to Walworth Association of Freethinkers on early witnesses to Christianity and their opinions. 30  He was also an auditor for the NSS and involved in the London Secular Tract Society which published several thousand pamphlets. Some meetings were held in the newly opened Deptford Secular Institute on Union Street. “Our hall is well filled every Sunday evening” reported Reynolds News (December 10, 1876) Christian hecklers who were thrown out were not readmitted. On Christmas Eve George Stranding spoke there on the French Revolution.

By 1878 Forder is listed as a member of the education committee of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. The RACS maintained reading rooms at its branches and moving in a socialist direction began to take such papers as Workman’s Times, Clarion and Labour Leader. In 1886 a branch of the Social Democratic Federation was formed in Deptford and slightly later Robert Banner formed branches of the Socialist League and then the ILP in Woolwich. Woolwich and Deptford were the first two constituencies in South London to elect Labour MPs.

This is not the end, rather it is only the beginning of a much larger study. It is hoped it will encourage readers to undertake studies of secularism in their areas.

This article was originally published in the Journal of Freethought History, bulletin of the Freethought History Research Group, no 1, Vol 1, 2003. They produced some fascinating glimpses into the history of secularists, atheists and freethinkers… 

REFERENCES TO ‘THE DEPTFORD INFIDELS’

1 . Geoffrey Crossik, An Artisan Elite in London, Croom Helm, London, 1978.
2 . National Reformer, 1/8/1871
3 . National Reformer, 5/3/1871
4 . National Reformer, 12/5/1871
5 . National Reformer, 4/6/1871
6 . National Reformer, 16/6/1871
7 . National Reformer, 13/8/1871
8 . National Reformer, 3/9/1871
9 . National Reformer, 10/9/1871
10. National Reformer, 21/1/1872
11. National Reformer, 26/5/1872
12. National Reformer, 7/7/1872
13. National Reformer, 15/9/1872, 23/10/1872
14. National Reformer, 30/3/1873
15. National Reformer, 5/4/1874
16. National Reformer, 14/6/1874
17. National Reformer, 21/6/1874
18. National Reformer, 2/8/1874
19 . National Reformer, 6/9/1874
20. National Reformer, 23/10/1874
21. National Reformer, 6/12/1874, 10/1/1876, 16/5/1876
22. National Reformer, 16/5/1875
23. National Reformer, 7/7/1875
24. National Reformer, 5/4/1875
25. Kentish Mercury, 4/9/1875, 25/9/1875
26. National Reformer, 27/2/1876
27. Sylvester St Clair, Sketch of the Life and Labour of John De Morgan, Orator, Elocutionist and Tribune of the People, Leeds, 1880.
28. National Reformer, 29/10/1876
29 . Leeds Times, 17/4/1880
30. National Reformer, 12/11/1876

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Terry Liddle, who originally wrote the above, died in 2012, after many decades of involvement in socialist, anarchist, green and secularist politics (among much more!)

There’s a couple of obituaries of Terry, here

here

and here’s a short notice which includes Terry’s self-penned ‘Death Song’:

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Although Terry’s account above is fairly dry and factual – the street meetings he briefly mentions must have often been quite lively affairs. Secularist street speaking often took place on or around local ‘speakers corners’, use of which developed over decades. These local speaking pitches were often crowded or contested – with local churches, religious groups, evangelical cults as well as radicals, socialists, liberals and any amount of other factions vying for space and fighting to be heard. The term ‘marketplace of ideology’ is literally accurate in many cases, as speakers corners were sometimes on the edge of local markets; others on open spaces, or on the high street. Christians, cops and various authorities took a dim view of these godless plebs articulating dangerous and subversive ideas, and secularists often faced harassment, a tussle over speaking pitches, and sometimes arrest. Bystanders might come to listen, hackle, or just to enjoy what disorder might arise…
But the secularists formed the shock troops of a process that was taking place at various levels of society, a long, slow dissolution of the deadening and suffocating influence christianity had over people. The undermining, questioning and debate that secularists and radical clubs hosted and took part in in the latter half of the 19th century helped push an already tottering edifice into collapse…

Today in London radical history: Chartist socialist George Julian Harney born Deptford, 1817.

George Julian Harney was a central figure in London’s Chartist movement, as well as playing a significant part nationally, and became an early socialist.
The following text gives a brief account of his life, concentrating on his Chartist days.

Deptford’s Red Republican: George Julian Harney, 1817-1897
By Terry Liddle

As well as being dedicated to the memory of George Julian Harney, this text is also dedicated to the memory of Albert Standley, a pioneer of modern Republicanism.

In 1840, Harney stated: “Be ours the task to accomplish by one glorious effort the freedom of our country.” Let’s do it!

GEORGE JULIAN HARNEY was born in Deptford, then an important maritime centre, in February 17, 1817. As early as the end of the 18th century ship builders in the area had starled to organise trade unions and from the 1830s onward there would be an active Charlist movement. Harney’s father had served as an able seaman in the wars with France. Orphaned early in life, Harney’s education was rudimentary until at the age of 11 he entered the Boys School at Greenwich. Three Years later he went to sea as a cabin boy visiting Portugal and Brazil. Physically unsuited to the hard seafaring life, after six months at sea he returned to London, taking up various jobs ashore. At this time the agitation around the Reform Bill, with both the new industrial middle class and the more numerous working class struggling for the vote, was at its zenith and Harney soon became involved.

In 1832, he look a job as shop boy at the Poor Man’s Guardian. Published by Henry Hetherington, a Freethinker and Owenite Socialist, it had a circulation of 16,000. The Publications Act of 1819 had imposed on newspapers a stamp duty of sixpence which placed them beyond the pocket of working class readers. The Radicals of the day saw this as an unjust tax on knowledge and defiantly published unstamped papers. Hundreds of sellers of the unstamped press were imprisoned for the right to read and sell their own publications. Harney served his political apprenticeship in this struggle being imprisoned three times between the years 1831 and 1836.

HARNEY AND O’BRIEN

On release from Derby prison, Harney became friends with the Poor Man’s Guardian editor Bronterre O’Brien. O’Brien was a keen student of the French Revolution, translating Buonarroti’s history of Babeuf’s conspiracy and writing a biography of Robespierre. Harney followed his example. Of their friendship, O’Brien’s biographer, Alfred Plummer, wrote: “These two spirited young men, filled with revolutionary fervour, were united in conviction that given universal suffrage and the dispersal of mass ignorance… the march of regeneration would be swift and sure, all that was oppressive would be overthrown and triumphant justice would take the place of extirpated wrong.”

The London Mercury of March 12, 1837 noted the formation of the East London Democratic Association noting: “We admire the objects and principles of this new society and shall not fail to give it all the support and encouragement in our power.” Leading figures were Harney, Charles Neeson, a Painite tailor, and Allen Davenport, a shoemaker and follower of Thomas Spence. On June 11, 1837, the ELDA met to consider a motion put by Harney urging the formation of a Central National Association as the only rational means of not only obtaining universal sufflage but also the overthrow of the moneyed tyrants who grind the sons of labour into the dust.

The Central National Association was duly formed and met to consider a motion from Harney and O’Brien advocating physical force as the means to radical reform. However, the CNA was short lived, being wrecked by a dispute resulting from Harney’s attack on the conduct of the Irish MP Daniel O’Connell. Hamey and his followers formed the London Democratic Association. With a solid base among Spitalfields silkweavers and other London trades, its membership was 4,000. Its aims as stated by Harney included universal suffrage, abolition of newspaper taxes and the Poor Law, the 8 hour day and support for trade unions.

At Christmas 1838 Hamey visited Newcastle which had elected him a delegate to the forthcoming Chartist National Convention. Thousands turned out on Christmas day to listen to, and applaud, his call for physical force. Harney continued his speaking tour in Yorkshire and Lancashire, men armed with muskets and pikes attending mass torchlight meetings. Harney at the time was so poor he had to wait in a tailor’s shop while his one pair of trousers was being repaired. The mood was one of revolution, thousands coming to see the forthcoming Convention as the country’s real government.

A week before the Convention gathered in London, Harney addressed a mass meeting in Derby. He proclaimed: “We demand universal suffrage because it is our right and not only because it is our right but because we believe that it will bring freedom to our country and happiness to our homesteads, we believe it will give us bread and beef and beer.”

The convention met on February 4, 1839. An absent delegate was George Loveless who had been transported to Australia for his trade union activities in Tolpuddle. The Convention decided to seek the support of MPs for a petition with over a million signatures supporting the People’s Charter. For Harney this was an absurd waste of time. The LDA attempted to place before the Convention a motion stating that every act of oppression should be answered with immediate resistance. This was rejected. A mass meeting on March 11 addressed by Harney and O’Brien advised the Chartists to arm themselves. The Convention began to discuss the people’s right to arm. Harney again underlines his position in the pages of the London Democrat: “…there is but one means of obtaining the Charter and that is by insurrection.”

An alarmed government began mobilising the military and a new police, Armed gatherings were banned and magistrates given the power to prohibit meetings.

With things reaching crisis point, at Harney’s suggestion the Convention relocated to Birmingham on May 13. The police raided the LDA’s offices, but Harney escaped arrest having already left for Birmingham. A warrant for his arrest was sworn out on May 17. In Birmingham, serious rioting broke out when the police attacked a small meeting. It was only at the urging of Chartist leaders that the rioters dispersed. The authorities reacted by arresting Taylor and several other Chartist leaders. More riots broke out in Birmingham and elsewhere when parliament rejected the Charter on July 15. The Convention’s leaders, unable or unwilling to head a revolution, issued a call for a general strike only to reverse their decision when it became clear that it lacked support. Finally, at the urging of Harney and Taylor the Convention dissolved itself.

The authorities caught up with Harney at Bedlington near Newcastle, their aim being to return him to Birmingham via Carlisle. In Carlisle he had to be smuggled out of the back door of an inn, an angry crowd demanding his release surrounding the front. When news of his arrest became known in Newcastle the town, was plastered with posters calling the people to action. Miners in the area struck and started marching on Newcastle. A ban on meetings was defied and rioting broke out. Once again it was the Chartist leaders who defused the situation,

By the Spring of 1840 over five hundred Chartists were in prison. Harney was held in Warwick Castle but later released. A rising in Wales had failed and its leaders had suffered transportation. Some died behind bars. In 1842 Harney spoke at the graveside of Sheffield Chartist Samuel Holberry who had died in prison aged twenty seven. “He is numbered with the patriots who have died martyrs for the cause of liberty…”, proclaimed Harney. Harney’s own trial collapsed when the Crown withdrew its case. Scotland was the only place where Chartist leaders were still at liberty and after his trial Hamey went there for a lecture tour which lasted a year. It was there that he met and married Mary Cameron, a weaver’s daughter, to whom he was greatly devoted. His activities in Scotland he reported himself in the pages of the Northern Star. Selling at fourpence halfpenny, it had a circulation of thirty thousand

A STRIKE DEFEATED

While his politics remained the same he was a Jacobin cast in the mould of Marat, the tone of his oratory altered considerably. He now stressed national organisation instead of immediate insurrection. There was now a line of caution and moderation in his speeches. During the Plug Plot Riots of 1842, when the Chartists again tried to win their demands by means of a general strike and troops fired on strikers in Blackburn, Halifax and Preston. Harney, feeling that the strike lacked real mass support, urged moderation much to the dismay of many of his supporters. Harney felt that the strike had been provoked by the manufacturers in a bid to secure repeal of the Corn Laws. Basing his analysis on the situation in Sheffield, where after a mass meeting had supported the strike, several trade union secretaries then opposed it, he wrote in the Northern Star of September 3, 1842: “I would have joined into it heart and soul but no sane man could come to any other conclusion than that the great mass of the people of Sheffield Trades were deadly hostile to any such scheme”. At a conference in Sheffield he pointed out that strikers had returned to work two days after being fired on by troops.

By the middle of August, 1842 the strike had been defeated. The government celebrated by arresting over one thousand five hundred Chartists. Of these, in excess of six hundred were put on trial, forty being transported. Peter M’Douall, a prominent strike leaders, fled to France. The strike, however, was instrumental in ending the Corn Laws, the Home Secretary in 1842, giving the strike as the reason for their abolition. Harney may well have been right.

Harney had settled in Sheffield in 1841 having been appointed full time Chartist organiser for the West Riding. The strength of Chartism in this part of Yorkshire can be judged from the facts that over fifteen thousand people turned out to celebrate the French Revolution of 1848 and that by the following year Chartists held nearly half the seats on Sheffield Town Council. He also became local correspondent for the Northem Star. His political ideas remained unchanged and his opposition to union between the middle class reformers of Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union and the Chartists brought him into conflict with his old mentor O’Brien. Hamey, and the Northem Star with him, took the view that even if the Union’s reform proposals were adopted the working class would still be left prostrate before capitalists and speculators. The project fell apart when after a conference in 1842 adopted the Charter in name, an earlier conference having adopted its six points, Sturge withdrew. The whole sorry episode, however, had as its legacy further divisions within the Chartists ranks.

One charge thrown at the Chartists was that of infidelity. Hamey was himself an infidel. In Derby he aided the secularist booksellers Finlay and Robinson and when Holyoake was imprisoned for blasphemy Harney acted as agent for his Oracle of Reason. In a letter to Holyoake dated April 22, 1844, Harney made it plain that he was “war with all priesthoods and priestcrafts” along with republicanism and communism as part of Chartism’s future. However when the Reverend John Campbell again hurled the charge of infidelity Hamey replied: “There is nothing concerning infidelity in the Charter… The Charter promises to confer on all men… the rights of citizenship…”

In 1843 Hamey became sub editor of the Northem Star moving to Leeds where it was published. From then until 1850 the paper was under Harney’s effective control. he taking the editorial chair in 1845. During this period Harney often found himself out of step with much mainstream Chartist thinking. In particular he opposed the Land Plan a scheme whereby Chartists would buy land and settle it as smallholders. While the first estate named for Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor worked well for a while in the end the plan failed. As the historian of Chartism, Reg Groves put it: “… it was an attempt to circumvent historical development; to find a way to escape from industrial development, instead of seeking the way forward through the utilisation of the new production power”.

A striking feature of the Northern Star was Harney’s reports of international events. In this he drew on an international tradition that went back to the Civil War. Early in his political career, Harney had come into contact with Polish refugees from the failed uprising of 1831 and had later joined the Polish Democratic Association. In 1844 the Northem Star moved to London bringing Hamey into contact with the various groupings of political refugees. Within this milieu were French, Germans and Italians as well as Poles.

The Poles were organised in the Polish Democratic Association and Lud Polski. The French had been in contact with English Chartists since 1840. That year Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll had founded the German Workers Education Society. Schapper and Bauer were members of the League of the Just founded in Paris in 1836, members fighting in an abortive uprising In 1839. The Italians were mostly followers of Mazzini who aimed for a united Italian Republic. Together with some English Chartists they founded an International Peoples League in 1847.

0ut of this gathering of hardline republicans there arose, following a banquet in celebration of the French Revolution, the Fraternal Democrats. Its slogan “All Men are Brothers” was that of the League of the Just. The Fraternal Democrats can truly be said to be a forerunner of the First International of which Harney would become a member. Its statement of aims stated: “Convinced… that national prejudices have been, in all ages, taken advantage of by the people’s oppressors to set them tearing the throats of each other, when they could have been working together for their common good, this Society repudiates the term ‘foreigner’, no matter by, or to whom applied.” Hamey was a fervent member. appealing in the Northern Star “… to the oppressed of every land for the triumph of the common cause.” This did not stop Marx sending Hamey what he called “a mild attack on the peacefulness of the Fraternal Democrats.”

FRANCE AND IRELAND

It was at a banquet to celebrate the 1848 French Revolution that Harney and O’Brien were reconciled, O’Brien speaking in favour of a union of Chartists and Socialists. When the Fraternal Democrats met on Robespierre’s birthday, Harney was in the chair and according to the Democratic Review O’Brien’s vindication of the character of the victim of Thermidor was enthusiastically applauded. O’Brien proposed a toast to Harney and other toasts were to the memory of Robert Ernmett and the health of Smith O’Brien and other Irish patriots. Paine, Washington and Ernest Jones were also honoured. Soon afterwards O’Brien was the main speaker at a meeting held to protest the suppression of electoral reform in France. He bitterly attacked the money class in France who sought to keep the people poor by robbing them of the fruits of their labours.

O’Brien, also spoke at a meeting to protest the treatment of William Smith O’Brien, an Irish nationalist who had been transported on a flimsy charge of high treason. In 1838 over one hundred Chartists and workers organisations had signed an address to the Irish people which stated: “… seeing that the productive classes of the two islands have the same wants and the same enemies; why should they not look forward to the same remedy and make common cause against the same oppressor …” Harney was also a friend of Ireland, speaking from the Irish platform at the Kennington Common demonstration of 1848 and writing in the Red Republican: “It is high time the proletarians of Great Britain and Ireland came into possession of their rightful heritage…”

The Fraternal Democrats’ politics can be judged from a speech delivered by Harney in 1846 to the German Democratic Society for the Education of the Working Class. Said Harney: “The cause of the common people of all countries is the same the cause of labour… In each country the slavery of the many and the tyranny of the few are variously developed, but the principle in all is the same… Working men of all nations are not your grievances the same? Is not. then, your good cause one and the same also? We may differ as to the means … but the great end the veritable emancipation of the human race must be the aim and the end of all May the working classes of all nations combine in brotherhood for the triumph of their common cause.”

The Fraternal Democrats’ programme as outlined by Harney, declared: “We renounce, repudiate and condemn all hereditary inequalities and distinctions of caste. we declare that the present state of society which permits idlers and schemers to monopolise the fruits of the earth, and the productions of industry, and compels the working class to labour for inadequate rewards. and ever condemns them to social slavery, destitution and degradation is essentially unjust…”

MARX AND ENGELS

Harney and Engels first met in 1843, Harney wrote of their encounter: “…he came from Bradford to Leeds and inquired for me at the Northern Star office. A tall, handsome young man… whose English… was even then remarkable for its accuracy. He told me he was a constant reader of the Northern Star and took a keen interest in the Chartist movement. Thus began our friendship …” Engels started writing for the Northern Star in 1844. Despite Harney’s later split with Marx, his friendship with Engels endured. And fifty years later when Engels died Hamey contributed a moving obituary to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle.

Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor looked fondly upon the years of friendship between Harney and Engels. In 1887 she wrote in the Democratic Review: “…it has been my good fortune to know as a child George Julian Harney … only a few months ago 1 heard Harney and Engels talking of Chartist times.”

Harney first met Marx in 1845 during a short visit by the latter to England. The following year Marx and Engels were suggesting that Harney act as the link between the London Communists and their group in Brussels. Harney, who had joined the League of the Just in 1846, was closer to Marx’s critics who looked on the group in Belgium as “literary characters” guilty of “intellectual arrogance”. Marx and Engels toyed with the idea of ending relations with the London exiles and making a private deal with Harney but it was fruitless. Meanwhile the Northern Star reported greetings from the Belgium Communists to O’Connor who has stood as a Chartist in a by election.

In 1847 Harney stood for election in Tiverton where he opposed Lord Palmerston. ln his election address, Harney stated: “I would… oppose all wars and interventions except those which the voice of the people might pronounce absolutely indispensable for self defence, or the protection of the weak against the powerful. I would labour to put an end to the alliance of this country with despotic governments…” So worried was Palmerston by Harney’s attack that his reply filled five columns of The Times. On a show of hands Harney was overwhelmingly elected but declined to go to the poll in protest at an undemocratic franchise.

That year Marx returned to London to attend the second conference of the Communist League. While there he addressed a gathering of the Fraternal Democrats in celebration of the 1830 Polish Revolution. The Northern Star reported: “Dr. Marx… was greeted with every demonstration of welcome. The Democrats of Belgium felt that the Chartists of England were the real Democrats and that the moment they carried the six points of their Charter, the road to liberty would be opened to the whole world.” “Carry your object then”, said the speaker, “and you will be hailed as the saviours of the whole human race.”

In the course of his speech, Marx pointed out that the downfall of the established order is no loss for those having nothing to lose in the old society and this is the case in all countries for the great majority. They have, rather, everything to gain from the collapse of the old society which is the condition for the building of a new society no longer based on class oppression.

REVOLUTION!

Europe in 1848 was aflame with revolution. In France the monarchy of Louis Phillipe was overthrown and a republic proclaimed. The French Provisional Government invited Marx to France and even offered him money to start a newspaper. The Chartists welcomed the upheaval which saw the tricolour everywhere next to the red flag. The National Charter Association, the London Chartists and the Fraternal Democrats addressed the Parisian people in these words: “…you have exhibited a spectacle of unparalleled heroism, and thereby set an example to the enslaved nations of the earth … the fire that consumed the throne of the royal traitor and tyrant “I kindle the torch of liberty in every country of Europe.”

Harney, together with Emest Jones and Phillip McGraith, was sent to France to deliver this address to the Provincial Government. At the Hotel de Ville in Paris he assured France of the support of the British people, presenting Ledru Rollin with the original of the address adorned with the tricolour. This was hung over the presidential chair in the hall of audience. Hamey and Jones then went to meet with Marx.

When British intervention against France looked likely, the Fraternal Democrats issued a manifesto which stated: “Workingmen of Great Britain and Ireland, ask yourselves the question: why should you arm and fight for the preservation of institutions in the privileges of which you have no share … why should you arm and fight for the protection of property which you can only regard as the accumulated plunder of the fruits of your labour? Let the privileged and the property owners fight their own battles.” Jones assured the Fraternal Democrats that “the Book of Kings was fast closing in the Bible of Humanity.” The Northern Star editorialised: “…as France has secured her beloved Republic, so Ireland must have her parliament restored and England her idolised Charter.”

A banned meeting in Trafalgar Square proclaimed support for the Charter and the French Revolution. A riot ensued with lamps near Buckingham Palace being smashed to the alarm of Frau Guelph. Town after town held monster rallies under the tricolour hailing France and the Charter; a joint Irish and Chartist meeting in Edinburgh sung The Marseillaise. At Kennington Common twenty thousand gathered with the tricolour in the face of armed police.

In London a Chartist Convention assembled on April 4. Harney reported that his constituents had resolved that the forthcoming petition would be the last presented to the Commons as presently constituted. All delegates reported growing willingness to use physical force if the Charter was again rejected.

A march on parliament to present the petition was banned. Harney replied that the Chartists shouldn’t meet at all unless they were prepared to fight for the demonstration. Government buildings were barricaded, clerks armed and specials sworn in. The Empress decamped for the Isle of Wight. Troops were deployed and heavy guns brought up from Woolwich. As the Chartists prepared to demand their rights, the government, mindful of events in France, prepared for war!

On April 10, the Chartists assembled to hear O’Connor beg them to call things off claiming he would be shot. By 10am the Chartists with banners calling for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and “Ireland for the Irish” were on the march. In their midst was a carriage carrying the petition with over five million signatures. It was followed by another carriage with Hamey in the front seat. Eventually one hundred and fifty thousand gathered on Kennington Common. There O’Connor said he made a deal with the police they would allow the meeting if the march was called off. Various platforms were set up with Harney among the speakers. By 2pm the crowd was starting to disperse. Apart from a few scuffles there was no violence. Britain was not France!

The National Convention reconvened on May 1. Harney had been forbidden by O’Connor, his employer, to attend. The Convention became a short lived National Assembly. The National Charter Association was reorganised and links with the Irish Republicans (Ireland in the grip of the Great Hunger was ill prepared as Britain for revolution). There was talk of an uprising in the summer. In Bradford thousands marched with pikes. Northern Chartists resolved to form a National Guard and there were riots in Manchester. At London’s Bonner’s Fields, Jones assured his audience that the Chartist green flag would fly over Downing Street. This was not to be so.

The state struck first, the Irish heading the list. John Mitchell, editor of the United Irishman was transported being held en route in the Woolwich hulks. He was followed by Smith O’Brien whose rising in Tipperary failed. Next came the Chartists. London Chartists were found guilty of conspiring to levy war against Victoria. In Liverpool two were sentenced to death and five transported. Jones got two years.

Somehow, Harney remained at liberty. Amongst Chartists not behind bars the mood became one of despair and defeatism. Many now repudiated revolution and sought an alliance with middle class advocates of a limited extension of the franchise. Splits occurred and rival organisations were set up. Harney was on both the executive of the NCA and a provisional executive set up by London Chartists.

If some moved Right, Harney moved Left. As the Red Republican put it: “they have progressed from the idea of a simple political reform to the idea of Social Revolution.” For the Left, Chartism was now “… the cause of the producers, and the battle of this enslaved class is now the battle we fight, but it must be fought under the red flag… the task given to us at present is to rally our brother proletarians en masse around the flag, by means of a democratic and social propaganda, an agitation for the Charter and something more.”

Harney was now removed from the Northern Star by O’Connor who accused him of advocating murder, a charge repudiated by the NCA. Unity moves in the form of a National Charter and Social Reform Union was stillborn. The Chartist Convention of 1851 issued a statement emphasising that Chartism should be the protector of the oppressed and should recognise that a political change would be useless unless accompanied by a social change. The Red Republican appealed for reports from trade unions and co operative societies. By the end of the 1850s Chartism was a spent force.

Fired from the Northern Star, Harney started publication of the monthly Democratic Review. This carded articles from a wide range of Radicals including Engels. It also republished articles by Marx.

The Democratic Review was followed by the Red Republican which appeared on June 22, 1850. At its masthead was the bonnet rouge and the red flag. Articles advocated the expropriation of docks, canals and railways and even the abolition of money. In its pages was published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto.

Faced with a booksellers’ boycott, the name was changed to the Friend of the People. It was published from 1850 to 1852 when it merged with the Northern Star, then the Vanguard, to become the Star of Freedom. Harney’s final publication was the Vanguard which ceased publication in 1853.

AN UNWELCOME VISITOR

In 1850 there came to Britain the Austrian general Haynau, notorious for his activities in Hungary and Italy including the flogging of women. On a visit to the Barclay brewery in Southwark, workers answered Harney’s call for protests by grabbing Haynau, cutting off his moustache and flogging him. Chased through the brewery, he hid in a dustbin until tile police rescued him. The rest of his visit was spent in bed recovering. The event was the subject of a popular song.

By this lime Harney and Jones had fallen out, hurling accusations of dictatorship. Determined to defeat Harney, Jones called a convention in Manchester. There he was triumphant but he was powerless to halt Chartism’s decline. Unity moves, opposed by Hamey, again failed. The last Chartist Convention met in 1858. It was the end.

Hamey had also fallen out with Marx who was now living in London. The cause of the breach was Harney’s willingness to open the pages of his publications to a wide range of exiles including those with whom Marx was engaged in fractional strife.

At a Fraternal Democrats event in 1848 Marx had met with the followers of the French revolutionary Blanqui. Out of this there was organised the Universal Society of Communist Revolutionaries. Among those signing its statutes were Marx, Engels and Harney.

Early in 1851 Harney spoke at a meeting to commemorate the Polish patriot Bem, organised by French followers of Blanqui and Louis Blanc. That year he managed to be at rival events celebrating the 1848 French Revolution. The first was organised by the European Central Democratic Committee organised by Mazzini and others. Its statements ‘were regular features in the Red Republican and the Friend of the People.

The other was presided over by Schapper, an opponent of Marx. During the course of the meeting, two of Marx’s followers, Schram and Pieper, were accused of being spies and roughed up. Despite Harney’s defence of Schram, in the Friend of the People of March 15, 1850, Marx, now broke off cordial relations with Harney attacking him as an “impresionable plebeian”. Some months later they met again at a tea party celebrating Robert Owen’s 80th birthday. They did not meet again for 25 years – a chance encounter on Waterloo Station. Harney, however, continued to hold Marx in high esteem even offering to set up a fund to spread his ideas among British workers.

Increasingly politically isolated, Harney suffered a severe blow with the death of his wife in 1853. At the end of the year he moved to Newcastle where he tried to organise a Republican Brotherhood with Joseph Cowan. Two years later he moved to Jersey continuing to work as a journalist, resigning from his paper when it supported the Confederates in the American Civil War. In 1863 he emigrated to America.

There he worked as a clerk continuing to write articles for the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, now his only contact with the political world. When Charles Bradlaugh visited America in 1873, Harney acted as his guide.

In 1881 Harney returned to England. Living in Richmond, despite worsening health he continued working as a Journalist. Unlike some veteran Chartists he did not join H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. He did, however, send greetings to the striking dockers in 1889 and was present at the May Day demonstration in 1890.

Shortly before his death Hamey was interviewed for the SDF’s Social Democrat by Edward Aveling. Aveling wrote: “I see in this old man a link between the years and the years. I know that long after the rest of us are forgotten the name George Julian Harney will be remembered with thankfulness and tears”. There can be no better epitaph!

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This text was originally published as a pamphlet by the Friends of George Julian Harney, in 1997, to commemorate the 100th annversary of Harney’s death. Republished in a slightly revised edition, 2002.

In memory of the author, Terry Liddle, libertarian socialist, freethinker, working class historian, and dedicated southeast Londoner, who died in 2012.

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

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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

NB: Tidemill Community Garden was evicted by hundreds of police and bailiffs on 29th October 2018. This post was written shortly before that eviction.
The struggle around Reginald House continues…

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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

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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.

Follow past tense on twitter

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