‘Zone of Transition’: A radical history walk around Spitalfields and Brick Lane

Zone of Transition

A radical history walk around Spitalfields and Brick Lane

START: Christ Church, Commercial Street 

“a land of beer and blood”.

The area this walk covers is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest areas outside the City Walls to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Brick Lane’s origins go back some 2000 years, to an ancient roman cemetery at Lolesworth Field, Spitalfields. In 1576 this field was broken up for brick manufacture, hence the name of Brick Lane.

From the Middle Ages, the ‘Northeast Suburbs’, Spitalfields, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch, were well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, they fell outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, so criminals, outcasts, the poor and rebellious clustered here.

Map showing the Tower of London and the ‘Spital Field’, 1633

After 1500 Spitalfields underwent rapid urban growth. London expanded massively as large numbers of people flooded into the city: many dispossessed by rural enclosures, and deprived of the traditional welfare system by the Dissolution of the Monasteries under king Henry VII. In the City of London, trade was also expanding in many and varied directions, there were numerous jobs to be had, in both legitimate and illegitimate sectors. New rich classes were emerging, with new needs, requiring new services, and opening up exciting new chances to rob them. Neighbouring poor areas like Spitalfields absorbed many of these incomers.

In 1580 the population of east London was estimated to be 14,000. A third of these were in Whitechapel, and the rest in Stepney, which seems then to have included Spitalfields. Fifty years later in 1630, numbers had nearly quadrupled to 48,000. As land in the City and other central areas was redeveloped for commercial use and railways and new roads were built, working class people displaced from these neighbourhoods moved gradually eastward, joining refugees from rural ‘improvements’ and the persecuted from abroad.

John Stow’s Survey of London in 1603 referred to the building of “filthy cottages” to the north of Aldgate. At the end of the 16th Century there were already complaints about the numbers of lodging houses in the area. Spitalfields district was built up further around 1700.

The district between Aldgate and Brick Lane became a centre for homeless and drifting people – “idle, vagrant, loose and disorderly persons” – by the early 18th Century. The Brick Lane area especially remained associated with severe social problems: according to Mayhew, the lane and the streets running off it included not only lodging houses but also considerable numbers of brothels. Brick Lane, said the Rector of Christ Church in the 1880s, was “a land of beer and blood”.

[Partly because the area was known for housing breweries: The largest operator was Truman Hanbury & Buxton. This company’s brewery stood at 91 Brick Lane: T.H. & B. appear to have had a virtual monopoly of Spitalfields tied pubs east of Commercial Street, and gave their names to some of its central streets. Another major brewer was Mann Crossman & Paulin in Whitechapel Road, and further east where it became Mile End Road was Charrington & Co.

There were still some small, independent brewers, such as in nearby Spellman Street, into the late 19th century.]

Spitalfields housing was inevitably usually of low quality, overcrowded, run-down, often sub-divided, especially in the slums or ‘rookeries’.

But Spitalfields has also been described as City’s “first industrial suburb”. From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery- stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth‑century pogroms in east Europe, and Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s. Almost always they have been dissenters, or identifiably apart in religion or race. In the last decade or two newer communities like the Somalis have added to the mix. Colin Ward described Spitalfields as an inner‑city ‘zone of transition’, a densely populated ‘service centre for the metropolis’ where wave after wave of immigrants had struggled to gain a foothold on the urban economy.

Disorder has often been a regular feature of life here; from the 16th century, when London archers & youth gathered to demolish fences erected by the richer citizens of the City and outlying villages to try & enclose traditional recreation grounds. The open fields here were also place of illicit sex, clandestine meetings, prostitution.Poverty, partly caused by periodic depressions in cloth trade (eg that of 1620-40), and other issues could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

These aspects of local life led Spitalfields and the majority of its inhabitants to be seen as a ‘problem’ by those in power and the better of classes of London. Their poverty, the way they lived and often their attitude to work, caused them to be generally labeled immoral; the poverty and crap housing they lived in was perceived to be their own fault; their tendency to drink, crime and riot made them a threat. The area has for centuries been subject to plans, redevelopment, demolition, the removal and re-ordering of its population; whether to bring order or better housing to the poor, or to move them out so as to take over the space they lived in, as more recently.

These then are some of the central themes of our walk: the relationship of the City and Spitalfields’ industry, and the poor workers employed by it; migration and new incoming communities; and living space, how people live together, especially their housing, its quality and but also pressure from their betters seeing them as a threat, and wanting to control their environment, or wanting the land they live on and trying to move them on.

Christ Church

Hawksmoor’s grandiose Christ Church, Spitalfields, built in the early 18th Century, was deliberately located here, at a time when Spitalfields’ population of transients, migrants and dissidents was starting to worry the authorities. The power of the state was inextricably bound up with the power of the official Anglican church, not least in the minds of those in charge of both. Not only were there growing numbers of non-anglicans in Spitalfields, like the Hugenot refugees, as well as other non-conformists, but the constantly flowing movements of the poor meant it was hard to impose religious discipline. In order to advertise the overweening authority of Anglicanism to the inhabitants,  Christ Church was one of 50 new churches commissioned by an Act of parliament in 1711 (though only twelve got built, as the money ran out).

Homelessness was and still is, endemic in Spitalfields:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the gardens behind the church, then much larger, were a popular crashpad for the local homeless, known as Itchy Park.

Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903) describes his visit to the gardens at three o’clock one afternoon:

“A chill, raw wind was blowing, and these creatures huddled there in their rags, sleeping for the most part, or trying to sleep. Here were a dozen women, ranging in age from twenty years to seventy. Next a babe, possibly of nine months, lying asleep, flat on the hard bench, with neither pillow nor covering, nor with anyone looking after it. Next half‑a‑dozen men, sleeping bolt upright or leaning against one another in their sleep… On another bench a woman trimming the frayed strips of her rags with a knife, and another woman, with thread and needle, sewing up rents.”

London notes that as the iron railings prevented people from sleeping there at night, the homeless were obliged to sleep by day.

A large homeless population still frequents the area, due to the Salvation army hostels and Providence Row hostel; and the gardens were still popular with the homeless in the 1980s, when they used to come into a sharp class conflict with the visitors to the classical music concerts taking place at the church:

“This is the derelict congregation of the crypt. Its members attend a hostel and soup kitchen famous from the days when the church yard was known as Itchy Park and that, for many of the post‑war years which the church above stood semi‑derelict, provided the only regular service offered here. Ignoring the ancient injunction on bidding them to ‘Commit no nuisance’, these time‑honoured figures stage a vile performance of their own. They hurl insults at the concert‑goers, begging money from them obscenely and urinating on their smart cars. My sleeve was taken by a man who dragged me through the hellish narrative of twenty‑two years spent in gaol, shuddering with horror at the deteriorated company into which he been released, this fellow declared his own outlaw ethic in words should be cut into the stone of Hawksmoor’s building: ‘I’ve never mugged. I’ve never robbed a working‑class home’. As he sank away towards the underworld of the crypt, we ascended hierarchical steps to hear music by Messaien and Hans Werner. The frisson was undeniable.” (Patrick White)

The Irish

By the early 18th Century there were numbers of Irish people living in Spitalfields; frequently they were poor or destitute. The extreme poverty of the Irish locally was frequently noted. The radical Francis Place remarked in 1816 that the native poor of Spitalfields were better off than the Irish. Irish migrants were blamed for working for cheaper wages, especially in the building trades, and were on occasions attacked by ‘native’ workers. Irish workmen were being used for the building of Christ Church, and there were anti-Irish riots in Spitalfields in 1736:

“Tuesday 27 July 1736, the alarm was given by the Deputy Lieutenants of Tower Hamlets. They were barricaded inside the Angel and Crown tavern in Spitalfields, and calling desperately for reinforcements. Outside, the East End had erupted in violence. It was feeling against the Irish that triggered it. London was full of Irish workers. They flooded into the capital in search of jobs on building sites or out in the fields and, like all immigrants before and after them, they were accused of stealing English jobs. Within hours of the trouble starting, Walpole had informers mingling with the crowd, and sending back regular reports from public houses. ‘Some of [the crowd] told me,’ Joseph Bell scribbled hastily to his master, 6 there was such numbers of Irish who underwork them, they could not live and that there was an Irish man in the neighbourhood who employed numbers of them & they was determined to demolish him and drive the rest away.’ It turned out that the contractor for Shoreditch Church ‘had paid off his English labourers and imployed Irish because they worked cheaper.’ The same thing was happening in the weaving industry.

On the first night of the riots, Irish public houses were attacked. A squad of fifty soldiers under Major White, officer on duty at the Tower, found itself up against a crowd he estimated at 4,000. On Thursday, a boy called Thomas Larkin was shot dead in Brick Lane. The next night was even worse. Richard Button, a brewer’s assistant, ‘saw the mob coming down Bell Yard, with sticks and lighted links. One of them made a sort of speech directing the rest to go to Church Lane, to the Gentleman and Porter.’ The crowd was organised by now. These were no longer spontaneous demonstrations. Quite a few of the leaders had papers with lists of Irish pubs on them. ‘One of them was called Captain Tom the Barber, and was in a striped banjan. I would have taken notice of him ‘ Richard Button told the Old Bailey later, ‘but he turned away and would not let me see his face.’ The authorities were having to take ever stronger measures to deal with the situation. Clifford William Phillips, a Tower Hamlets magistrate, was woken by neighbours about ten o’clock, despatched a message to the Tower for help, and then set off towards the riot. ‘The street was very light,’ he recalled afterwards, ‘and I could see (at a distance) the mob beating against the shutters with their clubs and hear the glass. fly … 1 heard the hollowing at my house, and the cry in the street was Down with the Irish, Down with the Irish.’ As Richard Burton remembered, it was only the appearance of magistrate and soldiers that prevented worse violence. ‘Justice Phillips coming down, and the captain with his soldiers. they took some of [the crowd], and the rest made off immediately, and were gone as suddenly, as if a hole had been ready dug in the bottom of the street, and they had all dropped into it at once.”‘..

The Angel and Crown might have been on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.

There were further attacks on the Irish during the anti-Catholic phase of the Gordon riots in 1780 (in which many local weavers were said be involved).

Commercial Street: The Wicked Quarter Mile

For centuries there was a slum here, a “rookery” as they called them in the 19th Century: a notorious area of narrow alleys and dark yards; many of the buildings here were overcrowded, teeming with the poor; a good number were lodging houses, dosshouses, where the hungriest of the homeless scrounged a living, and of these most were identified by the police as haunts of criminals, thieves, prostitutes and other undesirables.  A double bed would cost 8d, a single 4d and when the all the beds were taken a rope might be fixed down the middle of the room with residents sleeping against it back-to-back for 2d. Those without the money for their lodgings were evicted nightly.

Commercial Street was built in the 1840s, partly as a way of breaking up this dangerous area, filled with the poor & desperate. “Wide new roads” were built around this time throughout London, partly to improve traffic and trade, but also were driven through rookeries to “let in air, light, police, and most important of all, disturbing the inhabitants from their old haunts.” Commercial Street’s commercial value was exaggerated:  for twenty years as it didn’t extend far enough northwards to be of much use as a highway; but this wasn’t its main aim. 1300 poor people were evicted here (with no right to rehousing in those days) and many of the most infamous areas knocked down… Each side of the new throughfare, tenement blocks were build by Model Dwelling Companies, (Rothschild Buildings and Lolesworth Buildings to the east, Wentworth and Brunswick Buildings and Davis Mansions to the west) sponsored by middle class housing reformers, built by pioneering Housing Associations like Peabody. Although an important motive for their construction was a desire to improve working class living conditions, and thus help stave off class violence and rebellion, and drag the immoral poor out of the gutter, in the long run the new Dwellings failed in their purpose. Rents were deliberately set high enough to make sure only most respectable of working class could afford it; certainly excluding the very poor who mainly inhabited the rookery.

More on the building of roads in the 19th century to deliberately socially cleanse the poor

Walk south down Commercial Street to Flower & Dean St or Lolesworth Close

But thirty years later Flower and Dean Street area, two streets south of here, was still a ‘rookery’, “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders of course. The 1870s saw a revived campaign of middle class reformers to demolish it, a huge propaganda war waged at portraying the inhabitants as immoral, ‘unsavoury characters’ crims, prostitutes etc. This was a time of great fear among the middle classes, after the Paris Commune rising, that the disorderly poor would, if not controlled/pacified by charity and coercion hand in hand, rise up and destroy them. Also that they were immoral, vice-ridden, responsible for their own poverty, etc and that if you put them in a different more moral and orderly environment, moral reform and improved social conditions would make them less shiftless, respectable, and less likely to riot and rebel. Many of the age’s greatest middle class reformers, celebrated pioneers in the development of housing associations, charity etc, acted partly from this fear. Repeated attempts of charity, police, religion, sanitary reform and coercion having constantly failed to control the Flower and Dean Street area, only demolition would do. But it took the Jack the Ripper murders to provide the push that led to the demolition of the “foulest enclaves” of Flower & Dean Street. Three of the ripper’s victims had lived lives of dire poverty in the street, and the media storm the killings roused focussed a spotlight on the area. The Four Per Cent Dwelling Company bought up the north-east side of the street and built Nathaniel Dwellings; on the north side of Wentworth Street, Stafford House was erected (thanks to the guilt-ridden landowners the Hendersons, in an attempt to banish the bad publicity the murders were spreading). Through the 1890s other blocks went up in the old rookery, between Lolesworth and Thrawl Streets.

Ironically 120 years and more later these model blocks had decayed themselves and become slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. Only this time the tenants resistance would change the outcome… We will return to this…

Walk across Commercial Street to White’s Row, and walk down to the corner of Tenterground.

The area immediately south of here, known as the Tenter Ground, between Wentworth Street on the south, Rose Lane (since disappeared under Commercial Street) on the east and Bell Lane on the west, was the last part of Spitalfields to be formed into streets. The bounding streets on the south, east and west were built up by the 1640’s and the northern boundary was formed into the south side of White’s Row in about 1650. The central plot of ground remained open, however, until the second decade of the nineteenth century, being a space where ‘tenters’ could be set up – frames to stretch dry newly woven cloth.

On 4th March 1702, Jack Sheppard was born somewhere here. Growing up poor, he spent some of his childhood in the local workhouse, later being apprenticed to a carpenter. He jacked this in to become a thief, but as the prison escaper extra-ordinaire of the 18th century, breaking out of the Clerkenwell New Prison, the Bridewell, and Newgate Prison, in various ingenious ways, he earned enduring fame in his short lifetime. For a hundred years after his death many working class people uninterested in the name of current monarchs and prime ministers could retell Jack’s story in detail.

In some ways Jack could be held to be symbolic of the disorderly nature of this area. Although his rebellion was individual, it chimes with the poor and rebellious Spitalfields folk of many centuries, resistant to authority, hostile to attempts to govern them. As another example, from two streets north of here: in 1763, after Cornelius Sanders was hanged for stealing £50 from her, a Mrs White’s house was attacked by a large crowd: “great numbers of people assembling, they at last grew so outrageous that a guard of soldiers was sent for to stop their proceedings; notwithstanding which, they forced open the door, pitched out all the salmon-tubs, most of the household furniture, piled them on a heap, and set fire to them, and, to prevent the guards from extinguishing the flames, pelted them off with stones, and would not disperse till the whole was consumed.” (Annual Register, 1763)

Walk down White’s Row To Crispin Street

Lewis Chauvet’s silk factory stood here in the 1760s, at no 39.

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bethnal Green.

Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members… Spitalfields had a small-scale silk-weaving industry from the fifteenth century, based on early settlements of foreigners outside the City walls, which increased gradually as protestant refugees from Netherlands congregated here, especially during the Dutch Wars of independence from Spain in the 1580s-early 1600s.

In the early years weaving here was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Compnay were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.

Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.

Silk dyeing in the fourteenth century

Silk Weavers conducted a long-running battle with their employers in the 17th and 18th centuries, over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles. At this point the interests of masters and journeymen converged, for the engine loom was being used by total outsiders, and restriction on this technical innovation kept both wages and profits high. But tacit backing of workers violence by master-weavers was always a risky strategy: class conflict kept breaking through. And continued agitation to keep wages high gradually pushed masters seeking to drive profits and productivity up into increased mechanisation…

The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the extreme Chartists of the 1830s.

In 1675, in a three-day riot against machine looms, dozens of bands of weavers roamed the city, some clothed in green (a suspect colour politically, being associated with the Levellers), beating drums, waving flags & setting on the masters who used new engine looms, burning the looms in the streets. The Army suppressed the ‘insurrection’. As a result of the riots full mechanisation was delayed in the industry for a century.

After 1685, Hugenot refugees from France swelled the ranks of the weavers, in Spitalfields, West Bethnal Green and Norton Folgate. Some French co-religionists already there, and many of the migrants were clothworkers, eg weavers from Tours and Lyons. They brought new techniques, designs and materials, working top quality silks with high levels of skill;  their methods, designs and materials spread from them to wider population here.

In 1697 there were further riots against imports on foreign silks, widely seen as undercutting prices for East London cloths. Again masters encouraged crowd violence. Weavers besieged parliament, marched on Lewisham’s silks mills to smash machine looms operating there; and attacked the HQ of the East India Company, major importer of silks from India. They also threatened the house of Joshua Childs, the East India Company’s dictator.

These disturbances and others in succeeding years led to protectionist measures being passed in parliament in 1700 to protect the industry from competition from foreign cloths.

In the 18th Century, silk and the wearing of it, was one of the most potent symbols of class divisions. According to Peter Linebaugh “it was the fabric of power and class command…”; he describes this century as ‘The Age of Silk’. A silk dress could cost £50 in materials alone (a huge sum then), but there was a great contrast of consumer and producer: “the ladies strolling in St James’s Park, adorned in cascades of silk contrived with cuffs, flounces and bows to capture the wandering eye…the gentlmen in their silk stockings and waistcoats, their brocaded jackets and silken knee-britches, bowing and scraping into lordly favour, awaiting the moment to give a command of battle or to sign a death warrant…” The producers were the thousands of men, women and children in the East End, “winding, throwing, dyeing, weaving, drawing, cutting, designing, stitching in hundreds of attics and garrets”. A proverb summed it up: “We are all Adam’s children, but silk makes the difference.”

Silk reeling

Huge fluctuations in silk trade meant intermittent poverty for weavers, the whole area could be plunged into periodic depression and desperation. As a result crime was rife; Spitalfields was the home parish for 64 of the men and women hanged at Tyburn between 1709 and 1783; many were silkworkers, and overwhelmingly a larger proportion of those executed hailed from Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

1719-20 saw another prolonged agitation, this time over imports of calico, dyed and patterned cloth from India, very fashionable then, which weavers widely perceived as causing reduced demand for silk (calico was quite a bit cheaper…) In June 1719, thousands assembled in Spitalfields and the Mint, and marched in protest over calico imports. Somewhat dodgily tactics included attacking any women walking in the City wearing calico.

Obviously this tactic is not without its, er, issues today, and one woman at least, did respond in print, denouncing “a gang of audacious rogues to come and fall on us on the streets, and tear the clothes off our backs, insult and abuse us, and tell us we shall not wear what they do not weave; is this to be allowed in a Nation of Liberty?” Class and gender relations tangled here in confused ways: the weavers were poor workers, the women targeted mostly middle to upper class; but male power and violence was clearly involved too. Hmmm. Discuss.

In 1720, weavers rallied in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, and more attacks on calico wearers followed. The protests of 1719-20 were successful, leading to a ban on calico. High import duties were also imposed on the importing of French made silks, the main competitor for Spitalfields cloth; this led however to a widespread trade in smuggled silks from France.

The weavers and their morals

Their penchant for violence in their economic interests was not the only attribute that earned the silkweavers denunciations from their ‘betters’. Being relatively highly paid, for the time, (at least when trade was good), if many silkweavers could subsist on three days work a week, they would. Spitalfields silkweavers were often attacked in print for their idleness and drunkenness. ‘Saint Monday’, taking Monday off (with a hangover, or just to carry on partying), was usually celebrated, and work in the week was often interupted by talking and tippling. And while Saturday morning was officially a work day, it was usually the day to get piece work together, take it to the master and get paid; another day involving much hanging about, chewing the fat and getting a few bevvies in. There were many weavers alehouses in the area: the Crown and Shuttle, the Mulberry Tree, the Three Jolly Weavers, the

Silk weaving, from Hogarth’s ‘Idle Apprentice’ series of etching. Hogarth’s series tells a moral tale of a lazy, unruly apprentice weaver who neglects his work, falls in with bad company and ends on the gallows.

Throwers Arms, the Dyers, the eight different pubs called Weavers Arms, and the three Robin Hood and Little John Inns.

If the politicians, journalists and other worthies who every so often express their disgust, thought that “the scandal of public drunkenness” was anything new… they should think again.

For centuries the life of all classes was steeped in alcohol; up to the eighteenth century public carousing was enjoyed pretty freely, and the English were famed for drink and violence. It was only really in Victorian times that the question of the inebriated state of the poor became the favourite subject for the chattering classes. There were three main reasons:

a – increasing overcrowding in cities, due to enclosure etc pushing people off the land…

b – the growing industrial Revolution: the need for more effective work discipline to force people to work in factories;

c – fear of the disorderly poor, dating from the 18th century mobs, but made more urgent by events like the French revolution: plebs could overthrow society if they weren’t kept in line/taught to respect authority, etc.

Growing campaigns for ‘moral reform’ was the result. Overall a population which sweated out its beer by performing long hours of hard, physical work appears to have held its drink well. However drunkenness was a common problem, especially at weekends and in the lowest districts. Given the moralistic nature of Victorian society this inevitably gave rise to considerable debate amongst the chattering classes. Often this was conducted through the columns of the newspapers, which had become obsessed with the condition of the underclass in what would now be described as ‘the inner cities’. The question as to whether people were poor because they drank, or drank because they were poor was well aired. In fact this debate pre-dated the Ripper murders by a few years. Early sociologists such as Charles Booth (who performed studies in the East End) had already investigated the subject. Booth had reached the unfashionable conclusion that it was the poor socio-economic conditions of the area that caused excessive drinking.

Whatever the cause, newspaper reports and court records of the time show a constant stream of offenders being dealt with by magistrates. A study of the penalties for being drunk and disorderly shows a full range of sentences, from fines to jail sentences with hard labour. Miscreants were frequently imprisoned because they could not afford to pay the fine.

Calico printing

Although the Calico Acts protected the silkweaving trade for a few decades, increased smuggling, gradual exporting of skills and methods to other parts of the country, slowly eroded the Spitalfields  stranglehold on the industry. Sporadic flashes of aggro broke out. In 1739 a master weaver’s house in Spital Square was besieged by workers, who tried to destroy it – they were dispersed by guards.

But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. As a result two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike.

There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, and ended in murder and execution.

In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms. They broke open one of the master’s houses,  destroyed his looms, cut to pieces much valuable silk, carried his effigy in a cart through the neighbourhood and afterwards burnt it, hung in chains from a gibbet. The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

The following year, with the slump worsening, weavers petitioned Parliament to impose double duties upon all foreign wrought silks. This petition being rejected, crowds of weavers went to the House of Commons on 10 January 1764, ‘with drums beating and banners flying,’ to demand the total prohibition of foreign silks. This was the day of the opening of Parliament: its members were besieged by the weavers with tales of the great distress which had fallen upon them and their families. Parliament did pass some laws lowering the import duty on raw silk and prohibiting the importation of silk ribbons, stockings, and gloves, and dealers in foreign silks gave assurances they would reduce orders for foreign silks, and a contribution was made for the immediate relief of the sufferers. These actions appeased the weavers for a while, and the only violence committed was that of breaking the windows of some merchants who dealt in French silks.

In 1765, however, wage riots broke out again; at a time of high food prices & unemployment. In May 8000 weavers armed with bludgeons and pickaxes, besieged and attacked Bedford House in Bloomsbury three times, after the Duke engineered the defeat of a bill in the House of Lords designed to protect the  silkweaving trade by placing high import duties on Italian silks. The 4th Duke of Bedford was a whig politician, in and out of various positions of power; leader at one time of a political faction nick-named the Bloomsbury Gang; his extensive interests in the East India Company, which was engaged in importing cheaper Indian textiles, also undercutting the weavers’ livelihoods, made him an even more hated target.

Continued rioting by the weavers all month in Spitalfields and elsewhere kept London in such a state of general alarm that troops were stationed in the area and in Moorfields, and the citizens enrolled themselves for military duty. As a result of the May riots an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.

Trouble was also breaking out between groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads. On 30 November 1767, “ a body of weavers, armed with rusty swords, pistols and other offensive weapons, assembled at a house on Saffron-hill, with an intent to destroy the work of an eminent weaver without much mischief.” On the authorities arresting and questioning some of them  it turned out this was a dispute between hand loom weavers and machine loom users.

The events of 1762-7 however were merely a curtain raiser for 1768-69 though. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle with bitter violence, rioting, threatening letters to employers, hundreds of raids on factories. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices.

In the Summer of 1769, an attempt to cut wages by some masters led some journeymen to organise a levy on looms, to raise money to fund organised resistance. Secret clubs were formed, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop), which attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or possessed a loom. They met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, Bethnal Green. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing style notes: ”Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”

Which brings us to Lewis Chauvet, a major silk boss, whose factory was here in Crispin Street: leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin. He forbade his workers to join the weavers’ clubs or to pay any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.

Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

This was going way too far for the authorities. On 30 Sept 1769, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two cutters and a soldier dead; four weavers were arrested.

As a result, two weavers, John Valloine & John Doyle,  implicated by witnesses who claimed a reward from Chauvet, were convicted of murder and hanged on the 6th December 1769, despite an organised attempt to free them, and attacks on the men building the gallows with stones. Doyle and Valloine were hanged at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows & burn his furniture. Two weeks later on December 20th,  more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford and John Carmichael. Daniel Clarke, a silk pattern drawer and small employer was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against some of the hanged men. He had regularly tried to undercut agreed wage rates and had testified before against insurgent weavers.

Loom with a Jacquard pattern head. The cards with holes in to guide the loom into weaving particular patterns pre-figured early card-driven computers

Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a grim epitaph. On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford, and finally stoned to death in the Hare Street Pond in Bethnal Green.  In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law –  and Robert Campbell were hanged in Hare Street on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’. Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

Although prices were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal. This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time.

The Act of 1792 included those weavers who worked upon silk mixed with other materials, and that of 1811 extended the provisions to female weavers.

The Spitalfields Acts were renewed several times until 1824. Opinion at the time as to their effect on the local silk industry was sharply divided: in the 1810s/1820s they were the subject of a pamphlet war and verbal exchanges in the newspapers. Historians also disagree. On one hand wages were not reduced to starvation levels across the board, as had happened before. On the other it was claimed they had a negative effect on the weavers and industry; some manufacturers upped sticks and moved up north where they could pay cheaper wages. It did sometimes mean that some men would be working at full rates while others would have been laid off by masters unable, or unwilling, or who didn’t have enough work to pay the proper rate; a slump in the trade between 1785 and 1798 forced thousands of weavers completely out of work. Although things were better between 1798 and 1815, the post-War recession bit hard;  at a public meeting held at the Mansion House on 26 November 1816, for the relief of the weavers, the secretary stated that two-thirds of them were without employment and without the means of support, that ‘some had deserted their houses in despair unable to endure the sight of their starving families, and many pined under languishing diseases brought on by the want of food and clothing.’

One major result at least between 1773 and 1824 seems to have been an end to weavers’ riots and cuttings… It is argued in pamphlets in the 1820s that the Spitalfields weavers were diverted from radical, reforming and revolutionary politics, especially in the 1790s and 1810s when other similar groups of workers were widely attracted to such ideas. For instance, no or few weavers were supposed to have taken place in the food riots of 1795… [Interestingly local anger may have also been diverted in 1795 by the opening of London’s first ever soup kitchen. Its founder, Patrick Colquhoun, had the stated aim of preventing the poor being attracted by revolutionary ideas at the time of the French Revolution & widespread radical activity; he was a clever theorist of controlling the troublesome workers with repression and paternalism hand in hand, and was also instrumental in forming the Thames River Police, and important forerunner of the Met.]

So if it is the case that some weavers were skint while others worked, the Acts may have worked to reduce militancy and split the weavers movement.

The division over the Acts can be seen then as a traditional split in ruling/employer attitudes to workers militancy: either pacify them and reduce trouble, or reduce their wages savagely regardless and repress any resistance. In the 1770s the paternal idea of a local state intervention to keep the peace in everyone ‘s interest prevailed, but in the harsher times of the laissez-faire 1820s they were an expensive anachronism. Manufacturers may have moved their business out to areas with less of a rebellious tradition in any case, however.

It is certain that Repeal of the Acts in 1824, under the ‘progressive’ Whig program of economic liberalisation, was very unpopular among weavers (an 11,000 strong petition was got up in 3 days against repeal, and there were demos at parliament) and resulted in widespread wage cuts and extreme poverty. The trade was sabotaged. But the fight had seemingly gone out of the weavers… Although there were some strikes, loom–cutting and window smashing, it was ineffective.

Repeal led to or coincided with terrible poverty in area: (see Buxton Street, below).

After 1830, the London silkweaving industry went into a terminal decline,. Although in 1831 there were still 17,000 looms in the East End, and some 50,000 people in Spitalfields, Mile End New Town and Bethnal Green were directly dependent on silk weaving, 30,000 were said to be unemployed here in the 1830s. The steam-powered loom gradually took over from handloom-weaving. Although some weavers migrated to other silk-working areas, most remained, many taking to casual work in spells of unemployment, especially on the docks. An 1837 Poor Law Report stated that ‘a considerable number of the weavers are fellowship porters and are employed in unloading vessels at London docks during seasons of distress.’  Many weavers worked half in and half out of the trade through the 1840s and 1850s, hopeful that the good times would return. But the fate of the industry was finally sealed by the Cobden free trade treaty with France in 1860, which allowed cheaper french silks in without duty.  In the twenty years, the numbers dependent on the silk trade fell from 9,500 to 3,300. A deputation of silk weavers to the Board of Trade in 1866, stated that in the previous six years, their wage rates had been reduced by 20 per cent, and the price paid for weaving standard velvet had fallen front 4s. 3d. per yard in 1825 to 1s. 9d. per yard. A dwindling band of ageing workers remained in the trade, sharing out the limited work that continued to be available.

But the clothing trade has remained a major employer in the area, though today it has moved on from silkweaving, (through different branches of tailoring), to wholesaling and retailing clothing. Clothes are still made here, overwhelmingly in small workshops or people’s homes, for low pay, usually the province of migrant workers or their children. New communities moving into the area could be hired to work at lower rates than existing workers. The Irish were hired to work power looms to undercut the rebellious descendants of the hugenots…

Although the Spitalfields Acts said by historians to have kept weavers out of food riots during the various crises of the French/Napoleonic Wars, at the same time, reforming and radical groupings met in Spitalfields and had support in this area through the 1790s to the 1830s.

In the late 1790s, the various splinter groups variously called the United Britons, United Englishmen or the True Britons were active here. These groups emerged from the wreckage of the London Corresponding Society, a reforming organisation formed in 1792 among London artisans and workers. The LCS had campaigned for an extension of the vote for working men, but even this simple reform had scared the British government in the atmosphere following the French Revolution: they saw the shadow of the guillotine in even the most polite of working class organisation. The LCS became more radical as it faced increasing government repression, mass surveillance by Home Office spies, arrests, treason trials, and as laws were passed attacking freedom of expression and association and removing legal protection from detainees.
LCS Division 17 formed November 1792 met at the Black Swan, Brown’s Lane, Spitalfields; Brown’s Lane changed its name to Hanbury Street in 1876. The Black Swan was at 23 Hanbury Street until 1899, on the north side of the street.

Faced with massive repression, the failure of the LCS’ main tactics of the monster rally and gradual education, some frustrated radicals gave up on demands for reform, and decided that only a revolution by force would achieve any gains at all for the lower classes. By 1797, small fractions of the LCS were organising in secret, making links with like-minded groups in other cities (and in Ireland, which was ready to explode). Leading lights included former LCS Secretary Thomas Evans, and Dr Crossfield. The United Englishmen attempted to create grassroots divisions in late 1797, and local societies existed in Spitalfields and other parts of the East End. After a crackdown and some arrests in 1798, the underground groups revived in 1799, as part of a structure based on cells, centred on former soldier Colonel Despard, who had recently been released from detention. In the East End they effectively merged with the Sons of Liberty, another radical splinter group. The Seven Stars Pub was a Sons of Liberty/United Englishmen rendesvous in 1798-99. (possibly in Seven Star Yard, off Brick Lane). These groups attempted to plot an uprising, with support from disaffected soldiers, radical groups nationwide and irish republicans, culminating in an abortive insurrection in 1802, for which Despard and others were executed.

Later, during the economic slump that followed the end of the Napoleonic War, mass unemployment (as hundreds of thousands were suddenly demobbed from the army and navy, and the war economy collapsed), food shortages and high prices led to unrest all over the country. 1815 saw riots all year, including against the new ‘Corn Laws’, Acts of Parliament designed to guarantee maximum profits for the English landed aristocracy (who then dominated Parliament) by banning cheap imports of corn; in times of bad harvest this meant high bread prices. The government cracked down, sending in troops and passing new repressive laws. 45,000 people were said to be ‘in want’ in Spitalfields at this time; how many weavers were involved in the Corn Law riots and the battle of Spa Fields (where rioters looted gun shops) is not known… But local taverns again saw heated gatherings of the ultra-radicals, plotting insurrection and rebellion: some of them even veterans of the 1790s movement. The Golden Key Tavern, the Red Lion (possibly 92 Commercial Street?, on the east side, at entrance to modern Puma Court, then Red Lion Court) ), and the Spotted Dog, were all said in 1817/18 to be regular meeting places of the insurrectionary revolutionaries.

The National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) had a Spitalfields and East End branch. The NUWC formed as an alliance of metropolitan radicals, mainly artisans, and campaigned for political reform, mainly through demanding the vote for working men.

Later, the East London Democratic Association, a ‘physical force’ Chartist organisation, was strong in Spitalfields, with alot of support among the silkweavers.

Walk west down Artillery Lane, then north up Gun Street, to the corner with Brushfield Street

Jewish immigration in Whitechapel and Spitalfields

In 1881 the assassination of the russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to leave Russia. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s.

Anti-semitism has a long history, but large-scale Jewish migration into the area sparked a new and specific campaign against it. There was fierce anti-immigrant agitation; and not just from right-wingers. Central figures in this campaign included people like Major Evans-Gordon, the MP for Stepney, (whose speeches and writings are remarkably similar to those of Enoch Powell later), the Reverend Billing of Spitalfields, the local vicar; and Arnold White, but also from East End trade unions. An early rally against Jewish immigration produced a resolution to Parliament calling for bans on migrants, signed by 43 unions including the Dockers Union; pioneer socialist and much revered dockers leader Ben Tillet was outspokenly very anti-immigrant.

Much of the writing and speechmaking Invasion’ described them as being of inferior race of humanity, and tried to establish a causal link between the Jews and poverty, and the creation of social evils in the areas they inhabited. Arnold White’s symposium The Destitute Alien in Great Britain was published in 1892. Books like  WH Wilkins’ ‘The Alien Invasion’ described them as being of inferior class, questioned whether they in fact brought Russian persecution upon themselves, and campaigned for strict immigration laws.

Locally the Jewish migrants, overcrowded like most new-coming communities into the worst housing, were blamed for the squalor, overcrowding and poverty they lived in; accusations repeated by other working class people barely escaped from a similar position, but most vehemently by those of the class that profited nicely from renting slums at over-inflated rents. The same accusations had been levelled at the Irish, wherever they had ‘colonised’, and were later repeated against West Indians in Brixton and Notting Hill in the 1950s and ’60s.

In 1901 Major Evans-Gordon and others formed the British Brothers’ League, basically a nationalist and racist organisation, to help build up  anti-immigrant activity. Every Conservative candidate in Bethnal Green, Hoxton and Haggerston – districts where organised racism remained a major feature for decades – exploited anti-immigrant attitudes in elections from 1892 to 1906. This pressure paid off, contributing to the passing the first Aliens Act. restricting immigration, in 1905.

Local working class people from older communities often saw the Jews as direct competition in the daily struggle for jobs. The East End had long depended on casual, low paid work, where you might compete day by day to get work ahead of your neighbours. Others were ‘self-employed’ in precarious circumstances; for instance many of the incomers either were or became street pedlars, selling in the street, which was a direct threat to the livelihoods of the mostly irish costermongers (street-traders) of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. many of these  organized their own agitation against Jewish immigration; much as their ancestors had also been attacked in earlier centuries.

Anti-semitic traditions passed down to 1930s Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, strong in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and parts of Stepney.

The local Irish population were ironically strongly anti-semitic, despite the story of the jews echoing their own experience in the area 100-150 years earlier. (the powerful influence of the Catholic Church in Irish communities would be a powerful factor, “the Jews killed Our Lord blah blah”…) This echo is a regular feature of life here: migrant communities struggle to gain foothold, provoking fear of difference and economic competition, but when they establish themselves, they often turn on the next migrants to arrive, who they see as threatening their own barely established hold. Many East End Irish were to become strong supporters of Oswald Mosley and his fascists; long-cockneyfied Irish descendants in more recent decades took a dim view of incoming Bangladeshis.

Facing such a hostile reaction, the migrant Jews tended to respond in one of three ways: religious isolationism, a turn to more orthodox judaism; working hard and attempting to assimilate; thirdly, to radicalism, trade unionism and ideas of class solidarity, usually across ‘religious’ lines.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers.

East End tailors, 1913.

Like the silkweaving industry of old, the tailoring trade was subject to many fluctuations. Annually there were two seasons, busy time and slack time: in busy time tailors were overworked, denied breaks, working very long hours; in slack times, there was little or no work, resulting in great poverty and hunger. Pawnbrokers would be the only ones booming, and 100s of unemployed tailors would mill in the streets, waiting to hear about work, gossiping, discussing…

A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

In May 1876, the Hebrew Socialist Union was founded here in Gun Street, at no 40. (The current building at no 40 replaced the building they met in, which was demolished in 1976). The HSU’s founders included Aaron Lieberman, who had emigrated to London the year before, having been involved in populist and socialist politics in Russia, and Isaac Stone. The Union aimed to organise among the Jewish working class, spread socialism among Jews and non-Jews, and to support workers’ organisation and struggles; they held educational classes on philosophy, history, revolution, socialism. Although they organised Jewish workers separately from ‘native’ workers they were not separatist, and they did make a noble but ill-fated attempt to approach Irish workers locally, who were often very anti semitic. The HSU also promoted the formation of a tailors union in August 1876.

But the group was paralysed by constant doctrinal disputes; over whether small masters and peddlars were workers and should be allowed in to the HSU; but mostly over religion, assimilation and observance. Liebermann was very anti-religious, but many of the members combined some radical views with religious belief.

Hebrew Socialist Union pamphlet

As well as internal division, the Hebrew Socialist Union also faced hostility from the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Many Jews in established communities, which had more or less made themselves acceptable and respectable to British society, were worried or even opposed to the influx of poor Eastern Jews, especially with so many being of the radical persuasion; would the latent anti-semitism always present here be provoked and would they older more assimilated communities also become targets? The great and good among the more accepted Jews adopted a dual approach: charity towards the new migrants, but accompanied by pressure to settle down, work hard, integrate into ‘normal’ British life, and not make trouble. On the other hand they attacked the HSU in print, trying to discredit them by suggesting they weren’t Jewish, and found support for this among local bosses. Workers found to be HSU members were sacked. Rabbis denounced them, and the Jewish Chronicle accused them of being secret Christian missionaries. Union Meetings were infiltrated by religious jews incited by this, and degenerated into rowdy argument.

Partly as a result, and partly due to dissensions between the more intellectual Lithuanian socialists, and practical-minded workers (mainly from Galicia), both the HSU and its offshoot tailors’ union were shortlived; the HSU collapsed in September 1876, the tailors union split from its socialist founders but collapsed when the treasurer ran off with its funds.

Aaron Lieberman left for America, where he was to kill himself in 1880; but he had influenced the growing Jewish socialist movement in Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe through his writings in the journal Vperyod, which helped form Jewish socialist movements in those countries.
And brief as its life had been, the Hebrew Socialist Union had laid some foundations for the movements of Jewish radicals, socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists, which continued for decades. Jews formed the basis of East End tailors unions, the movements against sweating in the clothing trades, of the strong East End anarchist movement before World War 1, and later of the strong Jewish element among the Communist Party long into the 20th Century.

Walk west down Brushfield Street to the corner with Fort Street

29a Fort Street was the original editorial address of the Arbeter Fraint, or Workers Friend, a hugely influential and long-running Yiddish language newspaper based in the East End.

The Arbeter Fraint had its origins in the Poilishe Yidel, a socialist paper that was initially based nearby at 137 Commercial Street. First published in 1884, the group that grew up around the paper’s office was of fundamental importance in building the local Jewish radical tradition.

The Poilishe Yidel (meaning the little polish jew, which in itself was a dig an anglo-jewish establishment) was the first socialist paper in Yiddish, founded by Morris Winchevsky, who had arrived in London around 1879, and worked as a book-keeper in the City. He had met up with ex-members of the Hebrew Socialist Union, and took careful note of the religious problems that had dogged the HSU; he laid off from attacks on religion!

Winchevsky launched a socialist paper (sponsored by his mate E. Rabbinowitz) with a three-fold mission: to instruct and support Jewish people, to help the new Jewish migrant or‘greener’ practically (eg in seeking work), and to provide insight into world events, with a radical perspective.

The Yidel employed a strong use of religious language, using quotes directly from religuous texts as headings, etc. This reflected the  background of Winchevsky (and several other jewish radical editors) in a religious training they had later rejected.

But this language of religion was also obviously a common point of reference with their audience, as well as often being powerful imagery in itself.

16 issues of the Poilishe Yidel appeared. Winchevsky had a distinctive style, alternating from pathos to bitter irony. The paper featured descriptions of immigrant life in the ‘stetl’ (the slang name for a community mostly populated by Jews); local, national and international news with political analysis and comment, correspondents from Leeds (the other main Jewish centre in the UK). Mainly though the Yidel contained didactic appraisals of life in the ghetto and suggestions for solutions. This included numerous articles on the subject of work – finding it, the pay, exploitation of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived naive Jews), problems with bosses and landlords… The paper continually advised Jews to get involved in the formation of trade unions.

Poilishe Yidel also kept a watch on anti-semitism in the press, meetings, encouraged Jewish workers to get tuition in Yiddish and English.

However, the group putting out the paper split in October 1884: initially this was caused by Winchevsky’s resentment of Rabbinowitz’s insertion of adverts, both religious and commercial, espeically an ad for the Liberal Jewish candidate (later local MP) Samuel Montagu. Under Rabbinowitz’s influence the paper was renamed ‘Zukunft’, went anti-socialist, concentrated on local affairs & ended in 1889…

Winchevsky, however, founded a new paper, the Arbeter Fraint, again published in Yiddish. Initially this was a non-partisan socialist paper, “open to all radicals…  social democrats, collectivists, communists, and anarchists”.

This paper always held a global view of socialism, rejecting jewish nationalism along with anti-semitism, and advocating  revolution… but Winchevsky remained committed to helping the Jewish poor.

It gathered a group of bright young Jewish writers: eg Benjamin Feigenbaum, (obsessed with debunking religion), wrote anti-religious satires. Evolving from the Yidel’s abstaining where religion was converned, the Arbeter Fraint began to attack on religion: constantly denigrating the Jews’ own ancient faith, sometimes through the parody of religious texts.


Initially the AF attacked trade unions as merely a sop to the workers, as there could be no real improvements under capitalism. Revolution was the only solution and was imminent… But fairly soon realities of conditions in the tailoring sweating trades forced them to concede to necessity, and from 1886 the paper helped the drive toward unionisation.

From a monthly, the paper went weekly in June 1886, and came under control of activists at the Berner Street International Workingmans Educational Club, off Commercial Road, Whitechapel, where it was based till the club closed in 1892.

Gradually the group hardened into a more anarchist position, and recruited several libertarian writers and poets. The group that published it were heavily involved in the agitation among tailoring workers that helped lead to the 1889 tailors strike, 6000 tailors struck for a reduction in hours, breaks, meals to be had off premises, government contractors to pay union rates, no home work at night after hours…120 workshops were closed down.

The strike was won after much agitation, but the master tailors started to break the subsequent agreements immediately.

We’ll return to Arbeter Fraint later

Dino’s café, on the corner of Brushfield Street/Crispin Street was apparently used as an impromptu shelter all night by the many homeless who frequented the area in the 1960s/70s, as it was open all hours for market workers; also mods used to gather here, as it was a hangout for speed dealers in the early ‘60s…

There was also a legendary homeless flame on Brushfield Street, somewhere behaind the market: a leak in a gas pipe possibly?), popularly remembered as the “Spitalfields Fire’, around which the homeless also used to gather. The legend claimed the flame had a charter, that it had burned forever…

People around a fire, Spitafields Market

Apparently there was a Jewish Co-operative Bakery established in Brushfield Street, in September 1894; Yanovsky and Wess of Arbeter Fraint were involved. We have no more info…

 Walk down Brushfield Street to the entrance to Spitalfields Market

A regular market has been held on this spot for centuries. In earlier centuries it was a popular spot for selling off materials knocked off from work by dockers, shipyard workers and tailors.

Socking – flogging off tobacco lifted off the docks – was widely practised here… very similar to the selling of smuggled fags & baccy at Brick Lane in more recent times…

The 1880s saw the first attempt to close the market: it was opposed by locals and radicals, successfully. But in 1885 acres of ‘unused ‘land here which the Metropolitan Board (explain) had taken over, were beginning to be built on with warehouses. There was, according to the local Rector, some working‑class anger that new housing was not being built instead: some organised protest meetings took place.
The current Market building was built in 1890; the buildings were extended in 1928.
Fruit and veg market ended in 1980s, when the City of London relocated the market, selling the site to developers Spitalfields Development Group (SDG). Despite the building being partly listed, there have been several attempts to get it demolished, or partly, as the land’s worth a fortune esp with expansion of office blocks into Spitalfields since the 80s.

As an interim measure, while it honed plans for new office blocks, the developers Spitalfields Development Group (SDG) started a Sunday market at the site, with stalls offering everything from organic food to tarot readings. The irony is that the interim market was such a huge success that it was seized upon by opponents to City encroachment as a much better option for Spitalfields than more office blocks. Spitalfields Market Under Threat (Smut) is supported by organisations as disparate as the East London Mosque, the local Georgian house-owners’ association, the local community council and prominent individuals such as Sir Terence Conran, Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George. And the  battle between it and the City, the Corporation of London and SDG grows ever more bitter. Smut took its campaign to the heart of the City where members unfurled a “Don’t Demolish Neighbourhood Assets” banner outside the Bank of England, where the Corporation of London was hosting a debate on East End regeneration.

Two-fifths of the market – built in 1890, listed and, therefore, protected – is now in the hands of Ballymore developers who are promising to preserve a reduced stall market in their new commercial development.

Ironically much of the support for the campaigns against demolishing the market is centred on newer occupants, buying in to cheap property prices but driving up land values… another case of one wave of gentrification resisting the one that follows them?

We’ll return to gentrification later on…

Walk across Commercial Street into Fournier Street, walk east, then north into Wilkes Street

Wilkes Street is named for John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment), through the 1760s and 1770s, Wilkes served as a figurehead for a collection of varied and almost contradictory political and social urges – the national pressure for reform of the electoral franchise, the struggle for ‘liberty’ of the subject, the teeming resentments of the artisans and apprentices against their ‘betters’…

Wilkes had many allies in the City of London, among powerful merchants who combined genuine opposition to the corrupt political establishment with an eye for their own advancement. He tapped into widespread desires across the country for electoral reform, among a middle class frustrated by their exclusion from political representation.

But he could also excite a rowdy mob… Several times in the years from 1763 to 1772 his supporters thronged the city of London and terrified the ruling elite.
After Wilkes in 1763 criticised a royal speech in which King George III praised the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years’ War, he was charged with libel, in effect, accusing the King of lying. This got him locked up in the Tower of London and, when he fled into exile, he was declared an outlaw in 1764.

Wilkes returned from exile in February 1768, a move which was to spark a huge agitation across the capital. Wilkes petitioned for a royal pardon, an appeal that went unanswered, but he was left free by the authorities. Despite still technically being an outlaw, he attempted without success to win election to the House of Commons in Westminster; when that failed, he stood for election in Middlesex in late March. Accompanied by a great crowd from London, Wilkes attended the hustings in Brentford, and was duly elected as MP for Middlesex. This result, a slap in the face for the government, caused outbreaks of wild celebrating among elements of the ‘London Mobility’, who rejoiced in the streets, harassing householders (especially the well-to-do) into lighting up their houses ‘for Wilkes and Liberty’ (smashing windows of those who refused). Despite Wilkes appealing for calm, demonstrations and riots followed for nearly two months.

On 27 April 1768: John Wilkes was brought to the 3 Tuns Tavern in Wilkes Street by a crowd & spoke to a vast mob…

Within a couple of weeks he was in prison and the authorities were shooting his supporters at the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’.

The weavers seized on the popular figure of Wilkes at a time of fierce class struggle in their trade, and gave him mass support…

Like many another popular leader, Wilkes eventually made his peace with the establishment and ended up Mayor of London, and commanded troops against later rioters in 1780.

An anarchist group called ‘proletariat’ was said by a hostile press report to meet in Wilkes Street in 1891…

Walk down to Wilkes Street to Hanbury St: Stop at Christchurch Hall 

Christchurch Hall, Hanbury Street, was used for many strike meetings and radical gatherings from the 1880s;  including the famous striking matchgirls in 1888, anti-sweating rallies, by striking tailors during the massive strikes in 1889 and the 1890s, by anti-development campaigns in Brick Lane (1919); also by the local anarchists: the Arbeter Fraint group held public meetings and anti-religious balls here.

1891: An anarchist mantlemakers union briefly existed in Hanbury Street, possibly the same ‘Knights of Freedom’ said to have had a club in Hanbury Street in 1891… not sure where? But could have been at the Sugar Loaf pub…

Walk down to Brick Lane, across and down to eastern end of Hanbury Street

After the demise of the Berner Street anarchist club in November 1892, the Arbeter Fraint group, now completely anarchist, held its weekly meetings at the Sugar Loaf Public House, then no 187 Hanbury Street, somewhere at eastern end… In a building since demolished.

They met in in a large hall behind the bar. The pub atmosphere could be hostile: “there were always several drunks there, men and women, who used foul language and became abusive when they saw a foreigner.” Meetings were held on Friday nights, and the regular lectures were given sometimes in English, Yiddish, German or Russian! Speakers included Rudolf Rocker, John Turner, William Wess, Tcherkesov, and many more… The Sugar Loaf was home to the group right up until they established their own club again in Jubilee Street in Stepney in 1906.

According to Rocker the Arbeter Fraint group was overwhelmingly composed of workers, “sad and worn, they were sweatshop workers, badly paid, and half-starved. They sat crowded together on hard benches, and the badly lighted room made them seem paler than they really were. But they followed the speaker with rapt attention…”

The group in the early 1900s included Rudolf Rocker, the Mitcop sisters Millie and Rose, ‘Red’ Rose Robins, who like several other Arbeter Frainters worked as a tailor; and Judith Goodman, who always wore a wig as cossacks had torn all her hair out before she emigrated from Russia.

But increasingly the group was centred around Rudolf Rocker, who became a hugely influential figure in the East End, for a few short years. German, not in fact Jewish, Rocker was originally a socialist, who became an anarchist under the influence of Malatesta and Louise Michel after migrating to London. Moving to East London and got involved in the Sugar Loaf/Arbeter Fraint circle, learning Yiddish so as to immerse himself in the life of the Jewish community…

In 1905 Rocker was accused of being a German government spy and was called to answer the charge at a meeting of London-based anarchists in a large back room of a pub at the corner of Old Montague Street and Osborne Street – now called The Archers. The meeting ended in uproar but Rocker’s innocence was established.

The Arbeter Fraint Group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906. This emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, led to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. A strike committee was set up in a HQ in Independent Tailors & Garment workers Union office in Old Montague Street (since demolished). There was mass picketing, and scabs were kidnapped and released to their families on payment of a fine into the strike fund! But workers were driven gradually back to work by hardship, and though it was settled with concession on hours and abolition of piece work, the terms won were ambivalent, masters also forced concessions on the workers, and union membership suffered.

The effects of this strike were not totally reversed till the massive 1912 Tailors Strike, when East End tailors struck en masse in solidarity with a (mainly non-Jewish) West End strike, refusing to scab, inspired by a powerful Rocker speech at a meeting in Wonderland Theatre, Whitechapel. 13,000 Jewish tailors came out and made their own demands; this time Rocker and other Arbeter Frainters were on the strike committee. Demands were formulated for a 9 hour working day, payment by day work not piece work, higher wages, closed union shops, an end to bad conditions at work… Attempts to starve workers back by lockout failed, and the workers won all their demands – paving the way for an end to sweating and possibility of united tailors unions… Rocker and the AF group encouraged support for 1911 and 1912 dock strikes, and many Jewish workers took dockers children into homes in 1912… They made links that lasted years, bearing fruit into the 1930s and the battle of Cable Street…

The Jewish anarchist workers movement declined with World War 1; Rocker was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ for the duration of the war, and many Jews went back to Russia with the 1917 revolution… Many anarchists and syndicalists joined the Communist Party under the influence of the Soviet victory, others left the movement as Jews gradually moved to other areas of London.

Walk east down Hanbury Street to Greatorex Street, turn right, walk down Greatorex Street to Chicksand Street

In 1917, Isaac Glassman ran a coal depot in Chicksand Street. After the Russian Revolution, Poplar socialists Glassman & Edgar Lansbury allegedly stashed the Russian Crown Jewels (smuggled into Britain by Russian socialists) here, while they tried to flog them, to raise money for the socialist Daily Herald paper! But Edgar’s dad George Lansbury, then running the Herald, quashed the idea; the jewels eventually ended up in the US but it’s not clear what happened to the money…

Continue down Greatorex Street to Old Montague Street, turn right

Housing Struggles

 Housing conditions for the working classes in Spitalfields were notoriously terrible for centuries. A 1837 outbreak of fever among silkweavers was blamed on their bad housing. The People of the Abyss damns the state of housing here… Little had changed by the 1970s. Local housing was overcrowded, especially in the privately rented tenements and terraces, but also in council flats; often there was no hot water, no heating, bad sanitation, no baths, no inside toilets… lots of bugs and damp.

Many houses were traditionally combined with workplaces, from the weavers through to the Jewish tailors who took piecework in their homes.

Spitalfields didn’t feature in the 1944 County of London Plan to improve housing, or get much rehousing post WW2, especially in the then Jewish areas. Spitalfields and St Mary’s Ward (south of Whitechapel Road, around Parfett Street) were two local wards left out of the post-war plan; much of the buildings there into the 1970s were hangovers from a century or more earlier.

From the building of Commercial Street to County of London Plan 1944, middle classes have always seen it as legit to force people out of an area when they didn’t fit the plan… This continues…

By the 1960s, locals, including the Jewish communities, were often moving on from this part of the East End. The more affluent Jewish often moved to Stamford Hill, Tottenham, Finchley, Golders Green etc… Those with less cash ended up rehoused in LCC/GLC housing, often in Becontree and Ilford estates (the LCC had managed to buy 1000 acres of Ilford land before WW2) .

Left unimproved by the bulldozing planners, Spitalfields and St Mary’s Ward where were cheap private rents were available for early Bengali immigrants moving into the area in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many first moved into private housing as they couldn’t get into council housing; but private also was not easy – in 1966 a third of all ads for private housing specified ‘no coloureds’.

The earliest Bengali settlers were men, migrant workers; most crowded into a few houses in Settles Street (off Fieldgate Street), Princelet Street, Old Montague Street, Heneage Street, and Wilkes Street …

The men came first, arriving from the nineteen-fifties as guestworkers to help solve the labour shortage. Later, they sent for their wives and families, many leaving extreme poverty, natural disaster and war in Bangladesh. Spitalfields and Whitechapel again saw the growth of concentrated migrant communities, once again mainly poor and facing the same dynamics of racism and resistance, as well as an ongoing struggle between insularity and integration into the East End…

Their settlement followed patterns, overcrowding, multiple occupation houses and flats, in a bad state of repair, many buildings containing houses and workshops.

Spitalfields by the 1970s and 1980s had nearly the highest overcrowding, nearly highest unemployment levels, nearly highest percentage of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in London. The Bengali migrants were generally working in the clothing trade, having gradually taken over as the workforce where the older Jewish tailors moved on. As previously noted, the East End clothing trades relied heavily on proximity to West End, and a quick response to fashion and seasonal changes. Fast turnover was crucial to supply shops in the West End and further afield, as were low overheads: home workers represented a major cost saving for employers. Around 1989, 12 per cent of the Spitalfields population was working in the home.

There was little contact between Bengalis and the older white population (which was itself far from homogenous, encompassing not only British, but also the descendants of Irish, Maltese, and Jewish groups: many of who were considered ‘less than white’ and targeted for discrimination and racism for decades)

White people mainly lived in the best of local council housing, and mainly worked for the council or in service industries by the 1980s, while 2/3 of Bengalis were in clothing trades. But a quarter of white population were pensioners by the 70s. Many younger and more mobile whites had moved out of slums, taken housing further east or out in Essex. Much of the local Council housing was pre-war, and had no lifts, heating or bathrooms; even the more modern 60s stuff was at its worst (like some flats in the Chicksand Estate) badly designed. unheatable, damp, with warping timbers, and leaks…

Many white tenants wanted to leave, but others had long roots in area, felt a sense of community, and wanted to stay and fight for improvements. Some of their activities were based on racism, however; the age old local dynamic that the last community in are the scum of the earth and the descendants of the previous waves of migrants will give them hell, forgetting their own forbears’ experience (of course there were exceptions to this).

Some white tenants mounted resistance to Bengalis being rehoused in council flats. White tenants on the Holland Estate tried to prevent a Bengali Community school being resited in neighbouring Denning St; white tenants in Chicksand Estate tried to stop new houses in Davenant Street being built for Bengalis.

Both of these did go through in the end.

In 1974, mounting anger over housing conditions led to mass leaflettings and a mass meeting in the Montefiore Centre, which led to the creation of Spit Community Action Group. Discussions among the Bengali community around this time also led to the birth of Spitalfields Bengali Action Group.

Many tenants in old mansion blocks had to campaign to get rehoused. The blocks, often built as model dwellings to replace the rookery housing in the 19th century, and seen as prestigious enough in their day, had themselves fallen into decline.

In Brunswick Buildings, Petticoat Lane, walls were collapsing, postmen wouldn’t go in; the bin men couldn’t drive their cart in due to overparking from the array of Jags and Opels of businessmen working in nearby offices. The tenants fought for a council CPO and got themselves rehoused…

Similarly two years of campaigns at Pelham Buildings, Howard Buildings , Albert Family Dwellings (all off Deal Street and Buxton Street) by tenants action committees got people rehoused.

Often campaigns for rehousing in the same local area, or for modernisation of the existing blocks, was turned down; the council had longer term plans to sell land off for office developments, as at Brady Street Dwellings, which contained well built flats which could have been modernised.

Amidst the housing struggles, the Bengalis and other community groups united to resist plans to ghettoize them… especially vital for the Bengalis, as they tended to get left behind when white tenants were rehoused, or faced racist attacks and harassment when rehoused into council estates in other parts of the borough. Which often led to them fleeing back to the areas where the Bengali community clustered already, for self-defence, community, to avoid being isolated and attacked. Young Bengalis were in the forefront of the anti-ghetto movement. Ironically, given the isolation and hostility Bengalis faced when rehoused on overwhelmingly white estates, institutions like Tower Hamlets Council and the GLC were worried about areas or streets becoming exclusively Bengali.

Horace Cutler, leader of the GLC in the late 1970s, expressed “extreme disquiet” about proposals to rehouse Asian families together, rejecting “ absolutely the kind of social engineering which could result in all-Asian estates or blocks.

Squatting

The complex struggle for better housing conditions and rehousing was further refracted by the emergence of squatting in the early-mid 1970s.

From 1969-70 onwards, right across London squatters were invading housing that had been left empty, often by over‑ambitious council development programmes that had backfired. Tower Hamlets was no exception. Although many of the early squatters were young, white and single, Bengali families were quick to join in. Some were homeless families who’d been rehoused on white estates, and had been punched and stoned back to E1 by systematic racist violence. Others were looking for places to squat to avoid this fate, as the council was offering them nothing through the waiting list, and they had exhausted the goodwill of friends and relatives who had been putting them up. These were some of the very first Bengali families to join their men in London.

The squatting began in Bromley Street, Aston Street, Whitehorse Lane, Belgrave Street in East Stepney, then Adelina Grove near Sidney Street, and Parfett Street, Myrdle Street and Fieldgate Mansions off Whitechapel Road. Students mixed in with Bengali families.

The cutting edge of the movement was an organisation which called itself the ‘Faceless Homeless’. They escalated the confrontation in 1974 by seizing a decanted council block in Bow called Sumner House, and held it despite everything the council could do.

Tower Hamlets Council accused squatters of ‘jumping the waiting list’. However, the council itself was sponsoring its own way of  jumping the list: the Housing Ballot, where young couples ‘won’ a council house if their names were picked out of a Bingo drum. This ended any pretence that housing was being allocated according to need; if housing were allocated on the basis of need, Bengalis stood a chance, as they were living in the very worst housing. The Bingo Ballot was a thinly disguised way of giving white working‑class families, who weren’t living in the worst slums, a chance to beat Bengalis to rehousing.

Bengalis, living in desperate, overcrowded conditions, faced no priority for council housing, and so had to take action for themselves. In the summer of 1975, the first mass Bengali squat in Spitalfields opened up the empty houses of Old Montague Street, housing  twenty‑two adults and 50 children. This kickstarted a rush of squatting in the area: empties in Varden Street and Nelson Street were taken over. And the more houses were squatted, the collective strength helped make everyone safer from individual eviction. Many of the homes had been recently vacated by tenants who had struggled collectively for rehousing.

A council attempt of a show of force against the Faceless Homeless in occupation of a block in Corfield Street, Bethnal Green, in 1975, where gangs were sent in to knock the block down with the squatters still inside, faced stout resistance, including the petrol‑bombing of the  demolition equipment, and the Corfield Street squatters were given permanent rehousing as a Tenant Management Co‑operative in Wapping.

February 1976 saw the various Bengali squatted streets unite as the Bengali Housing Action Group, known as BHAG (bhag is also Bengali for ‘tiger’!) Largely a creation of Abbas Uddin, one of the organisers of the Bengali squats (and later the first Bengali Labour councillor), Terry Fitzpatrick, one of the Faceless Homeless, supported of the editorial collective of the magazine Race Today. At its peak BHAG was several hundred families strong, with a core of 150 in the four main squatted streets. Under BHAG’s auspices another block was taken, this time the recently emptied Pelham Buildings in the heart of Spitalfields. Bengali squatters controlled a large chunk of the housing at the heart of the council’s local development programme. They were in a strong position to demand terms for proper council rehousing for its membership.

Homes were rewired, replumbed, reglazed by the squatters. But many of the homes had degenerated into near- slum conditions, which was why they lay empty, and a lot were in a poor state. DIY utilities had their limits and dangers: one cable ran from the electricity board head to supply all 60 flats in Pelham Buildings. On a cold winter’s night, the outside insulation of that cable would be too hot to hold. Terry Fitzpatrick nearly had his head blown off trying to replace the main fuse after the London Electricity Board removed it.

BHAG also had to step in to take control of squats after profiteering by mini-gangsters and dodgy characters to charge rent for squats… With nowhere new to squat, and conditions getting worse, some of BHAG’s momentum was lost.

The editorial collective of Race Today which had helped set up BHAG had become increasingly distanced from it. Members were concerned that BHAG as a provider of housing would lose its political direction. For them, ‘all it could succeed in doing was recreating in a squalid ghetto block some of the feudal relations of the Asian village’. Race Today saw BHAG as ideally

“A body of people who would promote the independent organisation of the black working class to win, through a determined campaign, the physical, social space our community needed. We were not a group to make general moan about the neglect of the East End by the state’s welfare authorities.”

Race Today felt that BHAG’s membership needed to be built round political demands and not simply round those of the Bengali squatters which could be defused by GLC offers of rehousing on derelict estates.

The poor condition of many of the squats, even after DIY repairs, meant that the thrust of BHAG activity became more and more towards demanding council rehousing for the residents. A second generation of people asking to be moved out of the very same slum properties which tenants had fought to be rehoused from just a few years before. BHAG was learning from the experience of previous clearances in demanding local rehousing, while it used strength in numbers to negotiate, as the Faceless Homeless had.

In 1976 the Labour-run GLC Housing Committee had summarily dismissed the Bengalis squatters’ claims for rehousing. But the Tories who took over the GLC in 1977, came forward with a London‑wide amnesty for squatters ‑ guaranteeing them all rehousing. The GLC had realised how difficult it would be to evict several hundred Bengali families who had nowhere else to go, which would put massive pressure on Tower Hamlets Homeless Persons Unit and leave hundreds of houses would be left empty, open to more. Evicting then smashing up the houses was politically unpopular after Lambeth Council’s disastrous defeat trying just that, at St Agnes Place in 1977.

BHAG voted to endorse the amnesty helped register all the Bengali squatters it knew about. The GLC hired the Montefiore Centre for a whole day with a team of interpreters and the squatters poured through.

BHAG drew up a list of estates where their members would be safe from racist attack, and the new GLC in trying to arrange local rehousing.. Each estate was voted on by show of hands at a mass meeting and a list of 13 was given to the GLC with a guarantee from BHAG that no reasonable offer on any of those estates would be refused.

Walk west back down to Brick Lane, turn right and down to no 59 (mosque)

A symbol of the immigration in East End, and the religious changes migration has brought.

Built as a Hugenot protestant church, then taken over by Methodists, and later the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. Ironically in the light of this last, in 1898 the former chapel became the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, and the self-styled ‘fortress’ of religious Orthodoxy of Anglo-Jewry. Since …. it has been a mosque, serving the Bengali community that now dominates the area.

Religion is often a double-edged sword for migrant communities. On the one hand it can act both as a comfort and a centre, binding people closer together in strange environment, allowing them to feel support and solidarity of people like themselves; and continuity with their life in the place they came from. But religion also often marks them out as different, ‘other’, alien; and is used to target them as outsiders, or even subversives, terrorists. The Irish and Catholicism, Jews and Judaism, Bangladeshis and Islam: the threat of the foreigner has commonly been bound up with their worshipping the wrong god(s), which continues today. The  British Establishment has often attacked groups holding to a different religion as undermining social order (remember the building of Christ Church in Commercial Street); in response, being targeted can drive migrants, or their children, into more fundamental and radical forms of belief. While some younger or second generation migrants become influenced by the secular society around them; others take on even more hardline forms of worship than parents – both these processes are currently underway among the Bengalis to some extent.
Religion is also used as a means of control within migrant communities to reinforce traditional hierarchies in uncertain situations.

The radical Eastern European Jews seem to have been unique here, in that they already had, or rapidly developed, a strong overt secular strand within their ranks, which was expressed in provacative atheism and outrageous public rejection of the tenets of the Jewish faith.

Thus this building, as the Great Synagogue (Machzzke?’ Ha Dath), became a target for the strong Jewish anarchist and socialist anti-religious sentiment in the early 1900s. On one occasion this led to a riot. It was occasioned by the Anarchist balls, deliberately held on Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish festivals, which even marginal Jews generally respect. Young political Jews flaunted their contempt for tradition by marching in column to the Synagogue, smoking or brandishing ham sandwiches as gestures of defiance and rejection of their creed. The service over, angry worshippers, sometimes in full regalia, would rush out and attacked the atheists with any weapon they could seize.

Walk Round corner to Princelet Street

In 1904, the annual skirmish between religious and anti-religious Jews erupted into a full‑scale riot. Round the corner at no 3 Princelet St (then called Princes St), in premises once used by Jacob Adler and his troupe for the first ever Yiddish theatre, the Socialists had established a Volkskuche (People’s Restaurant), which supplied cheap meals and was, therefore, heavily patronised. Come Yom Kippur, this became the focus for the Yom Kippur battle. The East London Observer reported what followed:

“Thousands of Jews were walking along the streets, when they were met by a body of Socialist Jews, who had driven a van containing food along the streets. All the Orthodox Jews were fasting and they at once resented this unseemly display. The Socialists being driven into their club responded by throwing glass bottles out of the windows. Several cases of minor injury occurred and the disorder thus started to spread quickly. Within half an hour the whole area round Princelet Street was in a state of great agitation. Excited groups of Orthodox Jews were parading the streets threatening the Socialists with dire penalties for their insults and stones were thrown at the home of prominent Socialists… It is alleged that the Socialists pelted a Synagogue which stands adjacent to their club, and that they had arranged a concert for the day of fasting – invitations to which they had sent to the principal Rabbis”.

The historian Rollin told a slightly different story:

“I was making my way towards the Club with a young woman comrade in Princelet Street, where a threatening crowd had gathered. As we approached some men in front sprang at the girl like tigers, threw her to the ground and started beating her, whilst I was hurled against the wall and pinned there. The Club members, hearing our cries, rushed to our defence and brought us in. The girl was torn and bleeding and laid semi-conscious on the floor … We sent a messenger begging help from the Anarchists, who were holding their ball in a hall at Rhondda Grove, Bow…”

This message brought Arbeter Frainter Sam Dreen and a score of young bloods to the rescue: they jumped a train to Gardiners Corner, and rushed up Brick Lane in time to relieve the beleaguered Socialists. They apparently beat off the invaders, as a large force of police arrived and quickly dispersed the crowd, arresting some men and boys in the process.

The magistrates attributed the cause of the disturbance to the so-called orthodox. Of the eight brought up for trial, two Socialists who declared that, being non-religious, they could not observe Yom Kippur, were summarily discharged; and the bench commented that it was deplorable ‘that a class of persons who for centuries had been distinguished as the victims of the fiercest persecutions should, when in the one free country of the world, turn upon those who disagreed with them on religious points, their own co-religionists, and stone and persecute them’.’

But Rollin suggests that there may have been another motive for the trouble: the Volkskuche prices, such as bread, a penny a piece, soup threepence a plate, sixpence for soup with meat, were half those charged by local private restaurateurs, who naturally resented this ‘unfair’ competition. Under the guise of protecting religion, the latter had prepared an attack on the Volkskuche on Yom Kippur, led by hired thugs.

Walk back to Brick Lane, turn right, walk up to Buxton Street

The repeal of the Spitalfields Acts (see above) led to or coincided with terrible poverty in this area : resulting in at least some collective social crime in response. In Autumn 1826, 500-600 strong groups met in Brickfield, Spicer St, (now Buxton St), to cook food stolen from shops en masse. They also ambushed animals going to Smithfield & Barnet markets & drove them to the marshes. The Horse Patrol were sent in to break up the party.

Walk up to Cheshire Street, and east down to the corner of Kerbela Street

Racism & racist attacks:

From the 1960s racist attacks against Bengalis in the East End began to mount: increasing in 1970 as the “skinhead era” arrived. The increase in attacks by young people, often from the area, against Pakistanis and Indians was a significant aspect of this new phenomenon.

Skins in Brick Lane, 1978

“Paki-bashing”; seems to have been first recorded on April 3 1970 when several daily papers mentioned attacks by skinheads on two Asian workers at the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. On April 5 The Observer claimed that Tosir Ali was murdered on April 7, and Gulam Taslim documented 36 cases of racial attacks in this period. On April 26,1970 some 50 youngsters went on the rampage in Brick Lane and five Pakistanis were injured. It was in this year, as well, that the discussion of self-defence began, and mass meetings of the Asian community were held in different parts of Tower Hamlets. There were meetings with MPs and the police, and demands for action.

In Tower Hamlets at that time it was generally felt that little of this wave of racial harassment was directly attributable to extremist political groups.

But: there was a clear link to fascist/far right groups in the area, who had been active for decades in this part of the East End.

In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists claimed 4,000 members in Bethnal Green. Mosley’s post-war fascist outfit, the Union Movement, used to meet in Kerbela Street, off Cheshire Street, in the late ‘40s.

Cheshire Street and Brick Lane later became a prime meeting point of the National Labour Party, which had formed an East London branch in a Cheshire Street pub in 1958. This NLP and later merged into the original British National Party in 1960. The BNP held regular meetings on this same spot and nearby locations in the Cheshire Street and Brick Lane district in the early 1960s, and their paper Combat was sold there and regularly featured East End issues.

This BNP was a constituent of the National Front in 1967, a merger of several rightwing groups into what was to become the largest far right organisation in Britain for decades.

Outside the National Front HQ, 1978

During 1976, National Front activity in the vicinity of Brick Lane increased, as the NF attempted to gain a base in East London; it based its tactics on provocative newspaper sales in Brick Lane, the heart of the Bengali area. “The National Front has been concentrating on utilising bands of white youths to give verbal support to Front members selling newspapers in the lane. An Advertiser reporter recently saw NF supporters swearing and spitting at Asians who walked past members selling papers near Bethnal Green.”

The NF later (from 1978) had its national HQ in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane.

The more overtly nazi (though smaller) British Movement was also active in Bethnal Green and Hoxton).

The role of the National Front and the British Movement in the area exploited the widely held feelings of powerlessness and inability to effect change. They have entered into a vacuum left by the collapse of a strong socialist movement based on vision and principle, and by the weakness of organised religion, Jewish and Christian.

Both built upon the small but important tradition of fascism which has survived in the Bethnal Green and Shoreditch areas since the days of Mosley. They also organised the existing race hatred, enabling many disturbed and alienated young people to see the Asian community as scapegoats and victims.

Resistance to racism

In 1976 the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London was set up as a broad-based body to draw attention to the inadequacy of the protection offered to Asian people by the police and the authorities. The great increase in racial attacks in the area had been catalogued by the Spitalfields Bengali Action Group. Attacks increased further with the killing of two students from the Middle East who were attending Queen Mary College in the East End.

On the day that John Kingsley Read of the National Party made his infamous “One down – a million to go” comments in Newham on the Chaggar murder, ARCAEL organised a mass meeting in the Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. The meeting was chaired by Mala Dhoride, and addressed by Darcus Howe of the Race Today Collective, Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney, and Dan Jones, Secretary of Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council. It was followed by a 3,000 strong protest march to Leman Street Police Station demanding action to “keep blood off the streets’. Self defence patrols were developed by the local Bengalis with help from black newpaper Race Today. ARCAEL to some extent had taken the path of black self-organisation Race Today advocated, rejecting the older Bengali businessmen of the Bangladeshi Welfare Association, whose line was to trust police and appeal for help to government.

During this period, the Asian community and other anti-racist groups began to occupy the National Front selling site in Bethnal Green Road, an occupation which had been inspired by the comment by Chief Superintendent John Wallis at a public meeting of the Council of Citizens of Tower Hamlets that the only way for anti-racists to get rid of the National Front was for them to arrive earlier! When they followed his advice, they were removed by the police on the grounds that a reach of the peace was likely to occur.

From the police, local Bengalis largely experienced at best apathy, or actual collusion with racists. Cops would escort racists around, and basically tended to arrest any asian opposing racists…. Symbolically, a British Movement graffiti slogan had remained for some months on the outside wall of Bethnal Green Police Station.

The Bengali community self-defence groups had an effect: racial attacks calmed down for a while.

But in 1977, there were more racist attacks: gangs of white youth from neighbouring estates roaming Brick Lane targetting asians. In 1978 events stepped up: beginning with the murder of young Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali on May 4 in Adler Street, Whitechapel. This “triggered a massive wave of protest throughout East London”. 7000 marched in protest from here to Downing Street.

On June 11th (following considerable Press coverage of GLC plans for housing Bengalis in what were described as “ghettos”) 150 youths rampaged through the Brick Lane district, smashing windows, throwing bottles and lumps of concrete, and damaging shops and cars.

June 18, in response,  saw an anti-racist march, organised by the Anti-Nazi League and the Bengali Youth Movement Against Racist Attacks (a short-lived alliance between three of the major Bengali youth organisations in Tower Hamlets, all of which had started in 1976) Some 4,000 people, black and white, took part in this march. But the following Sunday there were further violent incidents, many of the attacks by white racists taking place in side streets. However, during the whole period, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested: some 50 anti-racists and less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.

On September 24, 1978, a large anti-racist demonstration was held in the East End to “defend Brick Lane” against the possibility that a National Front march might come close to the district. Some 2,000 anti-racists blocked the entrance to Brick Lane, although in fact the NF had gone via side streets to a meeting in Hoxton. During the course of the day, there was a good deal of criticism of the Anti-Nazi League who had organised the Brixton Carnival Against the Nazis in Brockwell Park, Brixton, drawing 100,000 people far from the action…

In the early 1980s, the National Front lost support as the tory government nicked their thunder… But locally a lot of good work was done to prevent racist attacks, though police activity seemed mainly aimed at defusing self-organised self-defence (never popular with the state). Local or national state support for Bengali political and cultural projects helped draw much of the community away from the self-organised militancy.

But racist grouping never went away. In the later 80s, from the various splinters that the NF fell apart into, a new British National Party began to emerge as the largest far right group. Through 1990-93, a renewed struggle over nazi papersales in Brick Lane, mainly organised by Anti-Fascist Action and its allies, saw stand-offs and pitched battles between fascists and anti-fascists; BNP papersellers were chased off; pubs used by fash before papersales – including The Sun pub- blockaded.

Meanwhile, the continuing tradition of Bengali youth mobilising for self-defence produced organisations such as Youth Connection,  a young Bengali action group, in the early 1990s.

Although locally the racial attacks situation calmed down alot, hard right propaganda was still bearing fruit for Brick Lane in 1999: on 24 April that year, nazi sympathizer David Copeland planted a bomb here (a week after bombing Brixton), aiming at the multi-racial mix of the area, something he hated. Seven people were slightly hurt in his attempt to to kickstart a race war. A week later his bomb in a gay pub in Soho killed three people.

More recently control of social policy and the focus of welfare, housing etc, has again become an issue, as older white working class communities claim to see migrants as getting a better deal, bigger flats and so on. Also resentment of ‘middle class do-gooders’ from outside championing migrant communities against local white working class – not just an East End perception.
Leaving aside myths (and not a few white residents have thought Bengalis shouldn’t be getting anything), the extent to which outside ‘do-gooders’ have responded to migration by supporting Bengalis is open to question… Although since the 1970s, there has been a notable alliance of community leaders with Labour politicians, which has led to some dubious developments…

Some see it as not so much an individual competition for work, as a community competition for welfare, housing, cultural and social resources (or at least the perception of those, locally): not so much a case of ‘they’re taking our jobs’ as they’re taking our flats.

But you’d be hard pressed to deny that those on high who make social policy, have, for 160 years and more, used the East End as a laboratory for social experiment, from which national social policy especially on housing welfare, etc, has been often guided. As to how much the state either locally nationally, or the ‘middle class’ has taken side of foreigners against white working class – this is debateable. 1970s Bengalis would have laughed at this idea: but in recent decades some commentators have seen change, with the promotion of political measures and institutions that have consolidated rights of migrants while increasing sanctions against ‘white working class’ if they question it – to the extent that the political situation in the East End (as elsewhere, though to different extents?) is dominated by quote ”a political class, drawing power from its operation of state services and mobilised around the ideology of cultural tolerance and social and economic inclusiveness and with a mission to integrate subordinate culturally specific communities into a common national system.”

While this is matter of debate, its partly true that there is an exclusion of white working class… But it is in fact also partly mirrored by how the kind of community leaders, activists, organisations that have made alliances with local and national state and benefited most have done so by hierarchy and power relations firmly in place in the migrant communities, and pledging to keep order against unruly and politically or religiously subversive elements among their “own”…

 

Walk back west down Cheshire Street to Brick Lane, south to Quaker Street, west down here and across  Commercial Street into Elder Street, down to Folgate Street, then west to Spital Square

Parallel to the housing struggles described above, other processes were at work in the area around buildings…

Conservation as gentrification: the Spitalfields Trust.

The Spitalfields Trust was founded as a campaigning group with a mission to preserve ‘18th century Spitalfields’; mostly large local houses threatened with demolition and development.

The trust themselves were well-connected, and media savvy:

“In early days this took form of art‑historical activism, of squats, activism, of squats, occupations, and sit‑ins undertaken by the trust’s members as they showed ‘greedy’ developers, bungling municipal authorities, and housing associations like Newlon that, still unaware of the vital distinction between ‘housing’ and true ‘houses’, planned to erect new buildings where listed (but decayed) eighteenth‑century houses still stood. In those days, the trust’s members kept their sleeping bags rolled in case another emergency came up. ‘Denied even a hot bath’ as Douglas Blain, the secretary of the trust, has put it, they developed the unlikely look of squatting hippies, communicating with Press through nearby telephone boxes, and applying the time honoured local tradition of the soup kitchen to themselves. John Betjeman came down to visit ‑people were invited to join him for drinks at home’ in a half‑demolished and squatted house. One of the most cherished photographs from this time shows the almost indistinguishable faces of Mark Girouard and Colin Amery staring out from within the padlocked wrought‑iron gates of a threatened school hall in Spital Square. This was certainly a ‘Top Person’s squat’,
(Patrick White)

Their squatting to preserve Georgian houses started in Elder St with two houses that Newlon Housing Trust planning to demolish for rented housing…

Their policy after occupying houses to prevent their demolition was to raise money to buy, restore and then sell on these old Georgian, houses.

“From these romantic beginnings the trust went on to bring credit facilities into an area that had been ‘red‑lined’ by banks and building societies. It emerged as a campaigning property company with charitable status, able to buy houses, and then to repair and resell them under covenants designed to ensure that they would be refurbished with a care for the minutest period detail.”

They published a newsletter with available houses, advising people to “go through the trust to avoid undesirable price competition”. Most of houses filled with middle or upper class, members or connections of the Trust, family, sympathisers etc, some as second homes. Anyone who bought or obtained a house stood to make huge profits, as prices rose astronomically.

The Trust’s vision was head-on incompatible with the struggles of Spitalfields residents, mainly Bengalis, for cheap housing and with the clothing trade that sustains them… The town houses would have been ideal for large Bengali families, who have always had a hard time getting social or even private housing big enough.

The Trust took some houses directly out of public ownership (helped by the council who gave them their houses in some streets, and refused to take over private houses which could have housed Bengali families, eg Tarn and Tarn houses, leaving them to be sold privately), some of which were already squatted (eg by BHAG) and some which were part of plans by residents to implement viable schemes for social housing.

Many of the houses had had clothing workshops in them, which the Trust obviously lost when restoring them to their ‘original use’, – ironically, as many had been weavers houses and had old weaving rooms in them, the multi-use housing/work of Bengali occupants had in fact been closer to ‘restoration’ in social terms than the Trust’s.

“The Spitalfields Trust resents the charge that it has merely reduced conservation to gentrification, claiming in its own defence that it has never evicted a tenant and that it has gone out of its way, when buying houses that were in ‘unsuitable’ industrial use for conversion back into private homes, to find alternative premises for displaced enterprises.’ “

The Trust did pay lip service to clothing trade, including buying some land to build workshop space to replace that lost in their restorations.

The process of the Trust and its allies taking over houses was accelerated by a recession in the clothing trade in the 1980s: more buildings with workshops became empty.

Influenced by the Spitalfields Trust’s success at rehabbing houses, developers who owned houses sold them off for huge profits, eg Tarn and Tarn, who owned 40 houses, were refused planning permission to knock them down and build an office block, so they sold them off for homes around 1981-82 (slowly, so as to maximise their take). All this led to huge price hike in prices.

This had also left any schemes trying to get social housing built up against it – facing huge increases in land values, making it harder to get things going. It hiked prices, which had a knock-on effect in neighbouring areas too…

“But if it takes conservationists, avant‑garde artists, gays, and other Bohemian or single‑minded types to put up with the years of chaotic living that are needed to re‑open dishevelled areas like Spitalfields, the estate agents and financiers are never far behind. Like the first loft dwellers in Manhattan, these early settlers are the pioneers of a larger revaluation they may detest and even manage to [deter?] for a bit, but that is soon enough sweeping over their cars. West of Commercial Street the sanitisation already looks complete. To the east in Fournier Street sensitively refurbished houses have been coming on to the market at prices approaching £500,000. In the late seventies the Spitalfields Trust may have had to hunt for eccentric willing to buy into a decayed immigrant area without such public amenities as parks or tolerable schools but, in reality, as hindsight would soon show, it was handing out personal fortunes to its chosen purchasers, and it is not surprising that questions have times been asked (and not just by frustrated would‑be purchasers) about the Trust’s way of selecting buyers.”

“As the anniversary meeting of the Trust was told by an early and now dissenting member, Raphael Samuel, the conservation of Georgian buildings and the total clearance of local ways of life turn out to be two sides of the same coin.”

Since the 1980s Tower Hamlets Council has been encouraging big business to move in and buy land for offices…

But Brick Lane and the streets around it have also seen a massive hipster and art influx since the 1990s, which have hugely changed the ethos of the area. (To some extent, this is one of the central nexuses of the colonisation of working class London, particularly a vast swathe of East London, a process of gentrification that is helping to create an unstable and febrile precariousness for the lives of many of us…)

“… in 2007, Tower Hamlets Council designated Brick Lane a tourist area, with the converted Truman Brewery and more recent retail activities marked out as part of its “creative and cultural focus”. The introduction of a new range of activities and actors to the wider area has led to the displacement of established businesses, such as those in Banglatown. The report vividly maps the turnover of shops within the same category (that is, changes from one kind of food offering to another). So along Brick Lane, a niche economy has come to the fore, with many of the restaurants now selling fusion foods or offering vegan options oriented to either the tourist market or a changing demographic that includes an expanding student population as well as middle-class consumers. Few of the traditional curry houses revamped their look or re-worked their menus to appeal to the latest trends. 

Historically the upper floors of restaurants were places of work, but due to the demand for more housing and the lucrative residential market, Brick Lane has seen a huge increase in planning applications to change the class use of upper floors so they can become dwellings. The dramatic shifts in residential property prices accompanied by steep increases in housing rentals suggest that such alterations will further add to the influx of higher-income residents or Air B&B guests, accompanied by the dispersal of existing residents to suburbs in London’s more affordable peripheries.”

The Sunday Brick Lane market, once an early morning resort for cheap clothes, food, tools, junk and nicked goods, a vital resource for the subsistence economy for many across the city, has been transformed into a playground for trendy weekend jaunts by the toffee-nosed. The economy of the area – admittedly in decline by the 1990s – could have been regenerated for the benefit of the communities who lived in the area, but instead the concentration has been largely on replacing them.

This has increased the pressure on those less affluent folk who still live here; especially as council and housing associations collude to slowly remove social housing from the area and replace it with private housing to service the middle classes wanting a pad in trendy east End and prop up the tourist industry

It remains a zone of contention and transition, with many of the same old processes being enacted – the bulldozing of the rookeries to clear ‘unprofitable’ and sometimes troublesome residents is echoed in the demolition of council blocks to be replaced by developments called ‘Kensington’ and ‘Sloane’ Apartments. Names are a bit of a giveaway, eh…?

It is Ground Zero for Hipster projects, many of them vanity affairs like the Cereal Killer Café, often funded by inherited wealth. All of this in a backdrop of graffiti, which is everywhere in the area now, so that any wander round is jammed with tourist ticking off guidebook-marked ‘street art’. Brick Lane is not so much a land of beer and blood any more as a land of (spray) paint and cereal…

We’ll finish here. If you want to retire to a good pub, the Pride of Spitalfields in Heneage Street is worth a pint

 

Today in London radical history, 1962: nazi meetings in the East End scattered by anti-fascists

The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists in the UK. The postwar threat of fascist revival in the form of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, had been battered off the streets largely by the Jewish 43 Group, which had physically broken up Mosleyite meetings, attacking and dispersed fascists wherever they found them.

Britain’s prewar fascist leader Mosley had not only failed to make his comeback, but had slunk off abroad, humiliated. With little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded away. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.
Throughout the 50s, Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his Union Movement alive.

But in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations, gaining support around the 1958 race riots, and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival.

From the late Fifties, the far right, while still harping on about Jews, began to target the emerging Black and Asian migrant communities. Local anti-immigration sentiment in areas like Notting Hill led to xenophobic attacks, rioting and racist murders, which the fascists encouraged and attempted to cash in on.

A splintered scene of minuscule fascist groups began to coalesce into more active movements. Fascist activities were most notable in London.

But London also saw the most effective anti-fascist resistance. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, (usually known as the 62 Group). During the 1950s there had been very little open fascist activity and correspondingly there had been very little anti-fascist activity, but when the Nazis began reviving, so too did opposition to them.

The 62 Group was largely made up of various left-wingers including people from the Communist Party, Jews and some Black migrants. For around 5 years from the early 1960s, the 62 Group set out to physically confront the fascists whenever they showed their faces. The success of the anti-fascists in disrupting the campaigns of the various fascist groups in the early and mid-60s prevented the Far Right from exploiting the growing racism and forced them to rethink their strategy.

The re-animated nazi corpse attempted to revive their favoured tactic, used before and after WW2, of trying to hold street meetings, often in areas where they had previously attempted to gain an audience or provoke local communities. One of these areas was in Ridley Road Market, Dalston, long at the heart of one of Hackney’s largest Jewish communities.

Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement had been battered in Ridley Road by the 43 group a number of times in the late 1940s.

Mosley’s reception was not to improve over a decade later…

The Union Movement had tried to hold a street meeting in Ridley Road on 31 July, 1962. The recently formed 62 Group and other opponents made sure they had a warm reception, and the rally had ended in fighting with anti-fascists and 54 arrests.

The Mosleyites and other far right groups seemed determined to push back against this robust local response. Two nazi rallies were announced in East London for the same day, September 3rd.

Thousands of angry East Enders turned out to prevent the Fascists from meetings and to physically prevent them from speaking. Meetings at Hertford Road, Dalston, and Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, were broken up or drowned out.

The Jewish Yellow Star Movement had occupied the pitch the small far-right British National Party had planned to speak at in Ridley Road, holding an all-day marathon meeting with 136 speakers.

An attempt had been made to speak at Ridley Road by a few fascists, who had (according to a letter in the Gazette published a few days later) been beaten up: “by Yellow Star members, who were said to have outnumbered them by about a hundred to one”. Whether the letter is accurate about the Yellow Star being involved in any agro is debateable. The Yellow Star was as an organisation avowedly non-violent. However, many anti-fascists were not; the 62 Group espoused the old 43 Group tactic of physically attacking nazis. The opposition to the attempt of the far right to rise again was broad and diverse, ranging from Liberals to communists and beyond; the fash however were keen to portray all their opponents as being basically the same. In fact tactical differences on how to oppose fascism were, as ever, divisive and led to splits and rows.

The BNP meeting was instead held in Hertford Road, a few streets away (just south of Balls Pond Road):

“At Hertford Rd, the British National Party meeting, led by Mr John Bean the party’s acting secretary, was met with strong opposition by a large crowd of mostly Jewish people, and the twelve supporters were told to stop the meeting. In an address, Mr Bean, who was guarded by mounted policemen, said his speaker system had been ‘smashed’ and a Land Rover had been wrecked. Most of what he said was inaudible because of the heckling. Two of his supporters stood in front of him with bandaged heads. They had earlier been in a scuffle with anti-fascists in Kingsland Rd. Yellow Star held a marathon filibuster meeting at Ridley Rd., Dalston, which lasted all day, forcing the British National Party to hold [its] meeting a quarter of a mile away at Hertford Rd.” (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62)

According to an anti-fascist eyewitness account:

“East London anti-fascists had taken the Ridley Road meeting pitch where the British National Party had planned to speak. A large crowd was enjoying the sunshine but there was an air of expectancy among them. News was coming in of a much larger crowd of anti-fascists waiting a few miles away at Victoria Park Square for Mosley’s gang to arrive.
Early in the afternoon the anti-fascists’ chief steward was quietly asked to go with two men and sit on the floor of a taxi. In the next few minutes he was briefed to find 200 people who would be prepared to help jump the BNP. Slowly, in twos and threes, hand-picked people were moved out to the assembly point. Here the Field lo Commander of the 62 Group, Cyril Paskin, told us that in ten minutes we would split into three attack groups and get the nazis who would be in Balls Pond Road. He said if anybody here is not a fighter or does not like violence, that is no shame. but please just go away, we do not need an audience.
The BNP leaders, Andrew Fountaine and John Bean,  and two minders were at the local police station trying to negotiate another venue for their meeting. They had a very lucky escape as around 400 anti-fascists led by the 62 Group section leaders mounted a running attack at
the nazis. It was all over within five minutes. Nearly every nazi present needed hospital treatment, including  some of their professional boxers from Leeds.
I looked around and saw Bobby Sulkin, a former East End boxer, hit a nazi so hard that his feet left the ground. The nazi had been a pro boxer and nazi bully boy for had
years. Now he was in the gutter where he belonged.”

Meanwhile around 3000 anti-fascists had gathered in Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, where Mosley was planning to speak. The activists who had attacked the BNP crowd now made it over to Bethnal Green to join them:

“As quick as the first strike was over, the organisers were shifting nearly a thousand people to join the 3,000 anti-fascists in Bethnal Green. Cars were stopped and drivers asked politely, and sometimes not so politely, to take three or four passengers to the second front.”

At least one of these cars nearly ended up delivering its passengers accidentally into the wrong crowd:

“I was in a car driven by a former veteran of the International Brigade who was now fighting the fascists where he worked on the railway at King’s Cross station. We made a wrong turn and a line of police opened up to show us the way to within feet of the fascist lorry being used as a platform. We made a rapid withdrawal, scattering a number of fascists on the way out.”

A huge police presence saved the Mosleyites from getting the same treatment as the BNP but the fighting was very fierce. The fascists were chased out, there were many arrests on both sides, but anti-fascists felt the day was successful.

“Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement meeting at Victoria Park Square collapsed under a hail of stones, eggs and fruit, and resulted in over 40 arrests. Mr Jeffrey Hamm started the meeting with a few supporte[r]s. When Sir Oswald arrived about an hour later, the crowd had increased and eggs were being thrown. He climbed onto the speaker’s ‘platform’ – a lorry – and spoke for two minutes, but his speech was drowned by shouts of “Six million Jews! Belsen, down with Mosley!” Then the police ordered the meeting to close. As Mosley moved away the crowed advanced towards his car and hammered on the windows with their fists. He was followed by his supporters, mainly teenagers, in the speakers lorry. Later, Mosley was reported to have said that he intended to hold more meetings.” (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62)

One 62 Group member recalled: “I remember seeing the retreating Mosleyites giving Nazi salutes on the back of their lorry. I picked up a heavy object and hurled it into the middle of them. It certainly took the smirks off their faces.” 

Later, at the junction outside the ‘Salmon and Ball’ pub (0n the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road) “a lorry loaded with Mosley supporters, mostly young boys, came under a bombardment of pennies, the result of which might well have been that several lost their eyes.” (Letter to Hackney Gazette, 11/9/62)

Another fascist attempt to hold a meeting seems to have been held a few days later – with similar results:

“Followers of Sir Oswald Mosley fought a series of running battles with Hackney Young Socialist supporters and others in the Ridley Rd., Dalston, area on Sunday. The scuffles spread along Ridley Rd.[]into Kingsland Rd. and nearby side streets as 50-60 police moved in and arrested 14 people, among them two juveniles. Sir Oswald’s plans to hold a rally were thwarted by Hackney Young Socialists who staged a day[-]long meeting in the weekday market place. Instead, the Union Movement leader addressed followers in Hertford Rd., Dalston, a few hundred yards away. He spoke for some 25 minutes to an audience of his own supporters hemmed in by a tight cordon of police. This meeting passed off without incident. Then about 20 of his audience moved off to Ridley Rd. Shortly afterwards fighting broke out at the previously peaceful Ridley Rd. meeting. Police who were disbanding after the Mosley meeting were quickly called to Ridley Rd., as anti- fascists began actively protesting against the heckling Union Movement men, among them Mosley’s 20 year old son, Max. One young man wearing the Union Movement badge, chased along Kingsland High Street by other men, then trapped in a doorway and pulled to the ground and pummelled before being rescued by police. Other clashes broke out in sidestreets as the Fascist supporters left the area. As the main party of hecklers tried to drive off in their car, other cars attempted to hem them in. More scuffles followed all over the road.” (Hackney Gazette, 18/9/62)

Sustained anti-fascist activity had its effect. Constant attacks on fascists from the Union Movement forced Mosley to suspend conventional political activity in 1963. The 62 Group and other anti-fascist groups also harassed the British National Party, and the smaller Greater Britain Movement and National Socialist Movement, their meetings were occupied, HQs targeted, and membership lists stolen… A number of fascists turned to arson against Jewish targets when open meetings became too risky; infiltration by the 62 Groups helped uncover some of the arsonists.

Despite this, a number of far right groups came together in 1966-67 to form the National Front, to become the largest and most effective fascist organisation to date. The BF’s concentration on attacking Black and Asian migration rather than Jewish communities would win them a populist support in the 1970s: and a new generation of anti-fascists would arise to oppose them…

Some film of September 3rd 1962:

All this month? in London riotous history, 1826: gangs commit mass robbery, Bethnal Green

In 1826, a series of robberies by a large gang were the cause of great fear and loathing in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields. Camping out on Spicer Street, off Brick Lane, they were allegedly engaged in collective attacks on herds of animals being driven to market through the East End, to thieve and use for food, as well as mugging the wealthy in the area. These ‘outrages’ apparently occurred every night at this point. Deputations of angry local residents petitioned the magistrates and Home Secretary Robert Peel for some official intervention – Peel assigned 40 of the Horse Patrol to the area.

The contemporary reports actually obscure as much as they shed light on:

“Last Monday forenoon, at 12 o’clock, pursuant to appointment, Messrs. Millingfield and Marsden, the two Churchwardens of St. Mathew, Bethnal-green, and Mr. Brutton, the Vestry Clerk, waited upon the Secretary of State at the Home-office, where they were met by Mr. Osborne and Mr. Twyford, the magistrates of Worship-street Police-office. The object of the meeting was to devise some measures to suppress the dreadful riots and outrages that take place every night in the parish, by a lawless gang of thieves, consisting of 500 or 600, whose exploits have caused such alarming sensations in the minds of the inhabitants, that they have actually found it necessary to shut up their shops at an early hour, to protect their property from the ruffians.

In order to give some idea of the outrages that have been, and are hourly committed, we merely give the following instances, and the disciplined manner in which the ruffians go to work:-

The gang rendezvous in a brick-field at the top of Spicer-street, Spitalfields, and out-posts are stationed to give an alarm should any of the civil power approach, and their cry is “Warhawk,” as a signal for retreat. On the brick-kilns in this field they cook whatever meat and potatoes they plunder from the various shops in the neighbourhood, in the open day, and in the face of the shopkeeper.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, being market days, (Monday and Friday at Smithfield, and Wednesday at Barnet,) they sally out into the suburbs, and wait in ambush till a drove of beasts passes; they then attack the drovers, and take a beast from the drove, and convey it into the marshes till night; when they hunt it through the metropolis, and whilst the passengers and inhabitants are in the utmost state of alarm, they plunder, and in many instances nearly murder, every person that they meet; there are now no less than five individuals lying in the London infirmary, without hopes of recovery, that have fallen into the hands of the gang. Within the last fortnight, upwards of 50 persons have been robbed, and cruelly beaten, and one of the gang was seen one day last week to produce, amongst some of his associates, nearly half a hat-full of watches…”

The attacks attributed to this gang had mounted up: “On Friday, being market day at Smithfield, the gang were on the look out for beasts, and we hear that, as early as six in the morning, two bullocks were taken from a drove. On Wednesday a bullock was rescued from them in the Kingsland-road, and after being secured in Clement’s barn till the gang had been dispersed, it was conveyed home to its owner, MR. ALEXANDER, in Whitechapel market. It was reported, that MR. SYKES, the proprietor of the ham and beef shop in Winchester-street, Hare-street-fields, had died on Friday in the London Hospital, of the dreadful injuries he received from the gang, but we are happy to say he is still alive. It seems that MR. SYKES had only set up in business a few days, when about eight o’clock in the evening, about twenty fellows came round his shop, armed with sticks; he suspected they intended an attack, and for security got behind the counter, when the whole gang came in, and seizing a buttock of beef and a ham, ran out of the shop. He endeavoured to prevent them by putting out his arm, when one of them, with a hatchet or hammer, stuck him a tremendous blow which broke it in a dreadful manner; it has been since amputated, and he now lies in a very bad state. The gang then went into a baker’s shop and helped themselves to bread, and afterwards adjourned to the brick-field, and ate the provisions in a very short time.”

Additionally: “On Wednesday se’nnight the gang attacked a lady and gentleman that were in a chaise in the Bethnal-green-road, and after robbing and beating them most inhumanly, they cut the reins and traces to prevent a pursuit.”

Pressure mounted on the authorities to do something effective to clamp down on the robberies:

“The Secretary of State on Saturday had an interview with the magistrates of the district, respecting the state of that part of the metropolis, and anxiously inquired if the robbers were distressed weavers? We understand that an answer was given in the negative; but that they were a set of idle and disorderly fellows that have been long known to the police as reputed thieves.

The deputation remained with Mr. Peel till one o’clock, and explained to him the necessity of a strong body of men (in addition to those already stationed there) being sent into the neighbourhood, as they felt confident that the robbers, who were well armed, would boldly attack (as they have done before) the civil power.

The Right Hon. Secretary assured the deputation, that immediate means should be adopted to rid the parish of the intruders.”

Peel responded quickly; he “gave immediate orders for a detachment of Horse Patrol to be stationed day and night in the neighbourhood; and on Friday morning a party of forty men, to be under the jurisdiction of the Magistrates of Worship-street Police-office, were mounted; they are a party of able-bodied men who have held situations in the army, accoutred with cutlasses, pistols, and blunderbusses. – They will be in constant communication with forty of the dismounted patrol. The dismounted are divided into parties, and are stationed at the following posts, viz.:- Cambridge Heath Gate, Mile-end Gate, Whitechapel Church, London Apprentice Gate, and near the Regent’s Canal in the Mile End-road. Both parties are to remain on duty till five o’clock in the morning.”

The prompt manner in which the Right Hon. Secretary of State attended to the application of the parochial authorities of Bethnal-green, respecting the riots in that neighbourhood, has afforded great gratification to the parishioners, and by the formidable appearance of the detachment of Horse Patrol that were parading the thoroughfares in the parish the whole of Monday, the gang was deterred from coming forth. Three fellows were taken up on Monday night. One is supposed to be of the gang that so inhumanly attacked and robbed Mr. Fuller, the surgeon, at Cambridge-heath, for which three fellows are now awaiting their trials at the Old Bailey. Mr. Peel has given authority to the magistrates of Worship-street, to establish a Horse Patrol, under their own jurisdiction, and the expenses to be paid out of the hands of the office.”

It seems likely that diverse crimes may have been lumped together in reports; also that the numbers given for the size of the ‘gangs’ involved may have been exaggerated. Rumour, panic and outrage combined to inflate events…

The court case mentioned above, for the attack on ‘Mr Fuller’, had, though, it seemed taken place at the Old Bailey on 14th September (three days after the crime? Possibly a dating error? Really summary justice? Like Kier Starmer making sure courts sat all night after the 2011 riots to get conviction as quick as possible?)

Here is a transcript of the trial:

“GEORGE HOUGHTON, JAMES BOYCE, HENRY BOYCE.

Violent Thefthighway robbery.

14th September 1826

Before Mr. Justice Littledale.

GEORGE HOUGHTON , JAMES BOYCE , and HENRY BOYCE were indicted for feloniously assaulting Henry Fuller, on the King’s highway, on the 11th of September , at St. Matthew Bethnal-green , putting him in fear, and taking from his person, and against his will, 1 case of surgical instruments, value 40s.; 2 cases of lancets, value 20s.; 1 hat, value 20s.; 1 handkerchief, value 1s.; 1 pen-knife, value 1s.; 1 pin-cushion, value 1d.; 2 sovereigns, 3 shillings, and 1 sixpence, his property .

ALLEY conducted the prosecution.

Mr. HENRY FULLER. I am a surgeon , and live in Suffolk-place, Hackney-road. On the evening of the 11th of September, about half-past seven o’clock, or a few minutes later, I was returning home from visiting a patient, and when I arrived on a place called Fleet-street-hill , I heard footsteps behind me, and the word “Now,” and immediately after a loud whistle – about twenty persons surrounded me all in a moment; my arms were immediately pinioned; several of them had sticks, and stood in front of me; the prisoner James Boyce is the person who seized my right arm; I could not observe the person who seized the other; my elbows were tied behind me with a rope; one of them said, “If the b-g-r speaks knock his bl-y brains out;” I do not know who that was. The prisoner, James Boyce, immediately said, “We won’t hurt you – we will have what you have got;” I begged of them not to hurt me, and they might take whatever I had got; James Boyce said, “We won’t hurt you – we will have what you have got;” James Boyce then took from my right-hand trousers pocket a case of surgical instruments, and two cases of lancets, and from my right-hand waistcoat pocket three keys, and a piece of ass’s skin – my left-hand pockets were rifled by the person on the other side – from my trousers pocket he took two sovereigns, three shillings, a sixpence, and a pen-knife, which had a broken point – one of them took my hat off – that was neither of the prisoners; my cravat was then taken off; as soon as the man had taken my hat he said, “Now, give the b-g-r a rum one” – James Boyce said, “No, don’t hurt the poor b-g-r,” and they did not do me any personal injury. I am quite certain of James Boyce – Houghton came up to me, and felt my fob pocket; he unbuttoned the flap of my breeches, and felt to see if I had a watch, but James Boyce, who had examined it before, said, “The b-g-r has got no toy;” I had no watch. As they were about to leave me I asked James Boyce to give me my keys, as they would be of no service to them – he returned one key, and they all ran away immediately. On the following morning I went to the Police-office, and got Garton, Gleed, Armstrong, Hanley, and other officers, and after the prisoners were apprehended three persons called and told me I could recover my instruments – I communicated that to the officers, and the two cases of lancets were restored to me by Garton – I went with him to Dutton’s, in Brook-street, Spital-square.

Cross-examined by MR. LAW. Q. Nobody but yourself was witness to the transaction? A. One or two women say they were passing, and I believe, one of them is here. I was certainly alarmed – my attention was not much distracted till they threatened to give me a rum one – I then felt more alarmed; I think it impossible I can be mistaken in James Boyce’s person; the parties were all strangers to me before. I am sure I am not mistaken – it lasted about two minutes or more.

  1. Was there much noise or conversation? A. Among themselves; I had plenty of light to see them. I heard voices behind me as well as before – persons were in front and behind; I was not alarmed till one of them took my hat and said, “Give the b-r a rum one;” as Boyce said I should not be hurt.
  2. If Boyce is the individual be interfered to protect you from injury? A. He did.
  3. Does it frequently occur to you to make mistakes in persons, or are you pretty accurate? A. I generally am – I could not speak to the whole twenty, but I observed several of them, so closely as to speak with confidence. I never made a mistake in the identity of a person to my knowledge; there were not twenty persons in my view; I observed several in front, who I can identify; I should know the one who took my hat in a moment if I saw him. – Boyce was apprehended on the Wednesday or Thursday following.

Cross-examined by Mr. PRENDERGAST. Q. You were much frightened? A. When I was threatened – I saw Houghton previously to the threat – he had searched my pockets while they were releasing my arms.

Mr. ALLEY. Q. Had you abundant opportunity of seeing them? A. Yes, and have not the slightest doubt of them all; Henry Boyce was present, but not active – it happened in the parish of Bethnal-green.

JOHN NORRIS . I am an inspector of the dismounted patrol. I apprehended Houghton on the Wednesday morning after the robbery, about six hours after I received the information – I took him in his bed; I told him he must get up and go with me; I asked where he had been on the Monday night before; he said he had had but 2 1/2d. in his pocket, and that he had been to the Angel and Crown public-house, opposite the church in the road (opposite Whitechapel church), spent it, and returned home;

the Angel and Crown is about three quarters of a mile from where the robbery was committed.

[NB: The Angel and Crown was probably on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.]

  1. When he was at the office, but not before the Magistrate, did he say any thing to you? A. He told me afterwards that he had been to the Angel and Trumpet public-house, at Stepney, on the Monday evening.

Cross-examined by MR. PRENDERGAST. Q. You said at first it was in Whitechapel-road. I understood? A. He said the Angel and Crown in the road, opposite the church.

  1. How came you to say “Whitechapel-road?” A. It is in Whitechapel-road; he said he went up Brick-lane to the Angel and Crown, opposite the church in the road, and spent it – he said nothing more on that subject – he said, “in the road,” not Mile-end-road; Mile-end-road and Whitechapel-road are in a line – I cannot tell the difference. I swear he did not say the Angel and Trumpet – he said “in the road, opposite the church” but did not say what church.
  2. ALLEY. Q. Is it called both Mile-end and Whitechapel road? A. I call it both; the Angel and Trumpet is a mile from the other house, and not opposite a church.
  3. PRENDERGAST. Q. When did he say it was the Angel and Trumpet? A. Not till after Mr. Fullerhad seen him, about an hour and a half afterwards – he said full an hour and a half afterwards that he was at the Angel and Crown, and then contradicted himself, and said it was the Angel and Trumpet – he had spoken to nobody but Mr. Fullerand the officers.

THOMAS GARTON . I am an officer of Worship-street, I accompanied the prosecutor last Saturday to a girl, named Houghton, and she produced these two cases of lancets out of her bosom; Mr. Fuller claimed them; I do not know who she lived with myself.

THOMAS GOODING . I am an officer. I apprehended James Boyce in Brick-lane on the Wednesday night after the robbery; I apprehended Henry Boyce at his mother’s door.

Cross-examined by Mr. LAW. Q. Where did you find James Boyce? A. In Brick-lane, about one hundred yards from where he lives.

WILLIAM DICKENSON . I assisted in apprehending both the Boyces.

  1. FULLER. These are my instruments.
  2. PRENDERGAST. Q. Do you recollect a woman, named Moore, coming to you that night? A. No; I saw her not the next day, but the day following; I have not the slightest doubt of any of the prisoners.

HOUGHTON’S Defence. I have witnesses to prove where I was at the time; I told Norris I was at the Angel and Trumpet, and there remained till I went home to bed.

JAMES BOYCE’S Defence. I have witnesses to say where I was.

HENRY BOYCE’S Defence. I can prove where I was.

MATILDA MOORE . I live at No. 3, Stevens’-buildings. Bethnal-green, at the top of Fleet-street-hill. On Monday, the 11th, about a quarter or ten minutes after eight o’clock, as I came out of my house I saw two young fellows following Mr. Fuller; there was a whistle given, and the word “Now;” then about a dozen surrounded him, and he was robbed; I staid there about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, and was within about fourteen yards of Mr. Fuller; I did not see Houghton there; I cannot take upon myself to say he was not there, as there were so many; there might be thirty; Mr. Fuller did not fall, for I sat with my baby in my arms, and after the robbery was done, I went up, and saw Mr. Fuller, he was very weak and low, and was taken into a chandler’s shop – I did not speak to him; I did not see his hat taken, but, as they ran from the gentleman, I saw a man, named Norton, come under our shop window with his hat in his hand; I had seen them hustling his pockets behind; I did not see either of the prisoners there; they said, “If you offer to resist, or make an alarm, we will knock your b-y brains out.”

WILLIAM ADEY . I live at No. 15, Mead-street, near Shoreditch, in the parish of Bethnal-green, and am a journeyman shoemaker. I know Houghton. On Monday, the 11th of September, I was at the Angel and Trumpet with him; we started to go there at half-past six, and remained there till half-past ten; I will take my oath that he was not out of my sight five minutes during all that time; Sidebottom went with me and Houghton to the house; I do not remember seeing one Hawes there.

  1. ALLEY. Q. Who do you work for now? A. Mr. Pollock, of Shoreditch, near the church on the left hand side – I worked for him at the time of the robbery; I do the work at home with my father; I generally work till eight or nine, but sometimes leave off at dark; on Monday we generally do not get our work ready – we get it prepared – I generally go out earlier on a Monday; my uncle lives with us – neither he or my father are here.
  2. Did Sidebottom fall into a misfortune that night? A. Not that I know of – he was taken on suspicion of a robbery – I heard it was committed that night; I do not know whether he was taken that night; when I left the house I left him in company with a young woman at the door; I left the house at half-past ten o’clock; I know Hawes – I did not see him that evening; I know Fleet-street-hill; I was not there that night – I could go that way home, but I did not – I got home near upon a quarter past eleven o’clock; I saw no robbery that night – I never said I saw the robbery committed as I was going home – I swear that.
  3. Were you never taken up yourself charged with any offence? A. I was taken for a slight offence – they took me for going down a turning, and said I was hunting a bullock – I was fined – I was never in custody for any other offence – the bullock hunt was six weeks or two months ago – I have not seen the landlord of the public-house here – he was not in the house when I went in, but the servant was, and she knows I came in, but her master would not let her come.

COURT. Q. The landlord was not there? A. I did not see him for an hour or two – I did not see the landlady – I saw the female servant – she served us with what we drank, which was porter – we had no brandy or gin – we had two or three pots of porter – Houghton and Sidebottom drank with me – we each paid our own part – it came to 15d. – it was 5d. a pot – I went out on the opposite side of the way, and got some bacon and bread from a shop – I do not know who keeps the shop – I am not often at the Angel and Trumpet – I have been there six or eight times – we each paid 5d. – I changed a sixpence – I cannot say whether Houghton and Sidebottom paid in silver or copper; when I went in I dare say there were ten people in the room, and more came in; I dare say there were fifteen or twenty there when I came away.

  1. Did Houghton call for you to go with him? A. No, I went from my residence at nearly a quarter past six o’clock, and met him down Brick-lane – we met Sidebottom at Hanbury’s brewhouse, about one hundred and fifty yards from where I met Houghton – we went into the public-house together; I got the bread and bacon soon after I went in.

THOMAS SIDEBOTTOM . I am a weaver, and live in Cheshire-street, Hare-street-fields. On Monday week I was in Houghton’s company; I met him in Brick-lane about a quarter to seven o’clock in the evening. with Adey, and we went to the Angel and Trumpet, at Stepney; we remained there till the publican would not draw us any more beer; he said it was time to be going – I was the last who asked him for beer, but not the last in the house – I went away first, and bid Houghton and Adey good night; they were in my company from a quarter to seven o’clock till half-past ten; Houghton did not leave our company all that time – not to my recollection; if he was out it was not for more than five minutes I am sure.

  1. ALLEY. Q. You have stated that you went away first; then Adey could not have left you behind talking to a woman? A. I went out of the house first – he did not leave me behind; I was taken up that night on suspicion – they said it was for stealing some pork; I was put into the watch-house, and discharged the next day; I know Fleet-street-hill – I went down Brick-lane that night about a quarter to seven o’clock; I do not know whether you call that passing Fleet-street-hill – it is at the end of the street – it was not a quarter past seven.

COURT. Q. Were you in company with any woman that night? A. I was speaking with a young woman at the door when I left the house; Houghton and Adey came out just after me, and left me at the door talking to the young woman.

  1. Who drank with you? A. Houghton and Adey, and another young man, who was in the house when I went in; we had two or three pots of beer; I will not be certain how many; I know what I paid for; I paid 2 1/2d. for a pint; Adey paid for the first pot himself; I think he gave a 6d.; he went out after asking for a newspaper,(which he could not get), and fetched some bread and bacon – the servant of the house served us with beer; I saw the landlord, but not when I first went in; I do not know whether the young woman who brought the beer was the landlady or servant; I had met them in Brick-lane.
  2. What makes you certain this was the 11th of September? A. I cannot be certain of the date, but it was on Monday – last Monday week; I had been ino the City about work.
  3. PRENDERGAST. Q. You say there was another man at the house? A. Yes; he was not in our company at first, but drank with us; I do not know his name – I never saw him before.

JAMES BARRATT . I am a bricklayer, and live at Stepney. Last Monday week I was in company with Houghton and Adey, at the Angel and Trumpet, Stepney, kept by Smith; I went there a quarter before eight o’clock, and staid till half-past ten.

  1. Was Houghton there when you went in? A. Yes; we all went in together, and never went outside the door, not for three minutes, except for a necessary purpose.
  2. Do you mean you went in in company or at the same time? A. I went in at the same time as they did – they asked me to drink out of two or three pots of beer; I did not know them before – the two last witnesses were with him – we all went out together – the landlord would not draw any more beer.
  3. Who applied for more beer, which was refused to be drawn? (the witness Sidebottom here said “It was me.”) A. It was that person (pointing to Sidebottom).
  4. ALLEY. Q. How lately have you been at work as a bricklayer? A. Yesterday; I do not know Fleet-street-hill – it was a quarter to eight o’clock when I went into the public-house.
  5. Can you run two miles in a quarter of an hour? A. I do not know; I saw no robbery that night.
  6. Did you happen to be taken up for stealing pork? A. No. I will take my oath, since I have been out of the country, I have not stolen a thing; I was never in custody.

Two witnesses gave Houghton a good character.

WILLIAM NICHOLS . On Monday night, the 11th of September, I saw James Boyce at the corner of King-street; it might be ten minutes past seven o’clock, but I will swear it was not later; I remained in his company till a quarter-past nine, by Hanbury’s brewhouse clock; we stood talking there all that time; Chandler came up about a quarter-past seven, and remained with us till we went away, and during that time two other men came up – we were talking about the business at Bow – we are all silk weavers; I had left my work at dark, and was talking about the state of the business. I live in George-street.

  1. ALLEY. Q. What distance is King-street from Fleet-street-hill – close by – is it not? A. Not very close – I dare say it is four or five hundred yards; I will take my oath he was a yard from me all that time – both him and his brother were there; and about five or ten minutes after eight, two Bow-street patrols, one named Skilling, came up and saw up talking.

JOHN CHANDLER . I was in Boyce’s company on the 11th of September – I fell in company with them, about a quarter past seven o’clock, at the corner of St. John’s-street; the two Boyces stood there with two or three more men; I crossed over to them, to hear about the trade, and remained in their company till after nine o’clock.

  1. ALLEY. Q. When did you get up? A. At a quarter-past seven o’clock; I went with them down St. John-street, to go and have a pint of beer – they left me at the corner of St. John-street – I crossed over to an old lady, named Lowing, and heard of the robbery.

BENJAMIN WEEDON . On the night of the 11th I was going up Hare-street, and about five minutes to eight o’clock, I saw both the Boyces at the corner of King-street, and stopped talking there for three-quarters of an hour – I left them at a quarter-past eight.

GEORGE NICHOLS . On the night of the 11th of September I joined the Boyces, as near as I can say, about seven or eight o’clock – it was before eight – at the corner of King-street; I stopped there a quarter of an hour, or hardly so much, in conversation with them. Chandler and Nichols were with them – Wheedon and I went up together to them.

COURT. Q. How far is this from Fleet-street-hill? A. About three or four hundred yards, and about thirty yards from their own house.

Four witnesses gave James Boyce a good character.

HOUGHTON – GUILTY – DEATH . Aged 17.

  1. BOYCE – GUILTY – DEATH . Aged 25.
  2. BOYCE – NOT GUILTY .

James Boyce was recommended to mercy by the Jury and Prosecutor, having protected him from personal injury. – (Vide Ninth Day’s proceedings.)

Houghton’s sentence was commuted: he was sentenced to be transported for twenty one years on 9th January 1827 (aged 18) He was sent to Van Diemens Land.

James Boyce was executed on 29th November 1826, aged 25.

The Context ?

The collective expropriation described 1826 was year of poverty in this part of the East End: in Spitalfields, for instance, the silkweavers (working in the area’s major area of employment) had recently suffered the repeal of the Spitalfields Acts, which to some extent guaranteed their wage levels and defended against excessive exploitation by their masters… The trade was lunged into depression as a result and declined rapidly thereafter. What impact did this have on local poverty, and what impact might it have had on the emergence of the mass social crime on September 1826?

Today in London’s striking herstory, 1890: Sweet Victory! East End chocolate factory workers win strike

In 1890, women working in a Mile End chocolate factory went on strike. The chocolate workers’ strike boosted the growth of women’s trade unionism in late Victorian England.

In the aftermath of the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike in and London Dock Strike in 1889, trade unionism flourished, especially among previously un-unionised workers, often labelled unskilled or semi-skilled. Between 1888 and 1892 union membership doubled from 750,000 to 1.5 million. London’s East End, where both these seminal struggles had taken place, saw a particular spike in union growth – inspiration spreading also because people probably had direct contact and knowledge of the 1888-9 events, taking place in front of their eyes…

Among the many strikes and disputes that broke out was a short sharp stoppage by East End chocolate makers in 1890. Though not high profile, this struggle was victorious, and encouraged others organising among London’s tens of thousands of young women workers.

Although Factory Acts had been passed in the UK through the 19th century to prohibit children working in factories, older children and ‘teenagers’ (a term or concept not yet developed then…) were often exempted.

In the late 19th century, girls of 13 and upward were often employed in confectionary, jam, and other small food factories (while young boys were more likely to be found in rope-works, foundries, paper mills…). The work was often hard, with long hours; as the work was often classes as low-skilled, wages were generally low – compounded by the general attitude among employers (and some trade unionists as well!) that women’s work, and especially young women’s work, was less important or deserved lower rates of pay. Employers also felt they could treat women worse, with poorer conditions, more strict rules and bullying.

A meeting aimed at young women working at Messrs Allen’s chocolate factory was held on 10 July 1890, at the offices of the Women’s Trade Union League, at 128 Mile End Road. Earlier attempts to help workers in the mainly small confectionary factories of East and South London had come to nothing. On this occasion, however, “twelve girls came, and their dread of being followed, watched and subsequently discharged was pitiful,” wrote Black. They were mainly earning around 17 shillings a week, employed packing chocolate into boxes

The next day, Women’s Trade Union League full-time organiser Miss James (a former confectionary worker) visited Allen’s factory in Emmot Street, to distribute handbills and at explaining the objects of the union.

However, arriving at Allen’s, she found that a lockout had already started.

“To her amazement she found the girls standing about in a crowd, though it was not yet seven o’clock. They surrounded her, telling her that they were ‘out’ and asking anxiously, ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Is there anybody who will help us?’

Miss James led them to the office of the Women’s Trade Union Association, where the Union secretary, Clementina Black, was working. Black described how:

“In a twinkling the room was full and over-full of girls, and the street outside was full of those girls who could not come in, and of the fringe of onlookers which gathers so speedily in that great boulevard of the East End, the Mile End Road.”

Six of the young women workers gradually told their story. Their working conditions were hard and management vicious. The workers were banned from leaving the factory in the dinner hour, forbidden to eat between eight and one on weekdays and between eight and two on Saturdays. This meant the women spent all day from 8am to 7pm inside the factory. They also suffered numerous petty fines and fines and deductions from their pay.

The current dispute had been sparked by a fine imposed on one woman had slipped and fallen on the job. The forewoman had issued her with a fine of half a crown for falling over: refusing to pay, she had been summoned to the office the next morning, and threatened with the sack unless she paid up. In response, the other women working on the shop floor had stopped work and demanded her reinstatement. No work got done that day…!

At 5pm, factory owner Mr Allen himself came down to investigate, and locked the women out; told the women to “put on their hats and go home”.

Clementina Black called on well-known union organiser John Burns for help. A meeting for all the factory girls employed at Allen’s was held at Mile End Liberal and Radical Club; a committee was elected and a register drawn up. All those present also joined the union.

The following Monday, John Burns and Miss James accompanied the strikers to the factory gates before 8am, and a “business-like system of picketing” set up. Only eight factory workers went in to work, though occasionally “a clerk would peep out” to see what was going on.

A strike committee room was set up in nearby Skidmore Street, and a “polite note” was sent to Mr Allen requesting for a meeting for negotiations. Some 200 women were on strike by then, many aged around 16 or 17.

Since the Women’s Trade Union League was not able to use its union funds to support strikes, raising money to support the 80 or 90 young women who were out on strike became vital. Funds were mainly raised by personal appeals to other trade unions and workers directly. Very quickly workers began to contribute. Burns himself collected more than £50 in an hour at the London County Council offices; at the Woolwich Arsenal and in the docks, men lined up to donate coppers to the cause. An envelope postmarked House of Commons also arrive – containing £5. Soon the union organisers were able to issue tickets allowing the girls to get lunch and tea.

Many young women working at Messrs Allen’s other East End factories, at Canal Road and Copperfield Road, also wanted to join the strike. Not wanting to escalate the dispute, John Burns persuaded them to carry on working as normal, but promised that they should be called on to join the strike if necessary.

By the Wednesday, Allen had replied to the letter sent by Burns, declining mediation and saying that he would rather deal with his workers directly. “On this, a deputation of girls was elected, and a letter sent in, asking Mr Allen to see them.” They demanded:
– reinstatement for the young woman whose dismissal had sparked the strike,
– a right to leave the factory at lunchtime,
– an end to fines,
– an end to the practice of suspending those who were absent for a further two or three days,
– a promise of no punishment for those who had joined the union.

Allen now changed tack and agreed to meet John Burns before beginning talks with the workers. Burns and Allen engaged in a three-hour discussion which left no-one in doubt that the dispute would soon be over. A further series of meetings between Burns, Allen, Black and the striking factory workers themselves followed, which eventually worked out a solution largely favourable to the women.

Allen agreed to all the demands except the abolition of fines for lateness, though he agreed to reduce them, and to withdraw these at the end of the year as long as workers’ attendance did not suffer as a result.

An agreement was finally signed on 22 July, and work at the chocolate factory resumed.

Emmot Street, the location of this factory, seems to have disappeared, unless it has become Emmot Close, which lies just south of Mile End Road, to the west of the Regents Canal. This seems possible, since Copperfield Road (site of another of Allen’s factories) is just round the corner over the canal, and while another local road named as containing an Allen factory – Canal Road, also doesn’t exist, there’s a Canal Close one street away. Looks like there might have been a cluster of Allen factories within a few streets.  

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Related: Another, slightly later strike among women workers in South London at the Corruganza Box factory

The 1911 Bermondsey Strikes, taking place during another upsurge of working class workplace organising that in many ways echoed the ‘new unionism’ spike, also began among women working in confectionary and jam factories.

 

 

 

Today in London’s radical history, 1912: Great East/West End tailors strike 1912 ends in victory

London’s long history of tailoring work goes back centuries. By the 19th century clothes production expanded, as the capital’s population rocketed, and the increasing middle classes and workers created a mass market for new clothes. Working for low pay, often for long hours and in dismal conditions, London’s tailors also had a long history of getting together to fight for improvements in their working lives.

London had a long history of local production of garments for the capital’s inhabitants, usually focussed in small workshops. The West End, particularly Mayfair, (at its most famous, focused on Savile Row) became the centre for the high end of the tailoring trade: good quality clobber for the well to do, providing for the governing classes, the rich, and the growing middle classes as they achieved status, power and influence.

But the East End had a parallel tailoring trade. East London was well known for its secondhand trade in clothes since the 16th century at least, often through its rag markets. The eastern fringes of the city had built up a clothing and textile industry, notably in silk weaving; it relied on its proximity of the City and wealth districts, closeness to the centres of power and people who wanted fancy clothes. More and more this evolved into making clothes for those who wanted new clothes fast (of varying qualities). Silk production gradually gave way to tailoring workshops.

In the early 19th century, this end of the trade expanded into the cheap production of new clothes. The Industrial revolution had led to growth in factory tailoring, the production of cheap cloth and reduced production costs. East End tailoring had also always taken lots of subbed work from the West End: this increased as demand for new clothes rocketed. As the 19th century went on, gradual prosperity among the middle and emerging working classes led to a greater demand for consumer goods, including clothes. New clothes were a mark of having made something of yourself.

Separations and divisions among trade were multiple – between skilled and semi-skilled, English and foreign workers, male and female, factory worker and home/workshop hand worker… A complex web of prejudices and demarcations was aggravated by a growth in new technology, and older craft, male apprenticeship-based traditions built over centuries had been substantially challenged… The trade remained also wildly affected by trends and by seasonal demand.

Organising in the tailoring trade was as old as the trade. From the middle ages journeymen tailors had tilted at the control the masters of their guilds; in the eighteenth century, London’s tailors were such a trouble to their employers they were nick-named ‘the tailors’ republic’. Battles between workers and bosses almost always centred around long hours and low wages that afflicted the trade. Splits and tensions between groups of workers frustrated attempts to unite the journeymen; the most concerted effort at building a strong tailors union in the capital, contributing to the creation of the Owenite Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, ended in a disastrous strike in 1834 that caused the general union’s collapse.

Later in the century the trade revived, but gradually became divided between a self-selecting, highly skilled craft, high end, taking on few apprentices but recruiting from outside the capital, and the larger, lower paid, workshop or factory-based tailors, poorly treated and often precarious.

Separation between workers in the East End and the West End was further complicated by the large-scale Jewish migration into the area around Whitechapel and Stepney in the late nineteenth century.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to  introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth Street, 48 out of 85 shops were Jewish run by the 1890s.

Overwhelmingly the majority of the Jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End. Tailoring had long been associated with the Jewish diaspora. Partly this evolved from practicality – for long persecuted communities having to up and move often when facing violent attacks, this was a trade needing few tools and small space to operate but universally needed. Christian laws across Europe also banned Jews from many trades, forcing them to congregate in work like tailoring that was not proscribed. Another factor was orthodox religious tenets in judaism, which set out that observant Jews had to buy certain clothes from co-religionists.
A migrant workforce needing to survive moving into an area with a tradition of low-paid manufacture quickly led to a widespread Jewish presence in the East End tailoring trade.

But whether the masters were English or ‘aliens’ hours were long, working conditions bad and pay low; the seasonal nature of demand for new clothes also meant weeks or months when trade was slack and work was scarce. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry. Like the silkweavers before them, East London’s tailors struggled to survive, workers often having to hang out, ‘on call’ waiting for someone to offer them work. Both the social nature of this process and the quiet small scale organisation of the trade combined with crap conditions to create discontent and political radicalism.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

A powerful Yiddish speaking working class movement would also develop among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. This created Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s, and brought contact and alliances among the early English socialists, themselves inspired by continental migrants.

Organisation was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

As ever, this migrant community aroused racism and xenophobia from the existing settled and ‘native’ residents. In the East End, Jewish communities were the targets vicious ‘anti-alien’ campaigns (like Flemings and Irish before them, and Bengalis and others after) – orchestrated usually by nationalists of rightwing stripe, but often supported by elements of the working class, and usually a substantial proportion of the local trade union movement. ‘Alien’ cultures raking over our area, threatening our way of life, taking our jobs… Some trade unionists and even socialists  justified anti-semitism by labelling Jewish workers as scabs, who would undercut existing wages and work for less because they were desperate. On occasions such accusations could even be borne out, since some migrants would by skint enough to work for less, scab during disputes, and/or feel that solidarity with trade unionists who were attacking them and calling for their expulsion from the country was not rally an ideal they could afford to subscribe to. In any case scabbing was hardly limited to migrant workers…

Jewish trade unionists and socialists were keen to build bridges with the ‘native’ movements, and besides trying to build organisation and unionisation among the Jewish workers, encouraged support for other workers’ strikes and refusal to strike-break. But they faced not only hostility from English unionists, but also from the Jewish religious establishment and many religious Jews, opposed to co-operation as they feared it would lead to ‘assimilation’ and the loss of Jewish identity, and also feared and hated leftwing ideas. Tensions between different Jewish migrant groups also hampered their work. Though there was a constant effort to build tailoring trade unions, for example, tens of such unions were launched, but split, collapsed, or failed to gain ground. Short term success was often followed by frustration and having to rebuild. The largest tailoring union, the Associated Society of Tailors, dominated by craft traditions and based in Manchester had a habit of the executive settling strikes over the heads of the members actually on strike without consulting them; this caused further splits and divisions. While many of the union organisers were socialists and anarchists, with wider visions of how workers’ organising and strikes could build towards a social revolution, the most successful activity came from battling for pragmatic and immediate demands.

A large-scale tailors strike in 1889, partly inspired by the historic Dock Strike, and organised largely through the efforts of socialists and anarchists from the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, saw a highpoint, with 6000 tailors on strike in the East End. This eventually forced he master tailors to raise wages, reduce hours and improve conditions across the area, though the concessions (which were historic) were gradually eroded by connivery of the employers over the succeeding months.

The emergence of the anarchist Arbeter Fraint group around Rudolf Rocker, several of whom were working tailors, helped cement links between Jewish and English workers. The group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered.

By 1911-12, a general improvement in conditions of trade and employment was seeing Britain come out of a recession that had dominated the early part of the 1900s, when prices rose and wages fell in real terms. After 1910, the re-emergence of growth partly resulted in an increase in trade union action. There was also a rise in syndicalist ideas, partly under influence of the French CGT, and from the US from the de-Leonists/IWW. The theory of the General Strike as the method of workers taking over society gained some currency on the UK.
But syndicalism also proved attractive as a way of organising more immediate struggles, and also expressed trade unionists’ widespread disillusion with the business as usual union models and habits of compromise of union leaders. Syndicalism had influence in the East End – a Jewish Syndicalist Tailors Union was founded in 1908, and also developed among the Jewish anarchists.

Through 1911 a wave of strikes swept the UK – dockers, transport workers, miners, seamen struck for higher wages and better conditions, many winning improved deals. The struggle spread to many factory workers, among them people who had never unionised or gone on strike before (for instance the Bermondsey women workers who erupted in August 1911).

In 1912, the strike wave spread to London’s tailors. In April that year, 1500 tailors in the capital’s West End put in a demand for an increase in wages and better working conditions. Some were mainly members of the London Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, who backed their claim. Others, members of the larger Amalgamated Society of Tailors (and Tailoresses) West End branch, received no backing from their union. The West End master tailors rejected the workers’ demands with little consideration, resulting in an immediate strike call.

Unfinished garments in tailors workroom, due to tailors strike, Conduit Street, London, 7th May 1912.

In the East End, Rudolf Rocker saw an opportunity for Jewish tailors to not only show that Jewish workers could stand by their ‘native’ counterparts, but to fight for improvements in their own situation. The Arbeter Fraint published an editorial proposing the strike be extended to East London; following this a mass meeting of 8000 tailors, called by Rocker and Philip Kaplan secretary of the London Ladies tailors’ Union, met in the Mile End Assembly Hall, and voted for a general tailors’ strike. Two days later, over 13000 East End tailors were on strike; most of them not members of a union. “English, Jewish, Italian, French and Czech men’s tailors and mantle-makers in the bespoke, readymade, high quality and slop sectors of the industry had, for the first time, taken joint action in an attempt to increase wages and improve conditions in an industry renowned for its low pay and unhygienic workshops.” (Anne J. Kershen)

By this point in May, London dockers were also on strike, as the Port of London Authority had already reneged on its agreements after the dockers’ strike the year before. The striking tailors took in striking dockers’ children, and joint dockers and tailors strike meetings were held on Mile End Waste and at Tower Hill.

After three weeks on strike, the West end tailors and strikers in the men’s civil and military tailoring trades reached agreements with employers; leaving the East End tailors fighting alone, facing the decision as to whether they could also win…

Here’s Rudolf Rocker’s account of the 1912 strike:

“By 1912 we felt that the Jewish labour movement in England, and especially in the East  End of London, was strong enough to challenge the detested sweating system. The opportunity was provided by a strike of tailors in the West End of London in April 1912. It was called by the London Society of Tailors, and was soon actively supported by the members of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors. though the leaders of the Amalgamated were against the strike. It did not take them long however to realise that their members would do nothing against the strike.

There were about 1,500 tailors on strike, all highly-skilled craftsmen, doing the very best class of West End work. These tailors of the West End were an international crowd, Englishmen, Germans, French, Italians, Czech, and a few Jews. It was a completely different kind of work from the mass-produced sub divisional sweatshop tailoring of the East End Jewish workers. It soon became clear that strike-breaking work was being done in small East End tailoring workshops. There were so many of these that it was impossible to know of them all and to control them. The Jewish trades unions had never been able to accumulate enough funds to call a general strike. Their members didn’t earn enough to pay contributions large enough for strike pay. There was also a big mass of unorganised workers, some of whom were strike-breaking. We felt we must do something to remove the stigma of strike-breaking from the Jewish workers. lf the West End strike collapsed, the Jewish workers would be blamed for it. The entire British trade union movement would become hostile to the Jews. As it was, the English workers distrusted the Jewish immigrants, because of the sweatshop system, which they rightly saw as a danger to working class conditions. They couldn’t go into the reasons which had created the sweatshops. And it wouldn’t have altered the facts if they did.

It was therefore a point of honour with us to rouse the Jewish workers to abolish the sweatshops. It was even more Important morally than economically.

Our comrades in the Jewish trades unions brought up the question of the general strike in all of them. On 10th May I published a call in the Arbeter Fraint explaining to the workers what was at stake.

Our efforts got things moving. Over eight thousand Jewish workers packed the Assembly Hall for a meeting called by the United Jewish tailoring trades unions, which adopted the decision to strike. More than three thousand others stood outside, because the hall couldn’t hold more, waiting to hear what was decided. There was feverish excitement, and a real determination to act.

Kaplan opened the meeting. He was followed by MacDonald, the Secretary of the London Society of tailors and Chairman of the London Trades Council. The I spoke. I repeated more or less what I had already said in my call to the Jewish workers in the Arbeter Fraint. There was so much tension in the hall that no other speakers could get a hearing. The workers wanted a decision. When the vote was taken not one hand was lifted against the strike.

The strike was on. Eight thousand workers were out the first day. Another five thousand came out the day after. A small minority remained at work, but they were so few that it made little difference.   .           .

There was a strike committee of fifty members, representing all the tailoring trades unions in the East End. There were three sub-committees – finance, to raise funds for carrying on the strike; negotiations, to discuss agreements with employers prepare to accept the workers’ conditions, and one which set up the local strike committees, which were controlled by a committee of seven, to which Kaplan and I belonged.

We decided to issue the Arbeter Fraint for the duration of the strike as a four-page daily, to keep the workers informed of the progress of the strike.

Most of the strikers were not organised trade union members. Our problem was how they could get strike pay. Even the best organised trade unions in the strike, like the Mantle Makers, had no funds to meet anything like the call that was made on them. The other trades unions outside the tailoring industry had no funds with which to help. But the spirit of the workers was wonderful.

Except for the employers, who were interested parties, the whole East End was on the side of the strikers. The better-paid workers who had some savings refused to take strike pay. They even contributed to the strike fund. It didn’t swell our treasury very much. I was the Chairman of the Finance Committee, so I knew. We needed a lot of money to help the families of those strikers who were absolutely destitute. We opened canteens on the premises of all the trade unions in the East End. We were not able to provide much more than tea and bread and cheese.  But sometimes we also gave hot meals.

The Jewish Bakers Union supplied bread, and the cigarette makers provided cigarettes. All the Jewish trades unions put a levy on their members for the strike fund. Many who were not workers themselves and had no contact with the labour movement sent us money. The Yiddish theatre gave several performances to benefit the strikers. As a result we were ale to pay the strikers a few shillings during the first weeks.

The strike had started in sympathy with the West End tailoring workers. Now we had to draw up our own strike demands. What we wanted was to sweep away the whole sweating system. So our first demand was a normal working day. We asked for the abolition of overtime higher wages and above all, no more small workshops where decent hygienic conditions were impossible, and closed union workshops in all the rest. Without trade union labour there could be no guarantee that the better working conditions we obtained would last.

The employers association was as little prepared for the strike as the workers were. The Masters’ Association had about 300 members, which was only a fraction of the many hundreds who had small tailoring workshops in the East End. But the Masters’ Association had the backing of the big city firms for whom its members worked. The city firms had decided not to give any of their work to master tailors who accepted the workers’ conditions.

It was no secret that we had no funds. The Masters’ Association was therefore sure that we could not hold out more than a couple of weeks, and that sheer hunger would drive the workers back, ready to agree to anything. They had in answer to the strike retaliated with a three weeks’ lock-out. They had no doubt at all that before the end of the three weeks the workers would come begging to let them return.

The spokesman of the Master Tailors’ Association, a man named Samson, tried to create feeling against he strikers by alleging in statements to the English press that they had no real grievances, and were being used as tools in a pot by foreign anarchists to disrupt the industry. He produced false wage-sheets according to which the workers were earning anything between six pounds and ten pounds a week. Reading the reports he put out one got the impression that the infamous sweatshops of the East End were a paradise.

But the workers who slaved in those sweatshops knew what they were really like, and they were determined to stay out on strike whatever happened, in order to win better conditions. All our agitation would have been useless if the workers had not themselves stood firm. People often say the masses don’t know their own mind; this time they did. Attempts were made to play on the natural fears of the womenfolk, for who the strike meant literally no bread in the house. But the women too of the Jewish East End stood firm. There were big mass meetings of women at which they proclaimed their determination to stand by their menfolk in the strike until the end.

It so happened that the big London Dock Strike was on at the same time.

The common struggle brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together. Joint strike meetings were held, and the same speakers spoke at huge joint demonstrations on Tower Hill and on Mile End Waste.

I was busy attending all the meetings of the strike committee, acting as Chairman of the Finance Committee and editing the daily Arbeter Fraint. I worked on the paper from six in the morning till eleven. I addressed three or four strike meetings every day. I never go finished before two in he morning. Luckily I had a robust constitution. I wasn’t the only one who worked these hours. We were all at our posts day and night.

Three weeks after the strike started he workers and the employers in the West End reached a settlement. The result was that the East End workers employed in men’s tailoring, including uniforms, also went back to work, their employers having agreed to their most important demands – shorter hours, no piecework, better sanitary conditions and the employment of union labour only.

The strike in the women’s garment industry continued. This was the branch of the industry in which the East End Jews, masters and workers, were overwhelmingly engaged. Both sides were suffering badly. The master tailors had lost their season’s trade and were getting worried. The workers had no funds left, and were going hungry. The Masters’ Association decided to meet the men’s representatives, and said they would agree to shorter hours and higher wages, but not to closed union shops.

The strike committee called a meeting of the strikers in the Pavilion Theatre. It started at midnight, after the performance was over. The place was packed. Crowds who couldn’t get in stood outside waiting to hear the decision. Kaplan, as Chairman of the strike committee, opened the meeting. The strikers listened to him silently. There was no interruption, no opposition, no applause. A murmur ran round the building when I stood up as the first speaker. I saw those pale, pinched, hungry faces, those thousands of people who had come together at midnight to decide what to do about this strike for which they had sacrificed so much. I felt that I dare not conceal anything from them. I must tell them the whole truth. I explained the position to them. I said that if they held out a few more days I was sure they would win. lf they decided to go back now the masters would make them feel that they had lost. “But the decision,” I said,  “rests with you. I am not going to tell you what to do. You must decide for yourselves.” There was an outburst of applause, and from all sides came the cry: “The strike goes on!”

When the Chairman took the vote, not one single hand was raised against the decision to continuo the strike.

The Masters’ Association met the following morning. Samson insisted that they must hold out. But the great majority had had enough. They withdrew from the Association, leaving only a few members to continue the opposition to the workers’ demands. Negotiations started the same afternoon. We were astonished to find that Samson was one or the first who came to ask the trade union to let him reopen his workshop. Our answer was that we could not deal with him until we had settled with all the other master tailors. He had been the leader of the opposition to our demands and would therefore have to wait to the last. Even after he had signed the agreement nobody wanted to go to work for him.

I had played a leading part of course in the organisation and conduct of the strike, but legends began to grow around me as though I had been the sole organiser and architect of the victory. People ascribed to me things I had never done and had never even heard of. There were many others who had done as much as I did. But the popular mind and tongue insisted that I had done more, that I had done most of it. It was terribly exaggerated, it was fanstastic. It was most embarrassing. I couldn’t put my foot out in the street without becoming the object of a demonstration. One day as I was walking along a narrow Whitechapel street with Milly, an old Jew with a white beard stopped me outside his house, and said: ‘”May God bless You! You helped my children in their need. You are not a Jew, but you are a man!” This old man lived in a completely different world from mine. But the memory of the gratitude that shone in his eyes has remained with me all these years.

The London dock strike was still dragging on. A great many dockers families were suffering real want. The Jewish workers who had just won their own strike felt they must do something to help their fellow workers.

The Arbeter Fraint took it up; we started a campaign. We called a conference of the Jewish trades unions. A committee was set up, and our comrades Ploshansky and Sabelinsky were elected secretary and treasurer. It was decided to ask Jewish families in the East End to take some or the dockers’ children into their homes. Offers poured in. Unfortunately we couldn’t accept them all. Members of the committee always went first to see the house and too often the family couldn’t feed its own children properly. When we found a suitable home, Milly would go to the docks area with one or two other women to fetch the children. They were in a terribly undernourished state, barefoot, In rags. We placed over 500 dockers’ children in East End Jewish homes. Shopkeepers gave us shoes and clothing for them. Trade union leaders and social workers in the docks area spoke publicly of the kindness shown by the East End Jews. The docker parents used to come to the Jewish homes in Whitechapel and Stepney to see their children. It did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.”

Anne J Kershen identifies this strike as qualitatively different to many previous tailors’ strikes, achieving victory and inspiring a rapid increase in union membership in the various tailors’ societies. A number of factors had on this occasion combined to tilt the scales in favour of the workers, including the gradual assimilation and Anglicisation of Jewish workers which was breaking down prejudice and separation, a growing integration in various (previously quite separate) branches of the trade; the fact that it took place in May, always the busy season, when masters were most desperate for workers. The dedicated leadership of Rocker, Kaplan and the Arbeter Fraint group had also been crucial.

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The introduction to this post describing the London tailoring trade is a brief and very simplistic account; if you are interested in reading more on this, Anne J. Kershen’s ‘Uniting The Tailors’ is a brilliant write-up of tailoring and trade unionism in London and Leeds.

Rudolf Rockers account of the 1912 strike is taken from his autobiography, ‘The London Years’.

William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals is also a mesmerising read on this period.

Today in London radical herstory, 1914: International Womens Day march sees launch of newspaper the Woman’s Dreadnought

“The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and “The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and the procession joined the meeting in the square. …Miss Patterson exclaimed, ‘We feel that the time has come for action. Follow the flags. See if we can find something to do’ and proceeded towards Whitehall with strong contingent of men, women and boys …The arrest of Miss Patterson was a signal for wild disorder, many of her supporters throwing themselves on her captors. Eventually mounted police dispersed the crowd. Altogether ten persons were arrested”.  (Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1914, p.9.)

On 8 March 1914 the East London Federation of a Suffragette held an International Women’s Day demonstration in Trafalgar Square, to demand votes for women. The march saw launch of its newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought.

The march was met by mounted police who waded in to inflict considerable violence on the demonstrators. Five women and five men were brought to court the following day, where an angry magistrate complained “Half Scotland Yard had turned out to keep a lot of desperadoes in order!”


The East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS), had only two months before had formally split from the largest militant suffragette organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had engineered their expulsion, mistrustful of the ELFS’s emphasis on centring the campaign for the vote among working-class women in London’s East End.

Leading light in the ELFS was socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, whose political divergence from her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel was only past of the story. Sylvia had undertaken hunger strikes in prison to the point that the authorities temporarily released her to ensure she did not die in their custody, and was at constant risk of re-arrest and imprisonment (she was in fact re-arrested again on the 8th March demonstration).

Sylvia Pankhurst would later recall that the WSPU leader (who was also Sylvia’s older sister), Christabel Pankhurst, demanded that the ELFS form a separate organisation on the grounds that

‘a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. ‘Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!’ 

The ELFS completely rejected this view that richer women were more effective suffragettes, publishing an impassioned defence of the necessity of campaigning ‘from below’ in the first edition of the Dreadnought:

‘Some people tell us that it is neither specially important that working women should agitate for the Vote, nor specially important that they should have it. They forget that comparatively, the leisured comfortably situated women are but a little group, and the working-women a multitude.

‘Some people say that the lives of working-women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful force in winning the Vote, many though they are. Such people have forgotten their history. What sort of women were those women who marched to Versailles?

‘Those Suffragists who say that it is the duty of the richer and more fortunate women to win the Vote, and that their poorer sisters need not feel themselves called upon to aid in the struggle appear, in using such arguments, to forget that it is the Vote for which we are fighting. The essential principle of the vote is that each one of us shall have a share of power to help himself or herself and us all. It is in direct opposition to the idea that some few, who are more favoured, shall help and teach and patronise the others’.

The ELFS’s insistence on applying to the struggle the principle of self-representation that they saw embodied in the vote also entailed a rejection of Christabel Pankhurst’s assumption that all women shared the same interests and therefore richer women could fight on behalf of working-class women.

The ELFS had a strong alliance with East End socialists & workers in particular trades, especially the East End dockers. ELFS members had supported dock strikes in 1912, & the organisation continued to work closely with dockers. Many dockers wives became suffragettes. In March 1913, dockers had supported a march to Holloway, where suffragette Scott Troy was on hunger strike; Troy had organised support to help feed 1000s of dockers families during 1912 strike. ELFS had a branch which operated at the East India Dock Gate, the entrance to one of the biggest docks and a well-known speakers corner for trade unions and socialists. Every Sunday in spring & summer the ELFS staged processions that began or ended at the dock gates.

Sylvia Pankhurst speaks

The ELFS also distinguished themselves from the WSPU and other suffrage groups, in that they campaigned for universal adult suffrage – many working men also could not vote. This brought them closer to workers’ organisations, which remained suspicious of the WPSU in some ways.

Although Sylvia Pankhurst was the focus of EFLS activity, other leading women included Charlotte Drake, ex-barmaid, labourers wife & mother of 5; Melvina Walker, a one-time lady’s maid and dockers wife, whose tales of the high society she had served made her a popular speaker; Nellie Cressell mother of 6, who later became Mayor of Poplar; Annie Barnes and Julia Scurr, later councillors in Stepney & Poplar; Jennie MacKay, ex of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), also later a councillor; Louise Somerville, veteran of the Socialist League and Amy Hicks, also ex-SDF.

The 8 March was held to commemorate International Women’s Day, (initially called for at an international socialist conference in Copenhagen in 1910 by the German socialist Clara Zetkin, to draw attention to the struggles of working-class women). Choosing this day for their demonstration highlighted the working-class and internationalist politics that characterised the ELFS.

Melvina Walker

The demonstration was also notable, as it saw the launch of a new publication, the ELFS’s own newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia Pankhurst.

The paper was started by Pankhurst at the suggestion of Zelie Emerson, after Pankhurst had been expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union by her mother and sister.

On the drawing board it was titled Workers’ Mate, but appeared as The Woman’s Dreadnought, with a weekly circulation of anywhere between 10-20,000. It cost a penny; it was advertised by Graffiti campaigns around the East End. Police harassed the women and men who sold it on the streets.

Despite frequent violent re-arrests, imprisonments and hunger strikes, Sylvia Pankhurst ensured the newspaper came out each week; even a policeman arresting her in May 1914 asked her ‘how I found the time for it’. During Sylvia’s regular spells of imprisonment, Norah Smyth alternated as acting editor with Jack O’Sullivan. Smyth used her photography skills to provide pictures for the newspaper of East End life, particularly of women and children living in poverty.

East London Federation of Sufragettes street stall

Until World War 1 began, it covered London-based, mostly East End news: including women’s suffrage, battles with borough councils, fights with police, women’s lives… When WW1 began, it also began to voice opposition to the slaughter, resistance to conscription, and campaigns around the austerity and shortages the war brought. It was viewed by the authorities as having such a dangerous influence that its offices were subject to repeated police raids.

The Dreadnought would go through several incarnations over the next ten years, as the emphasis of the organisation around Sylvia would change and evolve, through suffrage campaigns, resistance to world war and austerity, support for revolution… In July 1917 the name was changed to Workers’ Dreadnought, which initially had a circulation of 10,000. Its slogan changed to “Socialism, Internationalism, Votes for All”, and then in July 1918 to “For International Socialism”, reflecting increasing opposition to Parliamentarism in the party.

Norah Smyth

On 19 June 1920 Workers’ Dreadnought was adopted as the official weekly organ of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). Pankhurst continued publishing the newspaper until 1924.

The first edition of the Dreadnought declared: ‘the chief duty of The Dreadnought will be to deal with the franchise question from the working women’s point of view’. ELFS members, for the most part women who worked in manual jobs, became the Dreadnought’s journalists, reporting on the concerns of their own communities and workplaces which, Sylvia Pankhurst later wrote, ‘produced far truer accounts than any Fleet Street journalist, for they knew what to ask and how to win the confidence of the sufferers.’ One of these members was Florence Buchan, a jam factory worker who had been sacked when her employers found out she was a suffragette, whose first article exposed the dangerous conditions in jam factories. Her interviews with local striking workers conveyed the sacrifices they made, but also their spirit and humour. Women workers at a preserves and tea packing factory told her that when they tried to go on strike the foreman had locked them in the workroom, and when the women told the male workers what had happened they gave the foreman ‘a good thrashing’; the women concluded ‘there are too many bosses’.

Hoping to engage widely with the local community, Sylvia Pankhurst initially wanted the Dreadnought to be free but this proved unaffordable so they charged a halfpenny for it (half the cost of most political publications) in the first four days after printing after which they distributed the remaining copies from the 20,000 print-run house to house around the East End free of charge.

Going door to door also helped the ELFS to in its aim to connect their political campaign with the economic and social issues of the local community. ELFS members would knock on every door in a particular street, ask the women at home about their lives and then report the conversations they had with the women in the Dreadnought, revealing the problems of ordinary people’s lives. In one such report one woman told of the domestic abuse she was habitually subjected to when her husband discovered they had run out of money – ‘they ask you what you’ve done with it all, and then they start on you’, while others spoke of unemployment, hunger and extortionate rents. The ELFS reporter then summarised her political conclusions from the conversations:

‘Denial to the Government which calls these women unoccupied.

‘One came face to face with the unemployed problem.

‘With Poverty. – Housing Question. – Women as Slaves. – Sweating of Women. – Insurance Act as a failure. – Great faith in women. Suffragettes to be found in slums.’

The Dreadnought gained a reputation for amplifying the voices of people that the establishment did not want to hear. The fact that the Dreadnought carried stories which it received from people writing into paper about injustices they wanted publicised demonstrates the trust and credibility the publication had built up.

During World War 1, the East London Federation of Suffragettes opposed the war, (unlike the leading suffrage organisations, the WPSU and the NUWSS). Sylvia insisted on the Fed and the paper taking this view, which did lead to some ‘pro-war’ ELFS activists leaving, and lost the ELFS much support; initially, as the war was popular and opposition considered traitorous. Several well-off backers who had funded the organisation pulled out, outraged at its anti-war stance.

The Mothers’ Arms toy making workshop

However, as the war went on, and deaths mounted, conscription was introduced, and shortages and privations started to it, the ELFS started to regain support. Gradually, the group evolved from a political organisation into a feminist social welfare movement, focusing on the daily needs of East End women. From this they developed political and social demands reflecting the impact the war was having on the poor: for control of food so people wouldn’t go hungry; against rent rises and wage cuts. A rent strike was attempted in August 1914. At this time some East End women were taking direct action – seizing food from shops without paying. At their Bow HQ, a former pub renamed the ‘Mother’s Arms’, the ELFs set up two cost-price restaurants to feed those with little money, and workshops where women could make items to sell to get by.

Cost price eating at the Mothers’ Arms

In the First World War the Dreadnought also exposed the way in which imprisoned Conscientious Objectors were being deported to the warzone in France where, under army jurisdiction, they could be shot. Its front pages reported the dangers of the chemicals women war workers were exposed to in the factories, something that was down-played and denied by their employers. Despite the establishment’s attempts to suppress all information about the mutiny in the British army at the notorious army camp at Étaples in France in late September 1917, the Dreadnought was able to report this news on its front page because a soldier wrote in:

‘The men out here are fed up with the whole b___y lot.

‘About four weeks ago about 10,000 men had a big racket in Etaples, and they cleared the place from one end to the other, and when the General asked what was wrong, they said they wanted the war stopped. That was never in the papers.’

Throughout its existence the Dreadnought sought to represent the most radical section of contemporary social movements. Formed to give expression to the working women’s campaign for the vote, it opposed the First World War from the moment it broke out and in 1914 it became the first English publication to print the anti-war speech of the German socialist Karl Liebknecht.

In June 1917 The Woman’s Dreadnought changed its name to The Workers’ Dreadnought, reflecting the increasing breadth of the campaigns it was taking up. The newspaper championed the Bolshevik Revolution and printed the writings of leading revolutionaries across Europe. In 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst became the first newspaper editor in Britain to employ a black journalist when she invited the Jamaican poet Claude McKay to work on the Dreadnought.

The Dreadnought consistently opposed racism and imperialism and sent its reporters to Ireland to expose atrocities committed by British troops. The paper also (uniquely among the UK left at the time) opposed colonialism, and attacked racism among some East End workers – explicitly linking socialism to anti-racism & anti-colonial struggles. In contrast, other contemporary left papers like the Daily Herald were overtly racist.

Influenced by the Russian Revolution, the ELFS transformed itself into the Workers Socialist Federation, reflecting a change in orientation: towards revolutionary socialism. In a marked change of course from their origins in the suffrage movement, the WSF adopted an anti-parliamentary communist stance, and opposed participation in elections as a bourgeois distraction from the class struggle. They also rejected affiliation to the Labour Party, in contrast to large parts of the Communist scene in the UK (and in contradiction to Lenin’s advice).  The WDF did not forget conflicts with the Labour hierarchy during the war. The Workers’ Dreadnought now advocated soviets and workers control of production, and promoted the forming of workers committees in several London factories; it also flirted with syndicalism/industrial unionism, which was seeing a revival as part of a new post-war upsurge in industrial militancy in 1918-19, which saw a plethora of strikes. Billy Watson, who attempted to set up a London Workers Committee to unite workers’ struggles from below, wrote a regular industrial column for the Dreadnought in 1917.

Pankhurst developed her own theory of ‘social soviets’: councils of working class inside AND outside workplaces, to include people not in work, eg housewives, unemployed, elderly, children… This was an advanced position for a leftist of the times (where the workplace was generally considered the only place for class struggle to take place). He vision was of a local & decentralised form of socialism, under workers’ control. This all reflected Sylvia’s interest in practical problems of how socialism would run on a local level, food, welfare etc – all of which arose from the ELFS practical experience during WW1.

The WSF were the first communist group to make contact with the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 Revolution; over the next few years the group’s relationship to the situation in Russia would in many ways define its trajectory. The WSF affiliated to the communist Third international in 1919. But in the same year, Sylvia Pankhurst went to Italy, Germany, Holland, making contacts with the left fractions of the communist movement, with whose positions she clearly agreed, on elections, parliamentary participation, in particular. This would get the WSF denounced by Lenin in 1920 in his ‘Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’. While the WSF was heavily involved in struggles in London against the UK plan for military intervention in Soviet Russia, news coming from the USSR increased Sylvia’s distrust of the directions the Soviet revolution was taking. Nevertheless, the WSF reformed (in alliance with Aberdeen, Holt & Croydon Communist groups, Stepney Communist League, Gorton Socialist Society, the Labour Abstentionist Party, & the Manchester Soviet) into the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in 1920: the first UK Communist Party. Lenin also thought this move premature.

After many raids during the war, the Dreadnought’s spreading of communism was guaranteed to attract more police attention. The Dreadnought offices were raided again under the draconian Defence of the Realm Act, for publication of articles which referred to discontent in the navy: the CP(BSTI) had some contacts among rebel sailors, eg black sailor Reuben Samuels, and Dave Springhall.

Claude Mackay

It was through Jamaican-born Claude Mackay that these contacts had been made. Though later better known as a poet and writer, a crucial figure in the Harlem Renaissance, in 1919-20, McKay was living in London, and had become a communist. He fused communist ideas with anti-colonial and anti-racist thinking, and bridged the black nationalist and socialist scenes, critical of where both fell short from within. As well as writing for the Dreadnought (at times during Sylvia’s imprisonment he virtually edited several issues), he also frequented a mostly black soldiers’ club in Drury Lane, and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch (successor to the 19th century old Communist Club  A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. During this period that his commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji SaklatvalaA. J. CookGuy AldredJack TannerArthur McManusWilliam Gallacher, and George Lansbury. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In April 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled “Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine“, it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general. Lansbury refused to print McKay’s response. This response then appeared in Workers’ Dreadnought. In response to the “Black Horror on the Rhine” stories that the Daily Herald was running, McKay wrote:

“Why this obscene maniacal outburst about the sex vitality of black men in a proletarian paper?” Rape is rape; the colour of the skin doesn’t make it different. Negroes are no more over-sexed than Caucasians; mulatto children in the West Indies and America were not the result of parthenogenesis. If Negro troops had syphilis, they contracted it from the white and yellow races. As for German women, in their economic plight they were selling themselves to anyone. I do not protest because I happen to be a Negro … I write because I feel that the ultimate result of your propaganda will be further strife and blood-spilling between whites and the many members of my race … who have been dumped down on the English docks since the ending of the European war … Bourbons of the United States will thank you, and the proletarian underworld of London will certainly gloat over the scoop of the Christian-Socialist pacifist Daily Herald.”

The Dreadnought office was raided in October 1920, after the paper published the articles about discontent among sailors, and Sylvia Pankhurst was charged under DORA for publishing these articles. Mackay, in a room at the top of the building, was warned by Pankhurst’s secretary, Mackay smuggled the original letters from which they derived out of the building, and burned them. He escaped arrest, but Sylvia was sent to prison for six months in 1921 for publishing them. At her trial she defiantly called for the overthrow of capitalism, telling the court: ‘this is a wrong system, and has got to be smashed.’ 

Mackay left Britain shortly after, feeling things were getting too hot for him. He later spent time in the Soviet Union, though he distanced himself from communism in later life.

The Dreadnought was in the news again only a few weeks later, after a crowd attacked women working there who had disrupted the first November 11th Armistice Day commemorations.

The CP(BSTI) entered into negotiations with other socialist groups to form a united Communist Party, including the British Socialist Party (BSP) – the anti-war majority of the old Social Democratic Federation – and the mainly Scottish-based Socialist Labour Party. Throughout the protracted discussions, the ‘communist left’ attempted to form a left bloc in or allied to any new Communist Party, which many had realised would be dominated by more right wing members of the BSP. The 21 theses laid down by the Communist International caused some debate, as they included stipulations Pankhurst and the left communists had serious issues with. 4 CP(BSTI) branches refused to agree to them & left. Although the majority of the CP(BSTI) did unite with the new Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in January 1921, by this time problems had led to division between Pankhurst & others, and she was in immediate conflict with the new party hierarchy. All CP publications were supposed (under the 21 Theses) to be subordinated to party control, and the Workers’ Dreadnought was not accepted as a party paper; Sylvia was ordered to cease publication. The new party also did little to support her while she was in jail. Though she joined the CPGB on her release, she maintained contact with the European left communists – the KAPD, left factions & the Workers Opposition. She was ordered to give up the Dreadnought, and refusing to do so, was expelled from the CPGB in September 1921.

After her expulsion, Pankhurst & a few others (including Melvina Walker & Nora Smythe) formed a Communist Workers Party (CWP), but this was only ever a small propaganda sect. They attempted to revive their old speaking places and links in the East End but the group never really took off. Sylvia also refused to unite with another left communist grouping in Britain, the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, mainly due to personality differences…

Sylvia carried on publishing the Dreadnought, and allied herself and the CWP to the Fourth International of left wing communist groups, including the KAPD, & Belgian, Dutch, Bulgarian, Czech left communists (known as International of Opposition Parties). They shared their criticisms of developments in Russia, and built up links also to the Workers Opposition in the USSR.

But being excluded from the CPGB pushed Sylvia and her group to the margins, and movements they had built up were declining or divided. CWP-backed alternatives to the mainstream communist-backed union movements or the National Unemployed Workers Movement were either small and weak or short-lived. Revolutionary Growing more out of touch, the CWP collapsed by 1924. Lack of support, money and energy led Sylvia to halt publication of the Workers’ Dreadnought in July 1924.

Although Sylvia eventually moved out of the East End, she remained active politically, and would go on to be an early campaigner against the rise of fascism, as well as outspokenly fighting for international solidarity with Ethiopia when it was invaded by fascist Italy. She died in Ethiopia in 1960. The ELFS and its successors had done some amazing work in the East End, from agitating among working class women and men over the vote, through grassroots day to day solidarity in the face of war and repression, resisting the war effort, supporting revolution and correctly criticising the USSR’s turn to authoritarianism and the western communist parties’ slavish falling into line and opportunism. Like many another suffragette, her health was irrevocably damaged by hunger strikes in prison; but she never stopped trying to change the world for the better…

Read Copies of the Women’s/Workers’ Dreadnought in the British Newspaper Archive

Worth a read: Sylvia’s accounts of her activism, in The Suffragette Movement, and The Home Front (about the ELFS in WW1).
Also Barbara Wilmslow, Sylvia Pankhurst, a good account of the various phases of Sylvia’s political journey.

Today and tomorrow, in London’s shopping history: bread riots in Whitechapel, 1861

The winter of 1860-61 was grim: freezing weather and lack of work, leading to mass poverty among working people in London. ‘The district of Old Street, Goswell Street, Barbican, and Whitecross Street’, wrote a correspondent of the Morning Post on January 20, 1861, ‘are the boundaries, in a maze of courts swarming with people in a state of starvation.’

The low temperatures led to a lack of work: “Owing to the continuance of the frost, and all out door labour being stopped, the distress and suffering that prevail in the metropolis, particularly among the dock labourers, bricklayers, masons, and labouring classes at the East End, are truly horrible. Throughout the day thousands congregate round the approaches of the different workhouses and unions, seeking relief, but it has been impossible for the officers to supply one-third that applied. This led to consider able dissatisfaction, and hundreds have perambulated the different streets seeking alms of the inhabitants and of the passers-by.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

“THE one domestic question at present uppermost in the public mind is the social condition of the humbler classes. It has been forced upon us by a winter of unexampled severity; by an amount of national distress, not at all exceptional in the cold season, which has gone to the very verge of bread riots; and by agitations in the press and on the platform for an immediate improvement in labourers’ cottages. The chief streets of the metropolis have been haunted for weeks by gaunt labourers, who have moaned out a song of want that has penetrated the thickest walls. The workhouses have been daily besieged by noisy and half-famished crowds; the clumsy poor-law system, with its twenty-three thousand officers, its boards, and its twelve thousand annual reports, has notoriously broken down; the working clergy, and the London magistrates, worn out and exhausted, have been the willing almoners of stray benevolence; Dorcas societies, soup-kitchens, ragged-schools, asylums, refuges, and all the varied machinery of British charity, have been strained to the utmost; and now we may sit down and congratulate ourselves that only a few of our fellow-creatures have been starved to death. The storm to all appearance has passed, but the really poor will feel the effects of those two bitter months -December, 1860, and January, 1861 – for years.” (Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861.)

The extreme poverty provoked collective action – proletarian shopping – taking the necessities of life by force without the politeness of paying. Over the nights of 15/16 January 1861, there were bread riots in Whitechapel.
Several bakers’ shops in the East End of London were emptied by a mob of 30 to 40 people on the evening of the 15th. The next day, things escalated: on the 16th, between seven and nine o’clock at night, thousands gathered, many of them dockers and their families, and cleared bakers’ shops and eating-houses. Outnumbered, the mounted police were powerless to stop the desperate spectacle.

“On Tuesday night much alarm was produced by an attack made on a large number of bakers’ shops in the vicinity of the Whitechapel Road and Commercial Road East. They were surrounded by a mob of about thirty or forty in number, who cleared the shops of the bread they contained, and then decamped. On Wednesday night, however, affairs assumed a more threatening character, and acts of violence were committed. By sonic means it became known, in the course of the afternoon, that the dock labourers intended to visit Whitechapel in a mass, as soon as dusk set in, and that an attack would be made on all the provision shops in that locality. This led to a general shutting up of the shops almost through out the East End – a precaution highly necessary, for between seven and nine o’clock thousands congregated in the principal streets and proceeded in a body from street to street. An attack was made upon many of the bakers’ shops and eating-houses, and every morsel of food was carried away. A great many thieves and dissipated characters mingled with the mob, and many serious acts of violence were committed. The mounted police of the district were present, but it was impossible for them to act against so large a number of people. Yesterday, the streets were thronged with groups of the unemployed, seeking relief of the passers-by. In the outskirts similar scenes were observed, and in some instances acts approaching intimidation were resorted to to obtain alms.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

The bread riot was a not irregular feature of life both before and after industrialisation in England, with bread prices at the mercy of many factors including bad harvests, greedy price-raising by hoarders and artificial price-hiking in the interests of landowners by use of legislation like the Corn Laws. Although these laws had been repealed in 1846, economic slump or seasonal conditions could reduce whole areas to near-destitution. There had been bread riots across London in 1855, including in Whitechapel…

In the January 1861 riots, East End dockers were prominent: dock work was precarious and unstable at the best of times, with men engaged day to day at the whim of the gangmasters; frozen weather caused ships not to be able to be unloaded and work to slacken.

The grim conditions continued into February and March: “It is doubtful if there was not more real privation in February than in January of the present year; and the registrar-general’s return of deaths from starvation – the most awful of all deaths – for the mild week ending February 16, had certainly increased. There has been no lack of generosity on the part of those who have been able to give. The full purse has been everywhere found open, and thousands have asked to be shown real suffering, and the best mode of relieving it. A local taxation, cheerfully and regularly paid, of 18,000,000l. per annum, beyond the Government burden, is either inadequate for the purposes to which it is applied, or applied in the most wasteful and unskilful manner. The sum, or its administration, is unable to do its work. The metropolis, not to speak of other towns, is not “managed,” not cleansed, not relieved from the spectre of starvation which dances before us at our doors.”

(Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861)

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

The Silvertown Tunnel can be prevented – like the East London River Crossing back in the 1990s

Climate Change – the most pressing issue of our times; Global crisis that demands global solutions. Declarations of a climate emergency by councils or governments are all very well – but the profits of big business depend on continuing destruction of the natural world and exploitation of its resources, as well as mass exploitation of people. A global solution can only be based on LOCAL action, local change, from the grassroots.

In East London, locals are opposing the planned building of a new Thames river crossing which will increase pollution, congestion and emissions. Transport for London proposes to build the Silvertown Tunnel road tunnel under the Thames, from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks, under the river, just to the east of the A102/Blackwall Tunnel.

TfL say East London needs a new river crossing to relieve the over-congested Blackwall Tunnel. But building new roads only attracts new traffic, resulting in higher emissions and more pollution. The building of the second Blackwall Tunnel in the late 1960s saw traffic double within a year – its new approach roads were jammed within a decade. The M25 keeps filling up each time it’s widened. The Silvertown Tunnel would be no different.

It’s true that the Blackwall tunnels are regularly rammed and even shut due to congestion, with queues of vehicles backed up as far as the Sun in the Sands roundabout in the morning… And halfway up to Leyton in the evening… But adding more lanes only opens up for more traffic…

Air quality around the A102 and its approach roads on both sides of the Thames already breaks legal limits, putting locals’ health at risk, especially children. The effects of poor air contributes to the deaths of hundreds of local people; children who grow up near polluted roads have their lungs damaged for life. The solution to transport problems is better public transport, not more roads and more cars.

At best, the Silvertown Tunnel will be an expensive waste of money. At worst, it’ll blight the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

But it doesn’t have to be this way: local people have prevented such disastrous roads being built before. The A102 itself is a legacy from the failed London Ringway proposal, a plan to encircle London with urban motorways – fought off in the 1970s by angry residents. [Interestingly for those as remember the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the M41 motorways in Shepherds Bush, this is the only other part of the Ringway apart from the A102 that ever actually got built…]

And just downriver from where the Silvertown Tunnel is proposed today, the East London River Crossing was defeated in the 1990s.

Originally scheduled in the 1980s, the River Crossing faced opposition from the start. It faced the longest Public Inquiry ever held into a road scheme; an inquiry 194 days; the transcripts of the proceedings contained 9.5 million words!

Planned to run across the river from Beckton through Greenwich and Eltham, to link the A2 and A13, plans for the new road would have meant bulldozing through some beautiful southeast London woodlands, including the 8000 year-old Oxleas wood, and Shepherdleas wood, Woodlands Farm, and demolishing several hundred homes in Plumstead. Government policy at the time involved a massive new roadbuilding program – developers and some local authorities strongly supported the scheme.

In the words of one of the organisers against the scheme,the odds against stopping it were getting bigger all the time. To achieve victory, a concerted strategy was needed to make Oxleas Wood a big issue locally and give it wider significance – a strategy to make it a symbol of the environmental damage that the road programme was causing and a rallying point for the environment movement. If that could be done, then, given Oxleas Wood’s proximity to Westminster, it might force the Government to back down rather than risk confrontation with a united community and environment movement, in its own “back yard”.

As ancient woodland Oxleas Woods had survived in all its beauty and peace for over 8000 years and now, in the space of a year or so, it was to be decimated in the name of progress. 900 year-old trees and a vast array of rare flora and fauna were to be destroyed to provide drivers with a faster route between the City of London, East and South East London.

Many hundreds of years previously the 77 hectare site had been gifted to the citizens of London as a leisure area “to enjoy for perpetuity”. Oxleas was one of the capital city’s last remaining sizeable green spaces and in some respects acted as the lungs of London. It has been described as “the last remaining part of the pre-historic great forest of London”. People from all walks of life benefited from Oxleas – playing children, nature lovers, hikers and dog-walking adults, from the poorest communities in London in enormous social housing estates in Kidbrooke to the middle classes of Eltham and Shooters Hill.

‘Like all the best campaigns we fought on every level. There were letter-writing stalls at the popular Greenwich market, politicians were systematically lobbied and a well-presented public transport alternative was drawn-up. We organised an “Adopt-a- Tree” scheme; the aim here was to get every tree in Oxleas Wood adopted. As well as bringing in funds and publicity, it would give supporters a real stake in the campaign. And if the worst came to the worst we could invite tree adopters to turn up to defend their tree.

In order to make Oxleas a “line in the sand” for the environment movement, we got some of the large environmental non-government organisations (for example the Wildlife Trusts and World Wide Fund for Nature) to take part in an Oxleas Strategy Group. This helped lock them into a campaign that was ultimately run by local people, but which made the best use of the resources of the national campaigns.

A couple of legal lines of last resort helped propel the campaign into the national news. The Government had failed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the scheme, as required by European Community law. The heroic European Commissioner for the Environment, Carlo Ripa di Meana, took up this complaint causing Prime Minister Major to hit the roof and interrupt a Commonwealth conference to condemn the EC’s action. The complaint was never seen through by the EC, but the publicity was invaluable, as was that which resulted from a High Court case where the “Oxleas 9” (nine local people) put their assets on the line to take the Department of Transport to court over their failure to provide adequate land in exchange for the damage to Oxleas woods. The case was lost, but Oxleas had caught the public imagination and the pressure on the government was intensifying.

Meanwhile, campaigners were preparing for the worst. A “Beat the Bulldozer” pledge was launched, with the aim of getting 10,000 people to pledge to be there if the bulldozers went in. With the TV pictures of direct action at Twyford Down fresh in their minds, as well as the vivid pictures we had painted of what would happen if they violated Oxleas Wood, the Government backed down.”

In the end, the pressure of the campaign paid off. In July 1993, the government withdrew the plans. The River Crossing was abandoned, unbuilt.’

The East London River Crossing was a turning point: part of, and helping to inspire, a growing movement against the government’s road building program. Community campaigns, protest camps, occupations and sabotage resisted roadbuilding at Twyford Down, against the M11, at Newbury, among many others. Mass resistance led to the whole roads program being cancelled by the New Labour government in 1997. Acting together – WE CAN WIN.

Check out the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition on twitter: @SilvertownTn

More info on Silvertown Tunnel campaign: https://silvertowntunnel.co.uk/

Pagans and magick folk played a significant part in the fight against the East London River Crossing in the 1990s – check out this account

What was really great to see was the local Extinction Rebellion action against the proposed Silvertown tunnel this year. There have been many criticism of XR (our post on Reclaim the Streets, XR and more here has some thoughts) – but this was practical and pressing action, addressing the burning issues on the ground and in daily life… A good step forward.

The Silvertown Tunnel has now been approved for go ahead… But this does not mean the struggle is over! The story of the East London River Crossing and the Saving of Oxleas Wood shows the show ain’t over if we get our act together…

Today in London riotous history, 1871: 1000s demolish enclosure fences on Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats is the southernmost portion of Epping Forest in Wanstead, East London. Epping Forest itself is a  a remnant of the once extensive Forest of Essex, also encompassing Waltham Forest and Hainault Forest.

On July 8th 1871, thousands of locals and people from the wider East End gathered to protest at the enclosure of the Flats, and destroyed the fences that had been put up around the land.

Historically the Flats were part of the royal forest – however, the proximity of this space to villages led people to turn out cattle and other animals to graze upon the unenclosed land. Over the centuries, this custom became tradition and was eventually recognised and granted as a right of common pasture. (Certain landowners and occupiers still have this right, granted them as part of the Epping Forest Act 1878, and cattle grazed freely until 1996 when the BSE crisis forced their removal).

Parts of Epping Forest were enclosed as parkland with large houses, which evolved from medieval manor houses. The most significant of these are Wanstead Park, dating from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, and the eighteenth-century Copped Hall.
As part of the Royal Forest of Essex, Epping Forest was one of sixty forests across England where Forest Law gave the Crown the right to hunt game across largely privately owned land.  Hunting across forest landscapes was an important demonstration of Royal and aristocratic power and a necessary practice for war.  Forest Laws recognised the earlier tradition of shared ‘common’ rights for forest dwellers to graze livestock and to cut firewood and turf.

Changing Royal interests and the rise of a professional army during the Georgian period saw Royal participation in hunting and the power of Forest Law dramatically decline. Parliamentary scrutiny of Royal finances following the Restoration saw the Royal Forest hunting rights across private land, known as Forestal Rights, begin to be sold.

From 1817, a series of Parliamentary Bills unsuccessfully pressed for the disafforestation of Epping Forest.  In 1851, following the sale of Forestal Rights, 3,000 acres of nearby Hainault Forest, another fragment of the Forest of Essex, was felled within six weeks. Six years later, the Commissioners sold half of the Royal Forestal Rights at Epping Forest, encouraging the illegal enclosure of some 4,000 acres of Epping Forest by 1865.

Local people’s long use of Wanstead Flats, and its general reputation common land, led to a strong attachment to the land there. This led to resistance when attempts were made to enclose or build on parts of the land.

There was deep resentment when Lord Mornington enclosed 34 acres in 1851-2.
In the 1850s Isaac Lake was a tenant farmer of Lord Wellesley on Aldersbrook part of the Flats. Wellseley, (Lord Mornington, nephew of the famous Duke of Wellington), the Lord of the Manor of Aldersbrook, ordered Lake to enclose 34 acres of land on the Flats.

Wellesley’s plan was to build a permanent cattle market on the Flats (to replace the huge open air cattle market which was held on this area of the Flats every spring until the mid 19th century… Cattle would be driven from East Anglia and other parts of England to supply the growing London market for meat. The cattle were bought and sold in “The Rabbits” pub on Romford Road (at the corner of Rabbits Road – the building is now a pharmacy).
The enclosure provoked a local outcry: one local farmer apparently drove his cattle onto the enclosed land, breaking down the fences, and was prosecuted.

The plan to build the market failed, and the market was built in Caledonian Road, Islington, instead. Lord Mornington died in ‘humble lodgings’ in 1857, so perhaps the scheme was a desperate attempt to restore dwindling family finances…

However, the 34 acres seem to have been fenced off and built on, despite an attempt by residents of Cann Hall and other commoners attempting to block him in the courts. This seems to have involved support from Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, of the quaker brewing family, who was later to take an active part in fighting other enclosures in Epping Forest…

The most famous episode in local defence of the Flats took place in July 1871, after Earl Cowley, cousin and heir of Lord Mornington, enclosed 20 acres of wasteland, (the last piece of unenclosed land in the Manor of Aldersbrook).

Fences were erected from Bushwood to Ridley Road by Earl Cowley’s agents.
But there was an angry response. An advertisement with the headlines “Save The Forest” encouraged working people to “Attend by Thousands” an open air meeting on Wanstead Flats on Saturday, July 8th 1871 to “Protest against the Enclosures”. The meeting took place, not initially on Wanstead Flats, where the Essex Volunteers were undertaking a review, but in the grounds of a building then called West Ham Hall.

So many people attended, estimated at 30,000 – so many that the meeting was by popular acclaim adjourned to Wanstead Flats after all, with some thousands of people making their way there. The meeting would end with crowds pulling down the enclosure fences.

Here follow some contemporary accounts of the demonstration and direct action:

“THE recent destruction of the fences surrounding one of the obnoxious enclosures on Wanstead Flats may have been an act of great imprudence, but it serves to illustrate the angry spirit with which the East Londoners are beginning to regard the continual encroachments which are rapidly depriving them of the broad open spaces to the free use of which they have been accustomed for so many generations. Perhaps there is no portion of the Metropolitan suburbs so largely frequented during holiday-time as are the yet unenclosed portions of Epping Forest lying nearest to the overcrowded districts of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. On a fine Sunday evening thousands of working men, attended by their sweethearts or wives and families, may be seen proceeding along the Mile End Road in the direction of Wanstead Flats, a large open space, perfectly level and covered with verdure, close to the Forest Gate Station of the Great Eastern Railway. The distance from London is not great, the Flats being within five miles of the Royal Exchange, a circumstance adding considerably to the value of this portion of Epping Forest as a popular open-air resort. But it is on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons during the fine days of summer, that the Flats present their most interesting appearance, for on these occasions they form the playground of immense numbers of children from the myriad courts and lanes of Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and other densely populated districts in East London. No sight can be mare touching than that of the crowds of poorly attired little ones, some of them mere toddlers, who have dragged their limbs hither, regardless of hat stony pavements and dusty roads that they might have a few hours’ romping on the soft grass or load themselves with bundles of buttercups and daisies. It is no exaggeration to say that but for Wanstead Flats, and other open spaces near East London, the late terrible visitation of cholera, which decimated so many artisan families, would have been far more destructive in its results. But the pure, fresh air of Wanstead Flats did much to counteract the unwholesome influences of the fever-reeking atmosphere which still, despite every effort on the part of the sanitary authorities, too often pervades the humble homes of the East London labouring poor. But the Flats are apparently doomed. Earl Cowley’s enclosure is by no means the first of its kind; there, have been several others such as that, the fences of which have just been destroyed. Before Mr. Gladstone promised to take up the question of Epping Forest, the Crown rights over Wanstead Flats had been sold for 12,000l. by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. Nothing but the rights of the commoners remain, and these have been disregarded because there were none sufficiently wealthy to defend them. But the Corporation of the City of London having recently, through their purchases of land for their cemetery at Ilford, become possessed of the rights of common an Wanstead Flats, have announced their determination to defend the same at whatever coat. This is the first time that the system of enclosure has experienced any real check. Should the Corporation gain the day, the free use of Wanstead Flats will have become secured to the East Londoners; but the conflict will be a long and costly one, for the encroachers instinctively scent the danger which awaits them, that they may not only be prevented from making further enclosures, but, also be compelled to give up some of the land of which they have been too easily allowed to acquire possession. (The Weekly Graphic, 15 July 1871)

“A meeting to protest against this filching of the forest was held, on Wanstead Flats last Saturday. The people v. lords of manors; the people v. Chancellors of the Exchequer who decline to protect them: the people’s rights against all would confiscate them – formed the key-note of every speech. Let it be understood at once that as far as the proceedings at the meeting proper were concerned there was no violence. The powerful force of policemen, both horse and foot, which had been sent down to guard Lord Cowley’s obnoxious fence had nothing to do; and a large majority of the gallant fellows whiled away the calm summer evening by foot-races, jumpings, and athletic sports upon land which is still common. Others were placed on duty within the various doubtful inclosures, and others, again, hovered round the public meetings, of which there were several held upon the Flats.

WANSTEAD FLATS, it may be explained is the title of the portion of Epping Forest which is nearest to London, and is but a stones throw from the Forest-gate station of the Eastern Counties Railway, and some quarter of an hour’s walk from as crowded and busy thoroughfares as there are in the metropolis. The meeting of Saturday had been announced beforehand, and the possibility of lord Cowley’s new fence being removed “by resolution” had been not obscurely hinted at. A review of volunteers had been announced to take place on Wanstead Flats at the hour at which the chair was to be taken, so placards were issued that “in consequence of this, Lord Cowley’s last inclosure would be discussed in a field adjoining West Ham Hall, the residence of Mr. Tanner. This was not far from the Flats, but it was too far for the meeting. An amendment was moved the moment Sir Antonio Brady took the chair. Mr. Wingfield Baker M.P., advised and pleaded in vain.

“To the flats!”

“They’re oar own.”

“Wy should we be pravented meeting there?”

“Wot is there to be afraid of?

“Whose fault is it we have to meet at all?”

“Wot about Berkhampstead?” [This refers to the then recent and highly publicised case of Lord Brownlow’s attempt to enclose Berkhamstead Common, which had ended with his fences being removed by night, after the enclosure was contested legally].

“Where’s Lord Brownlow’s palings now?” – came from scores of lusty voices and when the amendment was put “that this meeting do adjourn,” a perfect forest of hands was held up in its favour.” 

“The committee under whose auspices the meeting had been convened were seated in a large waggon which had been fitted up with tables and chairs, and two or three other vehicles of a like character stood around, all crowded, and all without horses. What so fitting as that they should be dragged on to the Flats by the enthusiastic crowd? There was plenty of superfluous energy about, and a dozen willing fellows had harnessed themselves, and waggons, committee, chairs, tables, and paraphernalia were out of the field and jogging along the road at a steady trot in far less time than it has taken to read these lines. At the meeting there was plenty of good vigorous oratory; but it is not necessary to follow the speakers very closely. Resolutions were passed that an address shall be presented to her Majesty; that the Government shall be urged to pass a short bill this session to effectually prevent further inclosures; that thanks shall be rendered to the Corporation of the City of London ; and that copies of these resolutions shall be sent to the Prime Minister, to the chancellor of the Exchequer (loud and prolonged groaning followed every mention of Mr. Lowe’s name), and to every member of Parliament whose constituents are immediately interested in the preservation of the forest What was specially significant was the tact and temper displayed by the speakers and the plain influence of those qualities over the crowd. Strong as the police force was, it would have availed but little against the stalwart fellows who had just drawn in heavy waggons laden with heavy gentlemen over roads and turf, and had enjoyed the gentle exercise that proceeding gave then. A little swaying to and fro, a slight pressure in one direction – nay, a passive yielding to circumstances such as governs innocent spirit-rappers and table-turners who have a predisposition to believe – and the nearest paling would have fallen like a house of cards. But from first to last those present were adjured to give their enemies to handle against them. So the great demonstration began, continued, and ended peacefully. Earl Cowley’s fence remained intact when the meeting separated, and the extra police force were dispersed after nothing more stirring than a few hours pleasant pastime in country air.” (the Penny Illustrated Paper, 15th July 1871)

The Committee who had called the meeting were alarmed by the strength of the feeling. Fearful of the increasingly vocal calls for destruction of the fences on the Flats, they had tried to persuade the crowd not to march on the Flats… But the demonstrators were having none of it. As soon as the first speaker began, there was a storm of hissing, and shouts of ‘to the Flats’, followed by the manhandling of the carts, from which the gentleman leaders were speaking, up Chestnut Avenue and onto the Flats.

The official meeting on the Flats agreed to petition the Queen over the forest enclosures, then the leaders left, as did the large police detachment sent to guard the fences. Everything seemed to have passed off peacefully, but later that evening the mood changed. Very quickly, hundreds of yards of fence were reduced to matchwood:

“THE DESTRUCTION OF FENCES happened later in the evening. Close to nine o’clock an incident occurred which changed the whole aspect of affairs, and the fence around the inclosure at the side of the Flats near the Foresters’ Arms, and quite close to whore the meeting had been held, was destroyed in the twinkling of an eye. A man, while seated on a rail of the fence, was asked by a comrade to go home; he demurred, and his friend pulled at him to make him get down; the rail shook and in a moment half a dozen hands brought it to the ground. A dozen hands laid hold of the next; it gave way; in a minute there were fifty persons pulling energetically, then a hundred, then hundreds. The sound of the breaking up of the railing – for they were smashed into fragments as they were got from the posts – sounded like a continuation of the file-firing of the volunteers, and hundreds of people rushed up from all parts of the Flats and from the side roads and public-houses. In five minutes the fence around the inclosure was almost wholly destroyed.

A solitary constable galloped along the Ilford road after the police, and brought back at full speed fifteen or twenty mounted men, who rode on to the Flats. As no one was to be seen engaged in any overt act they could do nothing. In a few minutes the foot-police rushed back at the double, and were unmercifully “chaffed” by the crowd, who recommended them to take care of the fragments of the railings. In a moment a small body of working men, at a remote part of the inclosure, essayed to destroy a few rails still standing. The mounted officers leaped their horses over the remains of the fence and rode straight it the destroyers, who fled precipitately. One young man was apparently ridden down by an inspector, and while on the ground a body of the foot police laid hold of him. The crowd turned back, and, saying “they mustn’t have him!” attempted to rescue him. This movement was soon put a stop to by the very energetic efforts of the small body of horseman, who charged about on all sides. The prisoner was handcuffed and marched off, the crowd following him with the intention of rescuing him in this narrow road; the police frustrated this by suddenly drawing a line across the road and charging the mob coming along. In the melee that ensued some minutes were occupied, which gave time to a party of police to hurry the prisoner along the Ilford road and effectually secure him. In addition to the man then made prisoner, the police captured a boy, whom they also carried off in custody…” (the Penny Illustrated Paper, 15th July 1871)

The man arrested was a Whitechapel cabinetmaker named Henry Rennie. A pitched battle then took place, as the crowd tried unsuccessfully to rescue him. He was later prosecuted, and he was fined 5/- (25p – a fair sum for a working man then), which was paid for him by one of the Forest Gate organisers of the meeting.

“The police were utterly taken by surprise by what occurred. They were expecting something of the kind with regard to Lord Cowley’s fence at the other end of the fence adjacent to the Ilford Cemetery, and had a pretty strong force in reserve there. On Sunday they remained on guard. On Monday, also, they held their ground, it having been rumoured that some persons had determined to try the right of way by passing through Lord Cowley’s inclosure. the leaders, however, were not on the spot, and the rain, descending, dispersed the people who had gathered in expectation of another demonstration.” (the Penny Illustrated paper, 15th July 1871)

Police on Wanstead Flats, July 8th 1871

The demonstration attracted nationwide news coverage, much of it highly critical of the government. A few days later the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, came to view the Flats, after which his administration rushed through the first of a series of acts on Epping Forest, prohibiting further enclosures while a Commission investigated.

In the following month the Corporation of London, concerned at the pace of enclosures in Epping Forest, started proceedings against all the Lords of local manors who had enclosed land.

However, the campaign was just getting going. A pressure group called the Forest Fund, was established in Forest Gate, with local residents such as Charles Tanner, owner of West Ham Hall, forming a key part of the committee. The secretary was William George Smith, a County Court Clerk who lived in Odessa Road, Cann Hall. Smith played a major role in the popular campaign for Epping Forest, working tirelessly over the next few years, organising petitions to parliament from east London vestries (the main units of local government before Councils) and lobbying MPs and voters during elections.

In 1872 the Forest Fund organised a second demonstration on Wanstead Flats, timed to coincide with a further parliamentary debate on the future of Epping Forest. By this time the City of London Corporation had entered the fray, using their rights as Epping Forest commoners to bring legal action against the Lords of the Manor in the forest to stop enclosures. In doing so the City was seizing an opportunity to win popular support among Londoners. London’s government was increasingly seen as outdated for a modern city, and the City of London represented for many an undemocratic and unaccountable elite.

Election poster from 1874, with enclosures as the leading issue

From 1875, the Corporation of London negotiated purchase of land from all the manors of Epping Forest; and enclosed land was reopened for all, including Wanstead Flats. The events at Wanstead and the previous action of Tom Willingale at Baldwins Hill had prompted this – we will return to Tom Willingale in November…

A combination of the Corporation’s legal action and parliamentary action by radical London MPs finally led to the Epping Forest Act passed 140 years ago. But it was direct action by East Londoners that was the crucial spur…

One reason why the Flats attracted so much support was their popularity with Eastenders for recreation. The East End having a huge working class population with few gardens and a shortage of open space, Wanstead Flats and Epping Forest were often crowded with people looking to escape the crowded dirty city for a few hours. Festivals and fairs were often held there, as Arthur Morrison recalled:

“WHIT MONDAY ON WANSTEAD FLATS

There is no other fair like Whit Monday’s on Wanstead Flats. Here is a square mile or more of open land where you may howl at large; here is no danger of losing yourself as in Epping Forest; the public-houses are always with you; shows, shies, swings, merry-go-rounds, fried fish stalls, donkeys are packed closer than on Hampstead Heath; the ladies’ tormentors are larger, and their contents smell worse than at any other fair. Also, you may be drunk and disorderly without being locked up – for the stations won’t hold everybody – and when all else has palled, you may set fire to the turf.” (Arthur Morrison, Tales of Mean Streets, 1895.)

Twenty years after the direct action which saved the Flats were also the venue for a ‘free speech fight’, as anarchists holding open air public meetings there were targeted by police and local press.

In 1946-7, the Flats were also threatened, as plans to build on them to house thousands of eastenders displaced by WW2 bombing were drawn up. Protests against the plans forced them to be shelved (we will come back to this later this year…

… and Take Back Wanstead Flats campaigned against the temporary building of police operations bases for the run-up to and duration of the 2012 Olympics… photos here

Today in London secessionist history, 1970: ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ on the Isle of Dogs

What with all this Brexit stuff going on… Seems likely at some point that different parts of this so-called nation will be moving in different directions… We started thinking about unilateral declarations of independence… At least two we know of took place in London (neither of them being in Pimlico!) – on the Isle of Dogs in 1970 and ‘Frestonia’, the squatted section of Latimer Road, North Kensington, in 1977… we’ll come back to the latter later in the year…

On 1st March 1970, some residents of the Isle of Dogs, in East London’s docklands, blockaded the roads that led onto the Island, and announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Although theoretically inspired by the UDI not long before declared by the racist regime in white Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the isle of Dogs UDI was not a racist move – it was sparked by poverty, resentment at the lack of resources and infrastructure on the Island, and was seen as a propaganda action, to highlight the Islanders’ problems.

The anger and the resulting community organising that produced the ‘UDI’ had been developing since the war. Massive destruction of both industry and housing in the East End by German bombing during World War 2 left hundreds of thousands without housing; much of what remained was ageing, in poor condition, and overcrowded. Many East Enders were still living in homes that had been unfit to live in during Victorian times.

A major programme of house building was initiated, centred in cheaply and speedily built estates, which would rapidly transform the East End; large numbers of people were transplanted, both further out to the edges of East London, and within the East End itself. New estates were built on the Isle of Dogs; Eastenders were moved here from other areas, themselves being rebuilt.

But although ‘the Island’ in the late 1960s was busy with tens of thousands of men working in the docks and in factories along the river, sailors of all races in the pubs or streets – there was little else for the residents. Pubs – yes. But no secondary school, few shops, poor health care facilities… Long before the Limehouse Link and the DLR were built, it was separated by water and the docks: public transport was a single bus route to get you on and off the Island. What few amenities that existed were being put under increasing strain, as thousands of families from other parts of the newly created borough of Tower Hamlets, were moved into newly-built housing estates on the Island. Largely cut off from the rest of the borough, many on the Isle of Dogs felt ignored or forgotten. Every election, the Island dutifully returned its six Labour members to the Poplar Borough Council: members who, in the view of many Islanders, quickly forgot about their constituents as they were sucked into the Labour machine, bowing to the party, and taking their constituents for granted. Whip. Locals began to call the district ‘the forgotten Island’.

This began under the auspices of the old Borough of Poplar, but would worsen after the reorganisation of London’s boroughs in 1965, when Poplar and the island were merged in to the new larger borough of Tower Hamlets.

This feeling of abandonment and simmering anger boiled over in January 1959, when the Port of London Authority (PLA) decided to close the footbridge over Millwall Docks. The bridge had supposedly been erected as a temporary replacement for the road bridge destroyed in the war, and provided the quickest way to get between Cubitt Town and Millwall. Closing the bridge would’ve added a mile on the journey from home to work, forking out for extra bus fares… Islanders felt that they were being ignored … again.

The Bridge plan sparked the birth of a campaign: a 2000-name petition was collected, and the Millwall Residents’ Association (MRA) was formed, soon attracting hundreds of members. They managed to force the PLA to back down, but only the bridge was replaced by a raisable walkway (though the long-promised road link was not rebuilt). Poplar Council were accused of backing off from criticising the Port of London Authority.

When in 1960, the PLA and Poplar officials held a meeting presenting the proposal for the new walkway, 300 Islanders turned up to barracked them. One resident demanded ‘that for once the Councils show some guts’. Throughout 1960, Islanders packed the galleries at Council meetings, urging their councillors to ‘speak up for the residents’.

Enraged at the council’s vacillations over the Battle of the Bridge, at the next Council elections in 1962, an Island Tenants Association (ITA) contested and won all three seats, overturning Labour dominance on the Island.

Even when Labour won back the council seats, one of the councillors was to be a thorn in their side. This was Ted Johns, who had worked as a timber porter and wharf manager, and who was to one of the architects of the ‘UDI’.

Born in Poplar, Johns had only moved to the Island in the mid-1950s, when his previous home in the Bow Triangle was redeveloped out of existence. He inherited a radical family tradition: an ancestor had been notable in the Chartist movement, later family members had been active in the great Dockers’ Strike of 1889, and his father had fought against fascist Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Johns himself had been a national leader in the League of Labour Youth, and had helped found several campaigning Island groups.

Active in local politics, in 1965 Johns became a Labour councillor on Tower Hamlets Borough Council. However, he was frequently at odds with his own party:

“I was never popular on the Tower Hamlets council. I was always criticising. The local government had become complacent.”

Johns pressed for development and planning decisions that would preserve and enhance the quality of communal life for Island residents. He opposed additional housing estates, demanded preference for local residents when it came to new houses, and fought middle-class housing developments.  In the face of the clearly declining docks he proposed programmes to attract and retain industry.

When In the late 1960s, the Labour Council put up council rents, after having promised not to do so, Johns went on a personal rent-strike and his own council served an eviction order on him. For this he was also expelled from the Party.

Around this time, Ted met John Westfallen, a lighterman, who was living on the newly-built Samuda Estate, and had become involved in the estate’s tenants association. They became friends, and allies in the fight for improvements. Westfallen’s practical ability to get things done complemented Johns’ rebellious spirit.

From this friendship came the plan to block the bridge and the ‘declaration of independence’.

For two hours on 1st March 1970, they blocked West Ferry Rd on the west side of the Island, and the ‘Blue Bridge’ (the road bridge over the entrance to the West India Docks) on the east side. Not only did this make it impossible for road traffic to leave or enter the Island, at least one ship – the Swedish cargo ship Ursa – could not enter the docks to be unloaded because the Blue Bridge could not be raised. Despite repeated demands from the police, the barrier yielded just once … to let a hospital-bound vehicle through.

They called for better roads, more buses, better shops and a cut in rates. They announced to the press:

We have declared UDI and intend to set up our own council. We can govern ourselves much better than they seem to be doing. They have let the island go to the dogs.

John Westfallen, a fan of the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico (his in-laws had acted in the film), thought up some attention-grabbing elements to the action – he created and distributed ‘entry permits’ and joked about having proper Island passports. A second “Prime Minister”, stevedore Ray Paget of West Ferry Rd, manned the barricades on the west side of the Island.

A few days later, the activists set up a 30-strong ‘Citizen’s Council of the Isle of Dogs’ which met at the tenants’ hall on the Barkentine Estate. They demanded rent cuts, better transport, more schools and the election of the Island to borough status. The Citizens council threatened to withhold rates from Tower Hamlets Borough Council and the GLC and spend it for the specific benefit of the Island. ‘Chairman Johns’ fired off a warning letter to Prime Minister Harold Wilson and MP Anthony Greenwood (Minister for Housing and Local Government).

The Declaration was never meant to be serious – it was a publicity stunt, meant to grab attention for the neglect the islanders complained of. It certainly did that – the press jumped at the story.

“It …catapulted the Isle of Dogs on to the front pages of the national press and elevated Johns to the status of ‘president’. Indeed, the foreign media, flocking to his council flat…and treated him as if he were the head of state of a small independent nation.” Johns later claimed he had never really called himself President: “Actually, I never called myself the President, I think someone made that up. It was all a bit of a joke.”

Ted Johns was a natural showman, comfortable in front of the TV camera, able to push the buttons that would get the press going…  Though he joked during one of his many news conferences that he also had to pay attention to more mundane matters:

“There is a danger that I might get the sack as I have been off work all week to deal with the situation.”

On 3rd March, Ted Johns was even briefly interviewed via satellite link by famous US CBS reporter Walter Cronkite, as “President of the Republic of the Isle of Dogs”.

However, not everyone locally supported the actions of the ‘provisional government’.

Local shopkeeper David Jordan denounced Johns’ “dictatorship” and said he was getting 400 signatures an hour on an anti-UDI petition. A group of demonstrators collected signatures outside the Skeggs House flat where Johns had set up his ‘government’, with one protester declaring “he’s got no right to do it” and another “it’s just plain stupid”.  There were surreal moments, one woman signed the anti-UDI petition, sighing with whimsical regret “I thought I was going to be a queen.”.

Ted Johns put this division about the protest down to differences between the longer-established Islanders and the more recent incomers:

“It was a difference between the old and new Island East Enders,’ he argued later. ‘The old Islanders were secure in their little cocoon. Those of us that came in realised we were facing a great danger because we could see our roots had gone. We were really fighting to ensure the new roots we set down here became permanent.”

The protest was followed by a few others, Ted Johns and John Westfallen also met with Harold Wilson at 10 Downing St. The wave of publicity finally needled Tower Hamlets Council into announcing some investment and improvements on the Island, they they naturally claimed they had planned to do this all along, and that the UDI protest had nothing to do with it. Unsurprisingly the Island never got separate borough status, but things did start to change. Tower Hamlets Council announced a series of new housing projects for the Island; ILEA unveiled plans for new schools; and London Transport set to improving bus routes.

John Westfallen, who also spent many years providing facilities and clubs for Island kids, died unexpectedly in 1975. Ted Johns remained actively involved in local politics and community initiatives until his death in 2004.

However, worse was to come for the Islanders, in many ways of course. While the community struggles recounted above were taking place, the docks, at the centre of the working lives of most of the residents, were themselves in decline. Most of the docks closed in the 1970s. The dereliction this brought to the Island opened up opportunities for the developments of the 1980s, the glossy corporate take-over of Canary Wharf, the yuppie flats… Most of which offered nothing but an alien colonialism to the people already living there.

Ironically, John Westfallen’s son Tony has suggested that the UDI protest actually sparked this turn of events:

It is necessary to understand the importance of this meeting in concern to the whole of London. The importance comes from the fact that it was during this meeting, that the plans for the redevelopment of this area were hatched, this meeting was the “catalyst” for the development of what is now known as Canary Wharf.

The arguments put forward by John and Ted at this meeting were so well presented and thought through, that after the meeting Wilson discussed them with Lord Vestey, along with his friends at Taylor Woodrow, who – as we know now – planned the closing of the docks and started to invest millions.

Sadly, little of this investment was seen until after Johns’ death … the vast majority of government funded projects got buried in Whitehall government offices, or at the GLC, others became hijacked by local politicians, who made a lot of noise, but actually sold-out to their political masters.

But islanders would also resist the imposition of the new corporate Docklands…

Much of this post was shamelessly stolen from

The ‘Island History’ Blog

and East End History

There’s a news clip of some local reaction to the UDI – not all of it in favour…!

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Neglect and deprivation would also play a part in another area of London which declared independence in the 1970s – Frestonia. To which we will return later in the year…