Today in festive history: it’s St John’s Eve – for bonfires, drink, dancing and dreams…

When the sun sets on 23 June, Saint John’s Eve, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist.

In medieval times the feast of St John was one of the most important festivals of the year – and they liked their festivals back then. But although renamed for poor old headless St John, in fact those pesky thieving Christians had appropriated the midsummer festival, the solstice, the longest day of the year. Early Christians loved to nick pagan gods and turn them into saints, and lift pre-christian festivals and graft saints onto them…

Midsummer celebrations pre-dated Christianity all over Europe – the time when the day is longest and night is shortest, is just an obvious excuse for either a ritual or a knees-up. Or both. But St John’s Eve reflected much more than that: there are elements of pagan worship, dreams of an idle and carefree life, the wandering of the soul into the spirit world, and the threat of riot and revolt…

Midsummers Day was holy all over Europe. Irish and Scots, Swiss and French, Germans, Lithuanians, Italians, Russians, and Swedes celebrated the climax of the light with celebratory rituals. Some countries in the northern hemisphere receive 24 hours of daylight.

“At midnight on the holyday’s eve, said Spanish tradition, the waters are blessed with special power. Maidens rushed to be the first to reach the springs. The first to drink the water received its “flower,” and left a green sprig to show others that it had been collected. People brought this water home as medicine. They took off clothing and shoes to bathe in the Midsummer’s eve dew, which had blessing and curative powers.”

St Johns Eve was everywhere associated with fire – bonfires were lit all over Europe, often going along with a ritual, that young people had to jump over the fire… In some places it was customary to build the fire near water, on the beach or a river bank or lake side (though in Scandinavia they were also lit on the tops of hills). Bonfire parties naturally turned into revelry – carnivals of drinking and eating, singing and dancing, late into the night. Across Europe it was customary to dance around Midsummer bonfires. The Swedes used nine kinds of wood in their blaze, and wove nine kinds of flowers into the dancers’ garlands. In many places people gathered nine special herbs, usually including hypericum and mugwort. The Spanish gathered verbena at dawn and leaped over the fires (as the Catalans still do). The Letts sang and gathered hypericum and a plant called raggana kauli, “witch’s bones.” People observing these old pagan customs were called “John’s folk,” after the saint whose day fell on the old pagan festival. In some places you can find St John place names where popular celebrations were held on this night, (or where people celebrated on June 23rd because of the name).

“Fire was the theme of Midsummer celebrations as it symbolised the sun. There was an impulse to make merry in the sunlight at Midsummer, before the year waned into autumn. People made bonfires using the charred logs from the previous year. Often bones were tossed in for good fortune. (The term for bonfire derives from late Middle English: bone + fire; fire with bones for fuel.) The fires were thought to lure the sun to stay longer in the sky. People danced and leapt between the flames while feasting. 

In the country, bonfires were particularly valued to protect crops and livestock. Fires were lit on the windward side of crops and animals, so the smoke would blow over them. In some places, people even drove animals through the embers of the fires. This practice was possibly used as a protection against disease. Causes of diseases in animals and plants were not understood then. They believed that any contagion was airborne, hence the fire was a cleansing agent against disease.”

Midsummer marked the start of the harvest, too, so it was a shindig before some serious hard graft had to be done…

Like all the medieval feast days St Johns Eve played a part in social cohesion – both in ritual terms, marking ceremonies that bound people together, and in more informal or complex ways… for instance it was once the custom in Yorkshire for any family who had come to live in the parish within the last year to put a table outside their house, on St. John’s Eve, and place on it bread and cheese and beer and offer this to anyone who passed by. Any of the parish might help themselves, and if the fortunes of the family ran to it, would be invited indoors for a further supper and a festive evening. By this means the newcomers to the parish made many acquaintances and friends, and were helped to see themselves as having a definite place in the local community. Midsummer was a time of merry making, of settling differences between neighbours, and giving to the poor.

On top of this, as with the southern European carnival, the rowdiness and letting your hair down associated with St John’s Eve celebrations helped by defusing the social tensions, the class resentment and straining against constraints and social control, which bubbled along under the surface.

Collecting plants – gathering medicinal herbs or plants held to have magical properties was also customary on St Johns Eve. The flowers represented the fertility of the earth, just as the fires stood for the sun. It was traditional to decorate one’s home – especially the main entry door – with garlands or wreaths. The colours of the flowers used were red, yellow, orange, all colours identified with the sun, and green for fertility. The circular shape of the wreaths suggested both the sun and the cyclical nature of the seasons, again harking back to old Pagan beliefs.

The flowers associated with the feast of St John include fennel, rue, rosemary, lemon verbena, mallows, laburnum, foxgloves and elder flowers. It was especially important to gather the perennial herb “St. John’s Wort”. Since medieval times, the herb has been hung over doors, windows and icons to keep witches and evil spirits away, and was once known as ‘chase-devil’. Yarrow has been used since ancient times for healing wounds, and its essential oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Yarrow was also used as a ward against evil, and traditionally it was burned on the eve of St John’s Day.

Bracken was also collected: its minute spores were reputed to confer invisibility on their possessor if gathered at the only time when they were said to be visible, i.e., on St. John’s Eve at the precise moment at which the saint was born. THAT sounds worth trying out!

St John’s Eve was long celebrated in London: “Every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s wort, orpin, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burning in them all the night; some hung out branches of iron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps alight at once, which made a goodly show, namely in New Fish Street, Thames Street, &c.” (John Stow)

Festivals like St John’s were often times where a release of energy was allowed, where the ties of social control were deliberately let loose, so as to provide a safety valve, a letting off of steam, which helped to ensure a reduction in trouble and rebellion the rest of the time. Between Midsummer Eve and June 29th (St Peter’s Eve), the mayor of London, the aldermen and other worthies paraded through the streets, carrying torches, in the ‘Midsummer Watch’. Not just taking part in a ritual, impressing the lower orders with the power and wealth of the City elite – but also usefully keeping an eye on the revels and being on hand to keep any boisterousness from becoming socially dangerous.

Sponsored by the twelve great London livery companies, the great and good, accompanied by soldiers in armour, processed through the ‘principal streets’, carrying banners, lit up by ‘lampes of glasse’ hung on the houses ‘with oyl burning in them all the night’, and followed by morris dancers, minstrels, gunners, archers, pikemen, officials.

Another element was men dressed up as giants. Rented by the London livery companies, sometimes so massive it would take to men to carry them… They were made from hoops of metal, plaster. Lath, paper mache, sized cloth, and tinfoil, gold and silver leaf. The giants were so popular that the idea spread to many other Midsummer parties around the country (not sure where it originates…) The gigantic Gog and Magog were favourites by the 16th century…

This pageant became more elaborate, involving dramatics, pageants, plays, carnival type floats, and great spectacle, and absorbing large sums of money, especially in the early 16th century. By this time the guilds and livery companies were competing to sponsor plays and costumes to demonstrate that they were more influential and richer than the others. “In 1521, the Lord Mayor’s Guild in London put on five pageants: The Castle of War, The Story of Jesse, St. John the Evangelist, St. George, and Pluto. They were all carried on platforms and the Pluto pageant included a serpent that spat fireballs. There was also a model giant called Lord Marlinspikes, Morris dancers and naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Dragons and firework displays were popular additions to the marches. In 1541, the Drapers’ Guild procession including a dragon that burned aqua vitae. (Aqua vitae is Latin, defined literally as “water of life.” It was a term for unrefined alcohol. In England in the 1540s, the term was used for brandy and whiskey.”

St Johns Eve may well have been celebrated most energetically by apprentices, famed as the most forward group in riots, rebellions, fights, rowdy sports and other outbreaks of trouble. Apprentices looked forward most of all to feast days – because their working life was hard, with long hours, virtually unpaid and possibly bound to unscrupulous bullies for masters. Feast represented a time to escape work for everyone, buy for apprentices the bonds were harsher and the (temporary) release more of a giddy joy.

Just as the feast of St John revelries had a respectable and approved face, there was a dark, dangerous, hedonistic and rebellious side, which the Watch parades acknowledged in their exhibiting the power of the state. Hell, the parade was itself a response to this threatening and pleasure-centred counter-current. Which included paganism, the dream of Cokaygne, and magic…

Midsummer was long associated with magic and witchcraft – like the other turning points of the year, the solstice was thought to be a powerful time, when magic became more powerful and the spirit worlds nearer to the material. Midsummer Night was, like All Hallows, a time when the divisions between these worlds grew thin and easy to bridge.

The ‘Watch’ may have reflected this, interestingly. According to Chambers’ Book of Days: “Some of the superstitious notions connected with St. John’s Eve are of a highly fanciful nature. The Irish believe that the souls of all people on this night leave their bodies, and wander to the place, by land or sea, where death shall finally separate them from the tenement of day. It is not improbable that this notion was originally universal, and was the cause of the widespread custom of watching or sitting up awake on St. John’s night, for we may well believe that there would be a general wish to prevent the soul from going upon that somewhat dismal ramble. In England, and perhaps in other countries also, it was believed that, if any one sat up fasting all night in the church porch, he would see the spirits of those who were to die in the parish during the ensuing twelvemonths come and knock at the church door, in the order and succession in which they were to die. We can easily perceive a possible connexion between this dreary fancy and that of the soul’s midnight ramble.

The civic vigils just described were no doubt a result, though. a more remote one, of the same idea. There is a Low Dutch proverb used by those who have been kept awake all night by troubles of any kind:

‘We have passed St. John Baptist’s night.’ In a book written in the seventeenth century for the instruction of a young nobleman, the author warns his pupil against certain ‘fearful superstitions, as to watch upon St. John’s evening, and the first Tuesday in the month of March, to conjure the moon, to lie upon your back, having your ears stopped with laurel leaves, and to fall asleep not thinking of God, and such like follies, all forged by the infernal Cyclops and Pluto’s servants.’

A circumstance mentioned by Grose supports our conjecture—that to sleep on St. John’s Eve was thought to ensure a wandering of the spirit, while watching was regarded as conferring the power of seeing the vagrant spirits of those who slept. Amongst a company who sat up in a church porch, one fell so deeply asleep that he could not be waked. His companions after-wards averred that, whilst he was in this state, they beheld his spirit go and knock at the church door.

The same notion of a temporary liberation of the soul is perhaps at the bottom of a number of superstitious practices resembling those appropriate to Hallow-eve. It was supposed, for example, that if an unmarried woman, fasting, laid a cloth at midnight with bread and cheese, and sat down as if to eat, leaving the street-door open, the person whom she was to marry would come into the room and drink to her by bowing, after which, setting down the glass, with another bow he would retire. It was customary on this eve to gather certain plants which were supposed to have a supernatural character. The fern is one of those herbs which have their seed on the back of the leaf, so small as to escape the sight. It was concluded, according to the strange irrelative reasoning of former times, that to possess this seed, not easily visible, was a means of rendering one’s self invisible. Young men would go out at midnight of St. John’s Eve, and endeavour to catch. some in a plate, but without touching the plant—an attempt rather trying to patience, and which often failed.”

Midsummer Eve was seen as the most advantageous time of the year for enchantments, since the sun and plants were at the height of their powers. Witches were held to assemble in sabbats at Midsummer: part of the ritual of the St John’s Eve fires in some countries was to ward off witches and ‘evil spirits’ – obviously it helped you stay up all night ‘watching’ if you had some evil spirits of your own to quaff to pass the time. Or beer. Lots of beer.

Enchantments to reveal who your new lover would be were wildly popular. Lovers looked for ways to spend this magical night in each other’s arms. Divinations for love, prosperity and health were widely practiced.

Another subversive undercurrent associated with the fest of St John was the dream of Cokaygne.

In most, if not all, the corners of Europe, in their mythologies, folk tales, popular songs and festivals, the poor of the Middle Ages dreamed up a land where their sufferings were reversed, where people lived in harmony and plenty without having to work.

The lives of the poor in medieval times were viciously hard – oppressed and exploited by the rich and the church, terrorised by their hired soldiers, forced to work long hours all their lives, for sometimes little more than a bare living, without hope of any change in their situation. On the one hand, they were told constantly by the Church that they could not expect and should not dream of a better existence in this life; on the other that a paradise existed for them somewhere after death: so long as they held the right religious beliefs, worked hard and obeyed their ‘betters’.

People were also absolutely dependent on changes in their natural environment: bad weather, a bad season, might mean crop failure, famine and hunger or even starvation.

Not surprising, then, that the frustrated dreams of the poor should create a place where everything was free, where life was easy, where the weather was always fine, where all desires came true – and where the rich could never hope to come.

Their dream of a Utopia of the poor appears in popular medieval literature in many parts of Europe, most notably anonymous poems or stories, part of a shared oral tradition, but varying in their form and content. In fourteenth Century Western Europe, this image of a free earthly paradise is usually named as Cokaygne, or Cockaigne; and descriptions of it emerged in a popular song, The Land of Cokaygne. Many versions existed, varying from country to country, from area to area; and it was anonymous, possibly a product of many minds.

In Cokaygne, clothes grow on trees, animals run around ready cooked crying eat me; no one works, and the idlest is the king; sex is abundant and guilt-free; the poor only can get in, and the rich are barred. Cokaygne is a land of conscious rebellion against work, poverty, hierarchy and religion, which are all ruthlessly satirized in the poems. This tradition survived its early medieval roots, was transmuted into moral warning literature in the reformation, filtered into mumming plays and ‘exploration’ tales, and was itself carried to the ‘new world’ to emerge again in later centuries, breaking forth into social comment again as the Big Rock Candy Mountain or Poor Man’s Heaven.

The surviving French version of this song, ‘La Fabliau de Cocagne’, and a version of the English Cokaygne poem, mention the feast of St John, celebrating it, bringing it into the fabulous country, or asserting its Cokaygne-like nature, along with hounourable mentions for other carnivals and feast days. All carnival and festival to some extent reflected Cokaygne, in their excess, satirical dramas, bingeing and dressing up, in the release of pent-up aggression in wild fantastic partying. The worry for the authorities was always to keep this controlled release from becoming something more violent and dangerous – and many revolts and attempts to overthrow authority of one form or another would begin in festivals and carnivals, across Europe. Kett’s 1549 Rebellion against enclosures in Norfolk did begin to take shape at Midsummer, on June 21st…

St John’s Eve also saw the launch of an uprising in the German peasants War: “On 23 June 1524 the Countess von Lupfen in Stuhlingen ordered her peasants to collect stripey snail shells.  She liked to use these to wind her embroidery thread around. But anyway this was a bad day as it was St John’s day and should have been a holiday. It was actually also the first opportunity the peasants had to tend to their own vegetables as the weather had been very bad and they had otherwise been working on her estate.  Anyway on this occasion they refused to collect the shells for her. They went up to her castle to complain but instead of standing her ground she fled. This was probably a mistake as before they knew what was happening more and more peasants assembled and within days there were thousands of peasants in full revolution.  Eventually there were an estimated 300,000 peasants in an armed revolt which spread across Germany and Austria, burning down hundreds of castles and abbeys until eventually it was suppressed by mercenary armies hired by the princes.” (Thanks, Mark!)

So don’t go nicking our holidays, poshos.

The blatant theft of the pagan solstice/midsummer celebrations, and its christianising into St John’s Eve/Day, would return to bite the godbotherers in the bum… Paganism, or at least elements of it, would erupt every now and again throughout the middle ages – at least partly because much of it was very attractive and obvious if you lived among nature, and also because the Christian church was often so fucking controlling and repressive. Some of the element of St John’s Eve – fire, the garlands, the jumping through flames – had clear origins in pre-christian nature worship, and the feast of St John would carry this association for centuries.

The feast of St John seemed open to subversion and overflowing of convention and restraint. Perhaps because people felt the spirit world the material world were so close, because the ‘liberation of the soul’ was on people’s minds, the constraints on the body, and on behaviour, could easily fall away. Max Dashu describes how frequent movements of euphoric dancing appeared in central Europe over several centuries, often associated with St John and his feast.

“Midsummers became the focus for a revival of pagan culture in the mid-to-late 1300s. Trance dancing spread through southern Italy and the Rhineland. Large groups of people danced the round with deep emotion, for days at a time. These gatherings were large enough to attract the notice of chroniclers. The dancers appear in Erfurt, Germany, in annals of the year 1237, and again in 1278 in Utrecht, Holland. The earliest records of ecstatic dancers call them St. John’s Dance, after the saint assigned to Midsummer Day. (The later name of St Vitus’ Dance points to the same time frame; that saints’ festival fell on June 15th.) The dances took place on and around the summer solstice…

In 1373 and 1374 a mass celebration of dancers spread over Flanders and western Germany. At Aachen people danced through the streets in circles, leaping and singing with religious intensity. The dancers entered trances, sinking to the ground unconscious, and later sat up and recounted their visions. Some prostrated themselves before images of the Virgin in churches. Most of the dancers were poor folk, with a large proportion of women…”

This popular outbreak of pogoing alarmed officials of church and state, who saw it as uncontrollable, hysterical, and dangerous, with people traveling from place to place – never easily tolerated in a society where ‘knowing your place’ was paramount. Church commentators described the entranced dancers as tormented by the devil.

“… in markets and churches, as well as in their own homes, they danced, held each others’ hands and leaped high into the air. While they danced their minds were no longer clear, and they paid no heed to modesty though bystanders looked on. While they danced they called out names of demons, such as Friskes and others…

However, Frisch or Friskes was not the name of any devil, but medieval German: frisch or vrische, having to do with healing and lifeforce. As E. L. Bachman pointed out, “Vrische is also a verb with the meaning, ‘make whole’… East Frisian has frisk, which means ‘healthy, young, unspoiled, lively’ and frisken, meaning ‘to make healthy…” Its English relative is frisky, “lively, frolicking”, and the Scandanavian versions mean “fresh.” The dancers were singing the praises of wholeness, vitality, and health, not “devils never before heard of,” as the historian Radulphus de Rivo wrote. In Holland the dancers themselves were called Friskers…

Priestly accounts accuse the entranced dancers of being possessed and questioned whether they were christians.”

The association with St John and his festi emerges again and again. Koelhoff’s Chronicle of 1499 has the dancers shouting as they leap, “Oh Lord St John/so, so/ Whole and happy, Lord St John!”

“It is quite possible that Europeans revived trance dancing as a way of confronting the plague. We have already seen how the dancers invoked healing power with their cries of “Friskes!” We know that in 1349 the people of Wertheim tried to ward off the plague by performing ringdances around a pine tree. The church had always recognized and condemned the animist and pagan roots of these ecstatic ceremonies.

A new wave of dancing started in 1381 near a chapel of St John by the river Gelbim. The ecstatic dance took place in a forest secluded from the view of would-be exorcists, who had begun to claim that the dancers were possessed by devils.

… in one lonely spot in the diocese of Trier, far from the abodes of men, near the ruins of a deserted old chapel, there gathered several thousand members of this company [societas] as if to fulfil a sacred vow. They and others who followed to see the show amounted to some five thousand persons. There they stayed, preparing for themselves a kind of encampment: they built huts with leaves and branches from the nearby forest, and food was brought from towns and villages as to a market.

The music and songs of these dancers are lost to us, but the deliberate and ceremonial nature of the dance-gathering is clear. Near the turn of the century Johannes de Beka wrote about another outbreak of entranced dancing in 1385:

In the same year there spread along the Rhine, beginning in the kingdom of Bohemia, a strange plague which reached as far as the district of Maastricht, whereby persons of both sexes, in great crowds, marched here and there bound around with cloths and towels and with wreaths on their heads. They danced and sang, both inside and outside the churches, till they were so weary that they fell to the ground. At last it was determined that they were possessed. The evil spirits were driven out….

The lauding of successful priestly exorcisms does not mesh with the chronicles’ assertion that the “choreomaniacs” kept on going from city to city. Rather than disappearing under dramatically successful ministrations, as the clergy claimed, the dancers passed through Flanders and Holland and then headed towards southern Germany.

In 1418 a crowd assembled to watch women dancing in the Water Church of Zurich. This chapel had been built over a spring reknowned as a source of healing and strength-giving waters for centuries. [Bachmann, 232] Other gathering points were places associated with rites of the summer solstice. At St John’s Mount near Dudelingen, Midsummer was celebrated with dancing that culminated with people falling to the ground unconscious. This site continued to be a place of pilgrimage for centuries; in 1638 Bertelius wrote that “even today” large crowds came there in procession.

Trance dance remained common practice through the 1400s. The priesthood disparaged it but peasant festival celebrants kept it alive. Only in 1518 did it come to be known as St Vitus’ Dance, after the patron saint of seizures, spasms and rabies, when priests performed exorcisms on dancers at the chapel of St Vitus in Strasbourg. Perhaps they had decided that the pagan associations of “St John’s” festival had become problematic.

Contemporary chronicles tell us that this rather desperate outbreak of dancing took place in a year preceded by several years of ruined harvests and famine. Several chroniclers agree that a woman began dancing for days at a stretch, that 34 others soon were dancing, and within a month more than 400 had taken to dancing and hopping “in the public market, in alleys and streets, day and night…” People fasted and danced continually “until they fell down unconscious.”

The authorities were at a loss about how to suppress this popular movement. They tried to keep the dancers indoors and to make the guilds responsible for taking their dancers to the shrine of some saint. None of this worked, so finally they outlawed the playing of music.

At the end of the middle ages, churchly prohibitions against dancing reach their highest pitch. They single out for condemnation “the participation of women and… crude magical churchyard dances.” Chroniclers made no secret of their contempt for the celebrants, especially “the women and young girls who shamelessly wandered about in remote places under the cover of night.”

The strategy of branding the dancers as out-of-control maniacs ultimately succeeded. Trance dancing came to be viewed with contempt in Western Civilization. The dancers are described, with the same contempt later directed at the vodunsis and santeros of Afro-Caribbean sacramental dance, as mad people held captives by superstition and delusion. Diabolism was projected on these groups, and many others, by a hostile priesthood who became the primary (and sometimes the only surviving) historical sources.” (Dashu)

Repression of these dancers was only a part of the crackdown on festivals, carnivals, dancing, ‘pagan elements’ in worship, and many other aspects of popular culture across Europe, across the late middle ages and early modern period. This saw saints days and images and decoration abolished, long-held practices and beliefs outlawed and fairs and feast days reduced. A culture of hard work and joylessness was rising, and there was just way too much fun being had and a lot if it very suspicious indeed. It all had to go, and it wasn’t only the protestants, wither – catholic Europe also experienced a vicious purge of popular celebrations.

London’s St John’s Eve practices were to vanish. The increasing cost of the London Midsummer parades, and the drunken bawdiness and violence that often accompanied the festival, became too much for the authorities, eventually. In 1539, Henry VIII banned the Midsummer Watch in London due to the exorbitant cost and drunken crowds. The suspicious paranoid old psycho may also have been afraid that any gathering of armed citizens or assembly of crowds might be a cover for some kind of rebellion against him.

Many of his loyal subjects were not too impressed by this act, and in 1548, after his death, the Watch was briefly revived.

The following year, however, the parade was switched suddenly to October and transformed into the Lord mayors parade, which survives today a pure celebration of City power. The increasingly protestant regime of the protector Somerset took a dim view of pageantry and much of he show, considering it idolatrous and pagan, associated with Roman Catholicism. Moving it to a much colder time of years would also cut down on much of the drinking, fighting and snogging (etc) in the street, they no doubt thought. Never been to Newcastle then?

Midsummer parties continue, however; new celebrations sparked by more recent midsummer revolts (eg Gay Pride), or conscious revivals of ancient festivals (or what hippies fondly imagine them to have bee like), such as summer solstice at Stonehenge… When the days are long and hot, you just need to grab a shandy and dance till your head is at least partly in another world…

Interestingly, the rowdy Pinner Fair originally began on June 23rd, before being moved to August.

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

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Today in London’s festive past: impromptu street party after ‘Stokefest’ event, Clissold Park, 2007

In the 1990s, Church street, Stoke Newington, used to host a midsummer fair, every year in early June. The whole street was closed to traffic, there were bands, stalls, food, stages, sound systems and all sorts of other entertainment. “Some of the finest musicians around performed on the street, particular flowing out from the vortex jazz bar, now just a gap in the street. and if you got too hot or needed a rest from the crowds, there was the picturesque overgrown Abney Park cemetery in which to find shade and rest.”

However, although Stokey then still had a sizeable working class population many west Indian, south American and numberless other communities, as well as lots of squatters, housing co-op residents and other down at heel types, gentrification was at work in the area. London N16 was slowly being taken over by the middle class in a big way, so that these days it’s impossible to walk down Church Street for pop-up artisan cakeries and shops selling artistically labelled sticks for £17 or baby clothes that’ll set you back the best part of a week’s wages.

While the middle class like a street fest as much as the next socio-economic strata, Hackney Council decided that shutting the street and allowing people to hang out and enjoy themselves was making the place look messy and risking disorder riotry and other unruly pleasures. Which had gone on a little bit to be fair but no more than your average night out in any town centre. After much muttering and risk assessment shuffling, in 2003 the Festival was moved into neighbouring Clissold Park and renamed ‘Stokefest’. As a concession to its origins the day usually started with a parade along Church Street, ending in the park. Sound systems, several stages, playgrounds and story-telling etc still made it a fun day out. Clissold Park itself then had a good recent history of grassroots self-organised festivals like the Hackney Homeless Festivals and an alternative Lesbian & Gay Fest in the mid-90s…

Although moving the party to the park did change the spirit somewhat, (the narrow lane that is Church Street made it more fun and felt weirdly less confined than in a large open space), Stokefest did continue for a few years, but you always felt that the power-that-be had their eye on closing the fun down. Much as the long-mooted idea of moving the Notting Hill Carnival into Hyde Park is widely derided, not only because people see it as a first step to total abolition.

In 2006, Hackney Council ‘forgot’ to apply for the licence necessary to stage the festival at its usual time in June, and it had to be postponed till September. This was put down to bureaucratic bungling, and Hackney was its least competent at this point, but you got wonder if they hoped the festival would just die naturally.

But in 2007, the festival went head, and even ended with an impromptu street party (admittedly a small one…):
“Those of us who are nostalgic for the street parties of the 1990s – long ago pronounced dead – were pleasantly surprised when a street party broke out in North London’s Highbury New Park last Sunday (10th June 2007) at the end of the Stokefest festival. 

Around 8pm the festival in Clissold Park started to wind down, and the police closed the exit on Green Lanes opposite the White House pub. This could possibly have been to stop the Rythmns of Resistance samba band getting in, so they did a set on the green in front of the housing estate at the corner of Highbury New Park, with much dancing and football kick-abouts. When they finished, the large truck with posters advertising the forthcoming Secret Garden Festival fired up their soundsystem, and with a bit of ineffectual arm-waving from some yellow-jacket community cops, started off down Highbury New Park, squeezing through the traffic calming features and roadworks, with a couple of hundred party people bouncing after them, some on bikes.

To the tune of Blue Monday and Underworld’s Born Slippery, they partied down Highbury New Park, with some punters dancing on top of garden walls. Some punters, wineglasses in hand, appeared to have come out of parties in local back gardens, and the lady who asked me where they were going seemed quite good natured about the giant sound system having woken her baby up.

About half way down the long Highbury New Park road, the truck attempted to turn, gave up, and then punters lay down in front of the truck in the road and demanded “More music!” as the sound system crew pleaded, “We’ve got to be back in Brighton tonight!” Some very efficient crowd control was carried out by a man with a megaphone wearing a tall black top hat with a peacock feather in it, who somehow talked the crowd into getting out of the way and letting them drive off at speed (without the sound system on) in the Brighton direction after about half an hour or partying. An improvised on-street percussion workshop followed as darkness fell.

Apart from the opening minutes, there was not a cop in sight. Street parties like this are the sort of thing we’re not supposed to be allowed to get away with anymore in our modern 21st century surveillance world with lots and lots of public order police. But it happened.” (Matt Salusbury)

This wildcat shindig may have narked cops and council into determining to take Stokefest by the scruff and shake it like a cheeky kitten. The council had already laid down that 15,000 people was the maximum number allowed in a park event; now they ruled that any event over 300 people had to be fenced in. The organisers already kept publicity to a minimum so as to not attract too many over the 15,000 arbitrary limit.

So in 2008, Stokefest was again confined to the park, but cops and council fenced off a small area designated for the festival, (leaving most of the park outside this cordon) and to tightly control those entering; police corralling everyone through a tiny entrance/exit, and aggressively searching any group of young black youth… This created a claustrophobic and aggravated atmosphere, with a fair amount of angry exchanges and some shoving. To be fair as usual with such approaches, funneling people through narrow gates and penning them in, many of us are not going to feel especially sunny. The day ended with some minor skirmishing and recriminations.

With the fence on the cards again for 2009, the Stokefest organisers decided that they couldn’t carry on, issuing this statement:

“Clissold Park has a premises license permitting events with a maximum capacity of 15,000 people in one portion of the park. For years we’ve had to stick to extremely limited print marketing runs and media-feature blackouts in order to get permission from Hackney Council to run the event; this has made it extremely difficult for our producing partners to solicit sponsorship to pay for their areas. Additionally, Hackney Council’s Parks and Licensing Departments, alongside Hackney Police Licensing Department, has developed an outdoor events policy stating that any event over 3,000 capacity must be completely fenced in. This is not an altogether unreasonable policy in itself, and is only there in principle to negate any potential risks of having lots of us all having a great laugh in one place at the same time. Unfortunately we, as the organisers of Stokefest, cannot bring ourselves to organise a free community festival inside a great big steel box! It just doesn’t feel right. We feel sure that the atmosphere will change, the essence of what we all collectively had would be diluted, and our memories of the fun we had would be tainted by the security systems, ridiculous entry conditions and a general lack of freedom. “

So Stokefest was no more. Other free festivals in London (and wider afield) had already gone the way of the dodo; meanwhile large-scale commercial events, also involving fencing off large parts of parks, but charging huge amounts to get in, have increased dramatically. Not 2 miles away from Stoke Newington, Finsbury Park has hosted as many as eight such dos, with big chunks of the space shut off for several days of the year. Councils are skint, and are attempting to recoup some of the money lopped off their budgets by national government with any lucrative scheme going… Bit annoying for those of us with little cash who like parks to be free and open. Stokefest was TOO free, clearly, not enough money flowing into Town Hall coffers.

As was pointed out at the time of Stokefest’s demise: “There’s also a wiff of conspiracy around Hackney council’s sabotage: one of the alternative events that Stokefest’s organisers recommend, tongue perhaps in cheek, is the new Free Range festival, which takes place in, would you believe it, Clissold Park, this September. The catch? A £25 ticket.”

Nowadays Stoke Newington Church Street is very genteel, and Clissold Park has been re-worked to cater more for the bourgy elite edging out the less wealthy of the area. Some of us grumpy disreputable types still hang out there and annoy them; but you do feel a bit like an uninvited guest at a garden party sometimes.

Thanks to Matt Salusbury, Peter Marshall and Johnny Void who I shamelessly nicked some of the above from nicked without even asking…

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Postscript: A tiny intro to Stoke Newington’s radical history:

For many centuries an area populated by religious non-conformists (like Newington Green, see later on), due to its being outside City parishes and jurisdiction, Stokey developed a dissident ethos. The area was a hotbed of defeated republicans and rebels after the English Civil War; when the monarchy was restored they took to assassination plots and abortive uprisings.

Colonel Henry Danvers lived in Stokey; a parliamentary officer in the Civil War, by 1661, a fifth monarchist and republican, who plotted with Clement Ireton and other republicans in 1665, planning to kill the king, seize the Tower, establish a republic and redistribute property. Danvers had been captured April 1665, but rescued by a mob!

In 1685 Danvers led 5th monarchists, who planned to riot in support of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion. Had 500 men promised, but they failed to appear, Danvers fled abroad. Others fled to Monmouth, whose army contained many former Levellers, and other radicals; they were beaten at the battle of Sedgemoor.

The religious dissidence that characterized this are lasted into the nineteenth century. Hence the dominance of Abney park cemetery, where large numbers of non-Anglicans were buried; some of the most interesting being chartist socialist Bronterre O’Brien… On the other hand the repulsive William Booth and his family, founders of the supreme vultures on the vulnerable, the Salvation. For all their charitable work, these god-bothering music-manglers were widely hated by the homeless and poor for their pressing of the bible; in the 19th century there was even a ‘Skeleton Army’ founded to oppose them (although some mystorians have suggested this was a plot by the publicans to get back at the Starvation Army for their message of avoiding the demon drink). The Booth graves are just by the entrance on Church Street, on a sunny Sunday it’s traditional to go and dance wildly on their graves, singing blasphemous songs, like the anti- Sally Army IWW song, ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, or ‘Banging in the Nails’ by the Tiger Lilies…

From the 1960s, Stoke Newington was home to a growing afro-Caribbean community, which like most black communities in the inner cities faced battles with racism, from organized rightwing groups and institutions, especially from the police. Stoke Newington police became notorious for racially motivated arrests, beatings, and killings, and later for fitting people up en masse for drug-dealing, either planting substances, or dealing themselves through protected sources. The local community resisted in many ways – there were riots here in 1981, numerous campaigns and protests, and the organized resistance against racist murders, police harassment, most notably through the brilliant Hackney Community Defence Campaign. Some cops did get sacked in the end, but others were just moved elsewhere, and wholesale assault was tweaked around and made to look nicer.

In parallel with this, run-down houses and council near-collapse in housing, led to mass squatting in the area from the 70s onward. Thousands of houses were occupied to live in, and various larger buildings used as social centres, punk venues, artspaces, and much more. Squatting not only offered people cheap places to live when times were hard, but lots of the local culture, music, creation was built on squatting. Too many places to list; but in July and August 2013 two radical history walks explored some of this amazing recent past in the area; we are hoping to provoke the authors to set these walks out for some form of publication… keep in touch.

Local poverty, police attacks and resistance, hand in hand with an alternative and counter-cultural vibe, persisted into the 1990s, though a gradual gentrifying of the area since the 70s has infested the area with media types and green petty-bourgeois social workers with pinched, locally-sourced eating-disorder faces. If a freak earthquake swallowed the area, the Guardian, BBC and Channel Four News/Dispatches would grind to a halt, so many journos and media b-list celebs now cluster here. Mind you, the rest of Hackney, which until recently had remained largely working class and poor, is now facing an invasion of the bistro snatchers; hipsters, artists and rising rents are spreading like piss in a pool, while older communities face gradual eviction and dispersal under new benefit rules.

There’s lots more on Stokey past at the excellent The Radical History of Hackney blog, which makes past tense look like shamateurs…

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London festive history: Brixton streets Reclaimed for wicked street party, 1998

TONIGHT WE’RE GONNA PARTY LIKE IT’S NINETEEN NINETY EIGHT…

An account of the Brixton Reclaim the Streets Party, 6th June 1998. Written by one of those that planned and brought the day off successfully…

Brixton has seen many parties, but none quite like the one on Saturday 6th June 1998 when thousands of people brought traffic to a standstill by partying in the high street without the permission of the police or Council.

The occasion was the Reclaim the Streets’ ‘South London Street Party’. RTS had organised similar events of increasing size in the previous few years. A party in Camden High Street (April 1995) had been followed by a bigger one in Upper Street, Islington three months later. The following year RTS shut down a section of the M41 motorway in west London, with sound systems and sofas replacing cars on the tarmac.

The challenge for 1998 was how to keep one step ahead of the police now that the basic tactic was well known. There was also some dissatisfaction amongst RTS activists about simply continuing with parties that erupted suddenly but disappeared just as quickly leaving little behind except memories and a sense of the possibility of a different way of life.

The agreed way forward was to try and organise two simultaneous parties in different parts of London, and to attempt to root the parties more in what was going on in the areas concerned.

The planning meetings for the South London party were held in a squatted social club in Kennington (now a housing office). Sometimes there was no electricity and we talked by candlelight. At other times we met up on the roof of the building in the open air. We broke up into groups, each responsible for a particular aspect of the party. I was in a group focused on organising activities for children. One sub group was responsible for selecting the location, something that was to be kept secret from everybody else until the day of the party to keep the authorities guessing. In this way too the Wednesday night planning meetings could be open to all comers without worrying about the venue becoming widely known.

The publicity called for people to meet at noon outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, and several hundred people were there at the appointed time. Most party goers and police only knew that the party was to take place somewhere in South London. The expectation was that there would be some chasing around to get to the location – for the M41 Reclaim the Streets party in 1996, people had assembled at Liverpool Street on the other side of town and been directed by tube towards Shepherds Bush.

This time though a game of double bluff was being played. In the road opposite the Town Hall two old cars crashed into each other in a pre-arranged manouvre to halt the traffic, a flare was let off and a few people immediately stepped into the road. After a moment’s hesitation, the crowd pushed passed the police into the road, with another staged car crash at the other end of the high street blocking traffic in both directions.

Within a short time the party was in full swing. The whole stretch of Brixton Road from the Fridge down to beyond the tube station was full of people instead of cars; Coldharbour Lane was also traffic free down as far as the Atlantic Road junction. Climbers had scaled the lamp posts and hung enormous colourful banners across the street – my favourite read ‘Under the Tarmac Flows the River – Dig Up the Effra’, referring to the lost river now flowing beneath Brixton. Others read ‘Cars my Arse’ and ‘Against Tube Privatisation’ (tube workers were due to strike the following week). There was a huge figure of a woman – the poster and flyer for the event had featured an image from the 50s movie ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman’ showing said woman lifting up cars. Another climber got a big cheer for putting a plastic bag over a CCTV camera. A red, green and black RTS flag flew on top of McDonalds. News came through that in North London a similar party had been successfully established on Tottenham High Road.

People danced to a sound system set up in a van at the junction of Acre Lane. Down by the tube station there were two more sound systems, one playing ragga and the other, a cycle-powered effort, spluttering out techno. A live music PA was set up in the road outside Morley’s store. Over the next few hours it featured an all-women punk covers band (a highlight for me was ‘Teenage Kicks’), Steve Prole, Painful and various others. On the other side of the road there was a big acoustic jam, with drums etc.

A sand pit in the road was the centre of the children’s area. We had loads of gold shiny card which we made into big conical hats. Children were also playing in the fountains outside the library which were overflowing with bubbles. We gave out free pastries donated by staff at Grace and Favour cafe in East Dulwich (workers at the café in Clapham Common gave up the contents of their tips jar for the party).

The flyer had promised to ‘transform our Streets into a place of human interaction, a dance, a playground, a football match, the sharing of food, an exchange of free thoughts’. And that’s pretty much what happened, with up to 5,000 people partying on until about 9 pm.

The police mainly kept themselves at the edge of the party, with only three arrests, one of a fire eater for allegedly breathing flames too near to the police…

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The great strength of the 98 party was that it was organised by people who lived in Brixton, some of us had lived there for years. We transformed the place WE lived in, turned it again into a place of human interaction, not profit and endless traffic. It shared that sense of the possible that we got from the riots, the feeling that we could transform the mundane and weary world around us, by our own actions, into a place of joyous rebellion…

Interestingly, the author mentions the sandpit we created for the kids to play in… One of the planners of the party, who also helped set up the sandpit, pulling the cart the sandbags were loaded on from a squat round the corner, was known to us as Jim Sutton, who had got involved in Reclaim the Streets in 1996, shortly after the seminal M41 party, and was central to many RTS events and actions for 4-5 years – as well as becoming a friend to some of us, or so we thought. In 2011 it became generally known (and is now admitted by the Metropolitan Police) that Jim was actually Jim Boyling, an undercover police operative working for the Special Demonstration Squad, on whose behalf he spied on not only RTS but many other groups and individuals. In fact, I think he is the central figure in the picture at the head of this post, with his back to the photographer, in the blue jacket, urging people into the street. Just one of the many spycops who have been revealed by activists to have infiltrated campaign and political groups over the last 50 years…

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s festive history: Twelfth Day. Let Them Eat Cake!

“If a satirical prophecy in “Vox Graculi,” 4to. 1623, may be relied on as authority, it bears testimony to the popularity of Twelfth-night at that period. On the 6th of January the author declares, that “this day, about the houres of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, yea, in some places till midnight well nigh, will be such a massacre of spice-bread, that, ere the next day at noon, a two-penny browne loafe will set twenty poore folks teeth on edge. Which hungry humour will hold so violent, that a number of good fellowes will not refuse to give a statute-marchant of all the lands and goods they enjoy, for half-a-crown’s worth of two-penny pasties.” He further affirms, that there will be “on this night much masking in the Strand, Cheapside, Holbourne, or Fleet-street.”

Twelfth Day, Epiphany, the last day of the Christmas holiday in some traditions, the day still celebrated as Xmas in some countries… it used to be a festival day associated with cake. Lots of cake. For some reason there was also a fashion for boys to nail the coat-tails of gentlemen checking out cakes at the bakeries. Also Twelfth Day was a time for masking up and partying…

An entry in William Hone’s Everyday Book (1825) recounts some of the old ethos of January 6th:

“TWELFTH-DAY.

Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth-cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp’ry curb, or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round – dare not go back – and yet dare not advance.

In London, with every pastrycook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is “high change” on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers. Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk-maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by “excess of light” from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora.” This “paradise of dainty devices,” is crowded by successive and successful desirers of the seasonable delicacies, while alternate tapping of hammers and peals of laughters, from the throng surrounding the house, excite smiles from the inmates.

The cause of these sounds may be inferred from something like this passing outside.

Constable. Make way, make way! Clear the way! You boys stand aside!

Countryman. What is all this; Is any body ill in the shop?

1st Boy. Nobody, sir; it’s only Twelfth day!

2nd Boy. This is a pastrycook’s, sir; look at the window! There they stand! What cakes!

3d Boy. What pretty ones these are!

4th Boy. Only see that!

5th Boy. Why it’s as large as the hindwheel of a coach, and how thick!

6th Boy. Ah! It’s too big to come out at the door, unless they roll it out.

7th Boy. What elegant figures, and what lots of sweetmeats!

8th Boy. See the flowers; they look almost like real ones.

Countryman. What a crowd inside!

9th Boy. How the people of the house are packing up all the good things!

Countryman. What a beautiful lady that is behind the counter!

10th Boy. Which?

Countryman. Why the young one!

10th Boy. What her? Oh, she’s the pastrycook’s daughter, and the other’s her mother.

Countryman. No, no; not her; I mean her, there.

10th Boy. Oh, her; she’s the shopwoman; all the pastrycooks always try to get handsome ladies to serve in the shop!

11th Boy. I say, I say! Halloo! Here’s a piece of work! Look at this gentlemen – next to me – his coat-tail’s nailed to the window! Look, look!

Countryman. Aye, what?

All the boys. Ah! Ah! Ah! Huzza.

Countryman. Who nailed my coat-tail? Constable!

12th Boy. That’s the boy that’s got the hammer!

2nd Boy. What me? Why that’s the boy – there; and there’s another boy hammering! And there’s a man with a hammer!

1st Boy. Who pinned that woman to the gentleman? Why there’s a dozen pinned together.

Countryman. Constable! Constable!

2nd Boy. Here comes the constable. Hark at him!

Const. Clear away from the doors! Let the customers go in! Make way! Let the cakes come out! Go back, boy!

13th Boy. If you please, Mr. Constable, I’m going to buy a cake!

Const. Go forward, then!

Man with cakes. By your leave! By your leave.

Const. Clear the way!

All the Boys. Huzza! Huzza! More people pinned – and plenty nailed up!

To explain, to those who may be ignorant of the practice. On Twelfth-night in London, boys assemble round the inviting shops of the pastry cooks, and dexterously nail the coat-tails of spectators, who venture near enough, to the bottoms of the window frames; or pin them together strongly by their clothes. Sometimes eight or ten persons find themselves thus connected. The dexterity and force of the nail driving is so quick and sure, that a single blow seldom fails of doing the business effectually. Withdrawal of the nail without a proper instrument is out of the question; and, consequently, the person nailed must either leave part of his coat, as a cognizance of his attachment, or quit the spot with a hole in it. At every nailing and pinning shouts of laughter arise from the perpetrators and the spectators. Yet it often happens to one who turns and smiles at the duress of another, that he also finds himself nailed. Efforts at extraction increase mirth, nor is the presence of a constable, who is usually employed to attend and preserve free “ingress, egress, and regress,” sufficiently awful to deter the offenders.

Scarcely a shop in London that offers a halfpenny plain bun to the purchase of a hungry boy, is without Twelfth-cakes and finery in the windows on Twelfth-day. The gingerbread-bakers – there are not many, compared with their number when the writer was a consumer of their manufactured goods, — even the reduced gingerbread-bakers periwig a few plum-buns with sugar-frost to-day, and coaxingly interpolate them along their new made sixes, bath-cakes, parliament, and ladies’ fingers. Their staple-ware has leaves of untarnished dutch-gilt stuck on; their upright cylinder-shaped show-glasses, containing peppermint-drops, elecampane, sugar-sticks, hard-bake, brandy-balls, and bulls’-eyes, are carefully polished; their lolly-pops are fresh encased, and look as white as the stems of tobacco-pipes; and their candlesticks are ornamented with fillets and bosses of writing paper; or, if the candles rise from the bottom of inverted glass cones, they shine more sparkling for the thorough cleaning of their receivers in the morning.

How to eat Twelfth-cake requires no recipe; but how to provide it, and draw the characters, on the authority of Rachel Revel’s “Winter Evening Pastimes,” may be acceptable. First, buy your cake. Then, before your visitors arrive, buy your characters, each of which should have a pleasant verse beneath. Next look at your invitation list, and count the number of ladies you expect; and afterwards the number of gentlemen. Then, take as many female characters as you invited ladies; fold them up, exactly of the same size, and number each on the back; taking care to make the king No. 1 and the queen No. 2. Then prepare and number the gentlemen’s characters. Cause tea and coffee to be handed to your visitors as they drop in. When all are assembled and tea over, put as many lady characters in a reticule as there are ladies present; next put the gentlemen’s characters in a hat. Then call on a gentleman to carry the reticule to the ladies as they sit, from which each lady is to draw one ticket, and to preserve it unopened. Select a lady to bear the hat to the gentlemen for the same purpose. There will be one ticket left in the reticule, and another in the hat, which the lady and gentlemen who carried each is to interchange as having fallen to each. Next, arrange your visitors according to their numbers; the king No. 1, the queen No. 2, and so on. The king is then to recite the verse on his ticket; and the queen the verse on hers; and so the characters are to proceed in numerical orders. This done, let the cake and refreshments go round, and hey! For merriment!”

Twelfth Day does owe something to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, with its temporary reversal of social hierarchies. As in Saturnalia, a king for the day was set up, though while in the Roman festie the lowest of the household was crowned, the king and queen of twelfth Day were often chosen by chance – beans would be hidden in a cake and the ones who ended up with the slice with the bean in would be raised up as monarchs…

“They come! They come! Each blue-eyed sport,
The Twelfth-night king and all his court –
‘Tis Mirth fresh crown’d with mistletow!
Music with her merry fiddles,
Joy “on light fantastic toe,”
Wit with all his jests and riddles,
Singing and dancing as they go.
And Love, young Love, among the rest,
A welcome – nor unbidden guest.

Twelfth-day is now only commemorated by the custom of choosing king and queen. “I went,” says a correspondent in the Universal Magazine for 1774, “to a friend’s house in the country to partake of some of those innocent pleasures that constitute a merry Christmas. I did not return till I had been present at drawing king and queen, and eaten a slice of the Twelfth-cake, made by the fair hands of my good friend’s consort. After tea yesterday, a noble cake was produced, and two bowls, containing the fortunate chances for the different sexes. Our host filled up the tickets; the whole company, except the king and queen, were to be ministers of state, maids of honour, or ladies of the bed-chamber. Our kind host and hostess, whether by design or accident, became king and queen. According to Twelfth-day law, each party is to support their character till midnight.” The maintenance of character is essential to the drawing. Within the personal observation of the writer of these sheets, character has never been preserved. It must be admitted, however, that the Twelfth-night characters sold by the pastry cooks, are either commonplace or gross – when genteel they are inane; when humorous, they are vulgar.

Young folks anticipate Twelfth-night as a full source of innocent glee to their light little hearts. Where, and what is he who would negative hopes of happiness for a few short hours in the day-spring of life? A gentle spirit in the London Magazine beautifully sketches a scene of juvenile enjoyment this evening: “I love to see an acre of cake spread out – the sweet frost covering the rich earth below – studded all over with glittering flowers, like ice-plants, and red and green knots of sweetmeat, and hollow yellow crusted crowns, and kings and queens, and their paraphernalia. I delight to see a score of happy children sitting huddled all round the dainty fare, eyeing the cake and each other, with faces sunny enough to thaw the white snow. I like to see the gazing silence which is kept so religiously while the large knife goes its round, and the glistening eyes which feed beforehand on the huge slices, dark with citron and plums, and heavy as gold. And then, when the “Characters” are drawn, it is nothing to watch the peeping delight which escapes from their little eyes? One is proud, as king; another stately, as queen; then there are two whispering grotesque secrets which they cannot contain (those are sir Gregory Goose and sir Tunbell Clumsy.) The boys laugh out at their own misfortunes; but the little girls (almost ashamed of their prizes) sit blushing and silent. It is not until the lady of the house goes round, that some of the more extravagant fictions are revealed. And then, what a roar of mirth! Ha, ha! The ceiling shakes, and the air is torn. They bound from their seats like kids, and insist on seing [sic] Miss Thompson’s card. Ah! What merry spite is proclaimed – what ostentatious pity! The little girl is almost in tears; but the large lump of allotted cake is placed seasonably in her hands, and the glass of sweet wine ‘all round’ drowns the shrill urchin laughter, and a gentler delight prevails.”

Th’above was nicked from longer descriptions of Xmas traditions here

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

Today in London’s festive history: Puritan ban on Xmas widely ignored in London, 1644.

Everyone knows that Cromwell and the puritans of the English Revolution banned Christmas…
Perhaps less well-known is the opposition and resistance the ban aroused. In London, as elsewhere, the repression of popular culture was not imposed without rioting and disorder…

During the seventeenth century, as now, Christmas was one of the most important dates in the calendar, both as a religious festival and as a holiday. Over the twelve days of a seventeenth-century Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with rosemary and bays, holly and ivy; pretty much everyone went to Christmas Day church services, presents were exchanged at New Year, and Christmas boxes were distributed to servants, tradesmen and the poor. Large quantities of food were obviously also eaten – this period of winter following on from the annual slaughtering of livestock, and a couple of months after the harvest, it was one time in the year when food was in relatively plentiful supply (in contrast summertime was comparatively lean); so great quantities of brawn, roast beef, ‘plum-pottage’, minced pies and special Christmas ale were consumed. Dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays filled the days.

Also associated with this time of year were drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess (so some things have TOTALLY changed then…!) Most of the festivals dotted through the year had an element of disorder and licence to go a bit wild. The idea of ‘misrule’, and of a ritualised reversal of traditional social norms, was an important element of Christmas (generally associated with Holy Innocents Day, 28th December), a time of limited licenced reversal and breakdown of hierarchies, a useful safety-valve for the simmering class and other tensions within society.

The disorderly pleasures of Christmas, however, enraged the Puritans of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. In the 1580s, Philip Stubbes, the author of The Anatomie of Abuses, complained:

“That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.”

The celebration of Christmas emerged as one focus of a kind of culture war, a religious division within early seventeenth-century society. This was a contributing factor to the tensions that lead to the breakdown of government, civil war and revolution in the 1640s. When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it.

Pressure had been building before the civil war, from zealous Protestants, outraged by the unruly and immoral nature of Christmas festivities (and other festivals) and suspicious of feast’s link to Catholicism and the old saints’ days. The 1637 Scots Presbyterian Rebellion jacked up the pressure – the Scots had already banned Xmas before, and did so again in 1640. As both England and Scotland slid into Civil War, the alliance of English parliamentarians with the Scots church led to a spreading of the idea of doing away with the celebrations south of the border.

The controversy over how Christmas should be celebrated in London and the other Parliamentary centres surfaced in the early stages of the Civil War. In December 1642 Thomas Fuller remarked, in a fast sermon delivered on Holy Innocents Day, that ‘on this day a fast and feast do both justle together, and the question is which should take place in our affections’. While admitting that the young might be ‘so addicted to their toys and Christmas sports that they will not be weaned from them’, he advised the older generation among his listeners not to be ‘transported with their follies, but mourn while they are in mirth’.

There were three angles to the repression – the phasing out of traditional Xmas church services, the closing down on the more festive celebrations, and the enforcing of 25th December as a normal day not a feast day.

In 1643, some Puritan tradesmen in London opened up their shops for business on 25 December in order to show that they regarded this day as no different from any other, while several London ministers kept their church doors firmly shut. Puritan MPs also turned up to sit in the parliament on Xmas Day.
But the cancellation of Christmas aroused huge popular resentment – not just in the royalist camp, but in the districts controlled by parliament, too. In 1643, the apprentice boys of London rose up in violent protest against the shop-keepers in Cheapside who had opened on Christmas Day, and, in the words of a delighted royalist, “forced these money-changers to shut up their shops again”. In reporting the incident Mercurius Civicus sympathised with the shopkeepers but argued that to avoid ‘disturbance and uproars in the City’ they should have waited ’till such time as a course shall be taken by lawful authority with matters of that nature’.

The following year Christmas Day happened to on the last Wednesday in the month, the day set aside for a regular monthly fast, upon which parliament’s supporters were enjoined to pray for the success of their cause. On December 19th an ordinance was passed directing that the fast day should be observed in the normal way, but:

“With the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights…”

Both Houses of Parliament attended fast sermons delivered by Presbyterian ministers on December 25th, 1644, the Commons hearing from Thomas Thorowgood that:

“The providence of heaven is here become a Moderator appointing the highest festival of all the year to meet with our monthly fast and be subdued by it.”

But again there was resentment and resistance. Many therefore simply defied the government, and despite the pressures and intimidation, refused to abandon their traditional practices. On 24 December 1644, the editor of a pro-parliamentarian news-pamphlet expressed his support for the MPs’ decision to favour the monthly fast over the traditional feast, but admitted that “the parliament is cried out on” by the common people as a result, with incredulous shouts of “What, not keep Christmas? Here’s a Reformation indeed!”

Immediately following this (in January 1645) parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, aimed at replacing the Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all. At Christmas-time 1645 it was said, you could walk right through the parliamentary quarters, and “perceive no sign or token of any holy day”. Over the following year and a half, the king was beaten in the civil war, and the puritans strengthened their hand over the country.

MPs suspected those celebrating Xmas of harbouring sympathies for the king. In some cases this might have been true (though the London apprentices who rioted in favour of keeping this and other festivals had also formed part of the shock troops of the early struggles against the king a couple of years earlier). But its also apparent that such social repression drove previously sympathetic or neutral folk into a more pro-royal position.

But most Englishmen and women continued to cling to their traditional Christmas customs. So strong was the popular attachment to the old festivities, indeed, that during the postwar period a number of pro-Christmas riots occurred. Most notably, in December 1646 threats by a crowd of young men at Bury St Edmunds against local tradesmen who had opened their shops on Christmas Day led to a riot.

In June 1647, parliament passed an ordinance which abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, and substituted as a regular holiday for students, servants and apprentices, the second Tuesday of every month; it also declared the celebration of Christmas to be a punishable offence. But again there were pro-Christmas riots, on 25 December 1647, at Bury St Edmunds again, and at Norwich and Ipswich. During the course of the Ipswich riot, a protestor named ‘Christmas’ was reported to have been slain – a fatality which could be regarded as richly symbolic, of course, of the way that parliament had ‘killed’ Christmas itself.

In London, a crowd of apprentices assembled at Cornhill on Christmas Day, and there “in despite of authority, they set up Holly and Ivy” on the pinnacles of the public water conduit. The lord mayor sent militia “to pull down these gawds,” but the apprentices fought them off, until the mayor and a party of soldiers arrived to break up the demonstration by force. During the Christmas of 1647, a number of ministers were taken into custody by the authorities for attempting to preach on Christmas Day, and one of them subsequently published his intended sermon under the title The Stillborn Nativity.

The worst disturbances of all took place at Canterbury, where a crowd of protestors first smashed up the shops which had been opened on Christmas Day and then went on to seize control of the entire city. This riot helped to pave the way for a major insurrection in Kent in 1648 that itself formed part of the ‘Second Civil War’ – a scattered series of risings against the parliament and in favour of the king, which Fairfax and Cromwell only managed to suppress with great difficulty.

The least successful prong of the attack on Xmas was Parliament’s attempt to abolish the traditional holiday over the Christmas period. With the churches and shops closed, the populace resorted to its traditional pastimes. In 1652 The Flying Eagle informed its readers that the ‘taverns and taphouses’ were full on Christmas Day, ‘Bacchus bearing the bell amongst the people as if neither custom or excise were any burden to them’, and claimed that ‘the poor will pawn all to the clothes of their back to provide Christmas pies for their bellies and the broth of abominable things in their vessels, though they starve or pine for it all the year after’.

On December 27th, 1650, Sir Henry Mildmay reported to the House of Commons that on the 25th there had been:

“…very wilful and strict observation of the day commonly called Christmas Day throughout the cities of London and Westminster, by a general keeping of their shops shut up and that there were contemptuous speeches used by some in favour thereof.”

Several newsbooks reported a similar complete closure in London in 1652, and on Christmas Day 1656 one MP remarked that ‘one may pass from the Tower to Westminster and not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’.

However, as time went by, and puritan culture achieved ascendancy through the 1650s, Christmas effectively ceased to be celebrated in the great majority of churches. The Anglican diarist John Evelyn could find no Christmas services to attend in 1652 or 1655, but in 1657 he joined a ‘grand assembly’ which celebrated the birth of Christ in Exeter House chapel in the Strand. Along with others in the congregation, he was afterwards arrested and held for questioning for some time by the army. Other services took place the same day in Fleet Street and at Garlick Hill where, according to an army report, those involved included ‘some old choristers and new taught singing boys’ and where ‘all the people bowed and cringed as if there had been mass’.

Despite this government pressure, however, Christmas festivities remained popular, and successive regimes throughout the 1650s felt obliged to reiterate their objection to any observance of the feast.

In February 1656 Ezekial Woodward had to admit that ‘the people go on holding fast to their heathenish customs and abominable idolatries, and think they do well’. The same fact was also obvious to those few MPs who attended the Commons on Christmas Day 1656. One complained that he had been disturbed the whole of the previous night by the preparations for ‘this foolish day’s solemnity’, and John Lambert warned them that, as he spoke, the Royalists would be ‘merry over their Christmas pies, drinking the King of Scots health, or your confusion’.

Traditional Christmas festivities duly returned to England with Charles II in 1660, and while the Restoration’s association with maypoles and ‘Merry England’ may have been overstated in the past, there is no doubt that most English people were very glad that their Christmas celebrations were once more acceptable. According to The Kingdom’s Intelligencer, at Maidstone in Kent, where there had been no Christmas Day services for seventeen years, on December 25th, 1660, several sermons were preached and communion administered, ‘to the joy of many hundred Christians’. On the Sunday before Christmas, Samuel Pepys’ church in London was decorated with rosemary and bays; on the 25th Pepys attended morning service and returned home to a Christmas dinner of shoulder of mutton and chicken. Predictably, he slept through the afternoon sermon, but he had revived sufficiently by the evening to read and play his lute. The Buckinghamshire gentry family, the Verneys, resumed their celebrations on a grand scale; in 1664 a family friend wrote that:

… the news at Buckingham is that you will keep the best Christmas in the shire, and to that end have bought more fruit and spice than half the porters in London can weigh out in a day.

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

Today in London’s radical history: Striking miners & anti-fascists beat off nazi attack on GLC festival, 1984.

On Sunday 10 June 1984, Greater London Council (GLC) leader Ken Livingstone held a free open-air concert to protest against unemployment and government spending cuts.

Thousands of Londoners turned out to watch acts like The Smiths and Billy Bragg. Most would have been attracted principally by the music and the summer weather. To leading nazi-skin activist Nicky Crane, however, anyone attending a left-wing-hosted event like this was a legitimate target. As The Redskins, a socialist skinhead band, played, Crane led an attack on the crowd. Around 100 fascists began setting about the audience closest to the main stage. The Redskins, who were known for their support of the Socialist Workers Party, were for them an ideal target (Shame they didn’t break Billy Bragg’s guitar and mike though, eh; or maybe they thought listening to his set was torture equivalent to a gestapo interrogation… Only kidding? No I’m not, I’ve been kettled with the ****er twice and he started singing both times. Neither time would the cops relent and let us out!).

Several skinheads stormed the stage, injuring one of the guitarists who was taken to hospital accompanied by the compere, Hank Wangford. The NF supporters were chased off by the festival security (Yorkshire miners who were on strike and had been employed as a way of providing support for the miners’ strike fund. Their employment was unusual because the GLC and its unions usually insisted that jobs be done within the GLC), allied with members of the anti-fascist group Red Action.

Crane was not cowed, however, and after regrouping his forces, he charged a second stage at the other end of the park where the Hank Wangford Band were playing. This time, however, the anti-fascists were better prepared. Festival goers grabbed empty cider bottles to use as improvised weapons. As the anti-fascists fought back, Crane broke away from the main battle, attacking the rest of the crowd, on his own, stripped to the waist. As Crane tried to make it over a barrier on to the stage, he was knocked over by a Red Action member. He escaped the furious crowd by using a female left-wing activist as a human shield, according to witnesses. As the violence subsided, anti-fascists confronted another skinhead in the crowd. His Harrington jacket was unzipped to reveal a slogan on his T-shirt. It read “Nicky Crane”, in tribute to the young man’s hero. Given the carnage Crane had just instigated, the left-wingers had little sympathy for his admirer. The skinhead was set upon and beaten.

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For those too young to have known the GLC, it was an elected body similar to today’s London Assembly, with a set of powers over all of London – mainly strategic – responsible for transport, the fire service, a fair proportion of London’s social housing, waste disposal and so on… as well as taking some part in road maintenance, planning, funding voluntary sector etc. It had replaced the old London County Council.

In 1981 a leftwing Labour Party administration took power, led by Ken Livingstone. Yes, that one, just as gobby and self-promotional. The administration began to spend big on a leftist social democratic program, in vocal opposition to the national Conservative Thatcher government’s diet of austerity, privatisation, savaging of industry and restructuring. The GLC set about cutting bus fares, as well as supporting a plethora of projects, many of which had evolved from the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s – the feminist movement, black and other ethnic minority groups, gay and lesbian projects… Thousands of advice centres, childcare groups, adventure playgrounds, women’s groups, organisations campaigning for rights, equality etc for various minorities, and numerous other causes, which often started out organising voluntarily, gradually accepted funding from the GLC (and local boroughs). This allowed them better facilities, wider reach and stability, enabled many groups to run from better premises, open longer hours, and produce better printed materials, help people directly… There’s no doubt that official funding for broadly progressive projects improved the lives of large numbers of people.

It was the latter effect that rapidly made the GLC a target of tabloid media frothing –“loony left subsidies for one-legged black lesbian feminists on the rates” (together with a collection of the London boroughs also controlled by the labour left, Lambeth, Hackney, Islington etc.)

Much of the Livingstone GLC administration’s politics was radical posturing, however; when challenged on the legality of some of their policies they backed down; as with the cheap bus fares, and their opposition – abandoned at the last minute – to government ‘rate-capping’, basically vicious cuts to the amount they were allowed to charge as rates (like modern council tax) to raise money to pay for stuff. Partly they backed down because you can’t really have socialism in one city, partly because there were just serious limits to how deep their commitment to real change was. For all the financial support for grassroots projects, the hierarchical nature of the Council remained, with a strong element of the old Labour attitude of doing things for people.

During the 1980s many people invested much support and hope in their elected representatives, in the GLC and elsewhere; disillusion was probably bound to follow, partly because brave lefty leaders get cold feet, or end up sacking workers and making cuts in the end (‘with a heavy heart’), usually on the grounds that it’s better for them to be in charge than someone worse, they have no choice. In reality they do have little choice, because their real room to manoeuvre IS limited, by central government funding, legal obligations, and so on, even more now than in the ’80s. ON the other hand, the money ‘Red’ Ken’s tenure saw handed out was both a boon to lots of ground-level schemes that had a real benefit to people’s lives, and a poisoned chalice.; it also brought them under official control and tended often to hamper their independence. Their reliance on this funding could, and did, lead to toning down any challenging of state structures, campaigning against council or government policies and so on. It was never gonna last for ever. When the grants were withdrawn, people could no longer operate on without it, and projects collapsed. More radical projects were bought off, their challenge to the local or wider state neutralised in this way. The half-arsed social democratic approach was always two-faced, tinkering round the edges, while cheerfully administering exploitation and sending in the cops to squash dissent from below.

In the end, of course, the Thatcher government abolished the GLC, and other ‘metropolitan’ councils (like the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’, etc). The huge splurges on festival may have been fun, but in the end didn’t rally a people’s rebellion against the tories. Although the music may have been funky (mostly – Billy Bragg, Not In My Name!)

In the ‘80s, most anarchists, communists, etc, rightly critiqued the GLC and similar bodies as being mere window dressing, holding back more fundamental social change that we desperately need. Nothing has changed in that reality. However, in the last 30 years, our daily experience has got much worse… Capitalism has been reshaped, in the image of the wetdreams of the wealthy, and our collective project to oppose that, drive things in a different direction, while always alive, is fragmented. Nostalgia for the times the GLC operated in would be easy to fall into, since we’re in a much worse state. (is there an extent to which this feeling in part funded the pathetic Livingstone mayoralty of more recent times: an exposure if one was needed of the bankruptcy of the politics of the man. Now compounded by seeming verbal dementia, if his burblings on the subject of Hitler and Zionism are anything to go by).

To build a movement that can challenge the daily misery and poverty and bring about a way of life genuinely in the interests of us all, we need to avoid the cul-de-sacs of municipal ‘socialism’.

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

Today in London’s reactionary history: Mayday revels turn end in a pogrom against foreign workers, 1517

May Day has a long history. Although since 1889 it has been celebrated as International Workers Day, celebration on the first of May goes back centuries. In the middle ages it was a holiday, a traditional day of carnival. It marked the arrival of spring: many people would take the day off work, gathering from the evening before to drink, dance, play games and get off with each other. In London was notably popular among the apprentices, who were always a rowdy lot. But days of celebration, drinking and partying could easily turn to rioting, especially when the city was disturbed by political or social tensions. In 1517, the Mayday party was to turn very nasty…

Londoners have often been suspicious of foreigners, particularly if they thought the newcomers represented competition for jobs. Even among the most positive class uprisings that have enriched London’s history, this element of xenophobia can be seen: for instance in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, some Londoners took the opportunity to attack Flemish craftsmen working in London. As today, the wealthy elite was quite happy to hire ‘cheap foreign labour’ & then fail, or be unwilling, to protect them from local resentment: playing us off against each other has always worked quite nicely for them.

During the reign of Henry VIII, there was an increase in the numbers of migrants living in London. Many were craftsmen who settled outside the City walls, often in Spitalfields and the Bishopsgate area. Some brought new skills and techniques,  in trades as diverse as weaving, silver and gold-smithing, jewellery making, tailoring, clockmaking and brewing. There were celebrated printers, basket makers, joiners and caterers. While some of these skills made them welcomed by the wealthy, they also aroused anger and resentment from the existing artisan population.

London actually had quite the racial mix of the time, with the Italians forming “a commercial and financial aristocracy”. There were Frenchman and Jews. Greeks, Italians and Spaniards comprised London’s physicians. Studying these migrants throws up some interesting parallels with the more recent targets of racism. Many arrived fleeing religious persecution in their home countries. There was also a tendency to work hard to establish themselves. In the way of things, in a pattern seen over centuries in London, such groups often become gradually assimilated, although not without hostility, ostracism and campaigns of denunciation and some level of abuse and attacks. On occasion, there are major outbreaks of mass violence. These usually spark from an external trigger – often economic hard times.

In the early sixteenth century, London was suffering from a trade recession. In 1517,  complaints started to rise, against the ‘large number of foreigners living in the city’. John Lincoln, described as a broker, or second-hand dealer, persuaded Dr. Beal, the vicar of St Mary’s Church in Spitalfields, to preach against the foreigners in his sermon in Easter week of 1517. Beal agreed and to a great congregation in the fields outside the city he “denounced the aliens who stole Englishmen’s livelihoods and seduced their wives and daughters; he said that even birds expelled interlopers from their nests, and that men were entitled to fight for their country against foreigners.” Over the following two weeks there were sporadic attacks on foreigners and rumours abounded “that on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens”.

Sebastian Giustinian, the Venetian ambassador in England, reported: “With this exasperating language and much more besides, he so irritated the populace that they threatened to cut the strangers to pieces and sack their houses on the first of May.”

The usual complaints, familiar in every generation against every new group of incomers, began to circulate. Edward Hall, a twenty year old student, wrote: “The multitude of strangers was so great about London that the poor English could get any living… The foreigners… were so proud that they disdained, mocked, and oppressed the Englishmen, which was the beginning of the grudge… The Genoans, Frenchmen, and other strangers said and boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council that they set naught by the rulers of the city… How miserably the common artificers lived, and scarcely could get any work to find them, their wives, and children, for there were such a number of artificers strangers that took away all the living in manner.” Mod-up the language and its right of the Daily Mail.

On 28th April 1517 John Lincoln, clearly the Nigel Farage of his day, posted a bill upon the door of St Paul’s Cathedral, complaining that “the foreigners” were given too much favour by the king and council. It claimed that “the foreigners” had “bought wools to the undoing of Englishmen”. Sebastian Giustinian went to see Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and then king Henry VIII, on April 29th, worried about the rumours that “people would rise and kill the foreigners on May Day”…  

King Henry promised that all foreigners would be protected. Cardinal Wolsey instructed the Lord Mayor and the city officers to enforce a curfew on the eve of May Day.

Sir Thomas More, the Under-Sheriff of London and his men, patrolled the streets on the night of April 30th. Some young apprentices broke the curfew – when an officer tried to arrest one of them, a riot broke out. More’s men charged the rioters with their staves. This inflamed the situation – soon afterwards a large crowd of young people were attacking foreigners and burning the houses of Venetian, French, Italian, Flemish and German merchants. However this was only the prelude to the events of the following day…
Edward Hall reported that “diverse young men of the city assaulted the aliens as they passed by the streets, and some were stricken and some were buffeted, and some thrown into the canal… Then suddenly was a common secret rumour, and no man could tell how it began, then on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens, in so much as diverse strangers fled out of the city.”

It was reported that rioters ran through the city with “clubs and weapons… throwing stones, bricks, bats, hot water, shoes and boots, and sacking the houses of many foreigners”. It is estimated that 2,000 Londoners sacked the houses of foreign merchants.

“…alderman Sir John Murray tried to arrest two boys enjoying a bout of ‘sword and buckler’ in front of a large crowd of apprentices they took it that the City authorities intended to suppress traditional rights. With a cry of ‘Clubs!’ poor Sir John was chased off and his quarry left to escape.
Frayed tempers and London gossip soon created a number of street-corner crowds led by both workers and ‘gentlemen’.
Then more people arose out of every quarter, and out came Servingmen, and Watermen, and Courtiers, and by a XI of the clock there were in Chepe six or seven hundred. And out of
Paul’s Churchyard came three hundred which wist not of the other, and so out of all places they gathered, and brake up the Counters, and took out the prisoners that the Mayor had hither committed for hurting of the strangers, and came to Newgate and took out Studley and Petyt, committed thither for that cause .
More, now in a funk over what to do next, tried to talk the crowds into going home when they reached St Martin’s Le Grand but his band of supporters were pelted, abused and forced to retreat, leaving the rioters free to attack property and passers-by in Cheapside, Cornhill and Fenchurch Street. A foreign merchant called John Meantys had his house wrecked. Originating in Picardy, Meantys was not merely the King’s French Secretary, he was also well known for sharp practice and illicit wool carding.”

The rioting continued all night and on the morning and afternoon of May Day. According to Jasper Ridley: “The hated Frenchmen were the chief target of the rioters. Several were assaulted in the street. The French ambassador escaped, when his house was attacked, by hiding in a church steeple… The London watch was quite incapable of dealing with the rioters. The Constable of the Tower opened fire on them with his cannon, but only shot a few rounds and did no damage.”

That afternoon, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, brought 1,300 soldiers into the city and mass arrests began to take place. The first batch of 279 people were brought before the courts later that day. Edward Hall described the prisoners as “some men, some lads, some children of thirteen years… there was a great mourning of fathers and friends for their children and kinsfolk.”

There is some disagreement about how many people were punished for the riotous events. Estimates for the number executed ranged from eleven to as high as sixty. Those executed suffered the penalty of being “hanged, drawn and quartered”.

John Lincoln was tried separately on 6th May. He was found guilty and executed. The public was said to be shocked by the way Henry VIII had dealt with the rioters, especially as they commented that no one had been killed by the rioters. Jasper Ridley points out: “For the first time since he became King, Henry risked his popularity with the people by his severe repression of the anti-foreign rioters of Evil May Day. The resentment felt against the foreigners; the sympathy for the young apprentices; the grief of the parents when their boys of thirteen were executed; the feeling that in many cases the more innocent had been punished while the more guilty escaped; and the tales, which Hall reported, of the brutality of the Earl of Surrey’s soldiers who suppressed the disorders, all aroused great sympathy of the rioters.”

Although the king was accused of being “far more sympathetic to foreigners than the common folk”, it was clearly very important for Henry “to show the foreign merchants that they could safely come to London and carry on their business there; and, even more important, he would not tolerate anarchy in his realm, or any defiance of his royal authority and laws.”

According to Edward Hall the rest of the captured rioters (said to be as many as 400), with halters around their necks, were brought to Westminster Hall in the presence of Henry VIII. He sat on his throne, from where he condemned them all to death. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey then fell on his knees and begged the king to show compassion while the prisoners themselves called out “Mercy, Mercy!” Eventually the king relented and granted them pardon. At which point they cast off their halters and “jumped for joy”.

Tensions over migration, however, have obviously cropped since… Many times. As they are again today. While the ability of malcontents like John Lincoln to involve hundreds in pogroms has diminished, there’s no telling how things will pan out. Especially with the plethora of sunny commentators and media whipping up hysteria against migrants wherever they can.

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

Today in London’s rebel past: London Apprentices march to demand restoration of holidays banned by puritans, 1647

The London apprenticesfir centuries had a reputation for their rowdiness, and willingness to cause trouble; for centuries they were famed for getting involved in political upheavals, of all dimensions. Their economic position sparked many grievances; their youth led to much boisterousness. They were also jealous of their traditions; and because their working lives were notoriously long and hard, they celebrated the public holidays drunkenly, loudly, and often riotously.

So when the puritan regime that had taken control of Parliament during the English civil war years began to impose a leaner and more moralistic society, it didn’t go down well with the apprentices…

In 1647, having largely beaten king Charles I in the war, Parliament declared that it was planning to ban all of the old public holidays – Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, Saints Days and the like. Sunday was to be the only day of rest, and it was to be spent in prayer and quiet worship, not carousing and drinking. Not only were they all relics of the old catholic church, idolatrous expressions of what the puritans saw as worldly heresy, but they also encouraged immorality of all kinds, and could easily end up in riots or insurrections. (In fact a repression of such popular culture was in swing throughout all of Europe, catholic and protestant). An ordinance in 1644 closing down many of the festivals had been implemented previously, to limited effect and some resistance.

On April 20th 1647 a march of apprentices took place, from Covent Garden to Westminster, to protest at the plan. They petitioned Parliament to replace the banned holidays with a day off of their own.

However Parliament pressed ahead, issuing the Ordinance on June 8th: “Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.”

The apprentices threatened a mass meeting; at a time when the captive king was negotiating a peace with the parliament, but some of the moderate elements at Westminster were plotting with him, and the New Model Army was threatening to march on London. More disorder from the apprentices wasn’t what Parliament needed at this time. They partially cave in, granting “all scholars, apprentices, and other servants, with the leave and approbation of their masters, should have such relaxation from labour on the second Tuesday in every month as they used to have from such festivals and holy days”…

But the apprentices were not a homogenous mob. Different political opinions were distributed amongst them, although certain trades often adhered to strand of ideas, and some wards were known for particular politics.

The discontent of the apprentices left some of them vulnerable to manipulation by agents of the royalist party, poised to exploit popular agitation against the government. Although in the early days of the civil war thousands of apprentices had taken up the parliamentary cause, some were now willing to side with the king. One faction was pressing for the king’s return to power, albeit with a negotiated settlement of some of the original grievances that had led to war. In July, a mass meeting of apprentices and watermen pledged to support the king. This, together with threatening clouds of royalist intrigue, led to the New Model Army’s march on London in late July and August:

“This occasioned a great tumult, which originated in Moorfields, and agitated the metropolis for a couple of days. It is said that, but for the vigorous action of Fairfax, the Government would have been overthrown. The people mastered a part of the trainbands, seized their drums and colours, beat up for recruits, then forming into something like military order, they surprised Newgate and Ludgate in the night, and seized the keys. The rioters divided into two parties: one marched upon Whitehall, but were discomfited en route; the other ranged the city, possessing themselves of ordnance, arms, and ammunition. Prompt measures were, however, taken at a council of war, and Fairfax, entering the city at the head of two regiments, put several to the sword, took many prisoners, and dispersed the rest.”

The puritans were to press forward with the repression of festivals, however, banning much of the pageantry associated with Christmas; however riots and disorder continued to disrupt their purse-mouthed prudery…

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

Today in London’s rowdy history: the last Frost Fair opens on the Thames, 1814.

The 1814 Frost Fair

“Skittles was played by several parties, and the drinking tents were filled by females and their companions, dancing reels to the sound of fiddles, while others sat round large fires, drinking rum, grog, and other spirits.”

In exceptionally cold winters, especially during the ‘Little Ice age’ (thought to have lasted from about 1300 to about 1850) ‘Old Father Thames’ used to freeze solidly enough for people to walk across. Since Londoners from the year dot have loved nothing better than a party, preferably an unlicensed free-for-all, the holding of fairs on the river on such occasions became a tradition. There were Frost Fairs in 1564, 1608, 1634, 1683, 1715, 1739, and 1789, and finally, in 1814.

The first properly recorded frost fair was during the winter of 1607/08. During December the Thames had frozen enough to allow people to walk between Southwark to the City, but by January the ice became so thick that people started setting up camp on it, and holding football and bowling matches; the Fair hosted fruit-sellers, shoemakers, barbers… even a pub or two. To keep the shopkeepers warm, there were even fires within their tents.

During the Great Winter of 1683/84, where even the seas of southern Britain were frozen solid for up to two miles from shore, the most famous frost fair was held, known as The Blanket Fair. The London writer and diarist John Evelyn described it in detail, writing:

“Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cookes, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water, whilst it was a severe judgement on the land, the trees not onely splitting as if lightning-struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers[e] places, and the very seas so lock’d up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.”

However, since holding a festival on a piece of ice, has its risks, there was the occasional tragedy. During the fair of 1739 a chunk of ice gave away and swallowed up tents, businesses and people.

Another tragedy occurred in 1789: melting ice dragged away a ship anchored to a riverside pub in Rotherhithe. As the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ wrote at the time:

“The captain of a vessel lying off Rotherhithe, the better to secure the ship’s cables, made an agreement with a publican for fastening a cable to his premises. In consequence, a small anchor was carried on shore, and deposited in the cellar, while another cable was fastened round a beam in another part of the house. In the night the ship veered about, and the cables holding fast, carried away the beam, and levelled the house with the ground, by which accident five persons asleep in their beds were killed.”

In 1811 the river froze hard, leaving only a narrow channel, so that people could walk on it from Battersea Bridge to Hungerford Stairs. But only three years later it froze hard again at the beginning of January after a week long fog. The streets were piled high with snow, the ice on the river dirty and “lumpy” but firm enough on January 30th for seventy people to walk across from Queenhithe to the opposite bank. More people soon ventured onto the ice and by Monday Feb 1st the river was so solid from Blackfriars Bridge to some way below Three Crane Stairs that thousands were tempted onto it.

The Times of 2 February 1814 reported that “in some parts the ice was several feet thick, while in others it was dangerous to venture upon”. The Frost Fair was focused between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge in the heart of the city.

By Tuesday the whole area was a fair, built around a main ‘road’, nicknamed the ‘City Road’, which went straight down the middle of the Thames rather than across, and was lined on both sides with about thirty stalls, decorated with streamers, flags and “signs”, set up for the sale of porter, spirits, and other drinks as well as for skittles, dancing, and a variety of games.
By the next day, Wednesday (February 3rd), eight or ten printing-presses had been set up, printing cards and broadsides to commemorate the ‘great frost.’

A small sheep roasted on the ice drew quite a crowd – though they were charged sixpence to view it. The meat was afterwards sold at a shilling a slice as ‘Lapland mutton.’ But the highlight was a roast ox. Mutton was also served – both in slices and in mince pies.

Tea, coffee and hot chocolate were on sale. But alcohol dominated the proceedings. Ginger bread vendors sold cups of gin. There was the strong gin was called Old Tom – “incredibly ardent”; Purl – a mix of gin and wormwood wine, similar to vermouth (drunk hot). There was also a “very spiky” beer called Mum infused with spices, like a wassail or winter ale. The tents – made out of sails and propped up with oars – were called “fuddling tents”, as you were likely to leave fuddled by the strong liquor.

It was still not wise to stray too far. A plumber called Davies tried to cross near Blackfriars Bridge carrying some lead and fell through the ice (plumbers being as daft then as now). Two young women were luckier when they fell in, being rescued just in time by Thames watermen.

On Thursday the ice seemed to be still as solid as rock. The fair continued to grow and attract more visitors. There were swings, bookstalls, skittles, dancing-booths, merry-go-rounds, sliding-barges, just like Greenwich and Bartlemy Fairs. Friday the 4th brought even more, and scores of pedlars, selling books, toys, anything labelled with the words “bought on the Thames”.

The Thames watermen, far from being ruined made a huge profit by charging a toll of twopence or threepence to enter ‘Frost Fair;’ – and demanding a tip on leaving. Some were rumoured to have made up to £6 a day.

That afternoon, however, the ice cracked above London Bridge, a large piece carrying away a man and two boys through one of the arches. They were rescued by some Billingsgate fishermen.

For the remainder of the week the fair remained in full swing, the ‘City Road’ between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge crowded till after nightfall.

On Saturday the 5th the wind turned to the south, with a slight fall of snow and sleet. Undeterred, thousands returned to the fair, and were tempted by donkey rides for a shilling. Later that day the crowd thinned as rain began to fall and the ice to crack, threatening stalls, donkeys, printing-presses, and all.

The thaw was rapid. In spite of warning from the watermen two young men went on the ice above Blackfriars Bridge and were carried away. On Sunday morning, February 6th, at an early hour the tide began to flow and to break up the ice. On the Monday huge ice-floes washed to and fro with the tide, carrying off many barges and lighters from their moorings above the bridge so they were quite quickly wrecked and sank. In no time the ice was quite gone and the river flowing as usual though the frost lasted altogether till the 20th March.

So ended the last Frost Fair, possibly one of the most evocative traditions of old London. The demolition of the old London Bridge in 1831, and its rebuilding, allowing a faster flow, put an end to the chance of the river freezing; the Little Ice Age is thought to have come to and end, and the industrial Revolution helped to make the climate toastier too.

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