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

Zone of Transition

A radical history walk around Spitalfields and Brick Lane

START: Christ Church, Commercial Street 

“a land of beer and blood”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ Church

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

Homelessness was and still is, endemic in Spitalfields:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish

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

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

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

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

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

Commercial Street: The Wicked Quarter Mile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk down White’s Row To Crispin Street

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

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

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

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

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

Silk dyeing in the fourteenth century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silk reeling

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

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

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

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

The weavers and their morals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calico printing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish immigration in Whitechapel and Spitalfields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East End tailors, 1913.

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

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

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

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

Hebrew Socialist Union pamphlet

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

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

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

Walk west down Brushfield Street to the corner with Fort Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

We’ll return to Arbeter Fraint later

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

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

People around a fire, Spitafields Market

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

 Walk down Brushfield Street to the entrance to Spitalfields Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll return to gentrification later on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue down Greatorex Street to Old Montague Street, turn right

Housing Struggles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both of these did go through in the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squatting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk Round corner to Princelet Street

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

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

The historian Rollin told a slightly different story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racism & racist attacks:

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

Skins in Brick Lane, 1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the National Front HQ, 1978

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

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

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

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

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

Resistance to racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Conservation as gentrification: the Spitalfields Trust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Today in London’s infra(re)structural history, 1845: New Oxford Street opens – built to socially cleanse the St Giles Rookery

No Through Road?

This is a brief introduction to some of the social engineering involved in the building of three new roads in London in the mid to late 19th century, exploring the areas destroyed to establish these streets and some of the motivations behind their creation. It is far from comprehensive and only concerns specific examples. However, much of the thinking, ideologies, geography and practice discussed here have been and are being applied to myriad other neighbourhoods throughout the world, certainly at that time, but more and more in the century and a half since. It is a work in progress of sorts… And calls up experiences we have had in our own lives much more recently.

In an early act of development as social engineering, New Oxford Street, in London’s West End, was built between 1844 and 1847, partly to break up the St Giles rookery, a notorious slum, by demolishing some of its most notorious alleys and tenements. Many such schemes to improve London’s main roads were also deliberately used in the 19th Century, to clear areas of poverty and lawlessness the authorities found threatening and troublesome. Part of the impulse behind these plans came from moral campaigns to reform people considered to be to some extent responsible for their poverty and criminality, or failing that, to disperse them and shift them elsewhere.

The area that was demolished for the building of New Oxford Street was the heart of the St Giles Rookery, for centuries probably central London’s most notorious slum, considered a cesspit of humanity, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “ one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts… The lanes were thronged with loiterers, and stagnant gutters, and piles of garbage and filth infested the air.” (John Timbs, Curiosities of London).

Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, the rookery was known for the poverty of its residents already by the end of the sixteenth century (when the area was fairly recently built up). The character of this part of the parish of St Giles generally declined through the eighteenth. Once a “most wealthy and populous parish”, the huge social upheavals in Tudor and Stuart times saw a massive increase in people uprooting and moving, usually from the countryside into towns and cities. Poor folk coming to London to seek work seems to have first led St Giles to its notoriety as a nexus of the unruly poor; this influx of people with no settled place to live or job worried the authorities and the well-to-do, who feared the instability, crime and financial burdens of supporting them on the local parish. Attempts were made in St Giles (and widely elsewhere) to control the migration of undesirables into the parish: in 1637 it was ordered that, “to prevent the great influx of poor people into this parish, the beadles do present every fortnight, on the Sunday, the names of all new-comers, under-setters, inmates, divided tenements, persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses.”

But as those who could afford to move gradually drifted west to newer, more prosperous estates, the houses they left became subdivided and sublet and relet, often on short leases, creating complex patterns of ownership that made repairs and maintenance a logistical nightmare and defeated authorities’ efforts to enforce legal standards. The inhabitants became poorer and overcrowding rocketed. the late 1700s, the parish was “said to furnish his Majesty’s plantations in America with more souls than all the rest of the kingdom besides.” (ie large numbers of St Giles residents were sentenced to be transported to the penal colonies) and for producing a disproportionate percentage of those who hanged at Tyburn (as well as several of the “Jack Ketches”, the public hangmen who “turned them off”) The inhabitants of the rookery were called “A noisy and riotous lot, fond of street brawls, equally ‘fat, ragged and saucy…”

The most notorious streets were Jones Court and Bainbridge Street, according to Mayhew: “some of the most intricate and dangerous places in this low locality.”, a haunt of coiners and thieves, costermongers (pedlars and street hawkers) , fish-women, news-criers, and corn-cutters. A bull terrier was said to stand at the corner of these streets, trained to bark if a stranger approached; it was later taken away by the constables and destroyed. Jones Court, Bainbridge Street and Buckeridge Street were joined together by cellars, roofs yards and sewers, making it easy for fugitives to escape any authorities who came in to arrest them; these warrens were filled with booby traps – for example hidden cess pools. Also infamous was Carrier Street (which ran north to south in the rookery): Mother Dowling’s lodging house & provision shop stood here, frequented by vagrants of every sort. Cellars became so integral a part of life here that ‘a cellar in St. Giles’s’ became a byword for living in extreme poverty.

The rookery mostly consisted of a warren of cheap lodging houses, “set apart for the reception of idle persons and vagabonds.”, where accommodation could be found for twopence a night:

“there was, at least, a floating population of 1,000 persons who had no fixed residence, and who hired their beds for the night in houses fitted up for the purpose. Some of these houses had each fifty beds, if such a term can be applied to the wretched materials on which their occupants reposed; the usual price was sixpence for a whole bed, or fourpence for half a one; and behind some of the houses there were cribs littered with straw, where the wretched might sleep for threepence. In one of the houses seventeen persons have been found sleeping in the same room, and these consisting of men and their wives, single men, single women, and children. Several houses frequently belonged to one person, and more than one lodging-house-keeper amassed a handsome fortune by the mendicants of St. Giles’s and Bloomsbury. The furniture of the houses was of the most wretched description, and no persons but those sunk in vice, or draining the cup of misery to its very dregs, could frequent them. In some of the lodging-houses breakfast was supplied to the lodgers, and such was the avarice of the keeper, that the very loaves were made of a diminutive size in order to increase his profits.”

Notorious pubs were prominent: the Maidenhead Inn, the Rats Castle, the Turks Head, all in Dyott Street, and the Black Horse, each said by outraged commentators to be the HQ of gangs of beggars, thieves and pickpockets.

Of the Rat’s Castle, the Rev. T. Beames, in his ‘Rookeries of London,’ (a classic outraged ‘expose’ of life in the slums) said: “In the ground floor was a large room, appropriated to the general entertainment of all comers; in the first floor, a free-and-easy, where dancing and singing went on during the greater part of the night, suppers were laid, and the luxuries which tempt to intoxication freely displayed. The frequenters of this place were bound together by a common tie, and they spoke openly of incidents which they had long since ceased to blush at, but which hardened habits of crime alone could teach them to avow.”
 Gin shops also abounded, at a time when the half-raw, dirt cheap spirit was the cheapest and quickest way to drink away your troubles: one in four houses in St Giles was estimated to be selling spirits in 1750.

The area contained a large poor Irish population, said to be three quarters of the population in some streets, so much that it was nicknamed little Dublin, or the Holy Land. They gradually displaced older groups like French Hugenots who had moved here in the 1680s. Most of the Irish were labourers, originally arriving to work the harvests, later flocking to the building and brewing trades. In 1780, the majority of the 20,000 odd Irish people living in London were residents of St Giles. Besides the irish, by the 1730s this area also housed a noticeable black community, known as ‘the St Giles Blackbirds’, many ex-slaves, some on the run from their ‘owners’, some former sailors or ex-servants.

Rookeries inspired great fear in the middle and upper classes. At the most basic level the idea of thousands of the poor, swelling together, desperate, with little to lose, always a threat to peace and social order even as individuals, liable to commit crime against their betters, spread disease…

The way the rookeries are described in contemporary writing exposes the kind of threat they saw in them. Well-to-do commentators saw the rookery through a lens tinted with their own prejudices, but always the view is from the outside, looking in, uncomprehending, totally without experience of the lives lived within.

Sometimes they are compared to forests, wild, scary impenetrable places with hidden dangers, as does writer and magistrate Henry Fielding: “Whoever… considers the cities of London and Westminster with the late vast addition of their suburbs, the great irregularity of their buildings, the immense number of lanes, alleys, courts, and bye-places; must think, that, had they been intended for the very purpose of concealment, they could scarce have been better contrived. Upon such a view the whole appears as a vast wood or forest, in which a thief may harbor with as much security as wild beasts do in the deserts…”

There are interesting echoes here, and in other 18th and 19th century writings about slums, of earlier perceptions, writings and fears – about forests and wild woods, and the people who sheltered there. From Robin Hood to disaffected levellers and fifth monarchists, woods were viewed in a similar way, as dangerous, almost impenetrable dark fastnesses, hiding wild beasts and even wilder people – outlaws, rebels, runaways and outsiders (likely to include gender & sexual non-conformists, certainly including escaped servants, serfs and slaves). Fairy tales and folklore reflects this, abounding with a fear of the deep dark woods. In the 16th and 17th centuries rookeries begin to replace forests as the main focus of such fears, as enclosure/agricultural change was increasingly taming and regulating the wilder aspects of countryside and forest. 

Alternatively, rookeries and city slums were compared to insect or animal colonies: John Timbs described St Giles as “one great mass, as if the houses had originally been one block of stone eaten by slugs into small chambers and connecting passages.” The very language dehumanises the inhabitants, labelling them basically slugs, termites or other insects; a dehumanisation of the poor that is a regular feature of observations on the lower classes by the better off. (There are fewer verminous metaphors used to describe landlords or middlemen, often ‘house-farmers’ leasing from the rich and making tidy sums from subdividing the garrets, who benefitted from overcrowding their houses for their own profit.)

In comparing slum dwellers to wild beasts, using metaphors like the slug reference, onlookers are suggesting the beasts have moved to the city. And similar reforming and reshaping urges would be used to control this: like enclosure, demolishing rookeries and building new roads was both profitable, and a taming of disorderly space… bringing order to chaos and inefficiency; light into darkness. 

Other commentators used medical analogies, seeing the slums as diseased or unhealthy body parts or organs, needing surgical removal. Architect Sydney Smirke described the city as suffering from “Corruption, stagnation, lack of communication, and the ‘noxious miasmata’ of disease” which required the scalpel of demolition, “the ‘very beneficial purgation’ that ‘a perfect symmetry’ would bring.” The ‘rotten core’ of London would be ‘cut out’. Disease was very much on London’s collective mind: Smirke was writing just two years after the first cholera epidemic, which had seen thousands die, often in the poorest areas, from drinking contaminated water, though this was not generally recognised until years later.

London’s streets were often also described as being maze-like, tangled and dark – difficult or impossible for strangers to navigate through (to read how common the comparison with the labyrinth was, check out this great article). The labyrinth from classical mythology seemed an obvious parallel for middle class commentators, given the inevitable reminder of the minotaur, the dark and wild beast lurking at the centre of the maze, part animal part man… A perfect analogy for the criminal poor, destitute and violent, the subhuman creatures who the writers saw as inhabiting the rookeries… As much as the invention of the Victorian respectable fear-mind as the minotaur was of the ancient greek mythologist.

Victorian writers saw and depicted much of slum London in terms of dirt – but linked this to immorality and transgression.

“Middle-class observers saw the urban environment that created impenetrable spaces as creating the conditions for the transgression of social boundaries through the bringing into greater proximity of different classes. The great metropolis and the industrial towns of Britain were in fact dirty, as human waste piled up in cesspools, soaked into the soil and flowed into the rivers. The filth of the city, and people who worked around it and on the streets, created classes of people who  were a dangerous and volatile Other to the domestic middle class.” (Strange Bodies and Familiar Spaces: WJR Simpson and the threat of disease in Calcutta and the tropical city, 1880-1910, A Cameron-Smith)

Mid-late nineteenth century writing, from sensationalist journalism to the ‘urban exploration’ of social reformers like WT Stead or Charles Booth, teems with filthy houses and streets, stagnant, overcrowded, labyrinthine courts and rooms. These environments are causably linked to the immorality and dire poverty of their inhabitants; though sometimes the environment, the ‘dirty houses’ themselves, are blamed for the condition of their residents, and sometimes it was vice versa. As Erika Kvistad points out, the obsession with dirt and darkness grew to the point where demolition of the slums came to represent a sort of exorcism of the threat from these areas:

“dirt was the point where scientifically driven social activism and superstitious horror met. They imagined poor homes as “bad property”, both the location and the source of moral uncleanness. The by then disproved miasma theory of disease persists in these texts both as a fact and as a persuasive metaphor. It allowed urban exploration writers to articulate both the fear of the squalid dwellings where poverty, disease and moral decay arise, and the fear that this badness might spread through the wealthier parts of the city. In this way, the demolition of filthy homes functioned not only as a social project, but as a form of exorcism… in many of the central texts of late-Victorian urban exploration writing, the obvious social problems that beset the poor areas of British cities, like inadequate housing, crime, and the spread of disease, become linked with the idea of certain living spaces as intrinsically bad.” (Erika Kvistad, Bad Property: Unclean Houses in Victorian City Writing, University of Oslo).

Dickens, in Dombey and Son, sums up the Victorian view of how environment infected inhabitants:

“Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But, if the moral pestilence that rises with them, and in the eternal laws of outraged Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of man-kind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure.”

An insanitary neighbourhood guarantees wicked and vicious residents, and this threatens to spill out to endanger the nicer folk in their clean streets.

The threat the poor posed to the rich became even more terrifying if they organised and acted collectively, either as gangs, or worse, as a mob. Outbreaks of disorder, riot and uprising were not uncommon in the 18th and 19th century. At their wildest, events like the 1780 Gordon Riots, when huge crowds latched onto a reactionary anti-catholic demonstration and launched five days of cataclysmic attacks on Parliament, London prisons, the houses of the rich, and other centres of power, scared the rich and powerful; many of those arrested and hanged were identified with London’s rookeries, seen as no go areas and centres of popular insurgency. In 1780, several Gordon Rioters were nicked in the St Giles Rookery with loot, including Charles Kent and Letitia Holland, arrested for the attack on Lord Mansfield’s house, who were apprehended in Bambridge Street.

After the French Revolution of 1789, this fear became heightened – what if the ‘mob’ could be harnessed by radicals, the violence of London’s poor allied to ideas of equality and liberty? – in Paris that had ended with aristocrats going to the guillotine.

Responses among the wealthy to this threat varied from the purely repressive, to more sophisticated thinking on social control, moral reform and alterations in urban environments to both neutralise the actual collective threat, and alter the lifestyles and ways of thinking of ‘slum dwellers’.

Some social reformers among the 19th century well to do saw slum clearance as part of the solution to this threat – this represented both a short and a long-term plan. Immediately dangerous and unhealthy slums were dispersed; in the longer term, the behaviour of the poor could be remodelled, channelled, made more law-abiding and respectable. These were broadly of the same  movements and circles (and and often specifically the same individuals) that had also worked to ensure factory acts and other protection legislation was passed, as well as advocated, raised charitable funds for and helped to create the first real social housing in London – the model dwellings – and also agitated against the destruction of open space and for its transformation into parks. For many of these social reformers, this work was a conscious mix of genuine concern for the conditions the working class lived, worked, played in, and an equally genuine fear and loathing of working people and disapproval of much of their culture. The philanthropy they passionately believed in was very much tempered with paternalism – they knew best and would alter the social conditions, and would improve the morals and behaviour of the lower orders. Some of the reformers who pioneered slum clearance thought a proportion of the inhabitants could be saved, if they were removed from the disorderly environment they lived in, though others were wedded to their immoral ways and were just unredeemable.

Others of the would-be redesigners of urban space were less concerned with reforming the poor. They just wanted the most disorderly of them to go away.

By the mid-19th century, St Giles’ notoriety had made it the focus of plans to redevelop the area – with both social control and improvement in east-west road traffic movement in mind.

As early as 1836 a Parliamentary Select Committee recommended demolition of several of the rookery streets: “By pulling down the aforesaid district, a great moral good will be achieved by compelling the 5,000 wretched inhabitants to resort and disperse to various parts of the metropolis and its suburbs.” St Giles location, around one of London’s most troublesome traffic bottle-necks, and its high death rates from disease, marked it for destruction.

There’s no doubt London was almost paralysed by traffic problems by the 1830s. The huge increase in the size of the city, its population, the business being carried on, the sheer tonnage of goods and people needing to be transported, was simply not reflected in much change to the capacity of the roads to contain it all. Much of the two intertwined cities of London and Westminster was laid out broadly as it had been in medieval times; neither adequate nor suitably grand and impressive as befitted the capital of what was becoming the most powerful empire on the planet. The sheer difficulty of moving through London, either on foot or by carriage, was notorious; wagons of goods could end up bogged down in the gridlocked narrow lanes.

Previous attempts to re-organise the chaotic jumble of streets and lanes along more systematic lines (such as Christopher Wren’s proposal to rebuild the devastated City of London according to a grid and radial pattern after the 1666 Great Fire) had been frustrated by the complex web of land ownership, occupation and long-established customs and communities. Central planning was scanty and widely resisted by the rich who owned much of the city; and the building of new roads were often carried out piecemeal. Some roads were built by privately by the owners of large estates, and property disputes blocked, delayed or significantly altered the creation of new thoroughfares. (Witness the aggro that accompanied the creation of the Duke of Bedford’s road through Bloomsbury as an example…)

By the 1830s, there was pressure to remodel the city to make travel and transport of goods more efficient:

“In 1834, architect Sydney Smirke took his readers on a ride through the west central districts of London, pointing out the lack of north-south roads, and showing that 200-year-old thoroughfares were still expected to take the traffic of a population that had tripled in size. His was a serious plea for the government to set up a centralised body to plan and finance the restructuring of the city: ‘No parliamentary measure could be more truly patriotic.’
In Smirke’s analysis, London was stagnating because insufficient money was made available by Parliament for reconstruction, while private property rights were considered to be so sacred that any public-minded schemes were compromised or simply abandoned.

Straight lines should push through convoluted, congested regions, stated Smirke, as he catalogued the ‘strange irregularity’ and ‘ill-directed lines’ of London thoroughfares. The kink in the road by St Giles church was ‘very objectionable’; Clare Market was ‘populous and ill arranged [and] the best mode of improving this district would be to open a spacious avenue through the centre of it.’ Smirke wanted to “obliterate the streets of the past and create a city that reflected the new-found power, wealth and mores of an ascendant middle class: ‘By some objectors we are told to “live as our fathers have lived before us,” who, being content to jostle through crooked and devious lanes, were fain to make their fortunes in blind alleys, with the internal satisfaction that their monies contracted no offensive taint from the foetid corrupt age, according to Smirke, and this has found its physical expression in the twisted streets of that era. The nineteenth-century city must, by contrast, be ‘laid out as to be wide, clear and regular’…

Straight lines and perfect symmetry were also required by those in charge of building sewers. Henry Austin, in 1842, spoke of the need for pulling down the whole of St Giles – not just the northern part – and ‘making a straight street, instead of a crooked line, from Bow Street to Broad Street’. This would facilitate interaction between ‘quarters of the town now separated by a labyrinth of lanes and alleys’. The image here is of the old, economically unproductive regions hampering commercial progress. Austin was involved in Edwin Chadwick’s sanitary movement and was doubtless influenced in his love of straight lines by the knowledge that such streets were best-suited for carrying sewage pipes.

According to the architects and engineers, London needed to have its crooked ‘no-thoroughfares’ replaced by straight broad streets.”
(‘Labyrinthine London’: writers, social reformers and the need for more ‘ordered’ streets in the mid-Victorian metropolis, Sarah Wise)

There was also the question of regulation and control. Rookeries had grown organically, haphazardly, largely uncontrolled, over centuries, and this was reflected in both the physical space and the legal ownership of the buildings. A mass of yards, winding lanes, alleys, dead end courts, lean-tos and sheds, and cellars, on sub-divided lets, complex leases and sub-leases, with many layers of ownership and residence. This made proving responsibility for any issue of possible dispute – rent, repairs, sanitation etc – almost impossible to navigate easily (just as the space was physically hard to find your way through). If this had served in less ordered eras, by victorian times there was an explosion of regulation, of rules, regarding all sorts of areas of city life, dealing for instance with buildings, and with people. The use of statistics and records was rocketing and becoming much more systematic.  A London-wide police force had been created to regularise and codify the imposition of law and order. Slums that were impassable, unknown, could not be allowed to remain so.

But rookeries were worse than unknown – they were like strongholds of the enemy, in territory that the bourgeois state and the wider bourgeoisie, where it manifested itself as a conscious class, could only see should be theirs, uncontested.

Aspects of rookery life were calculated to enrage a class that saw itself as entitled to rule, though also (to some extent) also liked to think of itself as both enlightened and interventionist.

Many slum-dwellers defied the law. A rough community solidarity against the law was a common feature of London’s rookeries.  “The police only rarely went into the rookeries; and if they intended to arrest, then only in large numbers. So there usually was plenty of forewarning; sometimes large numbers of the rookery population came on to the street to confront a police invasion… Living at such close quarters to each other also imposed a certain communal structure on daily life. Eyewitness investigators noted that the rookery communities were often tight-knit and mutually supportive; amid the terrible conditions of the rookeries, still a certain commonality and solidarity bloomed… Being so autonomous from regular police presence meant that the rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade.”
This attitude of resistance involved both social networks of self-defence against the law. But it also led to alterations and adaptations to the physical environment (already hugely useful by the rookeries’ complex maze-like structures) to make incursion by authorities very difficult (see the description of the booby traps and escape routes of Saffron Hill, below).

For the authorities and the respectable commentariat of the time, this type of physical resistance to the power of the law was an assertion of outrageous autonomy. No go areas in the capital could not be allowed to continue to exist. (In a very similar process, dismantling the no-go areas in catholic/nationalist areas of Belfast in the early 1970s, set up to defend against riotous incursions by unionist sectarians was a priority for the British Army… and autonomous street culture in inner city areas like Brixton had to be attacked by the Special Patrol Group, because the police considered this a challenge to law and order, proto-no go areas in development…)

A “new, straight and spacious street

The building of New Oxford Street was specifically the result of the 1837-38 report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Metropolis Improvement. In discussing plans for what would eventually be New Oxford Street, this report refers to “the formation of a “new, straight and spacious street into Holborn, suited to the wants of the heavy-traffic constantly passing … provision would, at the same time, be made in a very great degree, for the important objects of health and morality”.

One of the consultant engineers for this report urged the Select Committee to follow a certain route for the road, because this would prove to ‘be the means of destroying a vast quantity of houses which are full of the very worst description of people.’

Work on New Oxford Street was begun in 1844, and the new road opened to traffic on 10th June 1845, though work wasn’t entirely completed until 1847. Several of the most infamous rookery streets disappeared during its construction, leaving some 5000 of the poor homeless; while the Duke of Bedford, owner of 104 of the demolished houses, received £114,000 in compensation (a huge sum then.) Driven from their homes, but in many cases needing to stay near their work or sources of casual labour, the rookery dwellers generally found lodgings nearby, causing a 76 per cent increase in population in some other local streets. The building of New Oxford Street, together with the later construction of nearby Shaftesbury Avenue through other notorious parts of St Giles, began the reclamation of this long-infamous area for respectability.

Not everyone was convinced of the effectiveness of demolition. Charles Dickens, for instance, was an early critic of the tactic of using road building to clear slums. He pointed out that far from reducing crime and letting in the light of ‘respectability’, the new road had only made worse all the conditions most likely to cause crime: “Thus we make our New Oxford Streets, and our other new streets, never heeding, never asking where the wretches whom we clear out, crowd … We timorously make our Nuisance Bills and Boards of Health, nonentities, and think to keep away the Wolves of Crime and Filth.”

The New Oxford Street scheme wasn’t the first proposal to remodel London in the interests of the rich and social exclusion.

One of the reasons cited in support of the proposals for the original construction of Blackfriars Bridge in the 1760s (apart from the transport and commercial advantages of new river crossings), was to help clear the lawless slums around the mouths of the river Fleet (especially the notorious Alsatia rookery) – it was thought opening up and redeveloping the area to the south would help.

In 1812, architect John Nash had reported to His Majesty’s Commissioner of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, proposing new roads and grand vistas where a hotchpotch of roads and alleys then existed around Charing Cross, then considered the ‘hub’ of London life. For Nash, his development scheme offered the added bonus of bulldozing the Swallow Street rookery in Soho. An Act of Parliament in 1813 ensured the Nash scheme, for a major new road for the north of the capital and from the area around Haymarket and Charing Cross, would go forward. The rebuilding work went on to create great sweeping crescents, notably Regent Street, built between 1817 and 1823, designed by Nash specifically to separate the ‘Nobility and Gentry’ in their ‘streets and squares’ from the “narrow streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community”. Nash’s new roads were organised in such a way as to ‘cut off’ access by the poor in their ghettos in St Giles, Porridge Island, Seven Dials and the mean streets near Haymarket and Westminster, restricting their direct access, making entering the posh streets west of Soho a long and tiring business. If later schemes emphasised the improvements in traffic flow and the movements of goods, the Regent Street/Charing Cross developments also had restriction of movement at their heart. Fear of the London crowds, the threat their very movement around the city inspired in the wealthy, was a major consideration in Nash’s plans. It is not insignificant that the years of its building saw a huge upsurge in the perennial movement for political reform, spiced with poverty and economic slump following the end of the 23 year war with France; the refusal of the government to even consider reform led to brutal repression as at Peterloo, to riots like the Spa Fields uprising, to plots for revolutionary insurgency and plans to assassinate the cabinet. Fears of riotous mobs and serious thinking on how to frustrate their ability to move through the city were not idle fancies.

The building of New Oxford St was, however, only the opening skirmish in a long process of architectural class restructuring, in St Giles, and wider afield in London. Other notorious London rookeries experienced major reconstruction schemes beginning in the 1840s, including Field Lane/West Street in the Saffron Hill area; parts of Spitalfields & Whitechapel removed to build Commercial Street, and the ‘Devil’s Acre’ in Westminster.

The creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855 stands out as a significant point, a major development in the story of metropolitan improvements in London. The Board effectively took over responsibility for planning and building new streets from the Commissioners for Woods and Forests; this was a huge step towards the centralisation of local government in London. The Board existed alongside the local vestries (based on the age-old parish system) , but took over responsibility for the entire capital’s main drains, sewage disposal, and street and bridge construction. In 1875, it was also given the power of slum clearance. This was the fulfilment of the dreams and schemes of a whole slough of writers and campaigners, for whom the fractured nature of planning derived partly from the lack of a grand over-arching authority which could override parochial concerns and beat down petty ownership, for the greater good…

‘Against the Incursions of the law’

Another neighbourhood particularly targeted by campaigners against the moral and social ills of the rookeries was the Saffron Hill area, around the modern junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, to the north of the City of London.
The rookery had partially evolved from a medieval Liberty – land which in medieval times belonged to a religious institution, and thus operated under church laws and courts, not the regular law. This enabled some degree of protection from prosecution by the secular authorities, and liberties became places of refuge for those with an interest in evading the law. Long after the legal distinction had in fact been removed, such areas often maintained traditions and customs of sanctuary and sometimes became rookeries.
Saffron Hill had a well-established reputation for thievery and prostitution. The area was additionally ideally situated for illegal activity and refuge, sited as it was in an administrative borderland, where responsibility for policing was split between the authority of Middlesex, the City and the parishes of Clerkenwell, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre’s and the Liberty of Saffron Hill. The few constables and watchmen in service generally limited their patrols to their own patches. Such criminal legends as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Dick Turpin were all at times said to have been residents of Saffron Hill.
As early as 1598 (when the northern end was known as Gold Lane) Saffron Hill was described as “sometime a filthy passage into the fields, now both sides built with small tenements.” (John Stow). Much of Dickens’s Oliver Twist is set here – this is the neighbourhood of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

Saffron Hill in the 19th century

The rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade. Much of the following evidence was only revealed through demolition during the later slum clearances to make way for the new railway and road through Clerkenwell: “Against the incursions of the law…there were remarkable defences. Over the years the whole mass of yards and tenements had become threaded by an elaborate complex of runways, traps and bolt-holes. In places cellar had been connected with cellar so that a fugitive could pass under a series of houses and emerge in another part of the rookery. In others, long-established escape routes ran up from the maze of inner courts and over the huddled roofs: high on a wall was a double row of iron spikes, ‘one row to hold by, and another for the feet to rest on,’ connecting the windows of adjacent buildings. … To chase a wanted man through the escape ways could be really dangerous, even for a party of armed police. According to a senior police officer… a pursuer would find himself ‘creeping on his hands and knees through a hole two feet square entirely in the power of dangerous characters’ who might be waiting on the other side: while at one point a ‘large cesspool, covered in such a way that a stranger would likely step into it’ was ready to swallow him up.” (Chesney)

The Fleet River, behind Saffron Hill

The river Fleet, now an open drain, running through the rookery, was also utilised: “though its dark and rapid stream was concealed by the houses on each side, its current swept away at once into the Thames whatever was thrown into it. In the Thieves’ house were dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels and other means of escape.”
The area’s most notorious low lodging house was No 3 West Street, on the north-west side of the Fleet Ditch, and at the eastern corner of Brewhouse Yard (which ran north from West St parallel to Saffron Hill, roughly where Farringdon Road now crosses Charteris Street). No 3 had once been known as the ‘Red Lion Tavern’, but for the century preceding its destruction was used as a lodging-house, a notorious haunt of thieves, a coiners gang, illegal distilling, and prostitutes. It was sometimes called Jonathan Wild’s House, or ‘the Old House in West street’, and was said to have hidden prison escaper Jack Sheppard and highwayman Jerry Abershaw. The house was adapted to serve as a hiding place, being filled with dark closets, trapdoors, sliding panels, and secret recesses, including walled off dens in the cellar, which hid refugees from the law. Even when police surrounded the place, their prey would often escape. During one raid a constable went into one of the rooms to arrest a thief, and seeing him in bed, called for other officers; he turned his head and saw the man getting under the bed. From where he vanished: there “were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square; from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley – out of reach of his pursuers.” In the same house, there were other, almost surreal means of escape, clearly designed by criminal genius minds, with an MC Escher-esque touch: “The staircase was very peculiar, scarcely to be described; for though the pursuer and pursued might only be a few feet distant, the one would escape to the roof of the house, while the other would be descending steps, and, in a moment or two, would find himself in the room he had first left by another door. This was managed by a pivoted panel being turned between the two.” (The Rookeries of London, Thomas Beames, 1852.)

In one of the garrets was a secret door, which led to the roof of the next house from which any offender could be in Saffron Hill in a few minutes. The house was pulled down in 1844.

Neighbouring Chick Lane was home to organised criminal gangs like the Black Boy Alley Gang which carried on a struggle against the law in the 1740s, targetting several constables & magistrates for assassination from here. Several people were hanged in the law’s counter-attack.

The poor and criminal classes of these slums not only built ingenious methods of concealment and escape: they sometimes organised their own welfare systems. The ‘Hempen Widows Club’, run from near Black Boy Alley, operated as a self-help society of the poor, one of many, which had articles including: everyone had to be prepared to swear anything to save each other from being hanged, everyone was to be prepared to swear to be a substantial housekeeper in order to bail one another from custody and members in prison were allowed seven shillings a week out of the kitty.

As with St Giles, mobs from Saffron Hill were also identified as being involved in the Gordon Riots, especially the burning of the nearby Langdale’s Distillery. (For more more on this and on Saffron Hill, check out Reds On the Green)

And, it’s very likely, poor folk from here also took part in the Crimp House Riots of 1794, the Spa Fields Riots and many other riotous gatherings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

“Physical and Moral Evil”: The Clearing of Saffron Hill

Lord Shaftesbury, a leading upper class busybody, made special studies of overcrowding and conditions in Saffron Hill to report to the House of Commons, stating: “It is impossible to imagine the physical and moral evil which resulted from these circumstances.” Imagine it they did though, and their fears led to concrete actions against the slums.
Something approaching 20,000 people are thought to have been displaced in this area between the 1830s and the 1870s by a series of calculated demolitions (though historian Gareth Steadman thought this a figure exaggerated), undertaken by the City authorities, determined to shovel the poor out from the Fleet Valley, while at the same time creating new quick transit routes to improve trade and movement of goods through the City (eg from the Docks to the West End).

In fact the poor had originally concentrated in the Fleet Valley in the first place after being gradually forced out of the City itself, by earlier ‘improvements; large numbers moved there after the 1666 Fire of London.

The ‘improvements’ in Farringdon and Clerkenwell were long in germination (plans for a road along the lower Fleet valley were first drawn up by Wren in the aftermath of the 1666 Fire, though nothing came of it then), and development occurred in stages between the 1820s and the 1880s, but the continuous road from Blackfriars Bridge to Kings Cross, although built in fits and starts, represents a consistent thread of town planning as social engineering, a continuous plan to destroy the poorest and most ‘infamous’ areas. And as John Gwynn had advocated in London and Westminster Improved, Illustrated by Plans, 1766, also allowing at the same time for ‘a noble, free and useful communication’ between Surrey and Middlesex, and of ‘amazingly improved’ property along the way.

Holborn Viaduct under construction, 1869

The slum clearances included various stages: the building of Farringdon Road, (legislated for in the 1840s, though not finished until 1856), the laying of the first section of the Metropolitan Line, the construction of Holborn Viaduct in 1861 (this development alone displaced 2000 people), the enlarging of Smithfield market, the laying of Charterhouse Street (1869-75), of Clerkenwell Road (finished 1878), and finally Rosebery Avenue (1889-92).

Some of the more supposedly ‘deserving’ residents of the demolished slums were rehoused. The City managed to build dwellings for 200 individuals and 40 families when Holborn Viaduct was erected, but not even skilled artisans, never mind the very poor, were eventually placed there (“they are occupied by clerks, who keep pianos in their rooms…”). Model Dwellings built by Model Dwelling Companies and Housing Associations rehoused some 1160 people from the Clerkenwell Road area in the 1870s – though this road also passed through more ‘respectable’ artisan areas and had displaced some of those considered on the ‘worthier’ spectrum of the working classes. But as with clearances in other areas of London, the relatively high rents and strict social control imposed by the improving landlords excluded most casual labourers and their families. Effectively throughout the century thousands of poor working class and ‘lumpen’ elements, especially unskilled and casually employed, were shifted from one slum to another as inner London was gradually socially cleansed.

Clearance of undesirables was in some cases the main aim, and use of the land thus cleared only secondary. Some of the cleared land remained unused for years; Farringdon Waste, created where part of the Saffron Hill rookery stood, lay unbuilt on for several decades. The vicar of Cripplegate complained that “within the City of London there are sites amply sufficient to prevent the poor from being overcrowded – sites which for years have remained unproductive, which will long remain so, because the Corporation of the City of London has shovelled out the poor, in order mainly to lower the poor rates of the City parishes…” Ironically as several areas of empty land remained undeveloped, they themselves became partially re-colonised by elements regarded as undesirable, the focus for ‘unruly behaviour’. Congregations of boys and other idlers became a nuisance. By the 1860s the ‘Farringdon Street Wastes’, or ‘The Ruins’, as the sites were known, (now occupied by nos 29–43 Farringdon Road, adjacent to modern Greville Street) had become a well-known gathering place for ‘betting men’, and steps were taken by the City authorities to remove them.

Commercial Street: The Wicked Quarter Mile

Another notorious rookery was the area around modern Commercial Street, Spitalfields, between Brick Lane and Bishopsgate. A mass of narrow alleys and dark yards; many of the buildings here were overcrowded, teeming with the poor; a good number were lodging houses, dosshouses, where the hungriest of the homeless scrounged a living, and of these most were identified by the police as haunts of criminals, thieves, prostitutes and other undesirables.  A double bed would cost 8d, a single 4d and when the all the beds were taken a rope might be fixed down the middle of the room with residents sleeping against it back-to-back for 2d. Those without the money for their lodgings were evicted nightly.
Commercial Street was built in the 1840s, partly as a way of breaking up this dangerous area, filled with the poor & desperate, to “let in air, light, police, and most important of all, disturbing the inhabitants from their old haunts.” Commercial Street’s commercial value was in fact exaggerated:  for twenty years as it didn’t extend far enough northwards to be of much use as a highway; but this wasn’t its main aim. 1300 poor people were evicted, and many of the most infamous areas knocked down. Each side of the new thoroughfare, tenement blocks were build by Model Dwelling Companies, (Rothschild Buildings and Lolesworth Buildings to the east, Wentworth and Brunswick Buildings and Davis Mansions to the west) sponsored by middle class housing reformers, built by pioneering Housing Associations like Peabody. Although an important motive for their construction was a desire to improve working class living conditions, and thus help stave off class violence and rebellion, and drag the immoral poor out of the gutter, in the long run the new Dwellings failed in their purpose. Rents were deliberately set high enough to make sure only most respectable of working class could afford it; certainly excluding the very poor who mainly inhabited the rookery.

Thus thirty years later Flower and Dean Street area, off Commercial Street, was still considered a ‘rookery’, and described as “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders.
The 1870s saw a revived campaign of middle class reformers to demolish it, a huge propaganda war waged at portraying the inhabitants as immoral, ‘unsavoury characters’ criminals, prostitutes etc. This was a time of great fear among the middle classes, after the Paris Commune rising, that the disorderly poor would, if not controlled/pacified by charity and coercion hand in hand, rise up and destroy them.

Repeated attempts of charity, police, religion, sanitary reform and coercion having constantly failed to control the Flower and Dean Street area, only demolition would do. But it took the Jack the Ripper murders to provide the push that led to the demolition of the “foulest enclaves” of Flower & Dean Street. Three of the ripper’s victims had lived lives of dire poverty in the street, and the media storm the killings roused focussed a spotlight on the area. The Four Per Cent Dwelling Company bought up the north-east side of the street and built Nathaniel Dwellings; on the north side of Wentworth Street, Stafford House was erected (thanks to the guilt-ridden landowners the Hendersons, in an attempt to banish the bad publicity the murders were spreading). Through the 1890s other blocks went up in the old rookery, between Lolesworth and Thrawl Streets.

Ironically a century later, these model blocks off Commercial Street became run down and decayed themselves, and were in turn labelled slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. (Only this time the tenants’ resistance would change the outcome…)

Workhouse inmates breaking stones for road-building, Bethnal Green


St Giles again: Cross-purposes

Thirty years after the original building of New Oxford Street, further social cleansing took place in St Giles, this time under the guise of cleansing of insanitary housing. St Giles had already seen an influx of refugees from slum clearances in nearby areas of Holborn, the City and the Strand in the 1860s, and was increasingly jammed to the rafters. Under the terms of the 1875 Artisans Dwelling (or ‘Cross’) Act thousands of residents in overcrowded London slums were evicted, and the buildings demolished. The result of sustained lobbying by housing reformers, notably the Charity Organisation Society, the idea behind the Act was that bad quality housing could be cleared, in an organised way for the first time, on the orders of the local medical officer, compensation paid to the owners, and then the land would be sold to a developer on the proviso that they would build decent working class housing.

Wild Court, Drury Lane, before the social cleansing

Many of the social reformers who agitated for and sponsored such legislation knew well that it was the owners or middlemen making the money who should shoulder much of the blame for slum housing, and that many of these landlords sat on local Vestries and thus were able to defeat or delay attempts at real change. Thus the Cross Act was a disaster, making overcrowding much worse. Partly this was because excessive compensation was paid to the landlords, for land which was then not allowed under the Act to be used for commercial use, so its value dropped heavily; meanwhile, because compensation was based on rental receipts, land owners in areas likely to face action under the Cross Acts rammed more people into their properties, and lied through their teeth about the value of houses. And while the poorest were usually those evicted (in St Giles, those displaced were ‘waifs of the population, poor labourers, hawkers, thieves and prostitutes, many of who were “lying out in the streets” or found space in already crowded neighbouring buildings), where planned replacement ‘model dwellings’ were built, (which took years, and in some cases never happened), they were not the type of people allowed, or who could afford, to move in. Although the Peabody Trust built 690 tenements to replace demolished slums in Great Wyld Street and Drury Lane, there was no accommodation for barrows and donkeys belonging to costermongers, the majority of the evictees, and the rents were too high. The net effect was to increase overcrowding in the area, as most of the cleared worked locally and were unlikely or unable to move far. This kind of well-intentioned reform rewarding the property-owners and making things worse for the poor seems to have been a regular feature of late-19th Century philanthropy. Local Medical officers also openly used the Cross Act and other sanitary reform legislation to forcibly rid their manor of people they saw as scum, with little pretence of rehousing them – in St Giles in 1881, the Medical Officer reported that he saw no possibility of improvement until many of those who had been evicted were completely removed in the area, and that he “was pleased to have got rid of them.” Some 8000 people were driven out of the St Giles area in the 1870s.

Some of those cleared in Great Wyld Street (now Wild Street, off Drury Lane), were unwilling to simply play victim, and took up squatting: “they made a forcible entry into Orange Court, and were turned out of the empty houses after they were compensated by the Board of Works.” Sadly, this is a rare example of recorded resistance I have discovered this to massive program of social cleansing – though much may have been lost, as the voices of the poor were seldom heard amidst the clamour for ‘improvement’.

The lack of recorded mass resistance to the destruction of thousands of homes and evictions is striking, especially if you compare it to the corresponding wealth of opposition to enclosure… While rookery dwellers were known for communal solidarity against incursion by bailiffs, constables and other forms of authority in the previous centuries, this seemingly didn’t evolve into collective defence of their ‘communities’ very existence… Why this didn’t occur is a vital question. Classic Marxists might well identify the slum dwellers as a lumpen proletariat who hadn’t developed a consciousness of themselves as a class; however they clearly had a sense of common interests. The ground down individual battle for survival can tend to depress and isolate, however; alienation and fatalism are often present in It’s possible that people saw the rookeries as not really worth fighting for in their actual conditions; it’s also possible that bonds of solidarity were constantly weakened by the transient nature of slum life. More research needs doing here.

Other road schemes that conveniently drove through London and Westminster slums included Victoria Street, built 1845-1851  through the Devil’s Acre rookery; Stamford Street, Southwark, built around 1860; Bethnal Green Road built 1872-1879 through the Shoreditch slums; the building of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road 1879-1887, which bulldozed the ‘infamous’ seventeenth century rookery around Newport Market (near Leicester Square), as well as the southern part of St Giles. Mr Henry Hughes of Grosvenor Square had described Newport Market in a letter to The Times, after he had had his gold watch and chain snatched nearby, and he and a police officer had tried to give chase. ‘”Notwithstanding the vigilance of the police officers, they are baffled in their efforts, owing to the maze-like intricacy of its rows of doorless hovels, harbouring and screening those who fly there after their depredations.” Mr Hughes advocated for the area’s demolition, and soon got his way: Newport Market stood in the path of Charing Cross Road, and was knocked down in 1887.

Still later, between 1900 and 1905, Aldwych and Kingsway were built upon the Clare Market, Holywell Street and Wych Street area, also a long-established rookery with a reputation for fencing of stolen goods and criminality.

Although the evidence of the effects of slum clearance often defied the intentions of the authors of these schemes, the same approach was paramount for dealing with old and run-down districts for decades, and while brazenly admitting the motivation was often to disperse the poor, the old trope that this was for their own good and would lead to their pulling themselves up by their bootstraps was continually repeated. In 1875, Mr Leon Playfair, MP, told Parliament that ‘dispersion’ of paupers during street improvements ‘is one of the greatest advantages of such a measure …. the rooting out of the rookeries has been the cause of much moral improvement.’

The Wrong Side of the Tracks

Coinciding with the early years of the roadbuilding schemes we have already discussed, London was also experiencing the railways boom. Along with much of the country the capital was rapidly being criss-crossed by railway lines, laid by private railways companies in a mad rush of speculation…

The building of the railways were generally driven through poorer districts, as the ‘low-grade housing stock’ was the cheapest to buy up. Thousands of houses were knocked down to accommodate the lines; at least 50,000 people are believed to have lost their rented accommodation between 1836 and 1867 due to demolitions for rail building. As with the road-building schemes, many of the evicted poor had little choice but to move into already overcrowded neighbourhoods.

Railway companies had sweeping powers of Compulsory Purchase, several years before the Metropolitan Board of works was able to employ this as a way of clearing targeted buildings. This was granted by the plethora of parliamentary acts passed to authorise each rail line; completely coincidentally many MPs and Lords were shareholders in the private railway companies; some also owning large parcels of the land the tracks and stations were built on, thus receiving compensation for their loss. Where tenants would get nothing.

To what extent was railway building also used to clear areas considered full of undesirables? One notable example stands out, of a so-called notorious area that DID disappear due to the rail boom.

Agar Town

In 1866, the Midland Railway Company demolished Agar Town, an area several Victorian writers described as the foulest slum in London, to make way for the development of St Pancras railway station. Thousands were moved out as their homes were knocked down. Interestingly, recent studies of the area have suggested that Agar Town area was not anywhere near as much of a slum as the hype around it made out, which begs the question of why such a virulent campaign of vilification was mounted – possibly to build up a swell of  support for demolition, redevelopment etc…? In any case, this area was totally eradicated in the 1860s; an entire London neighbourhood vanished under the new station and depots. (Which itself was recently re-developed into a multi-billion shiny office-cultural-residential complex, with lots of privately owned public space and up-market housing… There are timeless echoes of the clearance schemes of the 1800s – eradicating the longstanding chaotic streetlife of Kings Cross, dealers and junkies, prostitution and homelessness, has been a major bonus for the local authority… And there was some discussion of how people with mental health and other ‘complex problems’ could be excluded from housing in the social/’affordable’ newbuilds on the area – such new shiny estates should be free from such troublesome individuals…

This is far from the only example of slums demolished to make way for railways and stations. For instance, just along Euston Road to the west of Agar Town, several decades earlier, the building of the Metropolitan Line, a ‘cut and cover’ shallow underground line, ‘necessitated’ the demolition of ‘notorious’ streets to the north of Euston Road, which also allowed the road widened at this time. We’re still looking into how much the removal of the slum dwellers was part of the rationale for rail-building, and how much it was simply cheaper and easier to drive rail infrastructure through poor areas than more well-to-do neighbourhoods.

All in all, the road (and rail) schemes discussed above, the plan succeeded in destroying some of London’s rookeries, but largely failed in their more nebulous social aims – since the poor moved to slums nearby or elsewhere.

Far from opening up the labyrinths to the moral influence of the middle classes’, the new streets simply continued the segregation of the poorest, moving them here and there as areas became targeted for ‘improvement’.

Discipline and Punish

The destruction and redevelopment of poor areas, especially rebellious or uncontrollable poor areas, did not begin in the mid-nineteenth century. However, its usefulness for social control purposes gained much traction in mid-late Victorian times.

The clearing of lower Fleet Valley, St Giles and Spitalfields rookeries, among many others, was an important part of a combination of social processes that cleared most of the resident working class, and especially the rowdy, uncontrollable element, the threat of mob violence from inner London, from the doorsteps of the rich, away from the centres of business and leisure of the powerful, from the nexuses of power that ran a growing empire. Apart from removing the immediate daily danger of rebellion crime and disease from these areas, this clearing also created space for internal expansion for capital itself, on its own doorstep so to speak. How much of this was planned social engineering, how much ad hoc, and how much happy coincidence for the powers that be, is open to question. Certainly some of it was deliberate; and such processes were at work elsewhere. Much of Paris was redesigned in the 1850s-60s, under the leadership of Baron Hausmann; the wide boulevards driven through the centre, helped move troops/police around, to deal with rebellious crowds, made both administration of the city/social control more effective and speedier, and contributed to demolition of narrow, uncontrollable alleys and led to mass removal of the poor from central areas to the outskirts. (In Paris this was even more of a priority, since working class crowds had overthrown three regimes in the previous sixty years). Breaking up the potential rebellious unity of local areas, where people knew each other, shared customs, loyalties, and knew the narrow winding streets better than the authorities, was a specific aim. Like the London social reformers, Hausmann also used the pretext of bad sanitation as an excuse to destroy slums and move thousands of people to outlying areas of the city, “for their own good”, but happily also making them less threatening to authority and the seats of power.

But the destruction of the rookeries was also a crucial element of the imposition of discipline on working class. This involved many and diverse elements – the internalisation of the work ethic, splitting and separating the ‘respectable’ and unrespectable lower orders, demarcating ‘criminal subculture’ and ‘criminal economy’ as separate from respectable working lives… “regularisation of labour markets and economic activity , the moving of social and economic life off the streets by regularised employment in offices shops and factories, the organisation of social activities in youth clubs, boys organisations and the concentration of public street life into particular times and situations – public events. ‘Saturday night’ (during which police could be more lenient than at mid week), the regularisation of family life with men at work, women in the home, children at school etc…

The result was a certain stabilisation of working class communities  – “the regularly employed working class assimilated to bourgeois standards of order and indeed conceptions of criminality. Those in stable employment, oriented to consumption and family, are distanced from the street economy of social crime and cheap goods of dubious origin. Consciousness of the value of property acquired from the wage, and from savings, assimilates the working class to definitions and attitudes to crime shared with the middle classes. The street thief, robbing workers of their pay packets as much as the middle classes of their wallets, or the stalking murderer, preying on the vulnerable of all social classes, becomes the paradigm of crime. During the second half of the nineteenth century the modern ‘moral panic’ about crime and violence becomes a feature of urban life, of which the two most well known examples in London are the garrotting panic of 1862 and the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888.”

So earlier middle class panics about the lower orders in general was transformed into a fear, shared across the social classes, of the marginals and criminal subcultures. The respectable working class gets up on time, doesn’t drink, or not to excess, consumes and respects property and law n order, and only engages in regulated and controlled leisure pursuits. The re-organisation of streetlife and of areas where life, pleasure, work was played out in the street was a part of this re-ordering:

“The streets provided the largest and most accessible forum for the communal life of the poor. It was in the streets that members of the community came together to talk and play, to work and shop, and to observe (and sometimes resist) the incursions of intruders such as school board visitors, rent collectors and police officers… for most of the nineteenth century the poor were intensely hostile to the police, and…this hostility resulted in large measure from resentment at what was regarded as unwarranted, extraneous interference in the life of the community.” (Benson 1989: 132)

Increasingly, through the course of the nineteenth century, the police established their authority and presence in working class communities; both to deal with crime, and (more crucially) to directly impose surveillance and discipline over working class daily life; especially over streets, pubs, music halls, etc. Police were part of what historian Robert Storch called “the bureaucracy of official morality”, an active agent of the Victorian middle classes. Storch writes:

“The imposition of the police brought the arm of municipal and state authority directly to bear upon key institutions of daily life in working class neighbourhoods, touching off a running battle with local custom and popular culture which lasted at least until the end of the century… the monitoring and control of the streets, pubs, racecourses, wakes, and popular fetes was a daily function of the ‘new police’ … (and must be viewed as)… a direct complement to the attempts of urban middle class elites…. to mould a labouring class amenable to new disciplines of both work and leisure.” (Storch 1976: 481)

The police acted

“…through the pressure of a constant surveillance of all the key institutions of working-class neighbourhood and recreational life….. It was precisely the pressure of an unceasing surveillance…[in which] … the impression of being watched or hounded was not directly dependent on the presence of a constable on every street corner at all times… [but rather]… the knowledge that the police were always near at hand and likely to appear at any time.”

In the wake of demolitions of notorious streets, the emergent social housing was also used as a method of control. Model dwellings, the earliest form of social housing, was built, often in or near to the evicted slums. But only the respectable and hard-working were admitted, and codes of behaviour and morality in the new flats were strictly controlled, and rents kept relatively high, to exclude any of the ‘undeserving poor’. Part of the separation of the marginal from the conforming discussed above.

The early pioneers of Model Dwellings and other social housing reform believed that the physical environment, even the architecture, that people lived in could either sap their moral will, keep them held in poverty, or be adapted and changed to mould them into better more hardworking citizens. The layout of Model dwellings was specifically designed to have what was thought to be a beneficial moral and social effect. One of the main aspects of slum life they aimed to change was overcrowding – families having to share a room, where they slept, ate and did everything together; often even more than one family might live together in one room. Housing reformers were keen to give these poor families more space; however their pressing reason was not privacy, but because they saw this way of life as in itself immoral. Not only did it encourage immodesty and improper sexual relations (a subject of pathological obsession and innuendo for the Victorian middle class), but in a more complex and nebulous way, they thought that it formed part of a collective, communal life that should be done away with. Life publicly shared, in housing, the street, the pub, and other places of amusement, was itself somehow unconducive to respectability and self-reliance; the Model Dwellings were designed to separate people as much as possible – children from parents, one family from another. Physical space was designed to keep people apart – stairwells and other physical barriers between flats and doorways – in fact separate sanitary arrangements were built in at extra cost to reduce ‘immodest’ contact. Part of the plan was definitely a reinforcing of the patriarchal family unit, split off from a shifting wider communal society or even extended family.
Amongst the very earliest Model Dwellings were blocks built in St Giles, Clerkenwell and Spitalfields, the very areas we have seen that roads were used as slum clearance program – to specifically offer a way out, but only on certain moral terms, and only to those who worked hard enough in the right trades to afford it and signed up to live in ways that were considered acceptable.

These patterns of social control can be seen again in the late twentieth century. In the USA, from the late 1960s on, this process, when specifically and deliberately designed to rid inner cities of riotous and troublesome poor (usually African-american or latino) populations, was euphemistically labelled ‘Spatial Deconcentration’, by the government, military and corporate powers that developed it.

In 1980s Britain, after the 1981 riots,  areas like Brixton, in South London, with its street culture, the refusal of the work ethic by large sections of the population, the proliferation of squatting and counter-cultural and marginal ways of life and earning of money, attracted similar attention from the improving minds… Attitudes from police and authorities identified all these elements as needing to be either repressed, or bought off with social programs, to defuse the chances of further riots as in ’81… ideally both strategies would be used in tandem. So along with schemes to ‘tackle unemployment’, fund youth centres and create programs, there were also attacks on the squatting and street cultures, evictions, targeted harassment of those hanging out on the street. But there was also some altering of urban landscapes to suit the purposes of authority: the most notorious squatted houses and ‘blues’ clubs in Dexter Road (off Railton Road) were bulldozed (Dexter Road in fact completely vanished); walkways in Stockwell Park Estate that allowed rioters to bombard police from above and move rapidly around the estate during the fighting were afterwards partly removed, and the Railton Road/Mayall Road triangle, the centre of the fighting, was also redesigned, closing off ways crowds could move around, evade the police and gather again.
Areas merely associated with crime, or having a ‘bad name’, or even being working class have also been routinely altered and renamed, to shimmy the bad karma, without fundamentally dealing with the class basis and social /economic causes of poverty and ‘criminal behaviour’.

Tellingly, though, especially if you are relating urban social control and use of architecture to enclosure, observers have also long been aware that nee developments in architecture, street furniture, road and estate layout, can be subverted, used to create new methods of resistance or places of concealment, and turned back against the controllers. This can be seen as early as the sixteenth century in relation to enclosure fences, when complainants against enclosers in Neat House Fields and other areas of Westminster (officials from the parish vestry of St Martins-in-the-fields) objected to the hedges and ditches erected to enclose land, which they claim were being exploited by unruly and immoral elements (by which they seem to have meant thieves and prostitutes) to conceal themselves from observation. [We will write more on this anti-enclosure battle on August 1st this year]. If there’s virtually nothing in our existence that capital can’t take and try to profit from, there’s also nothing it can create that we can’t in turn deform and reshape to our own nefarious purposes. Hilariously, the rebuilding of the ‘frontline’ in Brixton provides another example – where the demolished squats of early 1980s Vining Street were replaced by housing association newbuilds, with funky entrances that won architectural awards. Only a while later was it realised that the stairs and gates so lauded were perfectly designed for hiding dealers and other ne-er-do-wells.

Central London has gone further along the route of urban clearance than other areas of the City, or even other European capital cities (Paris excepted?). Pretty much the whole of the old City of London was cleared of its residents in the century after 1840 (although much luxury accommodation has in fact grown up in the last couple of decades). Undoubtedly this was partly because of pressures for office land, but the desire to push any possible threat from unruly plebs further away from the centres of economic power was also clear. In the case of the lower Fleet Valley, for instance, the conglomeration of crime and punishment, slum and slaughterhouse, the prisons cheek by jowl with the slums, the “dung, guts and blood” carried by the river Fleet, have been wiped from the map. (Although even in living memory, some streets of supposed ‘criminal’ character remained in the Clerkenwell area).

Processes developed here continued and were refined elsewhere. The many prisons built in the Fleet valley were erected on what was then the City’s edge, but were gradually closed down as the metropolis expanded, and public methods of punishment vanished, from being conducted in open space, replaced by those inflicted inside, and out of sight. The jails that replaced the Fleet, Newgate, the Bridewell, in the nineteenth century were themselves constructed on the then edges of town (eg Brixton, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs). With motorisation our modern Newgates are often found out in the countryside far from public view – on the Isle of Sheppey, in North Yorkshire, the Cambridgeshire fens…

The rookeries’ proximity to centres of power had developed historically, organically: communities which grew up to serve as labour to the wealthy, or provide services (selling, costermongers etc), or to prey on or otherwise cream a living off (through crime or begging). As the city expanded and some people became very rich, and as transport improved and people could live further from their source of income – if they had the means – the wealthy often moved out to newer suburbs, perhaps to the west or north of London. This often left formerly good quality housing, that was ripe to be taken over and sublet, colonised by the poorer classes, where no one with more money wanted to actually live in the old inner city anymore. This process has in fact repeated and reversed several times over the centuries. Between the early 1900s and the 1970s, the populations of inner city areas declined, as people of all classes moved out to outer London or to surrounding counties. The massive program of building social housing between the world wars and after World War Two, and economic prosperity and a rise in home ownership, left vast swathes of London’s old industrial and working class areas either vacant or under-occupied, with old run-down housing and derelict land abounding. This in itself created opportunities for new occupation, both in terms of profitable redevelopment and of alternative movements like squatting. Vast changes in socio-economics and fifty years later, the inner cities are now THE place for the wealthy and middle class to live again, and all the power and wealth of state, local state, business and its entourages of media and service industry, are focused on enabling this desire. This obviously involves the removal of people considered just not productive or well off enough to justify their inhabiting very profitable inner city space – council tenants, anyone on benefits, migrants – either to be crammed into smaller spaces at a convenient distance or be forced out of the capital altogether.

And the ‘shoveling out of the poor’ continues in London; working class communities are still being broken up, in some decades more slowly and more subtly these days. In 21st century London, with what seems like a vicious urgency, local authorities, developers and property owners are effectively collaborating to rid the city of anyone whose occupation of valuable city land is seen as just not economically profitable enough. These communities don’t even need to necessarily be troublesome, rebellious or infamous these days – although there’s an element among the planners, politicians and improvers of always seeing working class people as a problem, especially where they live in social housing.

Compared to the complex tangle of motives of 150 years ago that drove the roadbuilding schemes which demolished the rookeries, today’s social cleansing has much less of a moral drive, its true; it is less acceptable to be so blatantly high-handed and dismissive of whole communities. This doesn’t mean the developers and social planners don’t hold communities in contempt – just that they have be more circumspect, dressing plans up in PR, glossy brochures, terms like social mix… It is also interesting that the social housing that was originated as a way of dealing with the people displaced from the slums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, housing once held up as the decent, respectable and law-abiding alternative to lawless and insanitary slums, is now considered redundant, as well as unprofitable, and taking up space that a better class of people are entitled to. It is no longer thought necessary in some quarters to build or maintain social housing either to discipline the working class, or to buy them off and prevent upheaval and protest. The alternative view, to house people cheaply and well, is definitely out of fashion.

The question arises, is a movement going to arise, that can collectively challenge this process, and where is it going to come from?

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

**********************

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New enclosures

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

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

Tidemill and Reginald 

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

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

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

Some great pix of the Garden and some recent events here

Go, Move, Shift!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Middle Class Are Eating Your Street Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballots Not Bollocks?

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

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

Not Removing

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

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

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

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

Contact the campaign: savereginaldsavetidemill@gmail.com

Phone: 07739 469097

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

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

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

http://crossfields.blogspot.com/

https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/

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

——————————————————————————–

The community demands:

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

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

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

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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

In case you’re interested…

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

Today in London rebel history: 1000s join anti-gentrification protest, Brixton, 2015

Written by a former longtime Brixton resident, now living in exile. (Its grim up North London!)

It’s a long post, no apologies, these are things I’ve been thinking about a long time… Responses welcome, re-post, but please credit past tense if you do.

Two years ago, today, on April 25th 2015, Brixton, South London, saw what was possibly the largest protest specifically against gentrification in the capital to date. Certainly the largest so far in Brixton. Over 2000 (other numbers are available) people gathered, many drawn from local communities, though reinforced by people from other areas also facing social cleansing.

Over the last couple of decades, Brixton has been changing, sometimes gradually and almost imperceptibly, sometimes juggernautically fast. What was for most of the 20th century largely a cheap area to live, housing mostly working class people, many of them from migrant communities, has been transformed, for a complex mix of reasons, into a much more trendy and up-market suburb, with a nightlife aimed at the moneyed, and a high street filled with glossy chainstores, while the market and railways arch shops that made it cheap and full of cultural variety are being patiently forced out by rising rents and council policies. A neighbourhood 30 years ago dominated by West Indian migrant culture, in its streetlife, food, music, now displays what planners and jargon-merchants euphemistically label a ‘social mix’ – ie more middle class people, mostly white.

An area which always teemed with alternatives to mainstream life – from squatting, through rebel parties, a maelstrom of radical politics – is now being aggressively Stepfordised. And a few minutes walk out from the centre of Brixton, whole council estates are being planned out of existence, to be replaced with private housing aimed at a higher class of people.

Luckily for us, the day of the protest was one of those April days when it feels like Summer (just before the temperature drops for another two months!), encouraging a wide spectrum out to fill Brixton’s Windrush Square (itself a heavily cleaned up echo of the informal social space we knew it as 25 years ago).

There was live music, what seemed like hundreds of handmade placards and banners, cardboard sculptural costumes… The green space and concrete turned into a mini-festival for a few hours, reminiscent of many others I can recall in the same space – riots against racist policing, squatting actions, anti-poll tax demos, cuts protests (Lambeth Town Hall being just over the road), the Reclaim the Streets party of 1998, and the 2013 nearly spontaneous party to celebrate Maggie Thatcher’s death to name but a few. We marched around Brixton a couple of times, though the markets to hoot at some of the trendy bars and their clientele,

And like many of those others, anger broke out; while most of those attending were not involved, a sizable minority took part in some direct action against some clearly relevant targets – part of Lambeth Town Hall, home to the council backing much of the social change with gusto, was invaded, leading to a small tussle with the cops around the doorway; the local branch of Foxton’s estate agents had their large and tempting glass window redeveloped into small pieces; and Brixton police station was besieged – the old bill had to defend their HQ with teargas.

In many ways an inspiring day; gathering people from a variety of situations, lots of whom are facing being moved from their homes, can help to beat feelings of isolation and pessimism that you are struggling on your own against huge and powerful forces which you can’t seem to reverse…

Just some of local campaigns against gentrification/social cleansing currently going on in Lambeth:

Save Brixton Arches: Shops in railways arches facing rent rises or eviction.

Save Cressingham Gardens: Estate threatened with demolition

Guinness Trust buildings: Another estate being ‘cleansed’.

Reclaim Brixton

Housing Activists in Lambeth 

Sorry if we missed you out…

 

Some ponderings on gentrification & anti-gentrification in Brixton

In some ways, looking back on April 25th two years ago, it is also depressing, not least because despite that day, those forces we sere opposing are overwhelmingly pushing forward at the moment.

Way back in 1983, a grumpy correspondent in the Brixton squatters paper Crowbar complained about how Brixton was changing:
“Right this is serious. Over the last year and a half Brixton and the surrounding area has gone through sons very visible changes. The unemployment and poverty is here, you can ace that in the DHSS waiting rooms or by standing in the streets. But new people are saying we’re going to be the new Camden, believing that it has already started with the hordes of young trendies (mainly professional) who are attracted to the area – buying up cheap property. It is also trendy to live here, well we’ve had riots and there’s the Ritzy etc.
The trendification has already started. Look around at the hairstyles. or the hurrying smart art people carrying smart little plastic briefcases. And then there is the left wingers who bring their bookshelves and don’t have net curtains so as to show off their botanical living rooms.
Next thing will be a social worker and a BBC current affairs producer called Terence and Julle moving in next door. Brixton has something no other part of London has with the Ritzy, Fridge, I21 Books, Ace, Frontline and the theatre, its blues clubs – and now the Art Gallery.
Soon we would be living in a swamp of quaint “health” shops, boutiques and galleries selling £200 paintings. The business people also have an eye on this area, because if something is hip it will be money. We have to be careful that all these cultural, sporting. artistic and musical events and venues do not take us over.
We have our own special and varied culture in Brixton which we can develop and do ourselves. We can show videos and films in our own houses, have parties regularly like the blueses with sound systems. Squats can be opened up for a couple of nights/weeks/years for our own gigs (free too) and to show our own art work.
There are ways if we organise and act to do things we want and cheaply which is not dependant on council handouts or just the tedium of always going to a place the same as it was when you went the week before and he week before that. So get scheming and I’ll see you there. Or maybe David Bowie will move back here!”

Yes well, you should see it today, pal. Many of this Anarchostrodamus’ dire warnings have come to pass, and much worse. Mind you Bowie never moved back, though there is that now-famous mural…

In Brixton, Lambeth on a wider scale, and London as a whole, a broad alliance of local councils, property developers, backed by the mayor of London are engaged in a bewildering number of plans to redevelop many areas, break up what remains of the city’s dwindling social housing stock, rebuild local shopping areas as corporate spaces, and encourage the break-up of existing communities. Despite protests by people being persuaded, bullied and literally forced to move.

The social, political and economic forces driving what is lumped together as gentrification are complex, though it may feel simple and black and white when you’re on the receiving end.

From the 1960s on, the kind of thinktanks, committees and foundations that dream up social policy looked at inner city areas mainly occupied by working class, migrant, poor communities and have seen them as a ‘problem’. Not just because poverty, and thus overcrowding, homelessness, crime, drug and alcohol become concentrated in these areas, but because resistance also breeds there – people begin to see their problems not as their own fault, but as symptoms of a system based on inherent wealth inequality, inbuilt hierarchies of race and power. From there it can a short step to start thinking of collective solutions. Some of which challenge fundamental structures of the way we live.

This is obviously a threat to those whose current power, wealth and status is based on these fundamental divisions. But their responses are not always identical. Attempts to simply brutally repress any collective protest only tended to spark fiercer resistance; hence inner-city riots, uprisings, the rise of strong locality based movements of solidarity. More subtle tactics for defusing and deflecting rebellion were needed.

In the USA, one response was a national strategy known now as Spacial De-concentration. Briefly this meant deliberately running down already poor areas, letting crime and violence increase, but using policing repressively, and then moving people out of the area, pouring money in to regenerate the neighbourhood, but with the aim of moving in a ‘better’ class of people. The dispersal of the existing residents would break up local solidarity and frustrate attempts at getting together, and even if part of the existing population remained, the aim was to make connections harder, as newer residents, hopefully more middle class & respectable, from different ethnic groups, would dilute immediate local unities. The dispersed may end up being moved/moving some way off, some will end up homeless; atomisation & alienation is a hoped-for consequence.

Neglect, coercion, dispersal were crucial to this widely-used strategy. But Spacial De-concentration was also mirrored in a liberal state approach too – regeneration, in the name of improving the lives of the existing community. Sometimes it genuinely was, sometimes it was cynically aimed at preventing rebellion, sometimes it was both. And change from below and change from above could mingle, merge, cross-fertilise…

Activist ‘leaders’ could be bought off or neutralised by negotiation, jobs with regeneration programs and police-community relations boards. Desire for collective self-empowerment can be easily subtly diverted into aspirations for individual and personal advancement, and for some the two can become the same thing.

What is important to stress that coercion and removal, and recuperation, diversity/empowerment, can and have gone hand in hand, sometimes one, sometimes both, are used, often (but not always) consciously as a twin strategy, to facilitate defeat for collective community and sowing confusion among movements. It’s hard to identify the forces of oppression, sometimes, amidst the seemingly contradictory forces, impulses and factions…

While in the UK, no specifically deliberate Spacial De-concentration program was launched, national regional and local government has often acted in a way that echoes, and often improves, on it. Most notably, social cleansing in parts of London has been heavily racial – it’s black communities that bear the brunt of it. To return to the specific example of Brixton (though it is far from unique) – the rise of angry rebellious movements eg the British Black Panthers, and parallel community movements, of the 1970s, and most particularly, the 1981 riots, against overtly racist police violence & harassment, necessitated an intense concentration of forces onto the area. Another worry was Brixton’s alternative ways of life, centred on west Indian street culture – hanging out in the streets, en masse, talking, dealing small amounts of hashish, as well as illegal blues parties, but also squatting (both black and white), sometimes occupying whole streets, plus the white alternative scene, based around leftist, anarchist, feminist, lesbian/gay projects, and much more… The area had two distinct cultures (sometimes overlapping, sometimes hostile, often co-operating in the face of the cops), which either questioned or rejected mainstream conformism.

The most obvious immediate manifestations of state response included a cleverer use of policing, and some bug chunks of public money to give bored angry youth somewhere to go etc; but also demolition of the most heavily squatted streets, where black and white squatters built alternative culture; alterations to physical space to make it harder for crowds to gather and move around. This was to be followed over the years with a plethora of programs, many of them in fact coming from national policy, which tried to tackle some of the underlying conditions which had allowed Brixton to become as it was.

Money from such schemes as the Urban Programme, the City Challenge, has been liberally distributed, both to genuinely improve the area (as some saw it) or pacify anger and frustration (as others would say). Grants and funding can be snaffled by those who know how to talk the talk. Layers of representatives from innercity communities developed, some of them former street/community activists… Community leaders, entrepreneurs, a rising caste of commentators and official spokespeople… some people rose to positions of authority, maybe determined to do good, but inevitably being to some extent mediated by co-operation by the state. An old process, and more complicated than ‘selling out’… So community activists involved in struggles in the early 70s are denounced by 1981 rioters as collaborators trying to get them to go home and go through the proper channels. And some rioters from 81 follow the pattern themselves… Former radical feminists come to run the council, and then to become tsars in the ‘diversity’ industry, teaching the police and the army how to look more inclusive…

Famed as a ‘loony left’ council in the early 80s, Labour in Lambeth gradually fell into line with he rest of the Labour party in the 90s, after leftwing labour councillors were either barred from office for refusing to set a legal rate, or purged by national Labour leadershop bent on ejecting the left. Lambeth became more New Labourish… more willing to sabotage social housing, work with developers, and keen to import more people like them into the borough…

But gentrification has not always been about defusing threats of disorder. More brutally, inner-city areas occupied by poor communities were also reservoirs of potential profit, expansion, social capital, too attractive to be ignored by big money interests and the parts of the state apparatus that are willing to facilitate these interests.

Wider dynamics were also at work, however, reflecting social changes that have emerged in recent decades:

1) Massive changes in both social mobility and also actual mobility. The decline of older manufacturing industries paralleled the massive rise in working class access to education, esp university… Both impacted on people’s expectations of what the would do in life, but also how far people had to move to get work. The return of the middle classes (especially young creative elements) to live in areas of the ‘inner city’ the affluent mostly left over the last 50 to 100 years; has played a part in the breaking up of former cohesive ‘working class areas’, but so has white flight, older or less adapting working class leaving inner cities ‘cos of all the furriners’ etc… as has aspiration, education, the broadening of horizons. Not least also for second & third generations of migrant communities…

(2) The dismantling of social housing since the 70s and the culture of council house sales and offfloading of stock to housing associations and other nominally social or just actually private organisations. To a greater or lesser extent huge chinks of the working class have bought into home ownership and the pressures this brings – the need to pay the mortgage, feelings of having a stake in something more than a council flat – play a big part in breaking down whatever unity or feelings of solidarity people had in being in the same boat.

(3) A growing consolidation of monopolies, in that chainstores and chain pubs increasingly take over from the smaller more traditional venues…

(4) However in partial conflict to (4) the influx of middle classes and their money as well as the ability of the canny to tap into the money swilling around as a result of (3) fertilises a varying crop of entrepreneurial projects – clubs, bars, art schemes, and the like – which help to transform the nature of the place. In Brixton as in other places, some of the self-made entrepreneurs are local as well as outcomers; and here as elsewhere many are themselves displaced and their dreams shattered as the processes of change roll on.

(5) This last is linked to a wider cultural change itself, in that our social and socialising habits have changed over the decades; the pub is not the centre of social life that it was, for many… So pubs both go to the wall for lack of business (some being turned into housing as house prices continue to rocket), and others being more desperately revamped repeatedly to try and capture a niche in the market. It’s worth pointing out that for many the old trad pub was no great shakes anyway, and many welcome changes that seem to increase variety…

(6) The increased specialisation in media and culture, concerted attempts to divide us up into niche markets and labels, sub-cultures etc, to make it easier to to sell us things and lifestyles (and subtly encouraged politically to make us easier to control?)

Elements of the influx mentioned in (1) became drivers in squatting & other social movements, got involved in feminist, socialist, anarchist politics etc, and some gravitated to the new left, young left labour party in the early 70s, from which some rose to positions of power…

And squatting and the alternative ‘white’ culture – massive in Brixton in the 70s and 80s – complicates the picture. Squatting was never homogenous – for some a necessity as housing crap or out of their reach, for some a cheap way to drop out for a while, for others a political statement and rejection of property and capitalism… Free space for creating alternative projects – squatted cafes, gig venues, bookshops, art galleries; much of 1970s-90s creativity, publishing, advice and self-help, health, was organized through squats, as much as political movements like feminism, gay liberation, anarchism, socialism… the list goes on.

Squatters, or at least some of us, long opposed gentrification.

As squatters we saw that gentrification was a threat to our own continued existence, and fought it, trying to make links with others we saw as also obvious targets – with limited results, in my own experience.

The stark fact that much opposition to gentrification is itself problematical. Some resistance does fly in the face of some genuine desire for improvements in people’s lives, when some oppose all change and almost yearn for deeper misery… On top of this opposition in some areas arises from people who themselves have moved into the area and helped the process of transformation. Leading to the spectacle of the first wave of gentrifiers attempting to halt the second wave. Or more complicatedly, some of the alternative types, anarchists, squatters and so on, many from middle class backgrounds, who organise against ‘yuppies’. Partly the latter is a genuine move to preserve the area as it is in their own interests… however sometimes it takes little account of other local communities, may with longer and more permanent ties, who may see things differently. This is not to denounce all anti-gentrification activity, having been involved in it ourselves; we do however see the contradictions. In some of the actions and publicity produced in Brixton in 1999 we had both positive and negative reaction, much of what we said chiming with some folk, who were saying the same themselves, and others validly pointing out that many squatters, almost exclusively young, often from abroad or transient, politically unrepresentative of much local opinion, would also probably not be around one way or the other in a few years… From the idealist squatters of the Railton People’s Planning Association in the 1970s, through the left of many eras, including dodgy Maoists who would go on to end up in court for kidnap and abuse, to some of the 90s anarcho-punks, you can see a thread of an ideology of coming into the area to organise and improve people’s lives… Of course this sort of vision is nothing new, from the 19th Century and the Settlement Movement, to 20th Century planners and student lefties, such parachuting to the rescue has been prevalent… This is neither to slag off the ideals or dreams of many of those activists, or claim that all were from the petty-bourgeosie, or to deny that transience and flow-through of populations have been a massive part of London life for hundreds of years.

But these dynamics exist and shouldn’t be ignored, if only because any true transformation of society must come from self-organised activity from below. And as a 1970s Railton Road activist ended up comcluding, if you aspire to change things FOR other people, from above, you may end up changing things only for yourself.

But for all of this, and the many squatting actions against gentrification, squatting as a process was both used as a pawn in the battle to regenerate Brixton, and for some squatters the gentrification was enthusiastically embraced. Like community activism, arty squatting contained seeds of gentrification… ‘Artwashing’ is a relatively new term., but the reality goes back decades. Squatted spaces with an art-creative bent were given easier rides by council policies (that would evict the rest of us much quicker), often proving launch-pads for people rising to run spaces lauded by council and police – some of which were nothing less than fronts for council and police project of defusing and dispersing black anger.

An example: the old Atlantic pub, on the corner of Atlantic Road & Coldharbour Lane. One of the old black pubs, a Brixton institution, part of the mythology the place, famous all over the world, a space controlled by black people, it was just integral to the street culture, yeah you could get drugs there (if they didn’t know you you’d likely get burned!) The cops hated it, of course, in the 20-year battle over control of the streets, the Atlantic to them was like a fortress of the enemy. They managed to close it after many raids (I’ll never forget the sight of 100s of cops swarming out of removal vans in that last raid). It stayed empty, until it was handed to a white entrepreneur who had flirted with the arty end of Brixton’s squat-scene, and re-opened as the Dogstar. The Council and the cops backed the new occupants to the hilt; knowing how much many locals would resent the usurpers of the Atlantic they basically promised them backing whatever happened. Lucky for them, as two weeks after it opened it was swiftly trashed in the December 1995 Brixton riot, rightly targeted for what it was, a wedge for gentrification. Of course it re-opened, and proved an inspiration for changes that would sweep the areas pubs. These days the Dogstar is kind of accepted now in these degenerate times, but that’s its history. (there’s lots more to this story but we don’t have the space here…)

Some of us used to think rioting as much as possible could help keep the gentrifier away. How wrong we were. There were six or seven large scale riots between 1981 and 1995, plus numerous smaller confrontations; this couldn’t derail Brixton’s evolution! Nor could every day violence: street crime, poverty, stabbings and shootings… It was all too ‘edgy’, drawing people excited by the thought of it all, but when they got there, actually wanting it not to scare them.

One wave of gentrification also resists the next… An incomer derided as a yuppie from 20 years ago now complains they are the true Brixtonite and these recent arrivals are the death of the Brixton they love… Tempting as it is to reduce the issue to individuals, shout at hipsters (yes I do), unpicking the social forces at work is like unravelling spaghetti.

For 20 years Brixton has been schizophrenic, an increasingly trendy white. Brixton is not wholly changed. It is however very different. The most obvious changes are in the street culture, the pubs, and the housing. The Frontline street crowds are gone, although as everywhere smaller groups gather, on estates, corners etc. The alternative economy that drove Railton Road still exists… dealers abound as ever in Coldharbour Lane.

What has been destroyed is the sense of autonomous culture – the sound systems, the blues parties, as well as the white rebel scene. These scenes drove much of what made the place tick. The interesting diverse spaces, pubs clubs, even some shops, are fewer and further between. it’s still there, of course you can’t destroy people’s spirit and desire to gather. But the growing space not controlled by capital and its authority, has been rolled back. If we meet it is back on their terms and in commodified spaces.

For the most part these conditions have been rolled back or recuperated. The mass individualisation of our daily culture, the rampant commercial colonisation of public space, a highly ideologically motivated assault on ‘social’ housing and the alternative/voluntary/social sectors have altered the landscape irrevocably.

Gentrification has had its supporters in brixton, because no area has one community. There are any number of communities, divided by race, class, also language, age, gender.

Its also worth remembering that Brixton, to some extent, and wider Lambeth, even more so, always also had another white scene, middle class or aspirational, sometimes racist, which co-existed into the ‘80s even (even giving us bizarre examples like the George Pub, on Railton Road, in the heart of the black frontline, notoriously racist, which led to its being burned down in 1981). There was always this rump that hated black people, at least those who they saw as rejecting getting a job; they hate the squatters, they hated the streetlife, and supported the police. Don’t forget that Borough wide, control of the council could even swing from Trotskyist-dominated Labour to a Tory/SDP coalition in 1982. Social change and utter frustration with Labour corruption or incompetence has produced tory-lib-dem administrations to run the council since then. Coercion and top-down regeneration won support from factions already here… and also from the more ‘respectable’ elements of the black community too at times. Black business could also have an interest in money coming in and producing opportunities… Even though the bigger money often ended in forcing out the small black entrepreneurs, especially bar owners and shopkeepers.

More recently, with the changes to streetlife in central Brixton, the clubs, pubs, and the disappearance of the majority of street properties into the hands of the affluent, Brixton’s estates were left as anomalies, increasingly out of step with the class of the people living around them; with the area being so trendy, greedy eyes were bound to be cast on the land estates sit on. Dismantling estates was always going to be much more difficult, street properties more fragmented and estates just have a more coherent potential unity (although rarely realized). And it has taken a lot longer. This is the battleground now, and it has taken on something of the air of a last stand in some areas (not just in Brixton).

Previous attempts to break up council estates – Housing Action Trusts (defeated in the early 1990s, partly after Brixton’s Loughborough Estate voted not to co-operate), parceling out estates to housing associations, to Tenant management Organisations, then to the ALMO, were all largely motivated by other considerations, among them the increasingly unviable financial burden of running them, the national policy (introduced by the Thatcher government) of preventing money from council sales being used to do up housing stock, attempts to reduce the role of local authorities as providers of services as much as possible… to name but a few.

But destruction of estates and wholesale removal of tenants is now rampant, and its moving working class people out moving the affluent in that’s at the heart of it. To be frank the level of opposition for previous dispersal of council stock, the ambivalence of people about remaining as council tenants, has resulted as much from the terminal state of people’s housing and the despair at the daily struggle over repairs, environment, under the council, as it has from the increased individualism and worship of owning our own home often blamed.

If and how things might be turned around is unclear. There is a current crop of struggles against ‘social cleansing’ in London, based mostly in estates, blocks under threat… This makes sense, as their living conditions make getting together practical and what unites them is obvious. Gentrification is affecting us all though, those of use now living more alienated lives as well. It’s a question of what London is to be. At the moment a rampant capital, aided enthusiastically by virtually all those with any power, is remaking a city for those with money, and telling those without to fuck off. To oppose this with any chance of reversing it, would need massive upheaval, revolt? Uprising? But sustained, linked up area by area, confrontational but also aware of contradictions and our differences… And connected to rebellion against the way we work, and challenges to the relate to each other, ‘indigenous’, incomer, migrant, ‘foreigner’, local… maybe even around class?!? Is it possible?

We don’t know if we are living in a lull before a new upsurge of social struggles, or if capital, with all it’s attendant poverty, grinding work, alienation, boredom violence, hatred and war, will continue to reinvent itself and remain triumphant. Apart from continuing to fight where we can against the conditions we are forced to live under, it is important to both celebrate struggles and ideas of the past and try to learn what lessons we can from them, as well as to recognise when conditions are different.

I tried here to set out a lot of complex thoughts and observations in this post, and some of it is about things I saw myself, some of it about larger social forces. Hopefully it is not too confusing… Its been impossible to cover everything that links into this subject.

One day a longer piece will appear, in print, or somewhere, with more on Brixton, squatting, its politics, alternative culture, the riots, etc… which past tense have been working on since we lived it, but are generally too busy with other things to finish writing…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Follow past tense on twitter

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

Today in London’s anti-gentrification history: Tony’s Cafe re-occupied, Broadway Market, 2005 

In the rolling juggernaut that is gentrification, in London, we are mostly losing. Since the 1970s, the middle class who once fled the capital and left the inner city to decline and collapse, have been returning, sometimes singly, sometimes en masse, and transforming neighbourhoods to resemble themselves. Behind them comes big money, for this is not an individual process, though individuals are crucial to it – it is a colonisation, with ideological aims, and economic imperatives.

In the last few years many local groups and campaigns have arisen to combat the process of being forced out of areas they or their families have lived in so that a better class of persons can bump up property values. On inspirational campaign that had an impact on some that followed was the Broadway market fight in 2005-6 which centred around Tony’s Café and Spirit’s shop.

On Boxing Day 2005, early in the morning, Café Francesca in Broadway Market, Hackney, was re-occupied, after being evicted a few days before. Local residents, protesting against gentrification and the cut-price selling of publicly-owned property in the area to developers, had been occupying the cafe since November, holding many protests and public meetings and generating support and interest in London and beyond.

Sicilian-born Tony Platia had been evicted from the cafe he had run for 31 years, having tried to buy the property from Hackney Council, but been shut out, as the Council was working in collusion with property developer Roger Wratten to guarantee that Wratten would get the building. Multi-millionaire Wratten, who had bought up several properties in the street, and evicted other long-term traders, had plans to develop the café site and neighbouring buildings… Evicted in July 2005, he had re-occupied the café with supporters in November.

Similarly Lowell ‘Spirit’ Grant had been threatened with the same treatment. Rastafarian Spirit built up his Nutritious Food Gallery from 1993, selling fresh fish and veg. Like Tony, he tried to buy the shop he had rented from Hackney Council, in December 2001, presenting the council’s estate agents with a deposit cheque for £10,000. Mysteriously, it was later sent back to him, unused. He turned up at the auction the same day. In a spectacular coup for Hackney’s Equal Opportunities policy, the only black Rastafarian to have attended the sale was summarily barred, due to ‘concerns’ that he may not have been able to pay.

Tony & Spirit were popular local figures who ran shops used by local working people who couldn’t afford to use the new boutiques and upmarket cafes that were springing up in Broadway Market. Their situation was the consequence of Hackney Council’s pro-big business policies – over the previous decade the council has been selling off its commercial properties to rich investors at knock down prices often leaving long term leaseholders in the lurch.

Aiming to get out of the red in the second half of the 90s, Hackney flogged £30 million of its own property, in keeping with a series of privatisations among London councils at the time. Nurseries and libraries tumbled to the ground, swimming pools evaporated, and all manner of voluntary advice and advocacy groups shut up shop.

But still the council wasted cash. A botched attempt to outsource social security benefits left it £36 million out of pocket. And its failed ‘Transforming Hackney’ programme of institutional change led to an accounting cock-up which, we’re led to believe, meant that when the auditors arrived in 2001, they found a financial ‘black hole’ of £72 million.

From then on, central government turned the screw, the funding cuts got deeper, the sell-offs accelerated At the same time, with a still burgeoning London population, newly-extended underground line and the 2012 London Olympics shimmering lucratively on the horizon, Hackney’s streets began to seem paved with gold.

The effects of this – still continuing -process can also be seen across Hackney as former public buildings have become reborn as yuppie flats.

Sheriffs and Police had broken into Tony’s Café on December 21st, injuring one of the occupiers and allowed Wratten’s men to start demolishing the building immediately. However, campaign supporters squatted the half-trashed café on Boxing Day, and began rebuilding and reinforcing it (your blog editor/typist did some plumbing…)

On re-taking the café, the occupiers stated: “We have now undertaken an ambitious reconstruction scheme and are rebuilding the cafe almost as fast the wreckers smashed it down. (We plan not one but two floors – but no exclusive penthouse apartments or concierge on this development!).

“We are loath to describe this as regeneration but it’s probably closer to it than anything Wratten or Hackney Council have been capable of so far.

“We still have lots of work to do, so if you have building skills or just would like to help out, we’d be glad to see you. We urgently need more bedding, food, heat, and other provisions. Anything you got for christmas and don’t want would be gratefully received. Please come down if you would like to help out keeping the place occupied.

“As promised, we are going to go on fighting for Tony to get his place back and to defend Spirit’s shop. The fact that new people were willing to come forward and carry on this community occupation only shows how strongly many in this area feel about the sell off of Tony’s and Spirit’s places and the wider process of social cleansing affecting long-term working class areas like Broadway Market.”

The astonishing re-building of the cafe on Boxing Day after the developer evicted protesters and tore it apart demonstrated the power of collective action. This defiant act strengthened the resolve of those involved and made them more confident.

Locals also organised two public meetings where Councillors were exposed to people’s anger about the sell-offs in Broadway Market. These well attended, highly charged events were a long way from the meaningless ‘consultation’ sessions that New Labour love to talk about.

This popular pressure forced Hackney Council to re-open investigations into its commercial property sales… the campaigners also visited Wratten’s home village in Kent to leaflet his neighbours…

What was most powerful about the occupation of Tony’s Cafe was that ordinary working people have been central to its success – not just the ‘activist’ types usually associated with this kind of protest. Some people involved spoke about what moved them to act.

“I’ve lived in Hackney all my life. Tony’s was a place I used around here. Loads of pensioners liked using the place. Tony was pushed out as he didn’t fit in with the ‘new’ Broadway Market. I’ve made real friends in this group who are working together for something they believe in.” Betty, Grandmother, aged 76, Regents Estate

“Before I just existed where ever I was and not been conscious of what’s been going on around me. This has expanded my social awareness and I’ve made so many new friends in the area. It’s also been a great experience, fighting against property development and corruption. I’ve never been involved with anything like this before”. Mother of 3, aged 42, Regents Estate

“I’d been really unhappy about the changes in Broadway Market for ages. When I kept meeting Tony in the street and saw how his life had been messed up I felt like enough
was enough and it was time that people took a stand against the developers and the council. It’s been brilliant and we’ve been amazed by what we accomplished” John, aged 34, Ada Street

“This is where I was born, I’ve seen the changes going around. People have come in and taken over everything and local people are moving out. My family has been pushed out right and left. What those people did to Tony & Spirit is totally out of order. If all of us had got together in the first place this would never have happened. If you don’t like whats happening around you have to stand up and be counted. It’s been nice to see those responsible having to look over their shoulders as everyday people take over”
Floyd, aged 45, Broadway Market

Tony’s Café was in the end evicted again, a few weeks later, and despite a long and complex legal and public battle, Spirit’s shop was also taken away from him. Although the campaign was a bright and inspiring episode, it is worth noting that Broadway market today is very much lost to the middle classes, a haven of artisan olivery and poncy boutiques, including the repulsively expensive Donlon Books, where you can spend £50 on superficially alternative DIY self-published pap; and the posh fish shop which replaced Spirit, from where the stink of money wafts like gone-off dover sole…

Ironically Broadway Market would very likely not have survived into the 21st century to be gentrified, if it wasn’t for the mass squatting of houses around the surrounding streets in the 1970s-80s. The Greater London Council (GLC) and London Borough of Hackney (LBH) had plans in the 70s, to develop the Broadway Market and London Fields east side areas respectively to preserve local employment. But they proceeded so slowly that the areas were blighted and many properties were left empty. Squatters moved in, created new communities, and campaigned to prevent demolition and development. Otherwise, the majority of the 19th century houses and shops would have been replaced by more modern blocks and maybe a mall, which would have left them much less attractive to the Hegemonising Borg[eois] Swarm. Many of these squats became co-ops and tenancies over the years… For a brief glance into this area’s squatting past check out this walk past tense took part in.

and there is there any truth to the muttered aside that in many cases, anti-gentrification campaigns in London represent one wave of the middle class takeover resisting the next wave? Ho hum… a discussion for another post…

Since 2005, Hackney has in many ways been utterly transformed… Broadway market was only one of a number of entering wedges… Tis fucking mad to see Dalston now, of an eve, white bourgy hipster central, if Ridley Road market is still resolutely diverse and unrepentant in the daytime. LIke Brixton, a few years further down the sanitising/respectable/business-friendly road, Hackney remains a battleground… We still live here and we’re not going quietly. 

Read: Some posts relating to the campaign from the time.

and more info here

Yez can also watch a film made about the struggle

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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