Today in London tourist history, 1850: ‘Down with the Austrian butcher!’

Field Marshal Baron von Haynau, a brutal commander of the Austrian Empire, was known as ‘the Hyena’; he had earned this nickname by torturing prisoners and flogging women, while suppressing revolts in Italy and Hungary in 1848.

Haynau was said to have a violent temper. His support for the monarchy led him to fiercely oppose the revolutionary movements of the mid-nineteenth century.

When the revolutionary insurrections of 1848 broke out in Italy, Haynau was selected to command troops to suppress them. He fought with success in Italy. He became known in this period for the severity with which he suppressed an uprising in Brescia and punished participants. A mob in Brescia had massacred invalid Austrian soldiers in the hospital, and von Haynau ordered reprisals. Numerous attackers were executed.

In June 1849, Haynau was called to Vienna to command a reserve army; he was ordered into the field against the Hungarians during their revolution and finally managed to defeat it with the help of an overwhelming Russian interventionist force, proving an effective but ruthless leader. His aggressive strategy may have partly been motivated by his wish to make Austria, rather than Russia, appear as the main victor of the war. Indeed, the general questioned the wisdom of inviting the Russians to intervene, as he considered that Austria, with reinforcements from Italy, could have won the war on its own

In Hungary as in Italy, Haynau was accused of brutality. For instance, he was said to have ordered women whipped who were suspected of sympathizing with the insurgents. He also ordered the execution by hanging of the 13 Hungarian rebel generals at Arad on 6 October 1849.

Opponents called him the “Hyena of Brescia” and “Hangman of Arad”.

Having resigned his commission, Haynau went travelling, and arrive in London in August 1850. His sightseeing itinerary included a tour of Barclay and Perkins’s Brewery on Bankside, on the south bank of the Thames, on 4th September 1850.

Though the revolutionary Chartist George Julian Harney encouraged all friends of Freedom to protest at the visit of this arch-reactionary and war criminal, he had little hope of success – and thus was as surprised as anyone by what happened next.

As soon as the Hyena entered the brewery, a posse of draymen (cart drivers who delivered beer from the Brewery to taverns) threw a bale of hay on his head and pelted him with manure. He ran out into the street, but lightermen and coal-heavers joined the chase – tearing at his clothes, yanking out great tufts of his moustaches and shouting ‘Down with the Austrian butcher!’

Haynau tried to hide in a dustbin at the George Inn on Bankside, but was soon discovered and pelted with more dung.

An account of the attack from Reynolds Newspaper gives a general sense of the widespread support the attack enjoyed:

“The Miscreant Haynau in London

Well and nobly have the high-spirited fellows employed at Barclay and Perkins’s brewery displayed their disgust and horror for a ruffian who has dared pollute our shores by his presence, and thrust his scoundrel person amongst us. The following description is given of his reception at the large brewery, where he was introduced as Rothschild’s friend:-
On Wednesday morning, shortly before twelve o’clock, three foreigners, one of whom was very old and wore long moustachios, presented themselves at the brewery of Messrs. Barclay and Company, for the purpose of inspecting the establishment. According to the regular practice of visitors, they were requested to sign their names in a book in the office, after which they crossed the yard with one of the clerks. On inspecting the visitors’ book the clerks discovered that one of the parties was no other than Marshal Haynau, the late commander of the Austrian forces during the attack upon the unfortunate Hungarians. It became known all over the brewery in less than two minutes, and before the general and his companions had crossed the yard, nearly all the labourers and draymen ran out with brooms and dirt, shouting out, “Down with the Austrian butcher!” and other epithets of rather an alarming nature to the marshal. A number of the men gathered round the marshal as he was viewing the large vat, and continued their hostile manifestations. The marshal being made acquainted by one of the persons who accompanied him, of the feeling prevailing against him, immediately prepared to retire. But this was not so easily done. The attack was commenced by dropping a truss of Straw upon his head as he passed through one of the lower rooms; after which grain and missiles of every kind that came to hand were freely bestowed upon him. The men next struck his hat over his eyes, and hustled him from all directions. His clothes were torn off his back. One of the men seized him by the beard, and tried to cut it off. The marshal’s companions were treated with equal violence, They, however, defended themselves manfully, and succeeded in reaching the outside of the building. Here there were assembled about 500 persons, consisting of the brewer’s men, coal-heavers, &c, the presence of the obnoxious visitor having become known in the vicinity. No sooner had the Marshal made his appearance outside the gates than he was surrounded, pelted, struck with every available missile, and even dragged along by his moustache, which afforded ample facilities to his assailants, from its excessive length, it reaching nearly down to his shoulders. Still battling with his assailants, he ran in a frantic manner along Bankside until he came to the George public-house, when, finding the doors open, he rushed in and proceeded up-stairs into one of the bed-rooms, to the utter astonishment of Mrs. Benfield, the landlady, who soon discovered his name and the reason of his entering the house. The furious mob rushed in after him, threatening to do for the “Austrian Butcher;” but, fortunately for him, the house is very old-fashioned, and contains a vast number of doors, which were all forced open, except the room in which the marshal was concealed. The mob had increased at that time to several hundreds, and from their excited state Mrs Benfield became alarmed about her own property as well as the marshal’s life. She accordingly despatched a messenger to the Southwark police-station for the assistance of the police, and in a short time Inspector Squires arrived at the George with a number of police, and with great difficulty dispersed the mob and got the marshal out of the house. A police galley was at the wharf at the time, into which he was taken, and rowed towards Somerset House, amidst the shouts and execrations of the mob. Messrs. Barclay have suspended all hands, in order to discover the principals in the attack. It appears that the two attendants of the marshal were an aide-de-camp and an interpreter. He had presented a letter of introduction from Baron Rothschild. who had therein described him as “his friend Marshal Haynau.”

ADDITIONAL PARTICULARS.

Our own reporter, who visited Bankside on Thursday, ascertained that the general had a narrow escape from death, as his captors exhibited a strong inclination to extend towards him the same full measure of vengeance which he had so often exercised towards the unfortunate patriots of Hungary. In flying from his pursuers, he, as stated above, entered the George, where, after seeking vainly for some outlet by which to escape, he found his way into a small pantry, in which was a door. This door the general opened with the energy of desperation, and was half-way through it, when he found there was no hope of escape that way – the conqueror of Hungary had taken refuge in a dust-bin. As he stood looking around him, half in the pantry and half in the dust-bin, his pursuers overtook him; and, as he stood in a stooping posture, had a good opportunity of thrashing him with their various weapons, one of which, a bean-stalk, about an inch and a quarter in thickness, was used with such hearty good will, that it was broken upon his back. He was then seized by half-a-dozen of his assailants, some of whom had hold of his coat, while others less tender of his person, grasped his long moustachios, and dragged him back along the passage towards the street: but watching his opportunity, he managed, with the help of two labouring men, who were ignorant of his name, to break away from his captors, and rush up-stairs. His newly-found champions closing the door at the bottom of the staircase, and mounting guard outside. The general and his two foreign friends who had accompanied him, tried to escape by a window in one of the bed-chambers, but not succeeding, were compelled to remain in “durance vile,” until the arrival of a strong detachment of police enabled them to leave the house with safety. The general’s outer man had been so damaged in the fray, that he was glad to accept the loan of a coat, and that from a pitying bystander. The two men who had so gallantly defended the “Saviour of the Austrian Empire” against his assailants, were magnificently remunerated; the one receiving 4s. 6d , and the other 2s. 10d. for his services. The landlord of the George, upon inquiry at Morley’s Hotel, Trafalgar Square, on Thursday morning, was told that the general “had gone back.” Several dismissals have, we are told, taken place in Barclay’s brewery, but the obnoxious name of Haynau, together with those of his two companions, have been carefully obliterated from the visiting book. (Reynold’s Newspaper)

By the time the police reached the pub, rowing him across the Thames to safety, the bedraggled and humiliated butcher was in no fit state to continue his holiday. Within hours, a new song could be heard in the streets of Southwark:

Turn him out, turn him out,
from our side of the Thames,
Let him go to great Tories
and high-titled dames.
He may walk the West End
and parade in his pride,
But he’ll not come back again
near the ‘George’ in Bankside.

The attack quickly became an international incident between Britain and Austria, and British Prime Minister Palmerston and Queen Victoria argued about the merits of battering foreign generals.

It also inspired a rush of prints and satires, which in the way that news and popular culture worked then, were published withing days of the attack. At least four songs written to commemorate this mobbing, three of which can be found online: General HaynauHaynau’s RetreatThe Southwark brewers and the Austrian butcher.
There was also a ‘Commemorative Handkerchief’, printed with a scene of the ‘Escape of Marshal Haynau from Barclay and Perkins Brewery, London.’

Harney’s Red Republican newspaper saw the debagging of Haynau as proof of ‘the progress of the working classes in political knowledge, their uncorrupted love of justice, and their intense hatred of tyranny and cruelty’. A celebratory rally in the Farringdon Hall, at which Engels spoke, was so oversubscribed that hundreds had to be turned away. Letters of congratulation arrived from workers’ associations as far afield as Paris and New York.

But conservative newspapers such as the Quarterly Review found nothing to laugh at: the riotous scenes in Bankside were a most alarming “indication of foreign influence even amongst our own people” – foreign influence being the standard mid-century euphemism for the dread virus of socialism.

Haynau left London a few days later, but did not leave his troubles behind. The Evening Standard of the 16th September 1850 reported:

The Zeitung fur Norddeutschland of the 11th inst., announces the arrival of General Haynau at Hanover, and the outbreak of some petty disturbances in consequence of a mob wishing to attack the hotel in which the marshal had taken his quarters. Several arrests took place, and it was found necessary to disperse the crowd by means of the civic guard.

Some of this post was nicked from the very fine anterosis.com

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

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Today in London diplomatic history, 1967: the Greek Embassy occupied protesting military coup

On 28 April 1967, one week after the Colonels’ coup in Greece (which was to lead to a 7-year rightwing military dictatorship in the country), the Greek Embassy in London was occupied, by about 60 people, in solidarity with the Greek working class and calling for resistance to the Greek junta.

Greek socialist Maria Styllou, one of the occupiers, describes the background to the coup:

“On 21 April 1967 a group of colonels launched a coup in Greece. They formed a military junta, with the backing of the monarchy and capitalists, which would last seven years.

This power grab was a last resort against a rising workers’ movement.

It meant victory for the ruling class. Ship owners, bankers, industrialists, and construction magnates all celebrated. It opened a period in which resistance was crushed and the ruling class were able to go on the offensive.

The day the junta began I was in Paris. Straight away there was an evening rally with a lot of people, not just students. The same thing happened in Italy, where there were many Greek students.

In London, in collaboration with the British revolutionary left, just a week into the dictatorship we occupied the Greek embassy.

By 1967 the ruling class was desperate for an alternative to workers taking power.

The Greek working class was on the march again, after its crushing defeat in the civil war of 1944-1949—when the British intervened, brutally putting down the left.

Throughout the 1950s the Greek ruling class had sought to modernise the government and develop Greek capitalism.

To this end the right wing National Radical Union (ERE) party was formed in 1955, aiming to defeat the resurgent left politically on behalf of the bosses.

They started out confident, but it quickly became clear it would not be so easy.

They encountered two problems.

The first was conflict within the ruling class, over strategies to deal with Cyprus as well as with the old mechanisms and institutions of the previous period, such as the army.

The second was the resistance which was becoming emboldened and increasingly confrontational.

From 1953, and particularly from 1956, there was an explosion of struggle. For a lot of people the hope that had seemed to be killed off by the end of the civil war was reborn.

These two factors led to an unexpected electoral success for the left. The United Democratic Left (EDA), largely an electoral front for the banned Communist Party, became the leading opposition party in the 1958 election, winning 24 percent of the vote.

The political crisis reached the point where MPs were resigning from parliament.

After 1958, the electoral success of the left brought a new enthusiasm that fuelled the workers’ struggles and their struggles for democracy.

It also brought the student movement back into the frontline.

The GSEE trade union federation grew to include 115 unions. And within schools the left began to take over the student unions.

The ruling class tried to stop these developments by preventing free elections in unions and launching a crackdown on democracy in schools and colleges.

But as the 1961 election loomed these attacks couldn’t match a resurgent movement.

The murder of left wing MP Georgios Lambrakis in 1963 sparked a second explosion of the movement. Prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis called and lost an election and was then forced to flee the country.

The right wingers of ERE were effectively destroyed electorally.

The small social democratic party Centre Union, led by Georgios Papandreou, went on to win the1964 election. Before then it had just 20 MPs.

The Centre Union hoped to fill the void left by the collapse of ERE at the same time as controlling the labour movement.

It leaned on the left in order to govern. And large sections of the left gave Papandreou the chance, hoping that supporting the centre would win some concessions and influence.

But ironically it was the efforts of the ruling class to regain control of the situation which pushed the left into the foreground. Right wingers attempted to force their way into Papandreou’s government.

The king vetoed Papandreou’s cabinet in July 1965. There was an explosion of anger and people rose up, transforming Greek politics for a decade.

For 70 days a mass movement, known as the “July Days”, raged in the streets. This forced the ruling class to realise the only way to halt the momentum of the movement was through Papandreou and his social democratic project.

Within the space of 70 days Papandreou moved a great distance—from defiance to arguing that protesters should avoid creating problems. The Centre Union put down strikes and demonstrations, and put a huge effort into getting people off the streets.

But two critical years passed with both ERE and Centre Union facing a problem that was not going away.

This opened the way for the army, the palace and their allies to gain confidence.

In early April 1967, the King asked ERE leader Panagiotis Kanellopoulos to form a government—even though ERE was not the largest party.

But after both main parties failed to find a way out of the political crisis, the dictatorship was formed a few weeks later.

The leadership of the EDA was caught napping. It had told people not to worry, promising there would be no coup.

1965 had been a crucial moment in the process. The right was in power but the working class was almost in open revolt. By pulling their own forces back the Left gave an opportunity to the other side to go on the counterattack…”

The occupiers of the London embassy were a mix of members of the libertarian Marxist organisation Solidarity, the peace direct actionist Committee of 100 (two groups whose membership crossed over in many cases), and London School of Economics Students.

According to Solidarity’s account of the occupation:

“There are strong ties of solidarity between the radical direct action movement in Britain and the movement in Greece. This tradition has grown out of a number of events, of which the occupation of the Greek Embassy on April 28, 1967 was only the most recent.

In April 1963 Pat Pottle, a former of the Committee of 100 and one of the main defendants at the Wethersfield Trial, was arrested with others and beaten up by the Greek police when he attended the Marathon March. The following month Gregory Lambrakis, a left-wing Greek MP with many friends in Britain was murdered. His murderers were closely associated with the Greek Royal Family and with reactionary ruling circles in Greece.

In July 1963 the ‘Save Greece Now Committee’, an ad hoc group, organised a series of mass protest demonstrations against the state visit of King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece. The CND and the ‘League for Democracy in Greece’ (a Communist Party front organisation) quickly backed out of this committee when they realised it really meant business. Peter Moule and Terry Chandler were later both sent to prison for organising these mass demonstrations. There were a number of other arrests. Some of those arrested had half-bricks planted on them by police. This led to the famous Challenor affair. (The police station involved at that time – West End Central – is the one responsible for the Greek Embassy case. Already there are many similarities: police violence, perjury, conspiracy to pervert the course of ‘justice’. It remains to be seen whether the future course of events will carry the parallel still further.)

In the Autumn of 1963 the Committee of 100 organised a convoy which went across Europe to participate in a demonstration in Athens. They were finally stopped at gun point on the Greek border.

Following this sequence of events it was only logical that a group of people should come together at the news of the recent coup in Greece, with a view to effective counter-action.

Problems of Entrism

The Royal Hellenic Embassy in Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, was a difficult nut to crack. It is only some 30 yards from the American Embassy, on which there is a permanent and often substantial police guard. The Embassy is in a one-way street and there is nowhere nearby where a crowd could gather without attracting a lot of unwanted attention. The door of the Embassy is always locked and precautions have been re-doubled since the coup. To overcome these technical snags it was obvious that both secrecy and split-second timing would be necessary. Once occupation had been achieved it was going to be difficult to get basic information out. So there had to be a strong liaison group reaming outside. Plans were laid for diversionary activities to draw the police away from the immediate vicinity of the Embassy. The action also had to be carefully phased to fit with the newspaper and television deadlines. It also had to fit in with the Greek Orthodox Easter, traditionally a time for demonstrations in Greece.

To be able to organise a demonstration on this scale, with well over a hundred people ‘in the know’, without the Special Branch getting as much of a whiff of what was cooking, is a victory in itself. People have learned a great deal since the early 1960s. The entry party itself contained a very wide range of views indeed: everything from ultra-pacifist quaker to blood and thunder revolutionary – and everything in between. Many people who had been inactive for three years or more re-emerged to participate in this project. Action forged an unity which no amount of talk could have done.”

Pat Pottle, Michael Randle and two Greek LSE students, Maria and Felita, formed an advance party; approaching the embassy, to defuse suspicions of their intentions, they carried bunches of daffodils… One of the women asked to see the ambassador, but as the door of the embassy opened, a goods van pulled up, the doors opened and a large group jumped out and pushed past the caretaker into the building, running up the stairs [the moment is caught exactly in the image at the head of this post!]

“What the Butler Saw

Entry to the Embassy was obtained by a group of three carrying a large bunch of daffodils. They rang the bell and the butler opened the door. They presented him the flowers. While he was sniffing and admiring them, over 50 people who just happened to be around poured through the door. Others entered through the basement. The Greeks, in turn, should now learn to beware of people bearing gifts.

The butler and the other staff inside the Embassy were told not to worry (both in English and Greek). There would be no damage and no violence. They could stay or have the evening off. The front door was wedge shut. The demonstrators then spread out throughout the building. Public address equipment was set up on the first floor and bilingual meeting was started explaining why we were in the Embassy/ Others climbed onto the roof and hung a banner with the slogan ‘Save Greece Now’. Others occupied rooms and locked themselves inside, wedging the doors.”

The would-be occupiers were carrying a “large quantity of food etc., prepared for a prolonged stay”, according to police notes. Around 100-200 people were later said to be present by police though less than that got into the embassy.

The occupiers had in fact expected only the caretaker and his wife to be there, and had hoped to prevent them from leaving and alerting the police, giving the demonstrators time to telex out messages to Greek embassies throughout the world, urging them to declare themselves against the new fascist dictatorship. That weekend was a holiday in Greece, and there was hope that news of the occupation would spark resistance further afield. Three activists had flown down from Glasgow on the night for the ‘action’, which the organisers would not tell them fully about till we got to London) – as a result they were unprepared for it and acted only as ‘lookouts’ outside Embassy. The occupiers barricaded themselves on the first floor.

However, a number of other embassy staff were in the building, including an au pair, and allegedly the ambassador’s daughters (who the police said later hid under a table). One of the staff present escaped via a basement door, informing a copper stationed outside the US embassy just down the road. Within minutes there were police everywhere, smashing windows and bashing down doors to get into the building.

“Son of Challenor

The police panicked. They had been caught on the hop. An emergency radio call was sent out to all divisions and police cars from all over central London converged on Upper Brook Street. They filled the whole street, causing a considerable obstruction and interfering with spectators indulging in the normal execution of their duties. Superintendent Butler of the Murder Squad was put in charge. The police gained access through the basement of the embassy. They then had to break into, enter and empty each individual room of demonstrators.”

Several cameras carried by demonstrators were destroyed in the fighting. One copper had been slightly injured in the melee: “One policeman rushed headlong into an empty room and was promptly himself locked in it by one of the demonstrators who was outside. The prisoner had to smash the door down to get out.” The injury to his shoulder was thus very likely self-inflicted!

“The police were very violent. So were one or two of the Embassy staff. Terry Chandler was repeatedly punched by an attache while he was held by a policeman. (He was later charged with assault on a police officer!! Presumably if Terry had been killed he would posthumously have been charged with murder.) Ken Weller was punched in the stomach by one constable, because he had protested at the way the policeman had handled a girl. He was later dragged down stairs and repeatedly kicked in the testicles.”

The occupiers were carried out one by one after some fighting and general running amok:

“About 60 demonstrators entered the Embassy. But in the general confusion the number actually in police hands dwindled rapidly. Some simply walked away out of the Embassy stating they were plain clothes detectives…”

All the demonstrators in the building were arrested, and carted off in vans to West End Central police station. The hasty arrests backfired, however, as during the journey, Pat Pottle noticed that the back door of the meatwagon carrying him and several arrestees had not been completely closed, and when the van pulled up at the next traffic lights, he kicked the door open, and yelled ‘Everybody Out!’, and everyone in the van jumped out and legged it… A couple got nicked but fifteen got away! (The Met later denied that this escape took place!)

The rest of the occupiers spent the weekend in police custody, and were charged under Section 1 of the 1936 Public Order Act, with charges of Affray and Conspiracy to Trespass soon added.

“The original charges were ‘affray’ and insulting behaviour under section 5 of the Public Order Act. These charges were soon changed to ‘riot’ and ‘forcible entry’. The latter offence is covered by an Act which dates from 1381. It as the advantage (from the police point of view) of carrying no alternative sentence to imprisonment. The Marylebone magistrate refused to commit on this latter charge. He accepted the defence’s submission that the 1381 Act was anti-eviction legislation, aimed at stopping the illegal seizure of land and property belonging to soldiers away at the Crusades.”

42 people were charged – 30 men and 12 women. At first eleven (9 men and 2 women) were designated as the ‘Principals’ on the basis of being political activists, ‘well known agitators’: famous left-libertarian/peace-movement names here included Terry Chandler, Andy Anderson, Ron Bailey, Del Foley, Mike Randle, and Heather Russell. Police papers from the National Archives reveal police labelling most of these as “Political agitators and would join anything likely to cause disorder…  note disorders have occurred whenever these individuals have appeared in court.”

Items seized from the arrested included “holdalls, tools, provisions; transcript of broadcast; phone nos including venue of a ‘Solidarity meeting’ and that of Nicolas and Ruth Walter”… Among this was property of one Ken Weller, which they withheld from him: “2 screwdrivers, 1 torch, 2 batteries, 2 packets of tea and an ear phone wire and Weller said “They are my working tools. I am an electrician.”   

All but 4 refused to be finger-printed, which was then ordered; the 38 were remanded in custody. Terry Chandler was held longer in custody because he was said to be wanted on a charge of forging US currency…

On October 3rd 1967, all 23 LSE students arrested were given two-year conditional discharges; the following day, the rest were fined between £20 and  £100, apart from three with previous convictions – Terry Chandler, sentenced to 15 months inside, Del Foley, who got 6 months, and Michael Randle to 12 months.

The invasion of what in diplomatic terms constituted the sovereign territory of Greece caused much gnashing of teeth and frothing at the mouth by people not notably upset by a fascist-inspired military putsch. Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown called the occupation an ‘outrage’. Tory MPs called for more militarised protection of London embassies (code for calling for military intervention against radicals, hippies and other lowlives) There are a number of Foreign and Commonwealth Office papers revealing telling exchanges between the British and Greek governments. The Greek Ambassador can be read complaining that “such things did not happen even in Cuba and Albania” and suggesting that the UK Secretary of State issue statement deploring ‘hooligan acts” and demanding better protection for the embassy in case of future demos about the coup.

Solidarity saw the demo as having generally aroused positive responses:

“There was a huge response to the action. Every paper had front page headlines. The BBC led its news bulletin with the story. In Greece the Government-controlled press had long reports of how a ‘gang of hooligans’ had occupied the Embassy. There were demonstrations at Greek Embassies in Italy and Denmark. George Brown sent a grovelling letter of apology to the new regime. Repercussions spread. Instructions were issued to the police from the very highest authority to clamp down on leftwing activities. This led to arrests in Oxford and Luton. In both these cases the charges brought forward by the police were dismissed by the magistrates. Even Peggy Duff was so nauseated by the attitude of the Foreign Secretary that she resigned from the Labour Party in protest! (Other CND Labourites reacted differently. Francis Noel Baker, owner of estates in Greece, came out four square in support of the Colonels, describing them as ‘modest and sincere men.’

The League for Democracy in Greece reacted in a predictable way. It refused to allow a speaker on behalf of the 42 arrested to appeal for funds at one of the League’s meetings. It made no reference to the demonstration whatsoever at other meetings. It also attempted to exclude some of the Greeks who had participated in the demonstration from a broadly-based anti-fascist committee. These are the people who keep prattling on about ‘unity’!

There are several lessons to be gained from the seizure of the Embassy.

  • That many people, of quite diverse views, are prepared to work together on projects involving radical action.
  • That effective demonstrations can be organised without the knowledge of the police. Intelligent planning, good timing and reasonable determination can overcome most tactical problems.
  • that demonstrations can still have an impact, and that internationalism is not dead…

It would be a tragedy if he sacrifices of the 42 should be in vain. The big stick of the police must not be allowed to deter future action. We in this country can influence the course of events in Greece (the 1963 demonstrations brought about the fall of the Karamanlis government). It is most important that the campaign should continue. Those interested get together and plan future activities.”

As Maria Styllou recounts, the Greek military regime was to last 7 years before being overthrown in the face of rising resistance:

“After the coup, the junta moved quickly to crack down on the working class, increase the profitability of Greek capitalism and confirm the Greek state’s control of Cyprus.

The Greek ruling class reckoned that by controlling Cyprus it could be the primary force in the plans of US imperialism and its allies in the region towards Turkey.

Popular composer Mikis Theodorakis and others created the National Anti-dictatorship Front. New organizations also came out against the Junta. Some were inspired by Che Guevara, others by Mao Zedong or Leon Trotsky.

The revolutionary left, although small, would go on to spark the Polytechnic uprising in 1973.

This saw universities occupied across Athens in a roar of defiance to the junta, which would fall a year later. Tanks were sent onto campuses to crush opposition, killing student protesters.

In the same year the crew of a Greek navy ship mutinied against the junta.

This resistance forced factions within the junta to confront each other about how to deal with it, contributing to the regime’s downfall.

The final straw was the junta-backed coup in Cyprus on 15 July 1974, which resulted in Turkey invading the island and its eventual partition.”

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This post was largely sourced from archival documents about the occupation compiled on the Radical History of Northeast London blog

thanks to Liz Willis!

Today in London radical history: entire non-stop picket of S. African embassy arrested, 1989.

Racism and White Supremacism are currently fashionable again, after a few decades when even rightwing politicians felt it politically unacceptable to express toxic garbage about one ‘race’ deserving to rule over others or loot their resources, or spout pseudo-scientific bunkum about racial intelligence and criminality. Not that these ideas weren’t bubbling away under the surface, but many who kept them under their hats are now crawling out from under stones. What with political developments in the USA, Britain, France Holland racist idealogues are undergoing a renaissance.

Its instructive to remember that it’s less than twenty-five years since the end of Apartheid in South Africa, one of the most infamous white supremacist regimes, an inspiration to Nazis, swivel-eyed nationalists and master races everywhere.

Apartheid became so notorious a relic of 19th century colonialism and racial attitudes that it aroused not only mass opposition from the black majority population in South Africa, but international campaigns to support change there.

London was an important centre of the movement to end apartheid, on many levels. Not only was the exiled African National Congress based here, as were hundreds of S. African activists unable or unwilling to live under the apartheid regime… mass demos calling for the end of apartheid were held here, as well as long-standing boycott campaigns and actions against S. African economic and political targets.

Londoners also became involved in the armed resistance to apartheid.

Another visible and longstanding expression of solidarity with black South Africans was the Non-Stop picket of the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square, maintained by the supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group from 1986 – 1990, calling for the release of imprisoned black African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, jailed in 1963 for organising armed struggle against the South African regime.

City AA Group had been formed by Norma Kitson (an exiled ANC member), her children, friends and supporters in 1982. The Revolutionary Communist Group formed a crucial core of the picket, but the politics of regular attenders varied widely. City Group’s unconditional solidarity with all liberation movements in South Africa and Namibia (not just the ANC and SWAPO, but also the Pan-Africanist Congress and AZAPO amongst others) and its principled linking of the struggle against apartheid with anti-racism in Britain led to group’s eventual expulsion from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement. City Group deployed diverse tactics, including direct action, to express its solidarity with those opposed to apartheid. Its support for those sidelined by the exiled leadership of the ANC was valued by activists in South Africa.

The picket was kept up 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for four years. Members of the picket would leaflet and petition passers-by, whilst others made impromptu speeches on a megaphone or sang South African freedom songs. Larger themed rallies were held on Friday evenings, and on Thursdays the Picket’s numbers swelled as supporters danced to the music of a group of street musicians, the Horns of Jericho.

“Materially, it consisted of little more than a hand-sewn banner held up on two lengths of sturdy doweling; and, it occupied only a few square metres of the pavement in front of the embassy’s gates… The few supplies that the protestors were allowed to keep ‘on site’ were stored under a tarpaulin beneath a nearby tree. Those supplies were mostly things that were integral to the their campaigning – boxes of fliers advertising their next large protest; copies of their petition; and, spare batteries for their megaphone. Practices relating to all of these objects were contested by the police in the first few months of the Picket. The picketers fought hard – on the streets and in the courts – to defend their right to protest on their own terms… The Picket’s banner was useful in proclaiming its cause. It could arrest the attention of passing pedestrians just long enough for a picketer to engage them in conversation. Picketers often wore hand-drawn placards adorned with anti-apartheid slogans, or the names of political prisoners, on strings round their necks. These added to the visual impact of the protest. Whenever there were more than two people on the Picket, some protestors would form a line in front of the banner, distributing leaflets and soliciting signatures on the petition for the release of Mandela. The Picket always had a large stock of clipboards for this purpose. In fact, to most picketers, they became known as ‘petition boards’. With a petition pro forma clipped to it, the board could rest comfortably on the forearm and be presented, expectantly, to people passing by. Conversations initiated over a petition board were central to spreading news of the Non-Stop Picket, raising essential funds, and recruiting new people to its anti-apartheid cause. The act of petitioning brought conflict with the police who, in the name of preventing highway obstruction, tried to contain the picketers to the smallest possible space on the (very wide) pavement. They also used local bylaws against ‘illegal street trading’ to try and prevent the Picket from collecting donations.

The group’s megaphone was also a major source of conflict. The Non-Stop Picket had a distinct soundscape. Picketers taught each other and sang songs from the South African anti-apartheid struggle. Most picketers learnt the songs phonetically and the process involved a degree of trust to sing lyrics in languages (Zulu and Xhosa) that most could not understand. These songs could help re-energise the picket and cohere it as a collective when spirits were flagging. In addition to singing these ‘freedom songs’, picketers chanted and used the megaphone to amplify their chanting. This always served more than one end – it was another way of publicising the protest; but, just as importantly, picketers hoped their noise would disturb the work of apartheid’s diplomats inside the embassy. It clearly did, as embassy officials pressed the Metropolitan police to curb the picketer’s use of amplified sound during their office hours. The police tried many tactics to quieten the Non-Stop Picket, including charging them with noise pollution. The picketers stood their ground, refused to be intimidated and won, eventually.” 

Positioned on the pavement directly outside South Africa House, the picket was strategically placed to draw attention to apartheid and bring pressure to bear on the regime’s representatives and allies in the UK.

“From its very beginning in April 1986, the form and presence of the Non-Stop Picket was contested by the Metropolitan Police, under pressure from the South African Embassy. In the early days, the police would not allow the protestors to place any of their belongings on the pavement. At all times, two picketers had to hold their banner in place.”

The Embassy repeatedly brought pressure on the British Government to ban the protest, and for nearly two months in 1987 (6th May – 2nd July), the Picket was removed from outside the Embassy by the Metropolitan Police (following an action in which three City Group activists threw several gallons of red paint over the entrance to the Embassy). During this period, the Picket relocated to the steps of nearby St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church and activists repeatedly risked arrest to break the police ban on their protest and defend the right to protest outside the Embassy. The police used an arcane Victorian bylaw, “Commissioner’s Directions”, which allowed the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to curtail public gatherings within a mile of Parliament, to allow MPs free movement to go about their business, to ban the Picket during this period. Eventually, the ban was broken when four MPs protested outside the Embassy alongside other picketers and the police were unable to justify the ban any longer. In total 173 people were arrested during City Group’s campaign to break the police ban and defend the right to protest. All charges were eventually thrown out of court.

One on occasion, March 11th 1989, the entire picket was arrested; all of the Picket’s infrastructure and equipment was removed by the police.

It appears that on this occasion in 1989, a lone picketer had been arrested for ‘littering’ (after dropping a cigarette butt on the pavement).  This, of course, is not an arrestable offence.  But the police took the opportunity to arrest the entire picket and remove all of its equipment.  City Group’s Picket Organiser arrived a short time later, turned the corner into Trafalgar Square and found the Picket gone.  He asked the police on duty where the Picket was and received a cheeky “what picket?” in reply.  The arrested picketer(s) and equipment were traced to Bow Street police station and the equipment was ferried back to Trafalgar Square in a taxi within an hour, so that the Picket was firmly re-established.

The police were on a particular offensive against the Picket around that time – the following day, the Picket was moved from outside the Embassy gates for seven hours when the police invoked Commissioner’s Directions.

This and many more first hand accounts of the non-stop picket can be found here

… and another account here

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

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Yesterday in London rebel history: US embassy machine-gunned by 1st of May Group, 1967.

[Yes this post is Late. Busy, y’know.]

The First of May Group/International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement was an ‘armed struggle’ anarchist direct action group, which carried out bomb and gun attacks, attempted kidnappings and more in the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s (though sporadic activities continued after this point).

The various loosely allied groups and individuals that made up First of May/IRSM had grown out of/been influenced by the armed resistance to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in Spain, which had come to power at the end of the Spanish civil war, defeating both a leftwing republican government and an attempted social revolution influenced by anarchist and syndicalist ideas.

The vicious and murderous repression Franco’s regime unleashed from the beginning of the civil war in 1936 up until his death in 1975 was resisted throughout… After the military defeat of the Spanish ‘republican’ side in 1939, a struggle was carried out by guerillas, often based in the communities of thousands of exiled anarchist, communists and socialist forced to flee abroad. Anarchist guerillas, civil war veterans, crossing the Pyrenees from France, carried out clandestine attacks on state targets. Although it continued for decades, by the early 60s many guerillas had been killed, captured, executed (often by ‘garrotting’), tortured and jailed. Dedicated as they were, this struggle became one of isolation despair in many ways, as more collective resistance was crushed and cowed. The exiled Spanish Libertarian movement became divided and its support for the guerillas became sparse.

In the 60s, however, a new generation of activists, some Spanish, but others from other western European countries would take up armed struggle, inspired by the guerilla war against Franco. A new crop of armed groups emerged from both the mass radical movements of the 60s, but also grew from the disillusion with and apparent defeat of some of these wider struggles. Frustration with the seeming inability of mass protest to halt the Vietnam War, overthrow rightwing regimes or produce the urgent social change many desperately wanted both in developed and developing countries, and the harsh and deadly violence meted out by capitalist regimes against protest in Latin America, the US, and to a lesser degree Europe – groups of young activists and rebels felt clandestine armed action was the only effective way forward, or (some thought) could inspire mass action… Groups influenced by Maoism, by anarchism, nationalism, black power, in some cases a combination of some of these or other ideologies, some linked to each other, most targetting what they saw as legitimate targets of state repression, capitalist profitmongering, individual representatives of the oppressors…

The first known action of the First of May Group seems to have been a Mayday 1966 special, the kidnapping of a diplomat from the Spanish embassy in the Vatican. In 1967 their spokesman Octavio Alberola announced the failure of ‘Operation Durruti’, a plan to kidnap the US Commander of Chief in Spain…

The First of May Group were active in various countries; in Britain their first action was the drive-by machine-gunning of the US embassy in Grosvenor Square on August 20th 1967, accompanied by a communiqué:

“Stop criminal murders of the American Army. Solidarity with all people battling against Yankee fascism all over the world. Racism no. Freedom for American Negroes. Revolutionary Solidarity Movement.”

The IRSM went on a European tour in 1968; here their spree included attacks on the Spanish Embassy in Belgrave Square and the American officers’ Club at Lancaster Gate.

In March 1969, two anarchists, Alan Barlow and Phil Carver were arrested after the London Bank of Bilbao was bombed; a communiqué found in their possession claimed this as an ‘International First of May Group’ action:

“Sirs, the imprisonments, deportations, and murders suffered by the people of Spain since their subjection in the Civil War, the garrotted, and those who dies by the hand of Francisco Franco oblige us to respond. The blood of our brothers is as precious to us as all the money and the property belonging to Spanish capitalists and their Wall Street colleagues. Let them hear this week another noise other than the clink of bloodied silver. Cease the repression. If not expect more widespread reprisals. The International First of May Group.”

THE INTERNATIONAL REVOLUTIONARY SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT: A study of the origins and development of the revolutionary anarchist movement in Europe 1945-’73 (ed by Albert Meltzer) is worth reading. It can be bought here

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Just Some thoughts… Not really intended as bigshot analysis. It’s a blog, Ok?

Violence is often necessary when fighting violence. Some people reading will disagree. For people in any number of dark and difficult situations collective resistance that breaks the bounds is necessary. I guess I would however question the fetishising of radical violence, even while celebrating many actions on this blog and elsewhere. To some extent I see a gulf between armed struggle as an all-consuming self-referential process, and collective acts as part of a wider social struggle. But it depends where you’re standing… Some disjointed thoughts follow.

The hugely unequal struggle between the violence of the organized modern capitalist state and the violence of leftists, anarchists and similar groups engaged in armed struggle pretty much resulted in most places as a disinterested observer might expect. A situation complicated by the widespread infiltration of state assets, informers, police spies into many armed groups, a process which led to both suspicion, divisions, internal feuds and to indiscriminate acts of terror which undermined what support armed actions did enjoy. This is reasonably well-documented in the case of Northern Ireland, the Italian Red Brigades… Intelligent directed operatives helped to foster the growth of armed struggle, which played a part in undermining and dividing the larger social movements these groups emerged from. But police/secret state penetration was not the only factor – many of the ideological bases of such groups offered a justification for seeing armed struggle as the only method of changing the world. The idea of a small vanguard leading the masses to enlightenment; that all the people of a powerful state are supporters of that state’s actions… it’s a short step to seeing yourselves as the only real ones fighting the Man. And from there to instituting your own repression against those not involved in your particular brand of radical armed revolution. To be continued when you seize power and need to keep the prisons open for the rebels who won’t obey.

To some extents, many groups attempted to substitute armed actions for what they saw as the inability of larger ‘peaceful’ mass movements to get results, but this also quickly became a game of Who’s More Radical: We’re the Real Revolutionaries and you Liberals are Just Playing or Afraid.

Although to some extent anarchist ideology refuses to abide by the concept of a vanguard who can act on behalf of the oppressed, in practice it’s often replaced by a sense of yourself as a super-radical, freer than the mentally enslaved masses who get up and go to work and thus prop up capitalist oppression. A cursory knowledge of the First of May Group/IRSM suggests a much more complex set of motivations, the fact that the oppression in Spain for example was somewhat more serious than a bit of Home Counties angst. None of the above discussion is intended to dismiss their actions, just to qualify what could otherwise just read like ra-ra cheerleading.

We’re not setting ourselves up as an authority, we just have a keyboard: there are as many ways of changing social relations as there are individuals and groups out there working out how to do it. Despite decades of thinking, arguing, doing actions, organizing this and that, I personally find my self scratching my head still about all of the above. A truly cataclysmic change in how the world is run economically socially and politically etc is needed, I still think, and that’s not solely going to happen by peaceful or legal means. If you can’t blow up a social relationship you can’t also gently expropriate the property of the rich, the corporations etc. If any use of ‘violence’ is problematic; it has to be said, the elitism of ‘armed struggle’ needs questioning.

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

Today in London radical history: John Horne Tooke gets a year in prison for supporting American Revolution, 1777.

In 1777 John Horne Tooke was sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for raising a fund to support the American rebels.

John Horne (later Horne Tooke), originally a clergyman, resigned from his clerical position in 1773 and began the study of the law and philology. He had become a pro-reform activist of sorts; having been associated with reforming demagogue John Wilkes, who had already been jailed for libeling king George III, exiled, elected MP and refused entry to parliament, and had various mobs riot in his support and more. Wilkes and Horne had, though, become somewhat estranged. Wilkes’ vague anti-establishment credentials and repeated expulsions from the House of Commons despite being re-elected several times, had made him a hero to both the political reformers and sections of the London artisan classes and the mob… But Horne Tooke grew disillusioned with Wilkes’ character. His attempts to broaden the political aims of the Wilkite  Society for supporting the Bill of Rights led to a split in its ranks: Horne Tooke and a minority left to form the Constitutional Society in 1771. (As a result Horne was for a while very unpopular with the unruly London crowds, and was burnt in effigy…)

The Wilkes agitation, which had convulsed London with riots, demonstrations and contested elections, was dying out, but the Constitutional Society soon found itself embroiled in a new cause. The growing tension between the American colonies and the British government was gearing up towards rebellion and war. Before the war of independence began, support for the colonists’ demands for autonomy and representation and opposition to punitive taxes was fairly widespread among British political reformers, and Horne Tooke joined his voice to this… however, following the outbreak of hostilities in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, support in Britain for the American colonies rapidly fell off.

Horne Tooke however remained one of the few vocal supporters of the cause. The Constitutional Society started a fundraising drive to raise money to help residents of Boston affected economically by British policies implemented after the Boston Tea Party. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Society had another whipround to aid the widows and orphans of those killed by British troops at the two engagements. On 7 June 1775 some of the members passed a resolution which was published in the newspapers. It directed that a subscription should be raised on behalf of ‘our beloved American fellow subjects’ who had ‘preferred death to slavery,’ and ‘were for that reason only inhumanly murdered by the king’s troops.

This obviously enraged the patriotic sentiment aroused in Britain over the war. Horne Tooke’s articles, published in British newspapers, supporting this subscription, were viewed by prosecutors as ‘criminal libel’, since the colonies were in armed rebellion.

In 1776 some of the printers of the newspapers who published the appeal or articles in favour of it were fined, and in the next year Horne was himself tried before Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, on 4 July 1777. Horne Tooke and his supporters contested that the Americans had not been declared “rebels” at the time of the first subscription in 1775; Horne defended himself, disputing points of law, but the court found him guilty, and sentenced him to be fined £200 and to do12 months in prison. Horne Tooke was the only political reformer jailed for support of the Americans during the Revolutionary War. In 1778 he brought a writ of error in parliament, but the judgment was finally affirmed. Many thought Mansfield was taking revenge on him for a 1771 case Horne Tooke had won in the court of common pleas, or for Horne’s blatant escape from prosecution for the pro-Wilkes 1765 publication of “The Petition of an Englishman.”

Horne was imprisoned in the King’s Bench Prison. He was allowed to occupy a house ‘within the rules,’ meaning he was allowed a fair amount of liberty and privilege rather than being locked in a cell. Imprisonment was very different then if you were well off or connected. He was visited by his political friends, and had a weekly dinner with them at the Dog and Duck.

Tooke attributed the gout, from which he suffered ever afterwards, to the claret which he drank in the prison; it on the other hand, cured him of the ‘jail-distemper.’

He would go on to take a part in the reform agitation in the 1790s, be arrested – and cleared – of treason, and briefly serve as an MP… He was however a half-hearted radical at best: “His politics were those of the old-fashioned city patriots, who disliked the whig aristocracy, but would have been the first to shrink from a violent revolution. Major Cartwright quoted at the trial Horne’s familiar remark that he might accompany Thomas Paine and his followers for part of their journey. They might go on to Windsor, but he would get out at Hounslow. He always disliked Paine and ridiculed his theories. He enjoyed taking the chair at the Crown and Anchor and elsewhere to denounce the aristocracy and approve vigorous manifestoes, but he was always cautious and struck out dangerous phrases.”

Read A PDF report of the 1777 trial by Horne Tooke

and a short bio of him

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

Today in London’s radical history: Mile End mass meeting celebrates Russian Revolution, 1917.

On 24th March 1917, 7000 people pack the Mile End Assembly Rooms in East London, for a mass meeting celebrating the February Revolution in Russia and the downfall of Tsarism. 1000s more were unable to get in. Called by the Russian Socialist Groups, the meeting was mainly attended by Russian refugees and socialists of various stripes.

The East End – Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Mile End in particular – was at this time teeming with Russian exiles, many of them socialists, and especially Jews. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had been forced to flee Russia by the violent anti-semitism of the Tsarist regime. Many other leftists, socialists, anarchists and others had also taken refuge during regular bouts of reactionary repression there – most notably after the defeated 1905 Russian Revolution. While always involved with politics in the area they settled in, many exiles kept one eye on events back in Russia. So the area was full of joy and hope when the hated regime was overthrown…

The impact of the February Revolution was huge, given the history of the Tsars as the most repressive regime in Europe. It wasn’t just widely welcomed among the exiles – Aneurin Bevan recalled in South Wales “the miners when they heard that the Tsarist tyranny had been overthrown, rushing to meet each other in the streets with tears streaming down their cheeks, shaking hands and saying: ‘At last it has happened!’ ” There was an upsurge of strikes in Britain, inspired by Russian events… Conscientious objectors in prisons also heard the news, and went on strike…

George Chicherin, a Russian refugee living in London, who was later to join the Soviet government and become its Foreign Minister, described the Mile End meeting:

“It was an unforgettable demonstration of enthusiasm, unbounded joy and revolutionary feeling. Over 7000 persons were present, and many thousands were unable to get in and had to go away… again and again delirious outbursts of boundless enthusiasm filled the immense hall.”

Many of the East End’s Jewish and socialist exiles were to return to Russia, to get involve in the struggle to push change further, which was to result in another revolution in October…

The Mile End Assembly Rooms were on Mile End Road, roughly where no 31 is now, just to the east of Cambridge Heath Road.

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

 

Today in London’s radical history: a meeting celebrates the latest French Revolution, 1848

The February revolution in France sparked a wave of uprisings, revolts, and mass movements all over Europe – some democratic, some nationalist, some briefly successful, some doomed…

Although England saw no uprisings, enthusiasm gripped radicals here, raised with a tremendous respect for the first great French Revolution of 1789… 1848 also saw a revival of the Chartist movement, partly no doubt inspired by the wave of possibilities sweeping the continent.

On the 2nd of March 1848 a tremendous gathering took place at the Circus of the National Baths, Lambeth. Thousands attended; the place was so densely crowded that the Committee could only with great difficulty make their way to the platform. Chartist leaders Fergus O’Connor, Ernest Jones, George Julian Harney, among other speakers, addressed the meeting at great length. A resolution was adopted protesting against any English governmental interference with the French Republic. An address to the French people was read and carried, and Messrs. Jones, McGrath, and Harney were appointed as a deputation, to proceed to Paris and present the same to the Provisional Government.

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

 

Today in London publishing history: Parliament orders pro- (and anti-) American pamphlets burnt, 1775

“The said book is a false, malicious, and traitorous libel &c.; That one of the said printed books be burnt by the hands of the common hangman in New Palace yard, and another before the Royal Exchange…”

As the conflict grew between the British government and the colonies in North America, which would shortly erupt into the American War of Independence, one of the main vehicles was the pamphlet war. Supporters and opponents of the colonists engaged in furious debates through pamphlets and newspaper articles… both in America, and in Britain. A strong current of opinion existed on this side of the Atlantic, in support of the struggle in the New World. But the authorities here didn’t take kindly to pro-independence sentiments being aired under their noses.

“Lord Effingham complained in the House of Lords of the licentiousness of the press, and produced a pamphlet entitled, “The Present Crisis with Respect to America Considered,” published by T. Becket, which his Lordship declared to be a most daring insult on the king: and moved, that the house would come to resolutions to the following effect:
That the said pamphlet is a false, malicious, and dangerous libel…. That one of the said pamphlets be burnt by the hands of the common hangman in Old Palace-yard; and another, at the Royal Exchange.
That these resolutions be communicated to the House of Commons at a conference, and that the concurrence of that house be desired. Which resolutions being read, were unanimously agreed to…. A second conference now ensued, arising from a complaint of the Earl of Radnor in the Upper House, and of Lord Chewton in the Lower House, against a periodical paper, called The Crisis, No. 3 published for T. Shaw, &c. In the Lower House, the paper in question had been voted a false, malicious, and seditious libel; in the Upper House, the word treasonable was added; but, upon re-considering the matter, that was omitted: but it was, like the other, unanimously ordered to be burned by the hands of the common hangman…. In obedience to the above orders, these pieces were burnt, on the 6th of March following, by the common hangman, at Westminster-hall gate.”

(Annual Register, 1775)

The context in which this took place was tense: the colonies were on the brink of rebellion, after various actions and protests against taxation and trade inequalities had provoked a heavy crackdown by the British Crown. The Continental Congress had first met in September 1774, to organise opposition to the removal of self-government from Massachusetts; the first battles between rebels and crown forces were just two months away.

The pamphlet in question though, seems to have been arguing that it should be ok for the king to raise taxes without recourse to Parliament. It may be that it was burnt because it undermined the sovereignty of Parliament and the constitution established in 1689:

“I am told there has been a pamphlet published by one Becket, advancing a very extraordinary doctrine, viz. That it would be proper to impower the crown to raise taxes by its own authority, in times of necessity.  If this doctrine was approved by our parliament, our situation would be the same with that of Spain in Charles V. the emperor’s time, when the Cortez of Spain granted that power to the crown, under the pretence of necessity; which enabled the crown never to call a Cortez afterwards, for they always found out some cause of necessity for continuing that power.  I hear the house of peers have ordered that pamphlet to be burnt by the hands of the hangman — but is that sufficient punishment for an author, who durst advance a doctrine which at once destroys the British constitution, and establishes arbitrary power; which, as I have said before, I look upon as political damnation.  It appears how the Romans prized the least breathing by liberty, during the time of their emperors, by looking into Tacitus’s history of the reign of Trojan, which he calls Rara Tempora, when the Romans could speak or write what they thought, without being ruined by it:  for as the most part of those emperors were monsters of cruelty, so they persecuted every body who regarded virtue, and who did not approve of their vile actions.”

Becket seems to have been a bookseller and publisher in London’s Strand (on the corner of the Adelphi theatre), who printed various pro-American works in the 1760s and 1770s…

These included Benjamin Franklin’s, The Interest of Great Britain with regard to her Colonies, and the Acquisitions of Canada and Guadeloupe, 1760, and A Letter to the Right Honourable Wills Earl of Hillsborough, on the connection between Great Britain and her American colonies [George Canning], 1768).

Becket also published Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1787.

A noted above, the same week as Becket’s pamphlet was condemned in Parliament, a newspaper called The Crisis was also ordered to be publicly burned. Published for Mr T Shaw, his was also held to be “a false, malicious and seditious libel”. But as the Annual Register noted that this publication’s views were ‘diametrically opposite’ to Becket’s, it’s likely this was more pro-independence…

It’s possible Becket was purely motivated less by any idealism than by commercial potential; he is mostly remembered today for contesting a court battle, fronting for several booksellers trying to extend copyright longer than legally agreed statutory limits. He lost.

The duty of burning pamphlets outside Westminster Hall devolved upon the public hangman, already an unpopular figure with the rowdy London crowd. When the Lord Mayor of London also ordered the condemned publications burnt at London’s Royal Exchange, some of the mob took umbrage: “Some of them were at first very riotous; they seized and threw about the faggots which were brought, and treated the City marshal and the hangman very ill: but more faggots being brought, and dipt in turpentine, they immediately took fire, and soon consumed the publications in question. But soon after the sheriffs and other officers had quitted the place of execution, a man of decent appearance burnt, at the same place, a copy of the late address upon the American affairs, and the Birmingham petition.” (Annual Register)

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

Today in radical history: Third World First launched, 1970

International solidarity organization Third World First was officially launched on this day in 1970.

The organization was founded in 1969 by a group of students at Oxford University, supported by NGOs including Oxfam. In 1997, the network voted to change the name to People & Planet.

Third World First was set up in 1969 to raise money for overseas aid. It didn’t take long for them to realise that raising awareness and campaigning are essential in achieving widespread long term change, and they shifted our focus to reflect that.

People & Planet now works to educate and empower students to take effective action on the root causes of social and environmental injustice, working together democratically.

They mainly campaign around supporting workers in the developing world against poverty wages oppressive conditions and repression… ethical trading, better medical and welfare for people in developing countries… climat change, and much more…

Third World First was instrumental in setting up the magazine, The Internationalist which was later reincarnated as the now popular activist-magazine, The New Internationalist.

Visit the groups’s site at: http://peopleandplanet.org/

Today in London’s radical past: Hands Off Russia rally in the Albert Hall, 1919

On 8 February 1919, thousands packed the Albert Hall for the largest mass meeting in the Hands Off Russia campaign.

The British government, along with French and other western powers, was attempting to invade Russia, to try and overthrow the new Soviet state. British and French troops were already supporting anti-Soviet forces in Russia, and much larger intervention was planned. In resistance to this effort, British soldiers and sailors were already in revolt and mutiny against being forced to continue in arms (World War 1 having recently ended, partly as a result of mass refusal to fight any more). And workers in Britain were erupting in protest. The ‘allies’ campaign to destroy the Russian Revolution was destined to be irretrievably sabotaged by mutinies, strikes, and refusal to load arms and supplies by dockers in UK ports. The Revolution itself, of course, was also in the process of being sabotaged by the Bolshevik dictatorship…

The Hands Off Russia movement included members of the main left groups of the time – the Independent Labour Party, the British Socialist Party, Workers Socialist Federation, and the Herald League, who all wanted to show international workers’ solidarity with their Russian comrades. Unlike several other attempts at cross-factional unity, the Hands Off Russia! campaign served to unite British left-wing sympathisers. It really got going in January 1919 when a National Committee for the Hands off Russia! campaign was elected at a conference in London. Many of the groups and individuals who congregated under the umbrella of Hands Off Russia! later went on to form the Communist Party of Great Britain in August 1920.

Speakers at this, the largest of the Hands off Russia meetings, included Cathal O’Shannon (Irish TUC), left Labour MP George Lansbury, Israel Zangwill (author), WF Watson and Lady Warwick (a long-time left associate). Scottish socialist John Maclean, the ‘Bolshevik Consul in Glasgow’, was the star turn: “The climax…was reached when EC Fairchild announced John Maclean. Round on round of applause greeted his rising, the whole vast gathering breaking into song.” (The Call). The meeting was the end for the very active Billy Watson, a syndicalist, leading light of the London Workers Committee, an attempt to organise factory councils in London (similar to the Clyde Workers Committee). Watson was arrested for sedition under the DORA as a result of his speech. While serving his six month sentence it was revealed he was a paid informer. Although he seems to have been exploiting police gullibility rather than shopping his comrades (would they jail a really useful informer?) his left career was largely at an end.

This has to be seen in the context of the massive strike wave and social struggles erupting in the UK at this time. In 1919, 2.4 million workers went on strike, after weathering four years without trade union rights. Both the Labour Party and official trade unions had accepted the Munitions Act of 1915; ‘a system that was military-like in its restrictions and enforcement’. It made strikes illegal, controlled wages and made it impossible to leave a job without permission. Union membership grew during the war years, when the labour system was seen as undemocratic and damaging to working class interests. Then in 1919 and 1920, as Lloyd George’s promise of a land fit for heroes failed to materialise, industrial unrest grew. Those industries still largely under government control such as mining and railways were especially militant, while workers on Red Clydeside fought for a 40-hour week.
The Hands Off Russia! Movement gained rapid support amongst the rank and file in 1920, partly because many workers were angered at the prospect of another imperial intervention, and the possible extension of unjust policies disguised as emergency war measures.

“The coal heavers have refused to coal the SS Jolly George on May 10th 1920. They struck better than they knew!…The strike on the SS Jolly George has given a new inspiration to the whole working class movement. On May 15th, the munitions are unloaded back onto the dock side, and on the side of one case is a very familiar sticky-back, ‘Hands Off Russia!’ It is very small, but that day it was big enough to be read all over the world.”
(Harry Pollitt)
The London Dockers’ May 1920 refusal to load armaments onto the ship the SS Jolly George, destined to support the invasion, was the most tangible success of Hands Off Russia! – a campaign that had held meetings and demonstrations for many months. They resisted orders, and significantly, the District Secretary of the official Dockers’ Union, led by Fred Thompson, backed their action.

The Dockers’ powerful show of solidarity was not just a spontaneous act – Harry Pollitt, Sylvia Pankhurst and other East End socialists had done a lot of hard work among the dockers. Pankhurst was a prominent communist and led the Workers’ Socialist Federation of which Pollitt was a member. In the months before the SS Jolly George incident they undertook a campaign of relentless agitation: handing out pro-soviet literature, making links with unions, and radicalising the dock workers. Pankhurst reportedly handed out thousands of copies of Lenin’s Appeal to the Toiling Masses around the docklands for several months beforehand, at the risk of arrest, as the text was on the Home Office blacklist. A year later, in 1921, Pankhurst was arrested and imprisoned for stirring up anti-establishment feeling amongst the Dockers.

Defence of Soviet Russia began to be identified with defence of the trade unions against Lloyd George.’ Although it was highly unlikely that any allied intervention in Russia would have led to a full scale war, Pollitt really believed they had stopped a war, and so did many of his rank and file supporters. This illustrates the state of fear and mistrust of British military decision making at the time. The massive strike wave in the UK, though, was also inspiring fear of possible revolution here at home…

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