Today in London herstory, 1908: Suffragettes rush on Parliament

1907-8 saw a sharp stepping up of the campaign by UK women to win the vote. Successive rejections of lobbying of MPs, attempts to get political parties onside and other conventional measures had pushed the Women’s Social & Political Union into direct action…

In September 1908, WSPU leaders Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel, and Flora Drummond decided the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) would organise a ‘rush’ on the House of Commons – an attempt to enter en masse to demand the vote for women.

A deputation would attempt to enter ‘enter the House, and, if possible, the Chamber itself’.   To advertise the event, Christabel had thousands of handbills printed, as follows:

‘Women’s Social and Political Union

VOTES FOR WOMEN
Men & Women
HELP THE SUFFRAGETTES
To RUSH THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
ON TUESDAY EVENING, 13th October, 1908 at 7:30

What Christabel meant by `rush’ was not made entirely clear on the leaflet, but asked to explain, she said, `By rushing the House of Commons, the suffragettes mean going through the doors, pushing their way in, and confronting the Prime Minister.’…

On 8 October, in the WSPU offices, Christabel apparently showed the new flyers (`Have you seen our new bills?’) to a visiting police officer, Inspector Jarvis.

On Sunday 11th October the WSPU held a large rally in Trafalgar Square, where Emmeline, Christabel and Flora addressed the crowd. Emmeline Pankhurst records that the police were present at the rally and had them under close surveillance, taking notes of the proceedings and following them [Emmeline Pankhurst My Own Story].  The next day all three were served with the summonses instructing them to attend Bow Street police station that afternoon, on a charge of ‘conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace in circulating . . . a certain handbill calling upon and inciting the public to do a certain wrongful and illegal act, namely, to rush the House of Commons’. None of the women obeyed the summons, however, instead going to a WSPU meeting in Queen’s Hall. Although the police were present at this meeting they did not arrest the women, but again ordered that they should attend Bow Street the following morning, the 13th, the day of the ‘rush’.  Again the women failed to turn up, eluding the police for a day, the three women presented themselves for arrest at 6 p.m., just before the demonstration.  (They had spent most of the day sitting in the Pethick-Lawrences’ roof­-garden, reading newspapers.) They consequently were unable to attend the ‘rush’ themselves.

That evening, about 60,000 people gathered in the vicinity of Parliament Square.   Five thousand constables had been placed on special duty, and the square was completely cordoned off.   As on previous occasions, groups of suffragettes tried to force their way past police lines, and were arrested for trying to do so.

Suffragette Constance Lytton, who witnessed the rush, wrote an account tells of a mixed gathering, women and men, those supporting the cause and those against, together with ‘curiosity-mongers who were fascinated by the fight although without interest for its cause’.

During the course of the evening, twenty-four women and thirteen men were arrested, and ten people were taken to hospital. One woman – Labour MP Keir Hardie’s secretary, Mrs Travers Symons – managed to enter the floor of the House while debate was in progress. Rather than make her way to the Ladies’ Gallery as expected she ran through the doors into the Chamber where MPs were debating the Children’s Bill.  She shouted ‘leave off discussing the children’s question and give votes to women first’ before being bodily removed by the attendant.

The day after the rush, Emmeline Pankhurst, Flora Drummond and Christabel Pankhurst appeared at Bow Street court ,charged with conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace.  The subsequent trial lasted two days, attracting much press and public attention.

The women argued in court that ‘rush’ did not imply violence or any illegal act.  Christabel Pankhurst, a trained lawyer (though as a women unable to practice professionally) defended all three in court, causing a sensation when she tried to call two cabinet ministers as witnesses.  The judge found all three defendants guilty, and imprisoned them when they refused to pay fines.

The WSPU however considered the whole event a success, as the events had won them a lot of publicity.
After serving her sentence, Emmeline Pankhurst was released from Holloway Prison in December 1908.  She was met by a carriage escorted by two bands, women riding white horses and 200 women in white dresses.  The parade was followed by a breakfast of 350 people to celebrate the achievements of her action and she was awarded a WSPU medal to mark the event.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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This week, and in 2006, trouble at parliament.

This post rambles from the immediate present to the past. Bear with us. It comes together in the end.

Seems like a good week to talk about Parliament…
Some thoughts (not comprehensive, or even maybe coherent) :

  1. As a project trying to link past present and future, we are generally opposed to random acts of terror involving passers-by; but it would be hard to deny Parliament has made itself a target by a number of its actions.
  2. An attack on Parliament is not an attack on OUR democracy – our democracy is of a different more direct kind (if it is democracy at all. Jury’s out).
  3. We’re broadly opposed to organised religion and specifically to religious fundamentalism of all kinds, and attempts to impose it by force.
  4. We’re also opposed to attempts to impose the aims of the US/UK capital-political-military complex on other people around the world by force. Which has killed a few more people, though its not a competition.
  5. Religious fundamentalists are leeches, particularly adept fastening onto vulnerable people with mental health problems, grooming them and pointing them at supposed enemies. This dynamic is present in some forms of Islam. And Christianity. And Judaism. And Hinduism. And Buddhism (Other whacko faiths are available).
  6. We think religion is something we have dispense with as a species, but we’re unlikely to convince everyone soon; however, we don’t think its racist to say ‘religion is possibly not sensible’ because some people who are religious are Black or Asian. Some people use attacks on one or more religions as a human shield for basic racism. Some others use the defence of ‘don’t oppress me for my beliefs’ to cloak their misogyny, social control and hierarchical position within a given community. This makes saying what you think about things complex and fraught with pitfalls. Is this why we’re writing in this simplistic way? Or is it that we’re hung over? Who knows. Some leftist ‘anti-racists’ and even some ‘feminists’ have attacked ex-muslims for speaking openly about the abuses in Islam, deciding that if there’s a ‘hierarchy of oppression’, people resisting the religion they grew up in should remain somewhere near the bottom. Now I know why we got so drunk last night in the first place.
  7. Nationalists, like fundamentalists, justify people mowed down in your path as you attack the perceived enemy as collateral damage. Or lump them in with the enemy because they’re non-believers, come from the same part of the world as the people ruling them, etc. Are you complicit in the crimes of your bosses, monarchs, parliaments, because of the borders you ‘share’? Is it your responsibility to differentiate yourself, and (whether you do or don’t), is it your lookout when the bombers (etc) come? On the other hand I heard a well-informed caller on the radio saying we should bar any Syrian refugees from Britain on the grounds that they were ‘all cowards’ who had failed to stay and fight Assad. Genuinely. “What would have happened if WE had done that with Hitler”? (NB, this person was not alive in WW2 so the ‘we’ must have been channelling a Blitz Spirit.)
  8. And irrational fear and hate can be secular too…
    But there’s also rational fear and hate. We prefer that kind. We are, we think, rationally afraid of what people can be persuaded to do in the name of this god or that, just as we are quite reasonably opposed to using these acts to justify locking up refugees, racism, xenophobia, sometimes drowned with lashings of secular Western superiority (paid for in the blood of millions sacrificed on the altar of slavery and imperialism over the centuries). We are afraid of what nationalist dickwaving can unleash (more than one former resident of Yugoslavia has compared the post-Brexit vote atmosphere to 1990 in that ex-progressive state, just before the war); as we are opposed to swivel-brained little Englanders who have to pretend they wouldn’t like to re-introduce the birch, abolish abortion, ban women from going out to work, jail gays and reduce the minimum wage to £2.13, so as to have a swipe at ‘darkies’ who ‘won’t accept our values’. Integrate on this, you halfwits.
  1. London is differently composed to much of the ‘UK”; there has been an element of ‘Keep Calm and Carry on, Londoners Won’t Be Cowed, etc. in the wake of this week’s attack. Appeals for a sort of cosmopolitan unity; which has a kernel worth discussing, but would be debateable, if not ridiculous in the face of the massive class cleansing taking place in this city. A process not devoid of the notable dynamics, that it is increasingly migrants doing the shit work that keeps the fabulous wealth of the capital comfy, and that they and older working class communities are in danger of being shifted out en masse to the midlands to make room for more wealthy muckyfucks. No obvious sign of ‘Keep Calm and introduce Rent Controls’ posters on the tube. Fake News? Fake Unity!

To stand against religious insanity AND racist foreigner bashing AND lefty fear of calling religion daft is strangely hard for many folk at the moment, and at the risk of being labelled liberal bleaters, the times they are a wee bit grim. Maybe all we can do is continue to oppose both where we can, avoid being hustled into kneejerk bollocks, try to talk and work out alternatives in as many arenas as we can, live in a way that is open and welcoming but not afraid to ask awkward questions. And bring up our kids to think for themselves, not take any faiths on wholesale.

And punch Nazis and Nigel Farage when you can. 

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Police and parliament are likely to seize on the atmosphere generated by the attacks to introduce measures that will help them with surveillance and control, to an even greater extent than they do already. Bearing in mind the revelation in recent days that the Met employed Indian hackers to break into the email accounts of a number of activists – mainly revealed to be from the environmental movement, so far, though who knows what’s more to come? This kind of info often drips into the public arena, if it ever emerges at all. Support your local Netpol, COPS, Spies Out of Lives, and so on…

Another likely upshot could be further extension to powers to block, prevent and exclude protests from the immediate neighbourhood of Parliament (one glaring oversight in the security ring around the building being the lack of bollards that prevent drivers veering onto the pavement on Westminster Bridge, though some in the press also gleefully called for an end to cycle lanes as the attacker drove along the one on the bridge. Mysterious, the lack of calls for banning of 4x4s because he was driving one. Weird, that.)

Of course restrictions can be got around… The exclusion zone around Parliament was brought in in 2003, as we have previously discussed, as MPs cheerfully voting for mass murder of Iraqis pretended to be concerned that terrorists could infiltrate protests with the aim of an attack on Parliament. In reality this was aimed specifically at Brian Haw’s famous permanent picket protesting sanctions and war against Iraq, in Parliament Square. Iraq war, state violence, individual violence, Islamism – told you it was all connected.

Brian’s megaphone constantly echoing across the road was notoriously disturbing MPs and peers’ enjoyment of the subsidised bars and interfering with their family life (as they dictated letters to the members of their family hired on inflated wages and living rent-free in expenses-paid Mayfair flats). Their blunder, in failing to make the law to ban protests near Parlymental retrospective had us pissing ourselves, as Brian’s picket pre-dated the Act, and he managed to stay put and beat any number of court appearances and attempts to get round this loophole. Till a judge finally ruled the law WAS in fact retrospective, despite not saying so, and calling the idea that it wasn’t “manifestly absurd”, although in, like EVERY OTHER CASE acts of parliament state clearly when they apply from. We Are At War With Eurasia. We Have Always Been At War With Eurasia.

In the meantime Brian Haw and others who joined him were nicked repeatedly, usually for ‘unauthorised demonstration’, obstruction, refusing to surrender a megaphone or banner…

For instance, on this date 11 years ago, (March 26, 2006) Brian was arrested when he refused to give one of his banners to the police. The banner had been held by a supporter, Barbara Tucker (while holding a pink sequinned banner “Bliar War Criminal”), who was protesting with Brian and was arrested under Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Both were later released without charge but were ‘reported’ to the CPS. Throughout the process Brian refused to hand over the banner or any of his other possessions. A Formal Complaint over this arrest was never investigated. They were both issued with a Summons to court, served on 9th May 2006, but on 14th September that year Police & CPS lost this one – the case failed because of abuse of process.

Brian Haw continued, with others, to protest in Parliament Square. He died in June 2011.

Lots more on Brian’s protest 

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

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Today in London rebel history: riots erupt against the Corn Laws, 1815

The Corn Laws had their origin in the ‘total war’ waged between Britain (and numerous allies) and revolutionary/Napoleonic France between 1793 and 1815. Napoleon’s blockade of Britain after 1806 accelerated enclosure of common lands, as MPs voted in over 1900 enclosure acts to ensure enough grain could be produced to support Britain and her allies. (The legal machinery for enclosure was simplified in an attempt to speed up the process with the 1801 with the General Enclosure Act. This Act saw the peak of the Agricultural Revolution.)

As all trade with Europe was ended, British landowners ended the war with a virtual monopoly of domestic grain markets. The result of this artificial scarcity of foodstuffs, together with a series of bad harvests in Britain, was a rapid rise in prices accompanied by fluctuations in the trade cycle.

At the end of the French Wars, corn prices plummeted to nearly half their war level, causing panic among the farmers – many of whom were also voters. As a result the government of Lord Liverpool government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815, to ensure the high incomes of farmers and landowners. MPs argued that prices had fallen due to an influx of ‘foreign corn’ after the resumption of trade with Europe. Opponents argued that landowners should reduce rents to ease pressure on farmers – a parliament and government representing the landowners reacted as you might expect…

These laws were intended to stabilise wheat prices at 80/- per quarter. They laid down that no foreign grain could be imported until domestic grain reached that price. The laws protected the intensified agriculture and expanded grain farms that had emerged in the war, but predictably failed to solve the problem of high prices. Prices fluctuated at high levels, encouraging the hoarding of corn.

This was class legislation at its most blatant. It made sure aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported. The Houses of Commons and Lords passed the law with Parliament surrounded by soldiers, knowing well enough what the law meant for the poor.

In response the poor of London rioted – knowing that that, having faced 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier. High food process were compounded by a trade recession and mass unemployment, as the war economy crashed and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors were demobbed.

Rioting broke out in the area around Parliament as the Acts were being debated, and spread out around London and Westminster as the London houses of the MPs and lords held most responsible were targeted by crowds:

“About the usual hour of the Meeting of Parliament on Monday, there were assembled in different parts, from George-street, to Abingdon-street, various groupes of persons, not numerous at first, all declaring against the Corn Bill, and inveighing against such of the Members as had been most active in support of it. There had previously been a great number of persons in the lobby and avenues of the House, and a considerable quantity of constables have been posted in them, to prevent too great a pressure and disturbance.

The persons who were forced to quit the lobby and passages, took post on the outside of the house. In these groupes were several who were well acquainted with the persons of many leading Members of both Houses, and pointed them out as they came down to attend their duty.—”That is Lord Grenville—that Lord Stanhope—that the Chancellor of the Exchequer”—and hooting or applause followed as the Member passing was known to be friendly or unfriendly to the Corn Bill.—Meanwhile loud shouts of “No Corn Bill!” raised without the House, were distinctly heard within it. For some time the groupes confined themselves to these manifestations of pleasure or displeasure. At length many of the carriages of the Members were stopped, and the Members forced to walk through the crowd amidst hooting and hissing. The civil power now was found to be insufficient for the protection of the Members, and the Magistrates having applied to the Speaker, received an order to call in the military to act under the civil power. Several of the Members, however, had been very roughly handled. They were called upon by the populace to tell their names, and how they had voted or intended to vote. Mr. Fitzgerald, the Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, was treated in this way. Mr. Croker’s life was more seriously endangered; his carriage was beset by a mob, who made the enquiries to which we have just alluded, he refused to answer them; on his arrival at the house, both doors of the carriages were forced open, and upon stepping out, he was seized by the collar, and received several blows; same question was repeated to him, and the mob said, he should never enter the House alive if he did not tell his name and his sentiments on the Corn Bill. He still refused, and probably would not have escaped without the most serious injury, if at all, if the mob in their violence and confusion, had not directed their rage against each other. Those who suggested one mode, were opposed by others, and enforcing their arguments by blows, Mr. Croker fortunately made his escape into the Coffee-house of the Lords, and from thence into the House of Commons.

The Attorney General, though assailed at first much in the same manner as Mr. Croker, escaped more easily. He gave the mob his name, and told them he should vote as his conscience would direct him.

The military however succeeded in suppressing the tumult near the House, and the immediate vicinity remained clear during the rest of the night. But the populace, driven from this scene, repaired to other parts of the town—”to Mr. Robinsons!” “To Lord Eldon’s!” “To Lord Darnley’s!” “To Lord Ellenborough’s!” was the cry, and groups report repaired forthwith to one or the other of the houses these Noblemen and Gentlemen.

Having supposed the Hon. Mr. Robinson’s residence to be in Charles’s-square, they went thither, and did not leave the street till they learned he had moved to Burlington-street. As soon as they had fixed upon his house, they broke the windows in every floor, demolished the parlour shutters, and split the doors into pieces. The iron rails before the house were torn up, and instantly carried off. Rushing into the house, they then cut to pieces many valuable pictures, destroying some of the larger pieces of furniture, and threw the rest into the street, to be trampled to pieces by their associates.” (Chester Chronicle).

Frederick John Robinson MP had introduced the Corn Bill to Parliament. From his half trashed gaff soldiers stationed to prevent further attacks shot two passers-by who had nothing to do with the violence. Nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house, was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene. Another person was also said to have been killed here.

“From Mr. Robinson’s they ran to the house of Lord Darnleys, Mr. Yorke’s, Lord Hardwicke’s, Mr. Meux’s, in Berkeley-square. They broke every window at each place, and demolished the doors, what were prevented from going within.

Another account says, that having mustered about the centre of the street, and not amounting at their arrival to more than fifty or sixty, one (we understand a person well dressed) was selected to ascertain the residence of Mr. Robinson. He knocked at the door, and being informed that Mr. Robinson was not at home, he continued for a short time in conversation with the servant who opened it, when, on a preconcerted signal being given, the others rushed in and proceeded to the work of devastation. The demolition of the furniture occupied little more than an hour.

At ten o’clock, a mob, amounting to about 300, not more, entered Bedford-square, from the corner next Oxford-street, and proceeded to the house of the Lord Chancellor…” (Chester Chronicle).

John Scott, Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor, had been pursued from the house of Lords to his house. Ironically, Eldon seems himself have been opposed to the Corn Laws, but on balance, he was a bad bad bastard! Early on in his political rise, as Attorney General, Eldon brought in the Act suspending Habeus Corpus in 1794, allowing people to be imprisoned without trial, and acted as chief prosecutor in a treason trial against leading members of the radical reform organisation, the London Corresponding Society – though his case was so weak and his speechifying so hysterical, they were famously acquitted. Appointed Lord Chief Justice and later Lord Chancellor, he became a crucial wedge of the most repressive government in modern times, which repressed numerous working class movements, and quashed several revolts and conspiracies, including the Despard conspiracy, the Black Lamp, the Luddites, among the most famous. Eldon was a notorious advocate of hanging for the most petty offences, an ardent opponent of the abolition of slavery in the Colonies.

So the London Crowd hated his guts anyway, and may have felt they’d seize the chance to do for him in the general ruck. They broke all the windows ; broke into the house and smashed as much as they could, throwing Eldon’s papers into the street; only the arrival of a party of soldiers prevented them from their aim of hanging Eldon from a lamppost in Bedford Square, a noose having been prepared for the same…
Eldon and the soldiers grabbed two rioters and dragged them inside: Eldon told them: “If you don’t mind what you are about lads, you will all come to be hanged.” A rioter replied, “Perhaps so, old chap, but I think it looks now as if you would be hanged first.”
Sadly Eldon was to wear no hemp necklace.

The two arrested men were sent before a justice of peace, but the soldiers refused to be witnesses against them. A garrison of 50 soldiers was stationed outside Eldon’s house for 3 weeks, since “persons in the front of the house from time to time using menacing language and threats, whenever from the streets they saw any persons in the house.”

Other MPs residences received similar treatment:

“The house of Lord Ellenborough in St. James’s square, was also attacked, and considerably injured. Soon after they had commenced their assault upon the house, his Lordship, in the most intrepid manner, presented himself at the door, and inquired the cause of the outrages upon his dwelling? The reply was “No Corn Bill, No Corn Bill:” on which his Lordship addressed them in a few words, the purpose of which we have not heard, but the effect was that the mob instantly cheered the Noble Lord and departed. They next proceeded to assail some other houses in the same square, but a party of the Life Guards approached by this time in full gallop, and the square in a few minutes was completely cleared. This, we understand, was the case in every other part of the town where the assailants appeared, and by one o’clock they were no longer to be seen in bodies; straggling individuals only were observable, and the military continuing to patrole the streets and squares, no further attempt to disturb the public tranquillity was any where made.

THE RIOTS—were renewed on Tuesday night, and with fatal consequences. Every person going to the Houses of Parliament was examined by constables, and no tumult occurred till after the House of Commons adjourned. Afterwards, however, the mob assembled, and made two attacks on Lord Castlereagh’s house; they renewed their violence against the houses of Mr. Robinson, and Lord Darnley; their next objects with those of Mr. Yorke, Mr. Bathurst, Lord King, Lord Lascelles, Mr. Weston, Mr Wellesley Pole, Sir H. Parnell, Sir W. Rowe, &c. The windows of many private persons were demolished by mistake; but none were entered, owing to the activity of the soldiery. It appears that the mob had actually collected some bags of shavings, for the purpose of setting fire to Mr. Robinson’s house, at the moment the guards arrived, and several wheelbarrows full of stones, were emptied in the street, to facilitate the work of destruction!

In these movements, we lament to say, one man and one woman were killed, and three persons wounded. The man was shot through the head with slugs; he was dressed in uniform of a midshipman, and was immediately conveyed to a public house. He proved to be a son of Mr. Dodd, printseller, in Parliament-street, and had gone out shortly before, for the purpose of viewing the operations of the mob. The woman was a widow of a sailor, and had left her friends with a promise to return in half an hour.

A large train of artillery was brought on Friday from Woolwich. More troops have arrived or are on their road. Two fresh regiments of light dragoons are quartered at Kensington and Bow. Ten thousand horse and foot could be called out in an hour, if it were necessary.”

(Chester Chonicle, 17th March 1815).

The riots continued in various parts of the town during the 7th, 8th, and 9th of March. By this time, however, the houses of the Lord Chancellor, and of many other leading members of the Ministry and of the Legislature, were garrisoned with soldiers ; and, London being ultimately surrounded by troops on every hand, the disturbances ended.

Other disturbances around the country commenced with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815 and continued intermittently until the end of 1816. In London and Westminster riots ensued and were continued for several days; at Bridport there were riots on account of the high price of bread; at Bideford there were similar disturbances to prevent the export of grain; at Bury by the unemployed to destroy machinery; at Newcastle-on-Tyne by colliers and others; at Glasgow, where blood was shed, on account of soup kitchens; at Preston, by unemployed weavers; at Nottingham by Luddites who destroyed 30 frames; at Merthyr Tydvil, on a reduction of wages; at Birmingham by the unemployed; at Walsall by the distressed; and December 7th, 1816, at Dundee, where, owing to the high price of meal, upwards of 100 shops were plundered. Other riots and demonstrations with an avowedly political bent, like the 1816 Spa Fields Riot, and the 1819 Peterloo massacre, were strongly influenced by the mass poverty of the time, in which the high price of bread was a major factor.

Although rioting died down, over the next three decades, the Corn Laws remained a hot issue economically, with periodic agitations for their repeal, usually driven by a middle class movement based in the manufacturing strata, who saw the introduction of complete free trade as being ideologically and economically in their and the national economy’s best interests. This became focussed with the founding of the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. The rising class of manufacturers and industrial workers (who were under-represented in Parliament, as compared to he old landowning aristos) wanted to maximise their profits from manufacture by reducing the wages they paid to their factory workers, but complained that the Con Laws kept the price of bread so high, they were unable to reduce wage levels to the pittance levels they desired—men could not work in the factories if a factory wage was not enough to feed them and their families. Lovely. Chartists and socialists accused the anti-Corn Law League of only being interested in reducing wages, but needing to enlist mass support from the working classes so as to put pressure on the Tory protectionists.

Eventually a combination of this long agitation for repeal, a succession poor harvests and the resulting hardship (starvation in Ireland), and the threat of reviving Chartist campaigning, led to the Corn Laws being repealed in 1846, amidst much political shenanigans, and against strong opposition from landowning interests.

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

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Today on repressive history: habeas corpus suspended in goverment crackdown on radicals, 1817.

The Habeas Corpus Act passed by Parliament in 1679 guaranteed that a person detained by the authorities would have to be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined. In times of social unrest, Parliament had the power to suspend Habeas Corpus. William Pitt did this in May 1793 during the war with France, targetting pro-reform activists, publishers issuing radical texts, and others influenced by the French Revolution. Parliamentary reformers such as Thomas Hardy and John Thelwall were imprisoned as a result of this action.

Habeas Corpus was also suspended in January 1817, during the post-Napoleonic War economic and political crisis.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an upsurge in demands for political reform and the extension of the vote. This was also fuelled by the collapse of the war economy into recession and mass unemployment; thousands of soldiers and sailors were being discharged with little prospect of work, too – a dynamic common to large-scale wars: compare the pressures for social change after World Wars 1 and 2 (many sailors and soldiers were also being demobbed unpaid – it was common for navy and army pay to be owed years in arrears then). On top of this a rampant succession of new laws, abolishing old protections for workers and the poor, in the interests of the factory owners, merchants and employers, was introducing unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, with devastating consequences for the lower classes.

Mass radical agitation – for reform of the notoriously corrupt and elitist political system, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived not seen since the 1790s.

Mass rallies in the Autumn of 1816 culminated in the Spa Fields Riot in December, which left the government afraid of the possibilities of radials inspiring mass uprisings of the desperate poor… Sidmouth, the Home Secretary in Lord Liverpool’s government, had been receiving reports from his spies and informers that a revolution was in the making in the north of England.

After a missile (whether a bullet or a stone was never determined) shattered the glass window of the Prince Regent’s coach, as he was on his way to the opening of Parliament, the government accused supporters of parliamentary reform of fomenting political violence: Lord Liverpool’s government rushed laws through Parliament to clamp down on dissent.

On 4 March 1817, Habeas Corpus was suspended; the suspension was not lifted until January 1818. The Seditious Meetings Act was passed and continued in force until 24 July 1818: it was designed to ensure that all reforming ‘Societies and Clubs … should be utterly suppressed and prohibited as unlawful combinations and confederacies’. No meeting of more than fifty persons could be held without the prior consent of the magistrates.

At the same time, home Secretary Lord Sidmouth sent out a Home Office circular informing magistrates of their powers to arrest persons suspected of disseminating seditious libel. He ordered the Lords Lieutenant to apprehend all printers of seditious and blasphemous materials, all writers of the same, and demagogues. However, he failed with the attempt to prosecute the writers and printers because of Fox’s 1792 Libel Act; only one printer was convicted.

The political reformer and trade union activist (and informer!) Francis Place later estimated that between March 1817 and Autumn 1818, 96 people had been detained on charges of treason in England and 37 in Scotland (though Home Office papers show much lower figures). Most of these were later released without being tried.

The Gagging Acts severely hampered the campaign for parliamentary reform. However, as soon as Parliament decided to restore Habeas Corpus in March, 1818, there was an immediate revival in the demands for universal suffrage.

But if the government thought the Gagging Acts would mean the agitation and pressure for change would die down – they were sadly mistaken.

Even if the Acts did silence some vocal reformers others sprang up. Thus, as veteran radical journalist William Cobbett fled the country in March 1817, reckoning the Acts were aimed especially at himself, other newspapers emerged to take on the mantle of his influential Political Register, like the Black Dwarf and Sherwin’s Political Register.

And the repression wasn’t just answered in words… Hampden Clubs, radical debating societies and groups discussing and advocating reform had mushroomed across the country. Amongst those gathering to work for political reform, there were elements who believed only an uprising could deliver political change; to some extent the Gagging Acts strengthened their hand. Hundreds of thousands were facing intense poverty; thousands were incensed by the political repression; among them some were willing to join conspiracies aimed at revolution.

Even as the Acts were being debated in Parliament, the March of the Blanketeers began, in March 1817, a hunger march of its time, calling for government help for Lancashire workers in response to the economic distress and government repression. The marchers were violently dispersed and arrested.

This was swiftly followed by the arrest of alleged conspirators plotting insurrection in Ardwick Bridge in Manchester, and then in June, by the Pentrich Rising, an attempt to launch a revolutionary uprising in Derbyshire, by workers convinced by government spy that a network of similar risings was planned elsewhere. There is evidence that similar plans were afoot in a number of places, but linked only by informers, and the premature events in Derbyshire and some arrests elsewhere led only to disaster.

But plots continued, amidst a rising climate of demands for reform, which climaxed with the violent repression of the massacre of Peterloo in 1819 (where the  Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry, formed to combat any future attempts at insurrection after the Blanketeers march and Ardwick Bridge arrests savagely attacked a mass rally calling for political reform)

… and a final abortive wave of insurrectionary plans that ended with the Cato Street Conspiracy, and a botched Scottish attempt at revolution in 1820…

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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in parliamentary history: hunger marchers occupy House of Commons, 1934.

In the sharp recession following World War 1, hundreds of thousands of working people were thrown into unemployment, including many who had taken part in strikes and industrial unrest before and during the war. As thousands of soldiers were demobilised from the army, and the war economy was suddenly wound down, struggles over rights to relief, and facilities for the unemployed, broke out all over the UK. Initially organised through local committees of the unemployed, most federated by 1921 into the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement (usually known as the NUWM), which was to be the main vehicle for unemployed organising for 20 years.

One of the tactics the NUWM became well-known for was organising national hunger marches. Groups of the unemployed would assemble in different towns and converge in contingents on London, to protest unemployment and the restrictions, rules and hardships those on the dole had to face. Hunger marches took place in 1922, 1927, 1930,1932, 1934 and alongside the Jarrow Crusade in 1936. Often the marches would last over a month with thousands marching in bitter winter conditions.

The hunger marches drew the public’s attention to the plight of areas that the politicians and capitalists wished to ignore. Successive Tory, Labour and National Government prime ministers refused to meet deputations of the hunger marchers.

In 1922, over one million people were unemployed and those out of work were confronted with a 19th century poor relief system. It was in these conditions that the first hunger march took place.

The second hunger march from the South Wales coalfield to London concluded a nine month strike following the 1926 General Strike. The march was supported by miners’ leader A.J Cook and by the South Wales Miners Federation but denounced by right wing trade union leaders.

In the midst of the early 1930s Great Depression, unemployment rose to three million with hundreds of thousands even in the ‘prosperous, non-distressed’ south east and midlands joining the dole queues. Successive governments were determined that as much as possible working people should bear the brunt of the recession, and that as little as possible be spent on benefits to those out of work and their families. Savage regulations imposed on claimants made receiving any benefits a humiliating and vicious process. The ‘Not genuinely Seeking Work’ clause was used to cut off dole from anyone deemed not to be looking hard enough for work; the Means Test forced people to sell everything they had before receiving benefits and forced the unwaged to undergo humiliating examinations to prove they were virtually destitute before they could get the benefits.

The 1930 hunger march was organised as unemployment was rapidly increasing in the aftermath of the 1929 economic crisis. The bosses made ‘rationalisation’ agreements with the union leaders that were leading to speed ups in production and many skilled workers being thrown onto the dole queues. The minority Labour government increased attacks on the unemployed.

Again the march struggled to receive support from the official trade union movement. This was partly due to the right wing in the unions but also was a result of the Communist Party and NUWM leaders’ ultra-left policy of denouncing the Labour Party as ‘social fascist’. The Labour government ordered that the 1,000 marchers were to be treated as vagrants.

Of all the hunger marches, the 1932 march, which carried a one million strong petition against the means test (to qualify for the dole), was the most brutally treated, facing constant police harassment. Mass uprisings against the means test in Birkenhead and Belfast in 1932 resulted in confrontations with the police and won concessions from local authorities on poor relief.

The betrayal of Labour leader Ramsay McDonald in joining a national government with the Tories added fuel to the fire. The hunger marchers were met with a police riot in London and the NUWM leadership was jailed. But the march won concessions as benefits were raised.

In 1934 another hunger march against the means test took place, protesting cuts in unemployment benefit, the means test, and demanding decent levels of ‘relief’. A women’s contingent was also organised and demands for maternity benefit were raised.

When the marchers arrived in London, they and the NUWM leadership pressed for the government to meet them to discuss their demands, or allow them to speak in the House of Commons; the government initially refused. However, Ramsay MacDonald, then prime minster, heading a National (coalition government) suggested they lobby their MPs. The marchers decided to take them at their word, and infiltrated themselves into parliament in small groups on 28th February, singing and chanting.

The next day they returned to Parliament:

“The marchers again went to the House on Thursday 1st March. Three hundred succeeded in getting into the outer lobby and twenty-four into the public gallery. The suddenly a cry rang out from the gallery: “Meet the hunger marchers!” “We refuse to starve in silence!” “Down with the National Government!” The House was startled; police rushed to the spot from which the disturbance had come, and when they attempted to evict the marchers struggles ensued. Members of Parliament, looking up, saw what probably few of them had seen before – uniformed police being used in the public gallery in addition to plain-clothes-men. Suddenly, at the other end of the chamber in the ladies gallery, above the Speaker’s chair, a woman was heard shouting, “Don’t knock those men about!” She was removed by the police.

When the news reached the central lobby that fighting had broken out in the gallery, the 300 marchers who had succeeded in gaining admission started vigorously singing the “internationale”. Police reinforcements were rushed from all parts of the House and fighting took place in the lobby. The marchers were eventually ejected and the police thought that they had put an end to the disturn=bances, but there were still marchers in various parts of the House, and three times during the evening scenes broke out in the gallery and in the lobby.”

London was filled with marchers and their supporters; large demonstrations took place virtually daily, and massive pressure was put on the government. In the end, this had some effect: in the 1934 budget, ten per cent cuts to benefit rates were reversed, which had been one of the main demands of the march.

Some aid was also announced for some of the most distressed areas of the country, and to suspend the brutal assessment of benefit claimants by the Unemployed Assistance Board.

The hunger marches did form part of the pressure that was able to win concessions from successive governments. To some extent, however, analysing the history of the NUWM and the unemployed movement of the 1920s/30s, the hunger marches stand out the most, mobilizing thousands and receiving national attention. It is true however that the unemployed movement was more effective when its activities were concentrated locally around practical targets, as in the early 1920s. The increased centralisation of the NUWM, its domination by activists from the Communist Party (reflected in its policies) and its narrowing of focus to high profile stunts like the hunger marches, reduced its innovative early impact somewhat.

It has been speculated that the NUWM’s most important effects were not necessarily in the benefit rates or regulations altered. Bringing a collective approach to unemployment, getting people together and resisting their individual situation as a movement, counters the atomisation that signing on tends to impose. The solidarity, feeling like you are not alone, is a powerful weapon in the face of despair and hardship. NUWM leaders also said later that they believed that the movements’ domination of unemployed politics was a factor in the failure of British fascist groups to seriously recruit the unemployed on a large scale, as happened in Germany and Italy.

For more on the the unemployed struggles of the 1920s-40s, it’s worth reading Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, by Richard Croucher.

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

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Today in London’s legal history: Robert Nixon, bomber of parliament, jailed for 5 years, 1737.

It wasn’t much of a bomb…

In July 1736 an explosive device went off in the Court of Chancery in the Houses of Parliament. Little damage was done; but the explosion projected an attached package of seditious handbills throughout the House of commons. The papers, condemning five recently passed Acts of Parliament, were scattered across the lobby of Westminster Hall. Peers and judges flew into a panic, climbing over each others backs to escape the smoke and confusion, tearing their ornate gowns and losing their wigs in the chaos.

The paper, mocking the language used by Parliament when publicly burning seditious books, read:

‘By a general consent of the citizens and tradesmen of London, Westminster and the borough of Southwark, this being the last day of term, were publickly burnt, between the hours of twelve and two, at the Royal Exchange, Cornhill, at Westminster Hall… and at Margaret’s Hill, Southwark, as destructive of the product, trade and manufacture of this kingdom and the plantations thereto belonging, and tending to the utter subversion of the liberties and properties thereof, the five following printed books, or libels, called Acts of parliament.”

The authorities were worried this was the opening of a popular revolt, especially since the act that headed the list was the Gin Act, introducing heavy excises on gin, and licensing/restricting its production (to try to reduce the English love of getting hammered on ‘Madam Geneva’), which had aroused popular rage.

A spike in gin drinking had become the moral panic of its day. Economic protectionism was a major factor in beginning the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers suddenly had the opportunity to spend excess funds on liquor. By 1721, however, Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”.

As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson (who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a ‘drunken ungovernable set of people’). Prominent anti-gin campaigners included magistrate and author Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Josiah Tucker, Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and – briefly – William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers.

However, it was the work of Robert Nixon, described as “an unbalanced non-juror” (someone who had refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the king). Nixon was in fact probably attempting to exploit this discontent for other aims; he was the leader of a small bunch of Jacobites, followers of the rival royal claimant to the throne, James Stuart.

This ‘very extra-ordinary insult… a wicked and traitorous design’ and ‘most impudent and daring insult’ embarrassed the authorities, striking at the heart of the kingdom, puny as the device had been.

Although James Stuart’s father had been driven out of England by a concerted coup backed by a more or less popular movement (at least in London), there was a lingering residue of support for the Jacobite cause.

In many ways, as the likelihood of actual restoration of the Stuarts receded, English Jacobitism became muddied with a more general resentment of the authority, so that Jacobitism came to the fore to express discontents and protests of the day, often about more day to day matters. The cause of the ‘king over the water’ became a kind or romantic dream of a better life; “a way of withholding support” from the hated regime of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Wearing white cockades (a Jacobite symbol) or toasting king James became a satirical way of winding up the establishment.

Nixon and his mates printed another paper proclaiming James the rightful king, which they flyposted everywhere; but they were all nicked, and Nixon was tried in February 1737, and jailed on the 10th, for five years, fined heavily and ordered to provide sureties for life for his good behaviour.

In the meantime, however, anger at the Gin Act sparked rioting, attacks on the magistrates enforcing the rules and lynchings of informers grassing up unlicensed distillers… Illegal gin production rocketed, and exciting new ways of distributing the product clandestinely were developed… Rumours of an impending revolt fuelled by gin terrified the government (In fact it didn’t materialise, though you could make a case that it was delayed 43 years and manifested in the Gordon Riots). But it took fifteen years for gin consumption to substantially decline, after several Acts of Parliament, it was rising grain prices and falling wages that restricted gin’s appeal…

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

This week in London radical history: Women blockade Parliament, 1642, protesting against war, recession and poverty.

The English civil war of the 1640s exposed and encouraged an explosion of radial and pioneering political and social thought. A substantial driver of the conflict had been ideology – a striving for freedom of religious worship. But economics was also heavily involved – restrictions on the ability of the middle classes to better themselves through trade, maintained by monopolies licensed by the king and bolstered by custom and autocratic rule, were hampering the rise of the bourgeoisie.

But Parliament acting on behalf of the moderate bourgeois interests, called on the lower orders to fight, enlisting them with appeals that seemed to offer them the fruits of the struggle – greater freedoms, religious tolerance… However this opened up many cans of worms, as the war agitated maelstroms of ideas and produced a surge of aspiration from below, much to the horror of the moderate leadership.

But the war had also been partly emerged from a lingering trade recession, and the war economy was to worsen this. And this was to open up the worst of nightmares for the Parliamentary worthies – rebellious women.

Women had been a major part of the crowds who had mobilised against the king in 1640; they had formed a substantial contingent of the volunteers who had build a ring of forts around the whole city when the king’s army threatened it in 1642. But rage and poverty would set them against Parliament; not just against the king and his party, but against all “the haves… set up for themselves, call parity and independence liberty… destroy all rights and properties, all distinctions of families and merit.” As Stevie Davies put it, “they were driven not by ideology but by pragmatic hatred of war.”

In the very earliest days of the war, a reaction in London was already beginning – among women of the City. On 31st January 1642, as Parliament and king Charles were only just marshalling their armies, crowds of women protested at Parliament. “They were hungry; the economy had nose-dived into depression, and mobs of the ‘rabble’ were daily clamouring for relief at the House of Lords (’popish Lords’ whose lack of co-operation they blamed for their present catastrophe). What the women wanted was bread for their children, who they threatened to plant on the Lords to mother.”

When as several hundred women surrounded Parliament, the king’s cousin, the Duke of Richmond, (who they waylaid as he rode up in his coach), laid into them with his ducal staff, crying ‘Away with these Women, we were best to have a parliament of women!’ Angry women grabbed his staff and it got broken in the tussle. The Duke was regarded as a ‘dangerous malignant’, a prominent supporter of the king and enemy of parliament and people.

Another aristo, Lord Savage, despite his name, tried a more conciliatory approach, delivering the women’s petition to the Lords, who agreed to see representatives of the crowd to hear their grievances.

But immediate respite was not forthcoming, and on February 1st a crowd of women surged around the House of Commons: “great multitudes of women at the Houses, pressing to present a Petition to the Parliament; and their language is, that where there is One Woman now here, there would be five hundred tomorrow; and that it was as good for them to die here as at home.”

The crowd were persuaded by Sergeant-Major Skippon, commander of the City Militia, to leave the Commons to consider their pleas…

The next day also a blockade of Old Palace Yard, protesting that the recession was driving them to poverty.

On the 4th, however, another group of women assembled, bringing a petition against the Bishops (also seen as supporters of the king and oppressors of the people). Anne Stagg, ‘a gentlewoman and a brewer’s wife’, led a deputation of women of like status, addressing parliament in a more genteel manner, and received a much friendlier welcome…

By August the following year, crowds of distressed women had become ‘Peace Women’, who flocked to Parliament, wearing white ribbons, and demanding and end to the war and the privations and death it was bringing. This time, the women were beaten by soldiers and driven from Westminster violently, and denounced as “oyster wives, and other dirty tattered sluts…” or “whores, bawds… kitchenstuff women… the very scum of the suburbs”, who were the willing or unconscious dupes of the royalists. The Peace women may have called for peace, but peaceful they were not, targeting figures of authority, roughing them up; they also beat up the Trained Bands, the citizen volunteers, and derided the lying promises of the officials. They besieged Parliament and barred the doors; pelted the soldiers with brickbats, and threatened to duck the Parliamentary leaders in the Thames (traditionally a male punishment for ‘scolds’).

Again they were driven violently off by soldiers, some were cut by sword-wielding cavalry, others arrested and jailed in the Bridewell.

Women would continue to erupt into the male-dominated world of the civil war, while the men essentially attempted to block them from having a voice. They would begin to preach in the streets (outraging conservative opinion beyond belief), campaign in support of the Levellers, even as the Levellers drew up plans for a wider franchise that continued to exclude all women; would form vital elements of the ranters, quakers, and other sects and groupings; Fifth monarchist women would issue prophesies and call Oliver Cromwell to account. And just as many of the gains of the English Revolution would, at least for a while, be lost and driven backward, women’s part in these events would be ignored and marginalised by historians.

Much of this is lifted from the wondrous ‘Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution’, by Stevie Davies, which uncovers some of these women’s stories… Essential reading.

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

Today in parliamentary history: George Lansbury protests torture of jailed suffragettes & gets suspended from Parliament, 1912.

George Lansbury, Labour MP for Bow and Bromley, peace activist, opponent of the Boer War and World War 1, and probably the most leftwing leader the Labour Party ever had (without exception), was also a passionate supporter of the campaign for women to be win the right to vote.

His support sometimes got him into trouble…

Suffrage activists from the Women’s Social & Political Union had engaged in a campaign of direct action to press for votes for women. Smashing windows, attacking the odd politician… Their tactics had escalated to arson. In response to the increased fury of the movement the Liberal government had been jailing suffragettes, and force-feeding them when they went on hunger strike. Force-feeding was a brutal and dangerous procedure which left many women permanently injured.

On 25 June 1912 the Speaker suspended him from Parliament. The pacifist Lansbury, white with rage over the forcible feeding of imprisoned suffragettes, had shaken his fist in the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith’s face, shouting “You will go down to history as a man who tortured innocent women.”

In response to an appeal to release imprisoned suffragettes, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had replied they could leave prison that day of they would give an undertaking not to repeat their offences.

This enraged Lansbury, who shouted: “You know the women cannot give such an undertaking! It is ridiculous to ask them to give an undertaking!”

Shouts of “Order, Order cam from all over the house, but Lansbury continued, and came forward towards the prime minster… He “immediately launched himself at the Treasury Bench shaking his fist in the faces of Premier Asquith and the other ministers. With his face only a few inches from that of Mr Asquith, Mr Lansbury screamed:’ Why, you’re beneath contempt. You call yourself a gentleman, and you forcibly feed and murder women in this fashion. You ought to be driven out of office.”

Described as ‘almost choking with emotion and passion’, Lansbury carried on, despite the speaker telling him to leave, and other MPs shouting their disapproval.

“It is the most disgraceful thing that has happened in England. You are going to go down to history as the man who tortured innocent women. The government have tortured women. It is disgraceful, disgusting, contemptible. You are murdering these poor women. You cannot tell them they they have the opportunity of walking out of prison. You know they can’t do it.”

The house was quickly consumed in disorder. The Speaker finally secured quiet and “ordered Mr Lansbury to leave. He replied, ‘I am not going out while these contemptible thugs are torturing and murdering women.’ He yelled this in a loud voice and appeared to be much overwrought, but when the Speaker warned him that he would be forcibly thrown out unless he went of his own accord the Labour members gathered about their colleague and induced him to quit.”

Lansbury found little support in his fight for women’s suffrage from his parliamentary Labour colleagues, whom he dismissed as “a weak, flabby lot”. In parliament, he denounced the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, for the cruelties being inflicted on imprisoned suffragists: “You are beneath contempt … you ought to be driven from public life”. He was temporarily suspended from the House for “disorderly conduct”.

He was ordered to leave the chamber by the Speaker, or he’d be ejected.

Lansbury’s passion on the issue came not only from his fierce sense of principle. A number of the suffragists facing force-feeding were his friends and comrades.

Later that year, Lansbury resigned his seat, to re-stand as a ‘Votes for Women’ candidate, but lost. Support for women’s suffrage among Labour voters was mixed – many of Lansbury’s previous supporters refused to support his position.

Campaigning on the same issue in 1913, he refused to be bound over to ‘keep the peace’ and was sentenced to six months imprisonment, part of which was remitted after he went on hunger strike.

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

Today in legislative history: Ordinance of Labourers passed to stop plebs bettering wages/conditions, 1349.

“Whereas late against the malice of servants, which were idle, and not willing to serve after the pestilence, without taking excessive wages, it was ordained by our lord the king… that such manner of servants… should be bound to serve, receiving salary and wages, accustomed in places where they ought to serve… five or six years before; and that the same servants refusing to serve… should be punished by imprisonment…”

Between 1348 and 1351 a virulent plague known as the Black Death devastated Europe. Historians estimate that between 30% and 50% of the English population died from the disease. This dramatic loss in population led to great changes taking place. Fields were left unsown and unreaped. Entire villages lay abandoned. Those who had not died of the plague were in danger of dying from starvation.

Food shortages also resulted in much higher prices. The peasants, needing extra money to feed their families, demanded higher wages. The landowners, desperately short of labour, often agreed to these wage demands. The landowners were worried that if they refused, their workers would run away and find an employer who was willing to pay these higher wages.

The feudal system had largely restricted freedom of movement for the poor, especially those who worked the land – the serfs. Landowners had to keep their workforce, the source of the wealth, labouring for them by force, or threat of force, or by law (really the same thing, since the law was entirely in the hands of the ruling elites). They feared rebellion (in retribution for the vicious treatment and grinding poverty of their existence), or gradual or mass absconding to find somewhere better – usually this meant to the towns, where conditions were laxer and some eventually became free.

The labour shortages caused by the Black Death threatened to shatter this tense system; the bargaining power was suddenly with the labouring poor.

In 1348, Ralph, Earl of Stafford, and John Giffard were paying their farm labourers one pence a day. By 1350 they were forced to increase it to two pence a day. Other local landowners were paying three pence a day. John Giffard warned the Earl of Stafford that there was a danger that the serfs would leave Yalding in an effort to obtain higher wages.

Landowners like the Earl of Stafford complained to king Edward III about having to pay these higher wages. The landowners were also worried about the peasants roaming the country searching for better job opportunities.

The king issued the Ordinance of Labourers on June 18th 1349, in what is seen as the beginning of English Labour law. It decreed that

  • Everyone under 60 must work.
  • Employers must not hire excess workers
  • Employers may not pay and workers may not receive wages higher than pre-plague levels
  • Food must be priced reasonably with no excess profit

The Ordinance, however, was largely ineffective – mainly because it flew in the face of the material needs of both landowner and worker. In 1351, Parliament attempted to reinforce the Ordinance, by passing the Statute of Labourers Act. This law made it illegal for employers to pay wages above the level offered in 1346.

Some employers, who were desperately short of workers tended to ignore the law. This was especially true of those employers living in towns. Some freemen who had skills in great demand, such as carpenters and masons, began to leave their villages. Serfs became angry when they heard of the wages that people were earning in towns. Some serfs legged it, heading to towns in search of higher wages. Large numbers of serfs went to London. Most of these serfs could only find unskilled manual work. By 1360 over 40,000 people were living in London, swelling a poor and often rebellious population.

Any serfs who got caught was taken back to their village and punished: however, it was difficult and counter-productive for the lords of the manor to punish them too harshly. Execution, imprisonment and mutilation only made the labour shortage worse, so most runaways were fined. Sometimes runaway serfs were branded on the forehead. The rest of the serfs’ tithing group were also fined for not stopping him or her from running away.

The statute’s changes failed to take into account the changing economic conditions during the Black Death, and furthermore the period from which wage levels were taken was one of economic depression in England as a result of The Hundred Years’ War. Therefore, wages during the Black Death were set even lower to match those during this depression. In practice, the statute was poorly enforced and unsuccessful, but it set a precedent that distinguished between labourers who were “able in body” to work and those who could not work for whatever reasons. This distinction was the genesis of ideas that resurfaced in later laws regarding poverty and welfare.

The Ordinance and the Statute naturally enraged the peasants, who wanted higher wages and better living standards. It is undeniable that this ongoing attempt to put the clock back contributed to the general air of resentment and rebellion that preceded and gave birth to the English peasants’ revolt of 1381. Similar processes happened throughout Europe – wage caps following a labour shortage after the Black Death resulting in popular revolts.

The Statute was poorly enforced in most areas, and farm wages in England on average doubled between 1350 and 1450. However, it’s also clear that the breakdown of the rigid feudal system in England was to some extent already underway, stimulated by other economic factors. That the Black Death accelerated a move towards free labour and a more independent class of small farmers us true; but serfdom was inefficient; it also benefitted the King to have freer peasantry rather than serfs, as it produced a larger tax base for national use, where serfs generally enriched the immediate landowner.

Post-Black Death rulers in several countries promulgated laws to tackle the problem. For instance, the French king Jean II, surnamed ‘the Good’, proclaimed his ‘Ordinance sur les métiers de la ville de Paris’ on 30 January 1351. In addition to setting ceilings on prices and wages, the ordinance included an extensive series of measures to curtail begging. Unemployed, able-bodied men and women were required to accept any work offered to earn their keep. Both the mendicants and the inhabitants of Paris were prohibited from giving alms to those capable of working, and this category excluded only the blind, the disabled, and other ‘unfortunate persons’.

Despite the obvious failure of the post-Black Death labour legislation, repressive laws regulating wages, almost always in favour of landowner, employer and master, continued to be imposed in England; just a few –

  • the 1563 Statute of Artificers, which controlled skilled trades by providing a compulsory seven years’ apprenticeship, reserved the superior trades for the sons of the better off, empowered magistrates to force the unemployed to work and regulate all wages, required permission for a workman to transfer from one employer to another,

• Another Statute of Labourers in 1603, which banned workers from being paid more than the rate magistrates set,

  • The 1800 Combination Acts, the last of a succession of laws banning workers from organizing together to improve wages or conditions, or from persuading others to strike…
  • the Master and Servant Act 1823, only repealed in 1875, under which any worker could be leaving a job to seek another, without his boss’s permission.

… to say nothing of anti-strike laws…

Most of the above were only repealed by parliament after huge campaigns by workers… The employing classes through their representatives in Parliament will continue to try to adjust the law controlling our lives and limiting our ability to resist in their favour. And if we stop pushing them, they push back – harder –

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

Today in London’s radical history: Striking miners march on Parliament, 1984

The recent verdict in the Hillsborough Inquest has opened up a can of worms which may yet bite more bastards in the arse (alright; so we can mix our metaphors with best!)

The campaign to open up an inquiry into police violence, lies and cover-ups (and the extent of state instigation and collusion) relating to the miners’ battles with cops at Orgreave in June 1984 has stepped up a gear, re-vitalised by the knowledge that many of the same top officers in charge then are now facing serious allegations over Hillsborough.

The 1984-5 miners’ strike against pit closures and mass job losses was raging… Thatcher’s government had hatched a deliberate and pre-meditated plan to provoke a strike which they could use to crush the power of the miners, rightly seeing this as a major part of taming working class collective organisation. This was a vital element in their plan for the restructuring of British social and economic life, as part of the ongoing reshuffling of capital in the interests of the rulers.

In June ’84, although the state had thrown massive forces into play against the miners (the first clashes at Orgreave had gone down just a week before), there was still a sense of optimism, that the miners could force Thatcher and co to back down.

Obviously this blog mainly limits itself to the rebellious past of London, and the frontlines of the strike were elsewhere… Nevertheless, London saw the odd bit of action. Apart from the tory plot being masterminded from here, and the plethora of miners’ support groups active in London which collected money, organised solidarity actions, and raised the issue constantly. As the first confrontations at Orgreave were taking place, and just a few days before the heaviest fighting on June 18th, a national demo took place in support of the miners’ strike in London.

On June 7th, as the House of Commons debated the miners strike, thousands of miners and supporters marched to lobby Parliament. A scuffle with the police about halfway led to some arrests – one of those nicked recounts what happened:

“Central London came to a standstill on June 7th ’84 as the various battles at Orgreave started getting underway. Channel 4 (‘Strike: When Britain Went To War’, Saturday, January 24th 2004) shows a traditional pro-miners strike demo strolling down Fleet Street with a voiceover saying “Central London came to a standstill”. This was true but, inevitably, banal, and made it look like any other big demo – say, the anti-Iraqi war ones of 2003. What happened was a little different from most demos. For a start, the demo wasn’t that big – 10 to 15,000. It started off from Kings Cross, rather boring amid the usual paper sellers…

We walked from Kings Cross up Grays Inn Road, towards the end, near Theobalds Road, when there was a tussle with the cops; they were trying to nick some oldish miner, and slapping him around a bit, and demonstrators were trying to stop them. I chucked what was left of my can of beer at the cops and from what seemed like nowhere, a snatch squad of three or four grabbed me; I… clung like fuck onto a lampost whilst struggling with the rest of my body but they still managed to get me and I was pushed, my arms in a twist, into a building for traffic wardens. Amazingly, they didn’t thump me, even when I asked the arresting cop, “What does it feel like – sitting on a volcano?”, to which he remained silent, which was his right.

I was then shunted in a van off with a couple of other blokes who’d been nicked to a police station near Covent Garden, where the cops, surprisingly hurriedly – in 70 minutes or less, went through a bureaucratic procedure that would normally take at the very least 4 hours for 4 blokes– we weren’t even put in the cells, and they didn’t have time to verify names and addresses. The arresting cop, who was taking down my details, said something like, “We’ve been reasonable with you haven’t we – not as bad as you people who are always against things think we are – we haven’t beaten you up”. One bearded miner, when asked his age, said, “You can’t charge me – I’m only 13 – I’m under the age of criminal responsibility.”

Normally cops, when they release you under your own surety, just put you into the street, but these decided to put us in a van and when we asked, after a minute of driving, what they were going to do with us, they said, “We’ve got to take you back to where you were arrested.” One miner says, “They’re taking us somewhere so they can torture us”. We notice the traffic outside is completely blocked and that there are cops on motorbikes up ahead clearing the traffic to make a path for us to get through. And as we turn from Southampton Row into Theobalds Road the whole of Theobalds Road is blocked with cops across the road and cops on horses lining it all the half mile or so up to Grays Inn Road, with hundreds of them surrounding the main police station there, and demonstrators mingling around, with a couple of buses stopped in the middle of the road.

As we got out the cop van the crowd cheers, a brass band strikes up something or other and men rush to carry the released miners on their shoulders, followed by loads of cameras… Apparently the miners had gone up to the bus drivers and told them that they were forming a picket line because miners had been nicked and one old miner had been beaten up, so the bus drivers stopped because they didn’t want to cross picket lines. Can you imagine such solidarity today? (well, it could happen – but it would require more intimidation and probably more violence against the cops who are psychotically super-confident and always raring for a punch-up; nowadays a few blokes outside a pub on a Saturday night, chucking a couple of glasses into the road, can get an instant response by the riot squad dressed in all their gear, shields ready along with all their other new equipment). The whole of London at a standstill for almost 2 hours in mid-week – it was a great feeling. And it was just a third of the demo – about 4000, the rest having marched on before the tussle with the cops. Compare this with the demo of 250,000 against the decimation of the pits in 1992 when nothing happened. It shows what people can do when there’s a movement of solidarity, confidence and practical hope in the air.”

 This is nicked from So Near So Far, a selective history of the British miners and their struggles.

Thousands of miners and friends went on to rally outside Parliament, where there was a lot more pushing and shoving… Altogether there were 100 arrests.

Hundreds of miners stuck around in London, and were involved in the defence of a Greater London Council festival against fascist attack a few days later… (watch this space for more on this).

In case you are like, thirteen, or have been in a coma for 33 years, you know the rest – the miners lost. Despite mass solidarity, hit squads, Orgreave, the incredible power of the mining communities, Women Against Pit Closures, an almost titanic effort which transformed the lives of thousands … there was too much at stake for the architects of the new right dream to lose this one. Most folk of a vaguely leftist, socialist, anarchist, communist, call it whatcha will persuasion would trace from ‘84-85 a careering downward slide in collective organisation, working class cohesion and self-confidence, the idea that a more egalitarian society is possible… or even at a more basic level, that we should have any kind of stable expectation of work or a reasonable share of the profits of our labour. The defeat of the miners was a pivotal event.

Inquiries and inquests are coming thick and fast relating to the ‘recent’ past – Hillsborough, the Undercover Policing Inquiry. A probe into Orgreave may yet join the list. It’s vital that these moments and cataclysms, processes of repression and secrecy happen; not just for the sake of the dead, the arrested, the wrecked mining communities which have never recovered. (Support the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign).

At the same time, it is true that one of the reasons the current incarnation of the state gives into the massive pressure to hold such inquiries is that they feel secure enough to do so. Huge as the campaigns to open up examinations are, the powers-that-be know that a) Public Inquiries are as much about covering up as revealing, and b) the threat is mainly in the past. We have not recovered our collective strength since the 1980s.

They don’t feel threatened enough.

How to put the ruling classes in fear – aye, there’s the rub.

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