Today in London traffic history, 1995: Reclaim the Streets block Camden High Street to party against car culture

“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more… A festival of resistance!’ (Reclaim The Streets leaflet 1998)

The current Extinction Rebellion protests around the planetary climate change crisis have galvanised huge numbers, as well as sparking vital discussions about tactics, participation and decision-making.

How it reminds some of us of our own youth… specifically the previous great wave of eco-action from the 1990s. Of course the ‘historical’ anti-roads movements, Reclaim the Streets etc are not separate from today’s movement – there are continuous threads through Earth First!, Climate Camp, Rising Tide and so on that have carried on through the intervening years. But in many ways Reclaim the Streets represented the last high profile mass environmental movement before XR. Some examination of RTS, its development, actions and significance, could be interesting when compared to XR, and discussion of its successes and failures could contribute to today’s debate and decisions…

This is as much a personal account as a history, and may well miss out much others would have covered. I’ve nicked/quoted other people’s work where it made sense… If it’s a bit rambly its because I have rushed to write it, but maybe we’ll update and tidy it and hope to include it in a longer piece about J18 and other things…

From the start it should be said that it is written from the perspective of someone who did have some involvement (for a while only) in Reclaim the Streets but (partly for reasons of time, work, family and other pressures) is not significantly involved in Extinction Rebellion, though I have been on some of their actions. Critiques of them here may well be influenced by lack of full knowledge; just as critiques of RTS may be coloured by way too much hindsight…

NB: This post has been slightly edited after some discussions and critiques from from ex-RTS folk who read the first published version… But its very much a personal take.

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It was 25 years ago today…

On 14 May 1995, two old cars deliberately crashed into each other, in the five-way intersection  in Camden High Street, the heart of one of north London’s busiest trendy shopping areas. Both drivers, in a seeming paroxysm of road rage, jumped out and started to abuse each other. This was much to the annoyance and disbelief of onlooking drivers, now in a traffic jam because of the altercation. The two drivers got so irate they proceeded to smash up each other’s cars with sledge hammers. The street was blocked: usually rammed with cars, the high street was suddenly-traffic free. A crowd poured into the street, sound systems powered by electricity generated by the constant pedalling of bicycles began to pound out dance music, and the road becomes a party venue. There were about 300 people present (though some onlookers joined in)…

“Every car entering the intersection was gridlocked. Shoppers and market goers joined the party, which lasted five hours. The smashed cars became the focus for all to vent car-anger on; they were attacked throughout the party. The police merely directed traffic. What else could they do?”

The cars were second-hand bangers bought to be trashed and used as barricades; the brainchild of Reclaim the Streets. The Camden street party launched RTS’s classic period of huge street parties, taking over larger and higher profile spaces, and inspiring similar groups which sprang up all around the world.

As someone wrote at the time:

“Thus arises the modus operandi of occupying urban zones with spontaneous and illegal celebrations that appropriate the public space for a number of hours. Food is given away, toys are brought along for children and banners are arranged which proclaim the changes that have been brought about in the space: ‘BREATHE’, ‘CAR FREE’, ‘RECLAIM THE STREETS!’ Camden Town, an area of London largely dedicated to the commercialization of ‘alternative’ culture, is turned into a place of free leisure. This piece of the urban landscape temporarily changes its function in a carnivalesque inversion of social order. The absence of authority, the system where everything is free: the street becomes a place to play, eat, drink and dance – without money and without permission. If the car has become a symbol and celebration is a medium, this ‘form’ is more utopian than the conventional rally because it refers to other possible forms of organization. The interruption of motorized traffic represents an act of collective civil disobedience against the city’s traffic norms. On top of the aim of anti-road movement to prevent the construction of new motorways, RTS proposes a temporary blockade of those that already exist, trying to sketch out the vision of a city without cars.”

Origins

Reclaim the Streets (RTS) had originally been founded in 1991, and as a small collective carried out small-scale ecologist actions: painting cycle lanes on the roads during the night and picketing an automobile industry fair. It declared itself: ‘FOR walking, cycling and cheap, or free, public transport, and AGAINST cars, roads and the system that pushes them.’ On a spring day in 1992 the group brang traffic in part of London to a halt with a small illegal party in the street. The police evicted them, but warned: ‘Protest is gonna get bigger: the car culture is growing constantly! This is just the first stage.’ A few months after this event, the group disbanded.

RTS was then reborn, three years later, in the heat of a large anti-roads movement which had been evolving and increasing in profile and activity across the UK in the early 1990s; but RTS also absorbed huge wodges of ideas and spirit from the diverse movement that came together to oppose the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill; behind that, lay a mass of rave culture, squatting, traveller scenes, party crews, sound systems and various eco-protest groups.

Two huge protests in particular had raised the profile of the anti-roads movement  – the Twyford Down camp and direct action against the construction of the M3 motorway link, the “No M11 Link” campaign occurred in North East London’s suburbs of Leytonstone and Wanstead. Twyford focussed on protecting rural beauty spots and saw alliances between travellers and self-styled ‘tribes’ like the Dongas. The M11 in contrast was urban, in defence both pf thousands of trees being torn down for the M11 link road, as well as the loss of hundreds of homes. Resistance to the M11 involved constant direct-action resistance for 18 months, culminating in the eviction in December 1994 of the squatted street at Claremont Road.

ALARM U.K. (Alliance Against Road Building) recounted in its newsletter, “The government was taken aback that a protest against the M11, a motorway being built in an unfashionable part of East London, resulted in the longest campaign of direct action against a road in British history. Pictures were flashed around the world of masses of people old and young, conventional and alternative, taking on bulldozers in an awe-inspiring defense of homes, urban spaces and communities.”

Here a working-class community, in alliance with an influx of activists, many young but already seasoned in the anti-roads/anti-CJB scenes, not defending green spaces, homes and community.

The campaign against the M11 kicked off when the Old Chestnut Tree of George Green, Wanstead, to the community’s surprise, was to be removed. The residents, angered by being misled by the government, found themselves pushing down fences built to keep them from defending the tree. During the next year, houses were squatted and work constantly disrupted. But it became obvious in the summer of 1994 that Claremont Road, a strip of houses in the path of the motorway, was to be the main focus of the campaign. A community formed around these houses that included local residents, squatters and activists from around the country. The campaign strategy was to “dig in” and make it as difficult as possible for the authorities to remove protesters. It took four days in November, 1994, to evict everyone.

The street was painted and filled with psychedelic sculptures, and barricades. Above them the nets, tree houses, aerial walkways and towers went up; inside the houses bunkers and lock-ons and tunnels were hidden in tons of rubble.

After Claremont Road was lost, much of its energy and cheeky spirit went into Reclaim the Streets (RTS), which had already existed, but was revived to step up the campaigning from specific roads to opposition to roads in general and “car culture’. RTS aimed to move the debate beyond anti-road protest, to highlight the social and environmental costs of the car and the political and economic forces behind it and to demonstrate the possibilities of what can be done when people re-occupy their streets and turn them to alternative uses.

RTS’ advocated  “direct action, but not just as a tactic. [We advocate] a society in which people take responsibility for their own actions, and don’t just leave it to the politicians.” This wasn’t just about pressuring an existing establishment into action – it was about everyone taking action in our own collective interests.

Reclaim the Streets’ events were organised very much along the lines of how raves had been planned and attracted participants over the past 6 or 7 years: people were invited to gather at an underground station and, once there, a small group lead them to the final destination, which had been kept secret. The RTS parties explicitly politicised the rave, although the oppositional culture of raves had been bothering the authorities for a while. Parties were based around sound systems, rhythms of techno and acid house, although the older free festival scene that had evolved from the 1970s also had something of an influence. But the RTS parties also wanted to “create situations that are fitting for a better world”.

How street parties were seen by RTS was later summed up thus
“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more.
The Street party, itself reclaimed from the inanities of royal jubilees and state ‘celebrations’, is just one recent initiative in a vibrant history of struggle, both to defend and to take back collective space. From the Peasants’ Revolt to the resistance to the enclosures, from the land occupations of the Diggers to the post-war squatters, on to the recent free festivals, peace camps, land squats and anti-roads movement. Everywhere, extra-ordinary people have continually asserted not only the need to liberate the commons but the ability to think and organise for themselves.
For the city, the streets are the commons, but in the hands of industry and power brokers the streets have become mere conduits for commerce and consumption – the economic hero of which is, of course, the car. A symbol and a symptom of the social and ecological nightmare that state and capitalism create, the car which promises individual freedom ends up guaranteeing noise, destruction and pollution for all. For Reclaim the Streets, the car is a focus – the insanity of its system clearly visible – that leads to questioning both the myth of ‘the market’ and its corporate and institutional enforcers.
With a metal river on one side and endless windows of consumerism on the other, the streets’ true purpose: social interaction, becomes an uneconomic diversion. In its place the corporate-controlled one way media of newspapers, radio and television become ‘the community’. Their interpretation out reality. In this sense the streets are the alternative and subversive form of the mass media. Where authentic communication, immediate and reciprocal, takes place.
To ‘reclaim the streets’ is to act in defence of and for common ground. To tear down the fence of enclosure that profit-making demands. And the Street Party – far from being juts anti-car – is an explosion of our suppressed potential, a celebration of our diversity and a chorus of voices in solidarity.

A festival of resistance!’ {RTS leaflet 1998.}

Upper Street

After Camden had hit the news with a bang, the second Reclaim the Streets party was held on Sunday, July 23, at the Angel intersection in Islington, North London. It was a huge success, with over 2,000-3000 demonstrators participating. Crowds met a mile or so away, and were then led to the party location, while other activists blocked the road with tripods constructed from scaffolding, placed in the middle of the road: tripods that could be dismantled only if the person who is at the top of them comes down. Two tons of sand were piled in the road to make a children’s play area, (reversing the famous slogan of May 1968, ‘underneath the paving stones, the beach’. On this occasion, the beach spreads out on top of the asphalt)… banners went up to stop more traffic, stalls were erected and a huge tank rolled in with a sound system pumping. The party had begun before the police arrived. The Highbury Islington street party coincided with a week of hot weather and a smog alert. In only two months, the number of people who took part in the first street event increased tenfold.

John Jordan, one of the co-founders of RTS, talked of how the street celebration seeks to prefigure an ‘imagined world… a vision in which the streets of the city could be a system that prioritised people above profit and ecology above the economy’the ‘perfect propaganda for the possible’. (In Upper Street Louis Armstrong’s song What a Wonderful World sounded out through the loudspeakers.)

The experience of being during the party is different from life away from it: ordinary norms disappear and people express themselves by dancing, playing music or making artistic interventions on any available surface. The economic system of the celebration is abundance and generosity. It is about thinking of the emergence of a world where things are free and where there is a celebrating community, a world of shared goods and freed space. Earth First magazine Do or Die suggested that ‘inherent within its praxis – its mix of desire, spontaneity and organisation – lie some of the foundations on which to build a participatory politics for a liberated, ecological society.’

A week later, RTS saw a prime opportunity for another action, visiting Greenwich, SE London, where parents and children with asthma are going to the High Court to force the Greenwich Council to close its main through road at times of high pollution. (At this time if I recall right, central Greenwich was calculated to be suffering the worst traffic pollution in London, possibly the UK). On Friday, August 4, RTS closed Greenwich down, blocking the major arterial in morning peak-hour traffic for two hours with scaffolding tripods. Pedestrians joined in and the local coffee shop delivered free coffee, tea and biscuits to the demonstrators. Even many of the drivers held up in the traffic jam that day came out in favour of the action.

The M41

The following year RTS returned with a bang. 1996 was proclaimed (by the car industry) “Year of the Car”. RTS made that into the Year We Squatted a Motorway

July that year saw RTS mount what was probably their most ambitious and gloriously subversive action – squatting a stretch of motorway. The short M41 link in Shepherds Bush  – the shortest motorway in England – was turned into a party zone for an afternoon and evening. The sight of thousands of people running onto an empty motorway shut off by large tripods is an image that stays with you… Thirty foot ‘pantomime dames’ glided through the party throwing confetti. Food stalls gave away free stew and sandwiches; graffiti artists added colour to the tarmac; poets ranted from the railings; acoustic bands played and strolling players performed. Some 7,000 turned up… At the height of the festivities, beneath the tall panto dame figures dressed in huge farthingale Marie Antoinette skirts, people were at work with jackhammers, hacking in time to the techno, to mask the sound to the officers standing inches away, digging up the surface of the road until large craters littered the fast lane… to plant seedlings from the gardens smashed by the bulldozers at Claremont Road.


Liverpool Dockers 96-97

After dockers in Liverpool were locked out after refusing to work for a lower rate than they were prepared to accept, a long-running dispute evolved, involving 500 dockers. This became a major cause celebre in Liverpool and across the UK, with mass solidarity, international support…
Reclaim the Streets in London were approached by London supporters of the dockers, and launched a 3-day protest/party/occupation in September 1996 to mark the first anniversary of the dispute. Hundreds of activists attended and joined dockers on the picket line, and occupied a dock office block, as well s cutting the fence around Seaforth Dock and invading the facility…

heres’ an RTS leaflet on the dockers’s struggle

And an interview with Chris Knight, who linked up the two groups

As one ex-RTS activist put it: “Linking the ecological direst action movement to workers in struggle was simply a necessary step towards transition, as it still is…”  

April 12th 1997

Following the Liverpool actions, RTS and the Dockers collaborated on a demo/action/party in April 1997 to coincide with the run-up to the general election – variously known at the March for Social Justice, Reclaim the Future, the ‘Festival of Resistance’ and Never Mind The Ballots…

On 12th April 1997, some 20,000 people took part in the March for Social Justice, called by the 500 sacked Liverpool Dockers and their families, jointly with the Hillingdon Hospital and Magnet strikers. The gathering at Trafalgar Square was big but most of the Dockers, other strikers and their families left soon after the rally (mainly because of their long journeys home). The numbers were beginning to drop when a van containing the sound system managed to enter the square – the music and the huge street party then began. The dancing went on for hours,  but by late afternoon, the cordon had successfully reduced the numbers in the square and riot police – some on horseback – stormed in to clear the area battering us out of the Square and over the bridges, with lots of extreme prejudice.

IN November 1997 RTS squatted an empty petrol station in Islington

By 1998 RTS had evolved into something not just about cars and roads, but about taking back everything:

“We are basically about taking back public space from the enclosed private arena. At its simplest it is an attack on cars as a principle agent of enclosure. It’s about reclaiming the streets as pubic inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons.” (RTS leaflet 1998)

In May 1998 RTS held a party in Birmingham, then hosting a G8 summit. Here’s a report

And some Video footage

Think global, act local

After Birmingham, 1998, RTS decided to put on simultaneous ‘local’ street parties in different areas of London; after much of the usual debate, this came down to two, one in the north. One down south, on June 6th – to coincide with hundreds of RTS parties going on around the world… The North London party met at Kings Cross and then went on a long march to Tottenham, where the party took place. In South London, we settled on Brixton, where a majority of south London RTS folk lived anyway. Unlike at other actions, there was no plan B and instead of meeting in one place and moving to another, we double-bluffed the cops, amassing in front of the Ritzy cinema and taking over the street in front of us when our four old bangers of cars smashed into each other. This remains one of my favourite RTS parties, because it took over the street I actually lived in, in my manor; a great feeling.
See Neil Transpontine’s account of the Brixton party

A report on the June 1998 North London party

here’s some film of this North London street party

There were some problems with these parties:  notably differences between Brixton and the North London party – the former was rooted in people who lived here, the North London less so – not even opening discussions with local activist groups in that area. Also it seemed less happy in its conclusions somehow, some people involved with it got upset by accusations of anti-social behaviour from some locals and had to go back, hand out an apology leaflet and tidy up…

London RTS had several discussion over the summer of 1998 about where to go next. There were two main strands of thought. 1, that the ever larger RTS group in the capital could break up somewhat into more local groups but employ similar ideas, tactics, spirit in local actions around more local and daily targets. There was a suggestion that not only had the police begin to get the measure of large parties but that it was old news, becoming less effective, and making a ‘spectacle’ of itself, in the situationist sense – rather than addressing where capital and eco-change could really be fought over – in people’s daily lives where they lived, worked, played. Others countered this with the idea that large parties/actions had been successful so far and what was needed was a harder bigger target, linked much more to international capitalism and finance, rather than concentrating on car use, general eco-protest…
It was the second group that won the argument, in the short term at least, which was to usher in June 18th, probably the highest profile of all the RTS events; it also launched in many ways the UK arm of the ‘anti-capitalist movement’, a distinct development from both the RTS/90s eco-scene and the anarchists who had enthusiastically embraced it (not all did by any means).

J18 1999

A product of the 98 discussions, the J18 day of action in June 1999 came out of the growing merger of anarchists and RTS ideas, but also linked more and more to ‘anti-capitalism’ and the antiglobal summit movement. Plans for a spectacular day of action in the City of London had been under discussion since mid-98, and more and more older anarchos who remembered events like Stop the City were putting their oar in. [we hope to post some of the history of Stop the City soon on this blog]

On June 18, 1999, thousands of demonstrators converged at the Liverpool Street train station. Organisers distributed masks in four different colours and the participants broke up into four different marches in order to divide and confuse police; a spontaneous fifth march emerged, as well as a Critical Mass composed of hundreds of bicyclists. The marches converged on the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE), where they hung banners, set off a fire hydrant to symbolise the liberation of the river beneath London’s streets, adorned the walls with graffiti, disabled surveillance cameras, and set up sound systems for DJs and punk bands to perform. A raucous afternoon of dancing, exuberance, and street fighting followed, during which participants bricked up the front of the LIFFE building, broke in and trashed its ground floor, and nearly succeeded in destroying the London Stock Exchange itself. In response, police attacked the general public with tear gas and horse charges and ran over one demonstrator with a riot van,
breaking her leg.

There’s some reflections of June 18th, published after the event.

The events of June 18, 1999 set the stage for the historic demonstrations against the summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle later that year.

(RTS and others put an event, ‘N30’ to coincide with Seattle)

After J18, RTS did partially fragment; many older/founder activists splintered off into other activities, other burned out for a bit. But larger numbers went into other eco-related direct action groups like UK Earth First!, into a growing network carrying out anti-genetically modified crop actions… In London, some parts of RTS remained involved in large spectacular anti-capitalist events, most notably the annual Mayday protests which ran from 2000 on, and were best attended in the early 2000s. Other faces got involved in RTS itself in London…

Links to reports on early 2000s Mayday actions in London

From RTS, Maydays, the anti-capitalist scene evolved other projects – social centres eg the London Action Resource Centre & others around the UK… the WOMBLES, Dissent  and the Disobedience network against the Iraq war

Mad hippies… middle class wankers…

When RTS burst onto the scene there it led to a mix of opinion on the older ‘class struggle’ anarchist scenes (the milieu past tense emerged from and was then immersed in) and the left… Many had had some involvement in the anti-CJA campaigns, many had been squatters, ravers since the late 90s, and embraced the mad frolics with a will… Others were very po-faced and dismissed it all as hippy nonsense. Not serious and working class enough. Within much of the CJA, anti-roads scenes, there had been an extremely diverse mix of views, politically ranging from class struggle anarchism, through pacifist, Green Party, to hippy ‘lifestylism’ (and on the fringe, frankly to some dodgy conspiracy theory types).  Lots of the class struggle anarcho wing had spent years in their youths ‘growing out’ of pacifism, learning that the police were prepared to kick in heads and trusting neither in the state or in politicians of any stripe. We’d seen and felt the truncheons and experienced the left in power, as well as getting tired of what we saw as drongo drop out laziness and anti-social selfishness which infected many squats and projects, and the kind or moralising politics that had pervaded pacifism, CND etc. The naivety of some of the 90s scenes (some of it down to youth but not all by any means) was frustrating, and there were some among us who said it was all middle class hippy wankers. It wasn’t, though there were a number of middle class hippy wankers, and a lot of ‘what are you doing to save the Earth’ moralising which gets right up yer nostrils. But some of us were really up ourselves in many ways, convinced of our politically advanced ideas, dismissive… RTS though had such energy that it pulled us in, especially as many of the ‘community-activist’ projects we had built in the wake of anti-poll tax movement were in reality struggling to survive. The M41 and RTS alliance with the dockers convinced many suspicious minds that there was some real potential here (arrogant as that sounds now). There was also a sense of a kind of (funny) desperation to be where the action was… As well as a gradual disintegration of anarcho-snobbery into a respect and appreciation. (Of course lots of anarchos had also been involved early on too) But in the end, an influx of anarchists and other types into RTS synthesised something new – for a while. This helped spark new directions – for instance discussions and memories about the story of Stop the City from some of those who had taken part helped create J18 in 1999.

Others remained critical, including some on what you could call the post-situ or left communist scenes, which had a close relation in practice to anarchists while always holding up lots of issues. Some of this was acid and niggly, other points were interesting and useful. An interesting critique of RTS and anti-summit movement/anti-capitalism: You Make Plans we make History

RTS’s critics from the post-situ or ‘ultraleft’ scenes did have some interesting points about activism, and what they saw as the difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The latter comes out of people’s needs, own experience and desires, they reckoned; the former they saw as something disconnected, artificially set up and directed at something outside of ourselves. If struggle was suggested as effective in addressing social & economic conditions that hold us down directly, protest is shown almost as diversion, complaint, remote from ourselves, addressing ‘issues’ and demanding someone else do something about them. Now there’s a kernel of truth here – this tension does exist, and there are a growing number of professional and academic activists institutionalising campaigning, creating niches and leadership roles for themselves. ‘Activism’ as a construct IS a separation of sorts, splitting off those who protest about issues from those who don’t, creating a spectacular conception of yourself as a fighter, whether or not it’s about what you yourself need or desire… there was a tendency to see yourself as a hero if the planet. There was also a dynamic of organisers and attendees, to some extent, a kind of vanguard that us older more anarchic types thought too elitist, leadershippy. Some of it was necessary – if 7000 people know all the details of the secret party location it’s gonna get blown – but also, when RTS became a big weekly meeting with interminable wrangling and debating, breaking into small groups and reporting back,  a certain amount of behind the scenes ‘get it done’ undemocratic sorting does become vital… else nowt happens. However; there was a tyranny of the capable, and a kind of showing up to the party by others who wanted to consume RTS – sometimes. RTS did fight against that, and had some conceptions of his to get around it, which didn’t entirely get realised… None of these problems are anything like unique to that group: but there were a lot of arguments around it, at the time (I do remember a lot of us who turn up being bemused in Liverpool in September 1996 by how we were expected to turn up somewhere without knowing what was going to happen, a bit like soldiers being given sealed orders… sparking a long and rancourous debate the night before the big action. In retrospect some of what we said was a bit naïve, but the point that it felt not self-organised…)

But it’s more complex than all that, and I’m not completely convinced of the absolute difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The possibilities of breaking down separation are myriad…

Another common objection to RTS, and the wider eco-movements, was to do with their class composition. This was in fact linked to the previous point about protest – ‘struggle’ was what the working class did, and it was implied (though not strictly said) that ‘protest’ was a middle class construct… Again this discussion is in fact very interesting and I cannot do it justice here (hopefully we’ll return to it). The implication is that RTS’s ways of organising was intimately derived from the class background of those who created and ran it. Well yes, as with almost everything, and yes, this did produce contradictions and shortcomings, but analysing them at all is not simple or as one dimensional as all that…
Alot of people involved in RTS through its various incarnations were middle class, yes – though as one ex-RTSer pointed out “At least 3 of us were dissident ruling class, and we thought we put our resources to good use”. Not all though by any means: “Some of us were actual proles, or really, refugee proles from nasty racist working class Lancashire or Belfast”…and it did evolve and change. Alot. Unlike a fair number on the class struggle anarchist scene most people in RTS didn’t pretend to be “eh up mate” types, more working class than they were…

More importantly though, RTS’s conception of capitalism was not fundamentally based on a class analysis, or, I would hazard, any kind of deep analysis at all. This did leave itself open sometimes to a certain wishy-washyness as to what the group actually saw capital AS. Analysis wasn’t the strong point of RTS, and the wider scene it arose from/helped create, which had a multi-farious mishmash of definitions of capitalism, a lot of which was contradictory and sketchy. This led not only to a lot of endless arguments in meetings, especially in the periods where large numbers were coming along to the weekly meeting, but also to a reluctance or inability to agree on what, in fact, unified us. The lack of analysis was not in itself fatal to RTS’s existence; but the lack of a conception of class and how capital is based on class interests carried over into some of the scenes RTS influenced and evolved into.

An ex-RTSer wrote in response to the first version of this post, that ‘Your portrayal of RTS as middle class is both wrong and irrelevant… the class composition of RTS members is irrelevant given that our actions were clearly directed towards transition grounded in replicable autonomy and solidarity.’

But Class is there. it exists, it underpins everything about capitalism and how it was born and sustains itself. It may not now look like 1880s class or 1930s class or even 1970s class, but class divisions are fundamental and can’t be ignored, and you can’t take on a world social and economic system without understand what it is based on. Class is not the ONLY dynamic that is crucial to understand – but to ignore it has consequences. Yes we want to abolish class divisions – in the day to day now as well as ideally in some utopic future – but they just can’t be wished out of existence, least of all in the movements we create in opposition… Both RTS and Extinction Rebellion, in my view, have suffered from this lack of understanding… and it impacts on their actions as much as their ideas.

Class – and money – did carry some weight in how decision-making was made in London RTS and the scenes that it evolved into. Because the parties and actions cost money (partly because gear kept getting seized by cops), cash was also needed, and the presence of people from moneyed backgrounds meant that it was available – in a way that was slightly disconcerting for some of us who were not used to money just appearing for stuff (more accustomed of raising cash through benefits, painfully…) But the power dynamics of having people with money central to the actions and funding them does lead to unequal power relations in those active groups. ot the only cause of power imbalance – but it was there.

Luckily there were/are a legion of serious thinkers on hand to tell RTS where it all fell down! …Joke. (Partly.) In fact the eventual partial merger of parts of RTS with class struggly anarchists, autonomists and other ‘proper’ political tendencies created more analysis, but not that much more, and did water down the fun bits…
It was pointed out that ‘middle class people mostly organised the parties but mostly working class people got arrested.’ (when the police attacked them usually, near the end). True (see below), though not particularly intentionally, more in naivety and lack of forethought, or for lack of how to adequately deal with police attack and how to end the events.
People within RTS milieu did rise to become career professionals, trading on their activism to achieve entry into cultural fashionability; there was some criticism of this from some of who were very suspicious of such things as filming demos (due to being burned by police taking control of footage after events like the anti-poll tax riot and others, and journalists/film crews happily collaborating with this). This did lead to uneasy times in RTS as people didn’t all get it.

Some have said that RTS was actually ineffective, in that it did not achieve its stated aims. Apart from taking over a few streets for a few days it didn’t break ‘car culture’… The effect of RTS wax compared unfavourably to the 2000 fuel protests – as was pointed out, that movement had an infinitely huger effect, paralysing road traffic, if only for a short while. It also had lots of contradictions, class alliances and political dubiousnesses, but did produce a crisis and cleared the streets of cars… Again, though, it didn’t last, and things returned to normal (though I haven’t seen any discussions on longer term developments among those that carried the blockades out…)

… and more recently, there’s the French Yellow Vests – a sustained movement much more combative, taking on the state in a way RTS never managed and dwarfing XR’s impact … (Again, the politics are very mixed, but when are they not?)

No RTS did not fundamentally alter capitalism, car use, help turn the world green… Some struggles on very limited territory can win outright, others achieve partial victories; others seem to fail of splutter out. Few know what effect they have in the end, as influences mutate, ideas mingle and merge, individuals and groups wend their ways and diverge… RTS had many limits.

RTS left a long legacy in the UK and wider activist scenes, with the group in London carrying on for several years, taking part in the mayday organising, as well as lots of those who passed through it setting off into many other campaigns, projects, etc, the anti-Afghan/Iraq war movements, Occupy, social centres and anti-G8 etc summit protests… you name it.

I don’t know if anyone has really discussed it anywhere, but it would be interesting to talk about the development of RTS into the anti-capitalist movement and wider points about these movements, and of protest movements generally. While J18 was fun and high profile, and thousands of activists turning up to surround and attempt to disrupt summits of the G8 and other meetings of the rich and famous felt for many and looked very confrontational and challenging – it represents a specific interpretation of how capital is organised and where it exists, is controlled, can be challenged etc. Concentrating on central points, the obvious target of world leaders and economic movers. But capital is a world system  – that pervades down to the very marrow of every aspect of our lives; to some extent challenging it is not about the world leaders, but in the everyday. RTS in its origins recognised this and at its best was moving towards the idea of taking over our lives from within where we live them. To me J18 and the anti-summit movements diverted away from that; this was at the heart of our discussions in Summer 1998, and without wanting to say ‘we went the wrong way’, I do think now (and said then) that this may have been broadly a narrowing of RTS’ vision. To radically alter the world you have to organically build from the edges where you are, till the centres collapse because you have already taken over everything. J18 itself kind of did work this way, though the anti-capitalist movement obsession with summits seemed to me to want to build everyday rebellion outward from the middle by attacking what they saw as the centres of power. Does capital even have a centre?
There’s a partial critique of the anti-capitalist movement’s focus on attacking summits in Where is the Festival: Notes on summits and counter-summits

Extinction and evolution

Extinction Rebellion have in some ways reproduced elements of RTS’ approach, but differ in other ways. The main similarities are obvious – taking over streets and public space, the initial concentration on climate change, the emphasis on people taking action. However, there are major points of departure, some positive, some worth examining critically.

RTS took space as a one-off, usually, where XR at least in the last actions in April 2019 tried to keep up the pressure by remaining in the streets of central London for as long as they feasibly could. This is more resonant of the Occupy movements of post-2008 radical protest, and has both its strengths and its weakness implicit in it, in that it does seem to pile on more sustained involvement by extending the action, but also begins inevitably to become separated out from those not involved, an end in itself. This is a problem with almost everything you can do where protest is concerned, and is difficult to avoid. RTS did celebrate the very fact of taking over space ourselves as very much the point, the action being the destination, as well as the road, a moment of liberation by the very nature of occupying space. XR actions, like Occupy, achieve this by default, as taking over space in defiance of the usual day to day creates its own dynamic. What comes out of such actions on the future may be radically different from what they set out to do, more subversive and challenging even. Both RTS and XR actions at their best, like all moments of struggle, produce consequences primarily in the people involved in them, whether or not the ‘campaign’ itself wins what it fights for. The difference – so far – is that RTS was/became conscious of this. Whether XR will remains to be seen.

Their Morals and Ours

XR’s call for people was primarily to occupy the streets in order to get themselves arrested to put pressure on government to act, although this has now come under fierce discussion. RTS neither saw putting pressure on politicians to act on our behalf or mass arrests as the aim. Although there were often arrests at RTS parties, often in the earlier days near the end of the event as the organisers made an attempt to wrap events up (this was a point that was initially criticised by those of us experienced in legal defence work from poll tax days and the Legal Defence & Monitoring Group, that RTS at first took little account of this side of the day. This did evolve positively over the group’s lifetime). Arrests in themselves though as an aim is a debatable tactic, which has been used for many years, most notably in the peace movement – a kind of shaming and publicity-seeking tactic, where the sheer numbers arrested and speeches in court etc become the point of the action. (eg early Committee of 100 actions)

Clearly people carefully considering things with experience of arrest, police, and courts have made something of this approach – the Ploughshares anti-missile saboteurs who break into bases, do millions of quid’s worth of damage to planes and weaponry then give themselves up, for instance. Personally I would say its better for people to remain out of prisons and be able to carry on their activities, and concealing your identity and escaping to fight another day is better than handing yourself in – but their choice, However, Extinction Rebellion are leaning on people to get themselves arrested, and concentrating lots of their propaganda on young folk, kids, teens, some of whom are not yet ready for what arrest and conviction can mean. The kind of moral pressure to ‘get nicked for the planet’, does depend on XR’s insistence that the police are basically OK and will be nice, and can be won over to the side of the ‘people’ by being nice to them. It does reflect the wilful ignorance of the social role of the police and their function in relation to protest – to control and if necessary repress, with violence when required. Dancing to a sound system in Marble Arch by some officers does not negate the institutional violence of the boys and girls in blue, as many of us have learned painfully from an early age.

RTS may in its beginnings have been naïve about legal defence and arrests – XR are being much more irresponsible. In many ways some of the main organisers have inherited the worst aspects of the wider green/eco movements – moral blackmail, class blindness to the realities of the social order, a concentration on one issue without managing to observe how it is vitally and necessarily linked to the whole social and economic structure, and naivety towards the enforcers and controllers of those structures. They have now thankfully withdrawn their terrible advice to people being arrested as to how to survive prison, after a massive outcry from those who have experienced pokey that it was dangerously downplaying the pressure of going down and encouraging illusions in the friendliness of screws. But liberal illusions in the police, prison, the authorities and the social system remain.

Morals, individual blame are no basis for any movement. There’s too much of this in pro-environmental politics, and a hierarchy of greenier-than-thou-ness and finger-pointing at people for not doing enough. When this emphasis on the responsibility of the individual goes along with calls for the state to take action, it’s just bizarre. The closeness of ‘it’s your fault’ to ‘let’s all take it on ourselves to change it’ involves leaving moralising behind to move towards something else – a sense of common interests. Now not all people in social movements have the same interests, when it comes down to class, background, race, and any number of levels of power relations. Lots of people are saying that XR are all middle class white privileged folk and the movement’s attitude to colour, migration etc has been shoddy at best. Some anarchists and others also said very much the same about RTS in the early days, and like many protest movements (those that don’t initially come from BME origins) it remained pretty white, though class was much more nuanced. Another interesting point a woman involved in RTS from the start made at a discussion recently was how in the early days RTS London had a near equal make-female balance, but noted his this changed over the years as actions became more confrontational and overtly ‘anti-capitalist’, becoming more boysy and macho…

Neither morality or hyper-activist ego rankings or dominance by the white moderately well-to-do is anything like unique to either XR or RTS, though. Anarchist scenes, the left, for instance, remain ultimately run on visible or invisible hierarchies and overwhelmingly white. It was funny in hindsight that so many anarchists dissing RTS for not being class struggly enough were being slightly truth-economical about how proley their background was. Either way, there was also a snideness about how working class is seen, and how struggle is hard and serious. In the midst of parties you could also hear people complaining that some people were just partying and not either fighting the police on the edges or seriously talking politics. I know, I was sometimes one of them. The arrogance of youth.

All of these issues within XR are of course being furiously debated and is evolving, and only a daft haporth would expect the movement to be either homogenous in its ideas or to stick to some of these shibboleths: XR and the people involved will change and adapt in response to reality and experience.

Illusions in the bourgeois state’s potential to reverse climate change without the dismantling of capitalism as a world-exploiting system are, of course, nothing new, and XR are far from unique in that. But it remains true, that the wider ecological movement is divided by those who think you can have some nice democratic non-ecocidal market economy, and those who recognise the reality: reversal of the climate cataclysm can only mean overthrowing the classes that profit from it and organising our lives worldwide for the needs of all – people and planet – not for the profit of a smaller and smaller minority and the consumer comfort of a slightly larger group. It’s the exploitation of the earth, its resources, its animals and if the vast majority of US that is destroying the climate, and that has to be fundamentally altered. Green capitalism and green politicians are just pot plants on the deck of the titanic.

XR’s potential is obvious but whether it will fizzle out, outgrow the liberal illusions of some its leading voices, is yet to be seen – and fought for from within, I guess. Some people will learn re the police, as people tend to do when faced with the blunt end of a truncheon: this discussion is already being had. (Some won’t learn, class background, white privilege and the blindness of ideology being what they are.) Although it’s also hard to know where such movements GO when they don’t quickly achieve their aim, many involved go off and take their spirit and experience into a myriad of other activities – as the thousands who passed through RTS groups and parties did.

One point relevant to both RTS and XR – in common with activists the world over – is the separation of the high points of parties, actions, occupations, from a daily life that is other, or rather the actions are the other. Some of us within RTS at one point argued for a dissolving of the group as such, but trying to employ the tactics, sense of fun and occupation, to our daily lives, to break down how ‘activism’ and ‘activists’ become separate from ‘our daily lives’, work, raising kids, etc, and from ‘ordinary people’ (ie non-activists). This in itself was naïve, like a lot of activists who develop a critique of activism, we really meant moving on to another kind of activism, an artificial change, if well-intentioned. Looking back (as someone who used to be a full-time activist but now isn’t an activist, really) this was groping towards what I still think is a useful path – breaking down walls between different parts of your own self and between people involve in politics and those who aren’t, in order to radically alter the whole separation and alienation of people from their own desires and needs. It’s questionable I suppose whether that can be done in isolation or as an ideological shift. And perhaps you can’t ‘abolish activism to create communism’ in that way anyway, or not as a small group. It’s the kind of shift that might happen in the context of massive upheavals and struggles. Ironically, climate-chaos inspired social breakdown might provide an opportunity for that, though to make an ideology of that possibility as some eco-activists do is repulsive and anti-human.

There’s a partial archive of links and pix on RTS parties (not by any means complete)

Watch Reclaim the Streets the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2snn3XDbLg

 

 

 

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(Probably) today in London black history: party celebrates anti-slavery court ruling, 1772

Britain’s central role in the global slave trade is well known. For over 300 years, the abduction of millions of Africans to be used as forced labour, largely in America and the Caribbean, formed a major element of the British economy and was integral to the spread of the British Empire.

The abolition of slavery is often credited to the actions of a small number of white abolitionist activists in Britain. Not only does this long-standing myth cover up the massive resistance to enslavement and rebellious resistance by slaves themselves, through uprising, escape, organised desertion and the building of hidden or independent communities… It also neglects the contribution of black abolitionists, activists in the movement to end the slave trade and abolish slavery itself. London itself was a centre of organised black abolitionism, emerging from the communities of black people that had grown up in London.

There had been significant numbers of Africans in London since Elizabethan times (when good Queen Bess famously attempted to get a law passed to throw all black people out of the country). By the 18th century London had a sizable black population, although it was hard to put a number on, being variously estimated; the Gentleman’s Magazine reckoned on 20,000 in London alone in 1764, while other sources reckon it at only half that for the whole country… Disease, poverty, the hard conditions they had lived in and continued to live in took a regular toll, and so the numbers are likely to have varied wildly… Numbers were swollen by an influx (after 1784) of ‘loyal’ ex-slaves who had been persuaded or forced to fight for the crown against the colonists in the American war of independence… Many were poor and embittered, others who ended up in London had been involved in the rough and tumble of the American Revolution and had taken on many of the ideas about liberty and equality that had been swelling around in the colonies for two decades…

The vast majority of London’s black residents were ex-slaves, or sailors and former sailors. Many may have been both: black sailors were often runaway or freed slaves, who had worked their passage on ships from the West Indies (famous writer and activist Olaudah Equiano being just one example).

The work the black population could do was restricted, especially after 1731 when the lord mayor of London issued a proclamation banning them from being taken on as apprentices – not the last colour bar in the history of employment in Britain.

Many Africans of both sexes worked as domestic servants. This left them still in a difficult legal position, at the mercy of their employers, as even after 1772, when transporting slaves was outlawed in England and they could not legally be deported by their owners, they were not protected from being kidnapped and shipped abroad. Others worked as city porters, watermen, hawkers, and chairmen (carrying the rich from place to place, some employed directly, others touting for business in the days before cabs).

Black women also worked as nurses, or became basket women, selling small items round the streets. But many were forced by poverty to turn to prostitution.

And a huge number ended without work at all, bagging on the street for enough to keep them alive. The Poor Relief system, consisting then of a pittance of financial support from the parish you were born in, did not support black folk, so many were reduced to extreme poverty: many of course would arrive here with nothing, as a slave, runaway or servant. Black people forced into beggary became conspicuous in London in the later 18th century, many crowded into poor areas, ‘rookeries’ like St. Giles or Seven Dials, or Limehouse and Ratcliff down by the river in the East End – all areas of poverty, refuges for the desperate, the skint, the rebellious and so-called ‘criminal classes’. Rookeries were over-crowded, often a mass of sub-divided and sublet rooms, dangerous and unhealthy places to live. But being refuges to those on the run from the law, they were often no-go areas to the law, with a rudimentary solidarity against justices, constables and creditors. Traditions of resistance to the authorities in London slums and rookeries, eg fighting off the press gang or the army recruiters, or posses sent in to areas to seize fugitive criminals or debtors, were long established, and extended to support runaway slaves. Poor white Londoners’ support for fugitive slaves came not from any sentimental or humanitarian feelings, as with the middle class abolitionists. Black people were suffering from treatment meted out by a class many Londoners saw as their own enemies, and alliances were a matter of class solidarity, more or less…
In part because of the gender imbalance in the black community – there being many more African men than women in London, but also because of its social and geographical diffusion, many black men married local white women and merged into existing working communities.

Thus the environment that sparked black involvement in the abolition movement was dual, consisting of a proletarian class in the slums, beggars, ex sailors, and a higher level of African servants, often more educated and literate. We know more about the latter, sometimes because they were servants to prominent figures, or because they wrote their own accounts of their enslavement and other experiences. However, links between these strata may well have existed – interestingly some of the more prominent individuals we do know about, in some ways cross over both milieux, especially later, as with the radical activists Olaudah Equiano and Robert Wedderburn.

Another complaint of white upper class commentators of the time – that slaves were asserting themselves and struggling to be paid wages for their labour – illustrates how the beginnings of collective economic self-organisation led into the abolitionist movement against slavery. Fighting for wages helped them not only attain economic independence (and wages conferred status, also the right of residence within a parish, which could help prevent a slave’s deportation) but also aided social and political self-confidence – which itself fed into political organising. Individual and collective resistance sparked off the abolition campaign from within black communities themselves.

Despite originating from many countries and backgrounds, being divided in many ways, the London black community created not only social links but organised itself politically. Black servants certainly gathered informally, partly to discuss information and common problems (Dr Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber was among them); they also held larger social gatherings, including dances and music in taverns (black domestics of both sexes “supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music… at a public house in Fleet St” in 1764…”No whites were allowed to be present…”)

This community also showed solidarity for its number– for example in 1773, two black men imprisoned in the Bridewell House of Correction for begging were supported financially and visited by 300 others. According to Philip Thicknesse, in 1778, “these black men have clubs to support those who are out of place”. ‘Out of place is an interesting phrase here – on the surface, it means just ‘out of work’, but there is also an implied support for runaways and ex-slaves living under cover. This solidarity is known to have existed. A common complaint from slave-owners was that longer established escapees were influencing newer arrivals to leg it. According to the virulently racist ideologue Edward Long: “Upon arriving in London, these servants soon grow acquainted with a knot of blacks, who, having eloped from their respective owners at different times, repose here in ease and indolence, and endeavour to strengthen their party, by seducing as many of these strangers into the association as they can work to their purpose.”

The Bow Street magistrate John Fielding referred to these subversive ex-slaves as “intoxicated with liberty… the Sweets of Liberty and the conversations with free men and Christians enlarge their minds…” and even worse, they had succeed in allying themselves with “the London Mob”, the rebellious working people of London. This alliance was exposed in times of riot and disorder. Ex-slaves and former black sailors were prominent in several episodes during the 1780 Gordon Riots: Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover were among the leaders of the attack on Newgate; black woman Charlotte Gardiner was hung for her leading part in the Riots…

This embryonic Black community was sharply conscious of legal and social developments – particularly where the courts ruled on cases involving slavery.

In 1772 came a case that excited their interest like no other.

Anti-slavery abolitionists had been waging a campaign of agitation against the slave trade, seeing it as the thin end of the wedge, a vulnerable chink which could be attacked to undermine the existence of slavery as a whole. Legal challenges to the right of an ‘owner’ over individual slaves were a useful battleground, where a precedent might undermine the legal armoury that protected clave owners. The question of whether it was legal to actually own slaves under English law seemed a possible point on which the whole practice could be called into question.

Granville Sharp had almost by chance become drawn into the abolitionist movement through contact with an escaped slave, Jonathan Strong, who he then defended in a long drawn-out court case. This, and subsequent cases, which he became involved in, led to tough court hearings which won some freedom for individual slaves, but failed to end in a conclusive ruling on the legality of slavery. The cases inevitably ended in the court of William Murray, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, who, conscious of he vast economic importance of slavery to the British economy and its ruling elites, was reluctant to be pinned down to a judgment that would undermine it. Mansfield was a stickler for the law, however, and appears to have been personally repulsed by slavery…

In 1772, the test case that Sharp had been waiting for came up. James Somerset, an enslaved African, had been bought by customs officer Charles Stewart, in Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, then a British colony in North America.

Stewart brought Somerset with him when he returned to England in 1769, but in 1771 Somerset escaped. Recaptured in November, he was was imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary, bound for the British colony of Jamaica. Stewart intended that Somerset be sold to a plantation for labour; however, Somerset had been baptised as a Christian in England, which was widely held to bar an African from being held as a slave (though this had in fact no standing in law). Somerset’s three godparents from his baptism, John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade, all abolitionists, applied to the Court of King’s Bench in December 1771 for a writ of habeas corpus, in an attempt to force a hearing. Captain Knowles produced Somerset before the Court of King’s Bench on 9 December; the court would now have to determine whether his imprisonment was lawful.

Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ordered a hearing for 21 January; in the meantime he set the prisoner free on recognisance. In February 1772 that the case was heard. The case had attracted a great deal of attention in the press and members of the public donated cash to support the lawyers on both sides of the argument.

When the case was heard, five advocates appeared for Somerset, arguing that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognised the existence of slavery and slavery was therefore unlawful. The advocates also argued that English contract law did not allow for any person to enslave himself, nor could any contract be binding without the person’s consent. The arguments focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. When the two lawyers for Charles Stewart put their case, they argued that property was paramount and that it would be dangerous to free all the black people in England, who numbered at the time approximately 15,000.

Mansfield was reluctant to rule against the property rights of slave-owners, as he had proved in previous judgements in cases brought by Sharp; he tried his hardest to give the slave owner Stewart the chance to free the slave concerned and drop the case, so a precedent wouldn’t be set. In the end, as Stewart refused to drop it, Mansfield felt himself backed into a legal corner, since he could find no legal justification for slavery to exist. In fact the ruling didn’t outlaw slavery, it only really meant slavers couldn’t take slaves from Britain to the colonies; in effect existing slaves remained slaves, and continued to be taken from Africa to the plantations in the Carribbean.

However, there was widespread celebration in June 1772 after Mansfield’s ruling; many abolitionists saw it as a harbinger of the end of slavery. This was premature: several more decades were to pass, with slavery continuing, and opposition and rebellion against it growing, before the slave trade was outlawed within British colonies (in 1807) and then slavery itself was outlawed in the Empire (in 1833). In some ways the Mansfield judgement is given too much prominence in the histories of the ending of the slave trade, since it chimes with the long-accepted idea of generous white people eventually politely deigning to stop kidnapping people and living off their forced labour , out of the goodness of their hearts…

But the ruling did make life difficult for slavers, opening up opportunity for legal challenges every time they shipped africans into Britain itself. It also encouraged oppositionists, both in the courts and in Parliament, and slaves in the West Indies (and elsewhere) took heart from it, where they heard of it. Whether it had an effect on the numerous slave rebellions that would rise before slavery was finally ended, is debatable: enough immediate oppressive reasons for violent resistance existed in slaves everyday lives.

London’s growing black community, as previously related politically aware and involved in the abolitionist movement, followed the Somerset case carefully. They sent representatives to follow the hearings, who clapped and hugged each other when the judgment was given… A few days later (probably on June 29th, since it was described as being on a Monday) this victory was celebrated by a gathering of several hundred black men and women in a Westminster pub. This was aimed at the seemingly better off, perhaps black servants, as tickets to get in were sold at 5 shillings…

This community solidarity was to continue, and evolve. Politically African anti-slavery activists became a more visible element in the abolitionist movement. A decade and a half after the Mansfield judgment, former slaves like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were touring the country speaking to sympathetic audiences, and setting their proposals for the ending of slavery out in print. And there was clearly an organised group around Equiano and Cugoano, who called themselves the Sons of Africa. Several other black men signed letters and public statements under this banner in the late 1780s, whose names are less well known than Cugoano and Equiano, though they deserve mention here. They included Yahne Aelane (Joseph Sanders), Broughwa Jugensmel, William Green, George Robert Mandeville, Cojoh Ammere (George Williams), Thomas Cooper, Bernard Elliot Griffiths, Daniel Christopher, John Christopher, James Forster, John Scot, Jorge Dent, Thomas Oxford, James Bailey, James Frazer, Thomas Carlisle, William Stevens, Joseph Almaze, John Adams, George Wallace and Thomas Jones. Most of whom are only known by English names, often forced on them by those who had ‘owned’ them, as a way of breaking them from their African identity – though in other cases they could have been adopted on baptism into Christianity (as Olaudah Equiano had taken the name Gustavus Vasa).

This strand of black abolitionist politics would sharpen, form relations with English radical groupings like the London Corresponding Society and the Spencean Philanthropists, reformers who became revolutionaries and plotted insurrection… This cross-fertilisation would produce figures like Robert Wedderburn, who 30 years after Mansfield’s ruling would plot insurrection in London and attempt to spread it to his native West Indies, would link working class agitation against their employers with slave uprising against their owners…

This article owes much to The Many-headed Hydra, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker; the London Hanged, by Peter Linebaugh, as well as Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain, by Peter Fryer.

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Note on the image at the top of this post: The New Union: Club, Being a Representation of what took place at a celebrated Dinner, given by a celebrated – society, by George Cruikshank. One of the most racist prints of the 19th century. It purports to show a dinner held at the African Institution becoming increasingly drunken and debauched as the evening progresses. Cruikshank here employs many common 19th-century racist stereotypes of black people – drunkenness, aggressiveness, and sexual promiscuity – and mocks the idea that black people could aspire to behave in a ‘civilised way’. White abolitionists are portrayed as unsuspecting and bewildered innocents, corrupted by their association with black people; becoming ‘uncivilised’ rather than black people becoming ‘civilised’. Meanwhile, the idea of relationships between races is ridiculed. Many familiar and important figures are represented. Abolitionists like Wilberforce, Stephen and Macaulay appear next to the street entertainer Billy Waters and the radical Robert Wedderburn. Cruikshank’s print was influenced by a pamphlet entitled ‘More thoughts still on the state of the West India Colonies and the proceedings on the African Institution with observations on the speech of James Stephen Esq.’, which was published in London in 1818. It was written by Joseph Marryat MP, the agent for the island of Grenada, and was a challenge to the abolitionist cause. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So don’t go nicking our holidays, poshos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in London’s radical history: radical prisoners hold party in Newgate prison, 1826

A tax was first imposed on British newspapers in 1712. The tax was gradually increased until in 1815 it had reached 4d. a copy. As few people could afford to pay 6d. or 7d. for a newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes.

Increasing the stamp was a deliberate tactic, aimed at restricting the amount and level of knowledge and ideas reaching the working classes.

However, since the stamp was payable on publications defining themselves as ‘newspapers’, so there were ways around it. In 1816 radical journalist  William Cobbett began publishing his weekly Political Register as a pamphlet. And for only 2d – it soon had a circulation of 40,000. John and Leigh Hunt, the publishers of the Examiner, paid the stamp duty but on the front page always called it the “tax on knowledge”.

Other radicals decided to ignore the law. Jonathan Wooler’s Black Dwarf was published unstamped and sold for 4d. Jonathan Wooler used the newspaper to support Major John Cartwright and his Hampden Club movement, campaigning for political reform. Wooler was soon in prison for seditious libel

After the Peterloo Massacre, Lord Castlereagh, the leader of the House of Commons, and Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, introduced new laws in an effort to reduce the circulation of radical newspapers and pamphlets. They persuaded Parliament to pass the Six Acts, two of which were aimed at destroying the radical press. Under the provision of one of the Acts, all publishers were ordered to deposit a bond with the government as surety against future conviction of seditious or blasphemous libel. The bond was £300 if the publisher was based in London or £200 for those who published in the provinces.

Another of the Six Acts applied the 4d. stamp duty to all journals that sold for less than 6d. Since most working people took home less than 10 shillings a week in wages, this was intended to severely reduce the number of people who could afford to buy radical newspapers.

The stamp duty was also applied on journals that contained any “public news, intelligence or occurrences, or any remarks or observations thereon, or upon any matter in Church or State.” The government announced that it hoped that this stamp duty would stop the publication of newspapers and pamphlets that tended to “excite hatred and contempt of the Government and holy religion.” Good luck with that.

The tax was also applied to all journals that appeared more frequently than every twenty-six days. Radical weekly newspapers were rapidly converted to monthly journals. Examples of this strategy include United Trades’ Co-operative Journal and William Carpenter’s Monthly Political Magazine.

Other radicals such as Richard Carlile ignored the law and continued to publish his newspaper, the Republican, without paying stamp duty. Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and sentenced to three years in Dorchester Gaol and fined £1,500. But Carlile was made of stern stuff. In prison he continued to write material for the Republican, now being published by his wife, Jane. The publicity created by Carlile’s trial increased circulation of the newspaper dramatically, to the point where it was now outselling pro-government newspapers such as The Times.

In 1821 Jane Carlile was sentenced to two years imprisonment for seditious libel. Jane was replaced by Richard Carlile’s sister, Mary, but within six months she was also in prison for the same offence. From his prison cell Richard Carlile called for financial support in his campaign to continue publishing the Republican. During the next few months over £500 a week was sent to Carlile’s shop in Fleet Street.

Carlile put out a public call for volunteers to sell the Republican. The Morning Chronicle thought that this was bound to fail as “we can hardly conceive that mere attachment to any set of principles without any hope of gain or advantage will induce men (in any number) to expose themselves to imprisonment for three years.” The Morning Chronicle was wrong: people came from all over the country to take on the responsibility, and over the next few couple of years over 150 men and women were sent to prison for selling the Republican. All told, these ‘shopmen’ served over 200 years of imprisonment in the battle for press freedom.

However, imprisonment in Newgate neither ended their struggles nor cut them of from the social movements on the outside. Since the 1790s at least, a “vibrant and eclectic radical milieu” that thrived in the prison. Radical and others prisoners often able to gather to smoke, drink, talk, and even produce publications…

Inspired by the French revolution and homegrown reformist political philosophies. Newgate became “a site of British-Jacobin civility… a salon of radical philosophies.” The more respectable end of radicalism at this time was very much centred on dining, dinner parties where ideas were discussed; as well as discussion clubs in taverns, pubs and coffee houses. Aspects of these scenes were continued and honed inside Newgate.

That this space for radicalism was able to develop was partly due to conditions in Newgate, effectively a state-franchised private prison, with any service and comfort available if you were able to bribe the warder and turnkeys. Many of 1790s radicals were men of independent means, which meant they were able to pay for better rooms, conditions allowances, like visits etc. They also had support from influential Whigs and reformers in Parliament and the City, which brought lenient treatment.

Most were imprisoned for publishing subversive literature, Paine’s works, pro-French addresses, philosophical texts on society and religion, attacks on government and Burke etc… In effect the prisoners formed a ‘prison publishing collective’, which managed to republish Paine, Rousseau, Helvetius and dozens more polemicals, satirical and philosophical works. This period created bonds and links that continued for decades among the former prisoners.

Also, these prisoners were able to receive regular flow of visitors, who not only carried out prison writings and publications, but brought in material from outside ones, helping to integrate the Newgate milieu into outside one. Familiar spaces from outside culture, eg tavern and coffee house, could be re-created inside.

Mind you let’s not forget – all of this operated for those with money or friends with money. Without it, the vast majority of prisoners did languish in crap conditions, crammed in cells, at risk of disease and eating bad food.

Later generations of radicals in 1810 were also to pay for their privilege, if they had the readies. However, by the time Carlile’s shop workers and the unstamped rebels were sent down, conditions had altered somewhat. Influenced by prison reformers John Howard and George Onesiphorus Paul, and the writings of Jeremy Bentham, prison reform had begun, attempting to tackle the notorious corruption, disease rife in jails, and their tendency to reinforce criminality and immorality.

Reformers like Howard, Bentham and Paul were focused on separation, segregation, silence, hard work, and surveillance, as a way to impose order and moral reform… New prisons were built in the 19th century on a different model, with smaller cells, with inmates increasingly isolated and under watch, unable to socialise, access drink and resist. This was seen not only as way of reducing prison’s influence as a university of crime and sink of depravity in itself, but healthier and more uplifting, less likely for disease to spread, allowing for more education and reflection…

This process had started to change conditions in Newgate, and when Carlile’s shopmen arrived, they found life much harder than their predecessors. This was also compounded by the more plebeian origins of many of the shopmen, compared to the 1790s vintage. So instead of getting their own cells and being able to move about freely, receive visitors, carry on with their radical activities, they found themselves mixed in with the general prison population, confined 10 to a cell, fed only “the new prison food allocation, described as the ‘the most wretched stuff’: ‘one pound of bread and one pint of gruel each day’ with six ounces of beef each alternate day. This, they claimed, was no better than ‘dog’s meat’.” They were denied visitors in their rooms, and all visitors were stripsearched.

Ironically, the increasing influence of prison reformers had something to do with this:  “Although reforms were designed to improve the conditions of the most disadvantaged of the prison population, they appear to have had an inverse effect on the treatment of state prisoners. At the heart of reform was an egalitarian approach, which, theoretically, treated all inmates without favour. Tighter controls on prison management now existed, with visiting prison committees and visiting magistrates overseeing the work of the Governor and attempting to stamp out the old prison economies and profit making from prisoners. While the system of classifying prisoners according to the nature of their crime still meant prisoners who were convicted of sedition, blasphemy or libel could be housed in the state side, separation from other classifications of prisoners within the state side was never assured as Newgate became at times breathlessly overcrowded. Furthermore, visiting rights were now regulated and restricted as reformers considered that personal reform and redemption could not be achieved if the prisoner continued to be surrounded by their unsavoury milieu.”

However, accounts of the relative freedom that earlier political prisoners had enjoyed had to some extent passed down as legend to this generation; they saw it as a right , or matter of respect, and they agitated vociferously. Their complaints forced change – prompting an investigation by the magistrates and officials who formed the City Gaol Committee. “Despite finding that the men’s allocated room was ‘not crowded to inconvenience’, the committee determined that the group of radical prisoners ‘should be allowed the use of another room’. The committee also addressed the men’s complaints regarding their lack of proper bedding, acknowledging that ‘horse bedsteads should be allowed to the complainants’ despite the committee’s concern that such a concession ‘might be regarded as a violation of the discipline’.” But the authorities were also worried that the radical ideas about religion and politics the shopmen expounded might spread to other, initially non-political inmates, a reflection of the similar concern about the effect movements for reform and critics of on the outside were having on the emerging working class. Segregating the politicals from the general prison population seemed pragmatic.

Ironically, the attitude of the radicals to the ‘ordinary criminals’ they were forced to bunk with chimed nicely with the authorities’ fear of their ideological contagion sweeping the gaols. The Carlile shopmen saw themselves as a cut above the crims, on another level morally, and bitterly disputed being dumped among them. This would actually change as contact with increased mingling of ‘state’ prisoners and the wider population…

One incident illustrates the continuing solidarity of the radical prisoners in the face of Newgate. On the afternoon of 29 January 1826, the four Carlile shopmen then banged up in Newgate, Thomas Ryley Perry, Richard Hassell, John Clarke and William Campion, all gathered in their ‘state-side’ gaol apartment to commemorate the birth of radical ideologue and icon Thomas Paine (it was also Perry’s birthday). Singing tunes with titles such as The Bravest of the Brave and Lovely Woman Governs All, the four men reported that “the gathering provided opportunity for much ‘hilarity’ and revelry. Assembling their own makeshift tavern, they sat down to an ‘excellent leg of mutton’ with all the ‘expected trimmings’, filled their tankards with wine at the end of each rendition and raised their cups in earnest to toast ‘the immortal memory of Thomas Paine’, ‘Richard Carlile’ and ‘The Female Republicans’. In defiance of their incarceration, they reserved a toast for their adversaries: ‘May our example teach the Government that Imprisonment for opinions is useless.’ In a rare public avowal of the much maligned prison authorities, the men acknowledged that the prison Governor had been kind enough in this instance ‘to allow us to remain together until eight o’clock, instead of being locked up as usual, at this season of the year, at five’. The anniversary of Paine’s birth had become an auspicious day for the radical community in Britain. As the four men celebrated in Newgate, 75 ‘respectable, well dressed’ radicals also met in honour of Paine’s birth at the City of London tavern, where a ‘half-a-guinea ticket’ provided dinner, dessert and wine. Mirroring events in Newgate prison that afternoon, the London tavern assembly raised their glasses to honour the four men—‘freedom of mind’s undaunted champions’. Clearly, the incarceration of Perry, Hassell, Clark and Campion was to prove no impediment to their own participation in this important radical community event. The men were as happy, they reported, as ‘our friends could possibly be at the London Tavern, or elsewhere’. The observance of ceremonies such as the birth of Thomas Paine in 1826 fostered radical camaraderie and a sense of fraternity within the prison, and a shared collective identity both with earlier generations of radical prisoners and with the radical community beyond the prison walls. Like the early generation of radical prisoners, they defied their containment within the prison space by recreating familiar radical spaces such as the tavern. Certainly, their festivities were more solitary affairs than previous radical gatherings in the prison; however, the ability of radicals to subvert the prison regime and routine and maintain contact across time and space with the wider radical community attests to the vitality and adaptability of the new generation of plebeian radicals.”

A great part of this post was extracted from Radical Spaces, Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845, by Christina Parolin. Which is a crackin read.

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

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

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

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

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

“TWELFTH-DAY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3d Boy. What pretty ones these are!

4th Boy. Only see that!

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

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

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

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

Countryman. What a crowd inside!

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

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

10th Boy. Which?

Countryman. Why the young one!

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

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

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

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

Countryman. Aye, what?

All the boys. Ah! Ah! Ah! Huzza.

Countryman. Who nailed my coat-tail? Constable!

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

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

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

Countryman. Constable! Constable!

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

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

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

Const. Go forward, then!

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

Const. Clear the way!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today in London’s unruly history: a bursting brewery vat turns St Giles into a free festival, 1814.

The St Giles Rookery, was one of central London’s most notorious slums for centuries, a harbour for rebels & criminals: “ one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts”… Largely contained between Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury Street (then Charlotte St) Broad Street and St Giles High Street, a warren of cheap lodging houses, “set apart for the reception of idle persons and vagabonds.”, a haunt of coiners and thieves, costermongers (pedlars and street hawkers) , fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters. A major bugbear of authorities and moralising reformers, supplier of large numbers to the gallows at Tyburn and the convict transport ships… It teemed with the poorest, the most desperate.

On the edge of the Rookery’s most notorious streets, a large brewery, originally built by Blackburn & Bywell, though later known as Stevensons (and also possibly Manx & Co), used to occupy the land where the Dominion Theatre stands, between the end of Bainbridge Street and Great Russell Street, backing onto some of the ‘darkest spots’ of the old rookery.

“a great day for the Rookery”

On October 17th 1814, this was the scene of a disaster which is said to have turned into a free festival: “the great porter vat, which stood 22 feet high and contained 3555 barrels (or 135,000 imperial gallons)… the talk of the town when first erected… burst, flooding the Rookery.” Other vats burst as the debris collapsed, and several flimsy garret walls collapsed under the tremendous force of thousands of gallons of dark beer, killing several inhabitants [seven, possibly; it also damaged the Tavistock Arms pub]. But the rookery-dwellers weren’t likely to pass up such an opportunity, as described by local chroniclers Gordon and Deeson, (with typical loaded language: again, note the immediate likening of the residents to verminous animals): “Like rats out of their holes came the mob and lapped at the porter as it ran along the gutters, or cupped their hands and poured it down their throats…” The more enterprising grabbed whatever containers they could to collect the porter for later consumption, “even the children, in the scantiest of rags or more more frequently nothing at all, ran out to do their share with spoons… it was a great day for the Rookery.” In court it was held to be an Act of God!

Allegedly along with those crushed and drowned by the initial flood, a couple of St Giles folk drank themselves to death, bringing the official number of deaths to eight. While the images of a free piss up for the poor warm the heart, you have to wonder if this is all entirely true, especially as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the earlier story of the burning of Langdale’s Gin Distillery in Holborn in the Gordon Riots, not a mile east and just thirty-odd years before; you can’t help feeling maybe the incidents have been confused, and spiced with a dose of moral come-uppance by temperance-swilling historians.

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

Today in sporting history: West Indies cricket victory over England sparks victory demo through West End, 1950.

‘Calypso at Lords! The Turkey Trot on the hallowed turf! “outrageous sir”, said an old member, “Just outrageous.”’

When the West Indies first beat England at cricket at Lords in 1950, hundreds of West Indians living in Britain had obviously turned up to support them…

Their numbers at Lord’s in June were relatively small, not more than 100. But they made more of an impression than this statistic would suggest:

“The West Indian supporters created an atmosphere of joy such as Lord’s had never known before”. The Times, snooty as ever, described West Indian supporters as providing “a loud commentary on every ball” and, after the last English wicket had fallen, invading the field armed with “guitar-like instruments.” In Jamaica’s Gleaner, the match report noted that West Indian fans had been “beating out time on dustbin lids” and that “one enthusiast scraped away on a cheesegrater with a carving knife.” Not surprisingly, “bottles of rum were produced like magic,” reported the Gleaner, while England’s Daily Telegraph and Morning Post ran a story under the headline “Calypsos sung at Lord’s”. When the final English wicket fell, the Windies supporters rushed onto the pitch to party. Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), a famous Trinidadian calypso artist, led them in singing victory songs:

‘”I went there, with a guitar. And we won the match. After we won the match, I took my guitar and I call a few West Indians, and I went around the cricket field, singing. And I had an answering chorus behind me, and we went around the field singing and dancing. That was a song that I made up. So, while we’re dancing, up come a policeman and arrested me. And while he was taking me out of the field, the English people boo him, they said, “Leave him alone! Let him enjoy himself! They won the match, let him enjoy himself.” And he had to let me loose, because he was embarrassed. So I took the crowd with me, singing and dancing, from Lords, into Piccadilly in the heart of London. And while we’re singing and dancing and going to Piccadilly, the people opened their windows wondering what’s happening. I think it was the first time they’d ever seen such a thing in England. And we’re dancing in Trinidad style, like mas,” and dance right down Piccadilly and dance around Eros. The police told me we are crazy. So, we went a couple of rounds of Eros. And from there, we went to the Paramount, a place where they always had a lot of dancing. And we spend the afternoon there, dancing and having a good time.”

You can imagine what the stuffed shirts of the MCC made of it: one diarist sniffed it was “unnecessary”. Generally the British press congratulated the West Indies side with generous condescension. Only the Evening Standard managed to come up with its usual lovely turn of phrase (consciously racist or just stupidly ignorant?) “the blackest day for English cricket”. 

Written later that day, the Victory Calypso immortalised the spin bowling pair of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine:

Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Yardley tried his best
But Goddard won the Test.
They gave the crowd plenty fun;
Second Test and West Indies won….

Chorus: With those two little pals of mine
Ramadhin and Valentine.

Walcott, Weekes and Worrell held up their name
With wonder shots throughout the game
But England was beaten clean out of time
With the spin bowling of Ramadhin and Valentine.

West Indies was feeling homely,
Their audience had them happy,
When Washbrook’s century had ended,
West Indies voices all blended…
Hats went in the air,
People shout and jump without fear,
So at Lord’s was the scenery,
It bound to go down in history

There’s a dispute about whether Lord Kitchener or fellow calypsonian Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore) wrote the song. Lord Beginner certainly later recorded it and had the hit, but some present on the day remember Kitchener coming up with some of the lines.

The occasion could not help but have enormous significance. All the Caribbean islands from which the Windies team were drawn were British colonies, and the prevailing opinion in the UK, from Labour government, the press, to vast sections of the population of whatever class, felt that this the way things should be and would remain.

But pressure for change had been building in the Caribbean. Nationalist movements had been developing since the 1920s and 30s; black trade unions had been increasingly active in many parts of the region. ‘Moderate’ politicians, taking tentative steps towards possible independence, were being jostled from below by more radical voices.

Also significant was the nature of many of the West Indian spectators, present in London at the time, early movers at the start of the process of migration that would bring thousands of Afro-Caribbeans to the UK and change society here forever. A number of them – including both Kitchener and Beginner – had come over on the Empire Windrush in 1948, widely seen as heralding the birth of that change.

By the time the 1950 touring side arrived, there were around 5,000 Caribbean-born people in the country. The victory was celebrated enthusiastically both here and in the West Indies. In the Caribbean, the victory sparked scenes of delirium with public holidays in Barbados and Jamaica. Undoubtedly it had an impact on self-confidence which influenced the increasingly unstoppable momentum towards independence from British rule. Ironically, as with all West Indies sides until the 1960s, the team was captained by a white cricketer, John Goddard, and dominated by a white clique. Goddard himself was known for anti-black comments. Its also true that although to some extent cricket played an integrating force in West Indian region, there were also intense rivalries and resentments between the islands over the make-up of the team.

I was also always told that of old a number of the West Indies cricket team would always come down and hang at the Coach and Horses in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, the first black-owned pub in modern Britain, in the heart of one the first areas afro-caribbeans first settled in, and still an area with a strong black community – also that some of the crowd that day ended up there that evening. Though I lived over the road, and used to drink there (in its last incarnation with a West Indian landlady before it was closed for several years and translated into a succession of soulless hipster shite-spots), I have never found out whether this is myth or truth.

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