Today in London anti-war history, 1919: Strike of conscientious objectors in Wandsworth Prison gets them released

Wandsworth Prison, in South London, was built in 1851. During World War 1, it had been divided into two institutions, one a civil prison housing conscientious objectors, and the other a military wing for the detention of army defaulters from the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand armies. Each of these prisons had its own Governor and administration. In theory they were quite separate, but in fact the military section overflowed into a part of the civil prison. Sometimes the two factions of alleged delinquents came into contact. This was stopped when the conchies, appalled at the brutal treatment meted out to the soldiers, made protest demonstrations. This reached a climax when R.M. Fox and others raised a vigorous protest when a youth was chased naked along a corridor by prison guards armed with ticks with which they proceeded to beat the young soldier. But the windows of the civil cells overlooked by the military parade ground, and from there much abuse was hurled at the guards, and much incitement to revolt aimed at the soldiers.

The stirring of unrest among the Conscientious objectors in Wandsworth began in the early months of 1918. In February, Conscientious objectors refused to wash military uniforms as part of their prison work. They would not wear them: was it considered they should wash them? The Governor conceded the point.

By June 1918, the noise created in the establishment of deathly silence was such that it upset the subservient faction of the inmates, and harassed the warders. That month a work and discipline strike was planned, but it was betrayed beforehand by one of the conchies who did not believe in making a disturbance.

The nine ringleaders of the alleged plot were brought before the Visiting Magistrates and sentenced to forty-two days No 1 punishment. That meant seven weeks in solitary confinement with three days on and three days off bread and water, in unheated basement cells with no furniture, except bedboard, stool and sanitary bucket. Among the nine were Guy Aldred, Frederick Sellars, Ralph Morris and R.M. Fox.

[Guy Aldred (1886-1963) was a long-time anarchist-communist. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he first became a boy-preacher, then a freethinker and secularist speaker, rapidly progressing to socialist politics. An eccentric individual all his life, he adopted an anarchist and anti-parliamentarian stance before WW1, but for decades was famous for standing in elections, as a tactic for spreading propaganda. A noted public speaker, he saw himself very much in the tradition of nineteenth century freethinkers and radical publishers like Richard Carlile. During WW1 he refused to submit to conscription, and was imprisoned in labour camps and various prisons several times, but continued his anti-war campaigning inside and outside jail. After the war he moved to Glasgow, and lived there for the rest of his life, continuing to issue anarchist propaganda.
Richard Fox, known as Dick, was a founder and leading member of the North London Herald League, one of the main groups in London to oppose WW1 from a socialist perspective. The NLHL was formed initially as part of a nation-wide support and distribution network for the leading leftwing paper, the Daily Herald. It united socialists, anarchists and communists of varying ideological backgrounds, and organised constant anti-war propaganda and public meetings throughout the conflict. Its members were also involved in every conceivable theatre of struggle – resisting conscription, helping to smuggle draft-dodgers out of the country, strikes, and much more. Before the war Fox had been an engineer and a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain; from 1913 he was a member of the syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of the World’s British section, and had edited its paper Industrial Worker. He was arrested in 1916, forced to go before a Tribunal when he refused to obey orders, and went to prison.
Fox was released in 1919, and became a writer and journalist. He eventually moved to Dublin where he died in 1969.]

When the nine had been on bread and water for three days, the Governor sent for them and told them he was transferring them to Brixton Prison…

Brixton at this time held remand prisoners, convicted men on short sentences (as it does today) as well as political detainees and some conscientious objectors. At this time, several IRA men (1918 being the early days of the Irish War of independence) were held there; they were not subject to the usual rules of silence or locked in their cells. Another inmate was Tchitcherin, a Russian socialist soon to be appointed the Soviet representative in Britain. When the Wandsworth rebels were transferred to Brixton Prison, they made it clear to the Governor there that they would do no ‘punitive work’, but agreed to work in the kitchens so long as they were allowed to speak and had minimal supervision. To save face, the Chief Warder made an agreement to deliver the required allotment of mailbags in each man’s cell each day, though Aldred and the others made it clear they would not sew them… A blind eye was turned. The nine also managed to force some concessions regarding the conditions in which they received visits.

Working in the kitchen, exempted from the silence rule, the nine held political discussions; RM Fox recalls Aldred standing behind a table, making some political point, illustrating it by prodding the air vigorously with a bread knife! They also held clandestine study sessions, and Aldred wrote and smuggled out articles for The Spur (via sympathetic prison warders?!?)

While the men were in Brixton (in August 1917), the sentences on Aldred, Frederick Sellar and Ralph Morris ended, but instead of being released, they were transferred to Blackdown Barracks, given orders, which they were bound to refuse, and court-martialled again. As a result they received further sen­tences of two years hard labour.

The first of these prisoners to return to Wandsworth from Brixton, on September 4th 1918, was Guy Aldred, with another two years added to his (two-year) sentence. He had openly stated at his court-martial note here and in the columns of his paper The Spur that he would neither work nor take orders while subject to this illegal imprisonment. He later maintained, not in self-defence, but as a matter of fact, that he was not the leader, but there is no doubt that his attitude would stir up the latent unrest, which had not been entirely inactive while he was away.

As the trouble got worse, sometime in October the Governor gathered the twenty most obstreperous men into his office and offered a truce. All punishments wiped out, several concessions granted, if the men would co-operate in running the prison properly. Aldred was among the twenty. It is not recorded who was their spokesman, but the reaction was unanimous. Their liberty was not up for bargaining. They were not objecting to the conditions of imprisonment but to the fact of imprisonment. So the peace bid failed.

The Governor retaliated by confining the worst offenders, including Aldred, to their cells, canceling all visits, all letters and library books. Cell ‘furniture’ (bedboard and stool) were removed during the day.

By this time the men were on strike. The demands were for the release of the locked-up men, the resumption of letters, visitors and books, and one hour (increased to two hours, on second thoughts) of free talking every day. These demands seem to have been met, with the exception of the release of the locked-up men. They, it was said, would stay permanently under lock and key.

R.M. Fox returned to Brixton at that time. He had been kept in Brixton till the expiry of his two-year sentence, then on November 10th, the eve of the Armistice, he was released and taken back to the headquarters of his Army unit – which he was deemed to have joined – stationed at Mill Hill military barracks, not to be dismissed from the Army, as prescribed in the Regulations, but to face his fourth court-martial.

The guard room at Mill Hill Barracks was packed with very drunk soldiers. They had been celebrating victory over the Germans and smashing up the West End. Now they were confined to barracks, and they were celebrating. They sang the old war-time songs beloved of all soldiers: ‘Take me back to Dear old Blighty’, ‘If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind!’, and the parody on a hymn, ‘Wash me in the water that you washed your dirty daughter, and I shall be whiter that the whitewash in your wall.’

A few days later Fox faced his fourth court martial. Fox was an engineer by trade, an author by profession, and a socialist by conviction. He had delivered many an anti-war speech at open-air meetings before hostile audiences. He took this opportunity to harangue the officers of the court, since they had probably never listened to an open-air meeting:

“Gentlemen, you think you are trying me. You are in error. It is you who are on trial. The havoc you have wrought in the past years is there to condemn you. It is not German militarism, nor English militarism, which is responsible for this. It is Militarism, without qualification, and the militarists are only the agents for the capitalists who coin money out of blood. I stand as spokesmen for that rising body of men and women who are about to condemn you. The war was a war of greed and plunder. Profiteers have plundered the people unmercifully since the war began…Thousands of honest poor people have been murdered and maimed to swell the moneybags of the vultures who made the war …. Thousands of working men, sick to death of the horror, greed and hypocrisy of their present rulers are taking control of the world into their own hands….”

He could have saved his breath. The sentence of the court was automatic, as the members of the court were automatons, programmed to a War Office response. Two years’ Hard Labour. A few days later Fox and five others were taken by an escort of ten soldiers to Wandsworth Prison.

The sergeant in charge halted his men outside a West End tearoom and proposed that they all meet again therein two hours’ time. Fox looked up some friends and had tea and a chat. At the end of two hours, more or less, the prisoners had all assembled. Presently the sergeant arrived, but no escort. In some alarm the sergeant asked the prisoners to help find them. So, after an organised search of nearby pubs they were all together, the escort very merry, and some very unsteady. When they arrived at the gates of Wandsworth they were really being escorted by the prisoners.

Wandsworth, according to Fox, was like a cold damp scullery. ‘My heart sank when I saw the grim entrance to Wandsworth again, and heard the key grate once more in the lock. A little band of pacifist women, led by Clara Cole, greeted us at the prison gate, where they were tireless in their demonstrations.’

[Clara Gilbert Cole (1868-1956) was a suffragist before World War 1. During the war she became an ardent pacifist, founding a League against War and Conscription. She was jailed for six months in 1916 with Rosa Hobhouse for distributing thousands of anti-war leaflets in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. Later she was associated with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation, another of the main London anti-war groups. Becoming involved in the post-war unemployed movement, she was nicked again in 1922 on an unemployed action in Camberwell, South London. She gravitated towards anarchism, with which she identified until her death.

Another of those women was Lady Clare Anneseley.  [Lady Clare Annesley (1893-1980), pacifist and socialist, was daughter of the 5th Earl Annesley, but became a member of the Independent Labour Party. When the war broke out she was heavily involved in the No Conscription Fellowship. She later stood as a Labour Party candidate in the 1920s and ‘30s. But she became interested in the Social Credit movement in the early 1930s, and its possible that she also flirted with fascism at this time…? I cannot be sure of this however.]

Both were active in keeping a constant vigil outside Wandsworth, carrying placards in support of the C.O. s inside, and laying themselves open to much public abuse. Both Clara Cole and Lady Clare Annesley were associated with Guy Aldred in his opposition to the Second War, though in a quieter role. During the First War they also organised concerts of popular songs and music outside the walls of Wandsworth. Inmates were forbidden to listen. Seven men who gathered under a landing window to listen to one such Christmas Eve concert were seen, and promptly sentenced to one day on bread and water to see them over the Christmas celebrations.

Fox found that the prison was completely out of hand. Now that the Armistice was signed, long pent‑up feelings demanded an outlet. One body of prisoners, who were known as the ‘All‑Out Strikers’, had declared that they intended to disregard all prison rules. Those men were in permanent lock‑up. They kept up a constant din all day, rattling their mugs along the doors of their cells and shouting abuse at the warders. Guy Aldred probably took part in this uproar, though it was quite out of character. He would rather have been reading or writing, or speaking. The din told on his nerves, and he was not the only sufferer. Only about a third of the C.O.s were in revolt. The others just wanted to finish their time and get out. They complained to the Governor that they could not read the extra book the concession had granted them, because of the din. The old lags – according to Fox there were still some in the prison – did not know what to make of it all. Jail had never been like this.

In the evenings the locked‑up men held concerts, with songs and recitations echoing through the spy‑holes, and Guy Aldred had his chance: he lectured. On at least one occasion the warders tried to drown his words by rattling on trays. On December 4th the Governor ordered the ‘All-Out Strikers’ to be taken down to the basement cells. R.M. Fox was not among them at that time: he was with them a few weeks later, so we can use his description:

“Those basement cells were appalling. They were half underground dungeons. Not only were they gloomy, but everything in them was coated with an unbelievable filth. Grimy cobwebs hung in the corners, the dirt of years was plastered on the small barred window through which I could just seethe feet of men on exercise at ground level. Even the can of drinking water was festooned with dirt and grime. It was as if I had been thrust in among old forgotten lumber to die…

The “All‑Out Strikers” occupied similar basement cells. Nearly opposite my cell was a Scottish lad, Jack Hodgson, who had been down in this horrible dungeon for months. He was not allowed out for exercise for he refused to obey the prison rules. He was nothing but a bag of bones, with a pale, hollow cheeked face, and an indomitable spirit. I heard his thin treble voice singing revolutionary songs far into the night. His voice cut across the brooding silence of that terrible time.”

The furniture consisted of a bed‑board, three blankets, a backless stool, a fixed table‑bench, and a sanitary bucket, sometimes left for two days unemptied. Twice a week a convict barber came around and as each man in turn sat on his stool drew a torturously blunt old ‘cut-throat’ razor over his face. There were no washing facilities and no exercise. There was no heating – and this was mid-winter. The light should have been supplied from the gas jet, which shone through a frosted glass panel from the corridor. This was not lit on the first night, and as a protest the men smashed the glass panels, an action for which they were awarded one day on bread and water. The broken panels made a good opening for speaking to each other, and by that means the prisoners agreed to reject the punishment by throwing the bread back into the corridor. The light was then restored, but withdrawn again when the unwisdom of giving desperate men access to a gaslight was realised. Thereafter the ‘Basement Men’ spent their days in gloom and their nights in darkness for many weeks.

As a protest against the treatment of the Basement Men, the other conchies on strike decided to hold a meeting in the exercise yard on a Sunday, when most of the warders were off duty. It was arranged that four men, Beacham, Knight, Spiller and Fox would speak in turn from a parapet: others would follow as each was dragged off. So, instead of marching round in the prescribed manner, they gathered in a group round the speakers. There was no interference, and the meeting proceeded. There were only two warders on yard duty, and they probably felt the situation was beyond them, especially as these were not ordinary convicts, and the warders themselves were not quite immune from the radical tendencies that were gathering strength outside. From that meeting a Prisoners’ Committee of five members was elected. This reported to the prisoners in the exercise yard. A proposal of cell-furniture smashing was rejected, and a policy of ‘massive deputation’ was adopted. If a grievance was not dealt with to their satisfaction, they would march to the centre of the prison and squat there till agreement was reached between them and the Governor.

Next morning fifty men made application to see the Governor. He accepted only five. The Chairman of the Visiting Magistrates was present. The magistrates had arrived to hear charges against the basement strikers. Fox read out a resolution passed at the meeting condemning the incarceration of the Basement Men, and demanding their release. The Governor said those complaints had no personal bearing on the men making the complaints, and were therefore invalid. He would run the prison as he thought fit. Fox was permitted to speak to the magistrates, and did so with the satisfactory result that they took no action on the charges made, and so no further punishments were handed out.

Concerts were held in the evenings, both above ground and at basement level. The men above recited or sang from their windows, standing on their stools. Fox describes one such entertainment in which there were twenty items of song and recitation, ending with the ‘Red Flag’. Prisoners from an opposite wing climbed on their stools to listen and applaud. So did the soldiers, some of whom joined in the singing of rebel songs. And so did the inhabitants of the nearby houses. They did not applaud or join in, but they listened, leaning on their elbows on the window sills.

The basement men held lectures. The most popular were delivered by Guy Aldred. Speaking through the still unrepaired corridor window, with his bed-board to act as sounding-board, he delivered on different occasions lectures on Karl Marx, Michael Bakunin, Jesus, Womens’ Freedom, the Revolutionary Tradition in English Literature and Richard Carlile. On several occasions off-duty warders gathered at the foot of the stairs to listen.

Wandsworth COs also produced an underground journal, the ‘Old Lags Hansard’. According to inmate Harold Blake, “this periodical was written by hand in block characters on sheets of toilet paper, and sewn together with thread; and on account of the labour involved, only one copy of each issue was published. However, it went the rounds passing from hand to hand, and finally when it had fulfilled its purpose, it was contrived that it should fall into the hands of Mr Walker, the Chief Warder. The vastly amusing part about the whole business was that the last page always con­tained the announcement ‘Look out for the next number, to be published on date x, and in spite of all the efforts of the authorities to trace its origin, we were not disappointed. Once indeed it was a day late, as they made the declared date a search day; but the editor presented his apologies in his editorial to the effect that he was a day late in publishing ‘owing to an official raid on our offices.’ [i.e. his cell!]

COs interned in several work camps and prisons circulated such samizdat journals.

News seeped into Wandsworth that a ‘Hunger-strike policy’ was being advocated in several other prisons. It was proposed that this should start with a wholesale refusal of work or eating on New Years Day. R.M. Fox was one of those who disagreed with the hunger-strike policy. There were those who were opposed to the whole campaign of objection. One such, named Leonard J. Simms, acquiring a plentiful supply of coarse brown toilet paper, wrote and circulated an attack on the ‘Basement Oligarchy’, whose influence and noise kept the prison in a state of uproar. The Chief Warder did not help in the direction of calm and order when he jeered at several of the acquiescent men, calling them cowards who were prepared to accept all the concessions gained by the strikers, but were not prepared to participate in their protests. This led to a spate of cell smashing. One person, being particularly incensed at this accusation, reacted so violently that he was put into a straitjacket.

There had been hunger strikes for varying periods from the beginning of December. There is no way of knowing how many fell in with the Prisoners’ Committee resolution to fast on New Years Day, but fourteen of those who did continued the strike, declaring that it would be maintained till they were released, which they were, on January 7th.

Amongst them were Aldred and Thomas Ellison. [Thomas Ellison had been called up to the 7th London Regiment on April 27th, 1916 and on June 9th was charged at Sutton Mandeville Camp near Salisbury with refusing to put on military clothing. At his court-martial on June 14th, he refused to call witnesses, instead making a speech that was reported in The Spur. He was sentenced to six months’ hard labour, later reduced to 112 days, and sent to Winchester prison on June 19th. In early November Ellison was ordered to Wakefield work camp. On December 27th a letter ordered him to report to the London Regiment. He was arrested in Crewe and taken to Sutton Mandeville, then to Dartmouth (the 7th having moved to South Devon), where he was court-martialled on January 17th and sentenced to two years. He was taken to Exeter Prison on the 26th, spending five months there before his release (in June 1919?).]

However, the releases on January 7th didn’t end the strikes, as not all the strikers got out.

Five who resumed the hunger strike after a break were not included in the release, nor were the non-strikers, that is, those who were non-Participants in the All-Out Strike Campaign. These were men incensed at the jeers of the Chief Warder. Some of them were forcibly fed.

The releases of January 7th were also not final. It was in terms of the Cat and Mouse Act. They were out on licence for twenty-eight days, due to report back on the 6th of February.

The London Star, giving a description of the upheaval in Wandsworth, made it a matter for fun and ridicule at the expense of the C.O.s, implying that they were having as great time at the expense of the taxpayer – having a very happy time altogether. Thomas Henry Ellison replied… in the inaccurate and insulting screed in the columns of The Spur for February 1919: “The article gave no indication of the stern aspect of prison life as known to those who have served from two to three years imprisonment with hard labour – the most rigorous punishment known to English law. It is true that there is a humorous side to prison life. If there were not, most of us would have been transferred to an asylum long before now. Nevertheless there is a tragic side, which the Star did not touch upon. It did not give the number of C.O.s who have been driven insane. It did not tell of the hours of silent torture in which they braved the world, braved it unfalteringly, with soul undaunted by the invective of the Prussianised press, and its lovely bride and supporter, the misled mob.”

Aldred’s physical condition was poor, as must have been expected… The Daily Herald had expressed concern over Aldred’s health the previous August when he had face his fourth court-martial: “We are informed that Aldred’s state of health is such that another term of imprisonment would be highly dangerous; but, indeed, this endless torture would break the health of the strongest man… We call upon the Labour Movement to do something about these outrages.” Now the paper returned to the subject, and the Daily News, West London Observer, and Forward [a news-sheet produced by the Independent Labour Party] also mentioned Guy Aldred’s temporary release, and the effect the long dungeon confinement had had. The editor of the Merthyr Pioneer [a South Wales socialist paper, again run by the ILP.] declared that the sufferings imposed on Aldred and his fellows were not mob violence, but legal crimes. The Glasgow Anarchists in a manifesto demanding the release of all C.O.s, concluded: “The condition of Guy Aldred is one of mental relapse. An active mental worker, a journalist by profession, the bare prison wall with its blank suggestion is fast bringing about in him a serious condition of mind.”

The ferment had not abated in Wandsworth during Aldred’s absence. It had perhaps got even worse. The non-strikers had taken to disobedience. They laughed and talked in the mornings as they were marched to the work shed, and they sang on the way back at 4pm. If any one of them was reprimanded for talking at work they all burst into song. It was not just defiance and protest. Those men were being subjected without a break to a double term of what was considered the harshest sentence allowed by British law. Some of the laughter, coming from half-empty stomachs and torn nerves, was the release of hysteria.

On February 17th, 1919, some of the military prisoners confined on the civil side of the prison attacked their warders. The Prison Report issued later stated: “There can be no doubt that the conduct of the disorderly section of the Conscientious Objectors and their direct incitements to their fellow-prisoners to set the prison authorities at defiance, was one of the main causes of this outbreak.”

Now it was the warders turn to hold a meeting. They reached the conclusion that their lives were in danger, and petitioned the Home Office for support and protection. The result was that the Governor and the Chief Warder (the one who loved to provoke inoffensive prisoners) were each given a month’s leave of absence. The Governor’s place was taken by a Major Blake, who was a noted disciplinarian. He has served in several penal institutions, including Borstal, as a time when the rod was used more frequently than the psychiatrist. The cowardly conchies gave him a rough ride, and a month later an enquiry was held into his conduct. He had overlooked the fact that conchies were more articulate, less over-awed by authority, skilled in exposures, and righteously indignant. The common criminal or Borstal Boy was beaten before he started, by his self-estimation of subservience and fear.

The enquiry into the Major’s misconduct was held in Wandsworth Prison on 15th, 19th and 22nd March 1919. The Report was issued as a White paper on May 7th, and was available to the public at two-pence a copy. Among other interesting observations, it said:

“By this time (the arrival of the major) all attempts to enforce discipline in the prison among the disorderly section of the Conscientious Objectors had been abandoned.

While the promoters of the disorder in the prison belonged exclusively to the prisoners classed as conscientious objectors, it is right to point out that there is a considerable number of conscientious objectors who have from the first refused to take part in the disturbance, and have used their utmost effort to prevent it.

The truth is that the prisoners in Wandsworth Prison classed as conscientious objectors belong to schools of thought which are widely separated. They may be divided into three classes: the first consisting of those who have a sincere objection to any form of military service, the second those who falsely pretend to hold religious views in order to escape from its perils, and the third composed of men who profess anarchical doctrines, who deny the validity of the law and the right of the State to trench upon individual freedom. It was to the last class that the disorder in the prison was mainly due.”

When he first arrived at the prison entrance, the major was led by the new Chief Warder into the main hall. There they encountered a ‘gang of men’ drawn up and singing and making an awful noise such as the major had never heard in any prison of his experience. The Major called out ‘Silence!’ Somebody shouted out ‘Get your hair cut!’ (a popular catch-phrase at the time). Somebody else made an offensive and disgusting noise with his mouth and voices from the back called ‘Who is this bloody swine?’ and ‘Listen to the bloody swine!’

The Major said at the enquiry that the most impertinent person in the crowd of prisoners was a man who said nothing, but kept up an aggravating grinning and giggling. This was blatant dumb insolence. He ordered the warders to take that man to the basement and ‘Iron him if necessary.’ So the poor fellow was dragged to the basement and fastened into the cruel figure-of-eight irons, which were not normally used in those enlightened times.

This was the first man to be punished by the Major, and the sad thing is that this was Ralph Frederick Harris, who, the previous June, had humbly petitioned the Home Office to protect him from the outrageous conchies. Now his deliverer had arrived, perhaps at last in reply to his petition – and not before time, for things had worsened. Doubtless the Home Secretary had mentioned the petition and its author. What the Major crassly mistook for grins and giggles were knowing smiles of welcome. But understanding did not shine from the Major’s face. He thought the fellow a fool.

The tour of inspection proceeded to the workshop. About 450 men were sitting quietly getting on with their work. About 100 of them were conscientious objectors. ‘I was nor particularly interested in the conscientious objectors,’ said the Major at the Enquiry. The officer in charge had just said “all correct, Sir’, when through the opposite door burst a gang of men singing The Red Flag. The flabbergasted Major had never seen anything like it in his life. Recalcitrant old lag, yes, obstreperous borstal boys, certainly, but never a revolutionary tableau complete with vocal chorus in his own prison. He was outraged.

He ordered the warders to drive the mutinous swine back to their cells. He thought the leader was the notorious Guy Aldred, and called him a Bolshevik, with a few adjectival garnishes. Guy was, at that time, holding meetings not far from Wandsworth… [on Clapham Common]. The conchie favoured with the Major’s abuse was R.M. Fox.

‘It is right’, read the Enquiry Report, ‘to observe in connection with the last named man (that is, Guy Aldred), that he had been previously convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment for seditious libel, and in connection with a paper which propagates anarchical doctrines.’

The Enquiry also considered complaints of physical ill treatment made by the prisoners. In one case, the doctor was reported as saying to a man-handled convict that it ‘served him right’. The best the report could offer in the ay of whitewash was that the reason the major had transgressed on all counts was that he had failed to exercise reasonable restraint in his judgments.

The rowdy songsters were hustled back to their cells that first day, but some must have escaped the net, for that evening the Prisoner’ Committee held a meeting in a secluded corner of the Prison. Victor Beacham was speaker and chairman.

[North London Herald League (NLHL) member and speaker Victor Beacham, a glass blower, had been an anarchist and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World before the War, as well as being one of the earliest members of the NLHL. Like Fox he was jailed after taking an ‘absolutist’ position – refusing to co-operate in any way with the war effort. After the War, Beacham joined the Communist Party and became a trade union official in the Painters’ Union. He left the CP in 1929 and joined the Labour Party. He died in 1961, aged 72.]

They considered tactics to defeat the Major. Next morning at exercise it was discovered that all those who had taken part in the secret meeting had been confined to their cells indefinitely.

Leonard S. Simons, the man who had published the toilet paper manifesto denouncing the ‘Basement Oligarchy’, demanded that action should be taken on behalf of the locked-in comrades. A warder of the new regime seized him and dragged him inside. Fox called for an immediate return to the cells as protest. Two men stepped out of the silent parading circle and joined him. The rest did not hear.

Next morning the three of them were marched, one at a time, into the Governor’s office. Fox was first. The Governor banged the table and roared that Fox was guilty of mutiny, and that he had a good mind to order him a flogging. But he changed the good mind to a better one and ordered two days bread and water instead. The other two were awarded the same.

Everything was taken out of Fox’s cell – bedboard, blankets, stool and table – and he was left standing in an echoing emptiness. Next morning he was given a tin mug of water and a hunk of bread. He heard through the whispered information of the landing cleaner that the other two were handing back their bread, so he did likewise. He did the same the next morning, but on the third morning he fell ravenously on the prison breakfast, and was told, when he had finished, that his friends along the landing had decided to continue their fast. Fox then resumed his fast. If he had not broken it, he may have been released after three more days, under the Cat and Mouse Act, as his companions were, along with nine others who had been on a prolonged hunger strike.

The Major’s response to Fox’s resumption of the strike was to have him taken down to the basement, which Fox described as damp, dark, filthy, and crawling with insects. Evidently he had a mattress, for he says the insects crawled over it. After four days Fox and others on hunger strike were taken into the exercise yard, supported by warders and marched around. A few were barely able to stand, but were dragged along.

Then they were forced into what a jolly warder called a ‘Feeding Queue’. He also expressed the hope that they all had their life insurances fully paid up. At the head of the queue was a barber’s chair. Into this each man was placed in turn, his arms held behind him by two warders. Into his mouth a wooden gag was forced – the same gag for everybody. This gag had a hole in the middle through which was passed a tube, all the way into the stomach. Fox, in his autobiographical work Smoky Crusade wrote:

‘I had all the sensations of suffocation. Every choking breath I took drew the rubber tube further in. I felt it right down in the pit of my stomach. A funnel, as if for oil, was put over the tube and liquid food poured in. I choked again when the tube was withdrawn, and staggered, dazed and sick, back to my cell.

‘Each morning we had a roll-call of hunger-strikers from cell to cell, and we heard, day by day, the voices we knew growing fainter and fainter.’

On the eleventh day it was whispered that the conduct of the new Governor was to be the subject of a Home Office Enquiry, to be held in the prison.

Colonel Wedgewood had raised the matter of the inhuman treatment of C.O.s in Wandsworth in the House of Commons. [Colonel Wedgewood: a longtime Liberal MP, (grandson of the ceramics pioneer Josiah Wedgewood), who, though he volunteered to serve in WW1, supported the rights of conscientious objectors and raised questions in Parliament complaining about their ill-treatment. In 1919 he defected to the Labour Party, becoming a minister in the first Labour government. Apart from the COs, he was well-known for supporting unpopular causes, including the treatment of refugees, including some political exiles, and Indian independence.]

The Major had only been on a temporary assignment to Wandsworth, and probably left there after the Enquiry. He did not leave the Prison Service though, for in 1926 he was the subject of another Enquiry. He had revealed to the press the personal confidences of a condemned murderer.

The hunger strikers gave up their strike after the Enquiry. Guy Aldred arrived back in Wandsworth in the middle of the proceedings. He commenced his strike, as he had said he would, and determined to continue it indefinitely. But the authorities had had enough of hunger strikes, and of Guy Aldred. After four days they released him. Fox had to wait a few more weeks, but on April 19th he was also set free.

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

More information can be found in Smokey Crusade, RM Fox’s autobiography; Don’t Be a Soldier, The Radical Antiwar Movement in North London 19141919, by Ken Weller; ‘Come Dungeons Dark’, The Life and Times of Guy Aldred, Glasgow Anarchist, by John Taylor Caldwell, (from which this text is lifted.)
See also this on Clara Cole

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

An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

Follow past tense on twitter

Advertisements

Today in London penal history, 1800: protest in Coldbath Fields prison.

“As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw
A solitary cell.
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in Hell.

He saw a turnkey tie a thief’s hand
With a cordial try and jerk.
Nimbly, quoth he, a man’s fingers move

When his heart is in his work.
He saw the same turnkey unfettering a man
With little expedition.
And he chuckled to think of his dear slave trade

And the long debates and delays that were made.
Concerning its abolition.”
(From The Devils Walk, Coleridge and Southey.)

Coldbath Fields Prison, also known as Clerkenwell Gaol, was built in 1794 and closed in 1877, and stood at the junction of Farringdon Road and Rosebery Avenue, in Clerkenwell, on the site of what is now Mount Pleasant Post office.

Originally intended to be a new Bridewell, to hold vagrants and put them to work, this was a Middlesex House of Correction, (though the City of London did put up some cash so that it could also make use of the prison); run by local magistrates and where mostly petty offenders served short sentences. Until 1850, the prison housed men, women and children; thereafter it was restricted to adult male offenders over the age of 17. By the 1850s it held 1450 inmates; Mayhew, visiting around that time, noted that half the inmates were there for non-payment of petty fines. Despite being designed by prison reformer John Howard, and intended to be more humanitarian prison than its predecessors it became notorious for its ‘Silent System’ regime, which banned all communication by word, gesture or sign. Any resistance to these rules was punished with the wearing of leg-irons, bread and water diets, solitary confinement and floggings. But the inmates resisted nonetheless; “A prison semaphore of winks, hand signs and tapping through the pipes emerged, its secret alphabet becoming one of the cultural inheritances of the London underworld.” The prison administration “resigned themselves to policing a silence that actually hummed with a secret language.”

Work was considered entirely as punishment, with no educational or useful effects, and for this purpose the treadmill was provided; prisoners marched aimlessly round the six huge treadmills in silence, 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. “The treadmill was a huge revolving cylinder with steps on it like the slats of a paddle wheel. Prisoners mounted the steps of the wheel, making it turn with their feet while gripping a bar to keep themselves upright. While some wheels were geared to grind corn or raise water, most, including the one at Coldbath Fields did nothing more than ‘grind the air’.

Initially, there were severe miscalculations as to how far a con could trudge in a day; only after mass ill health was the distance reduced to a tenth of the original 12000 feet a day. Prisoners in Coldbath were prone to disease – it is thought the proximity to the foul Fleet sewer may have helped the Prison to have an abnormally high death rate… The gaol became known as the ‘English Bastille’, later the ‘Steel’.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century prison reformers combined genuine ‘reform’ with new forms of social control, including the rule of silence, separation of inmates, ‘improving’ work, increased religious observance and a growing professionalism for the prison workforce. The old prisons like the Fleet and Newgate had been too uncontrollable, and were clearly shown to be mere holding cells, with no attempt at moral improvement or rehabilitation… new prisons like Coldbath had a moral mission, to turn the dissolute and rebellious poor into individuals conditioned to capital’s aims… And to prevent bribery, fraternisation and corruption that had led to escapes, and an easy life for some…

Bentham’s panopticon may never have been built, but the penitentiaries of the 19th century aimed at total control total surveillance and moral bludgeoning.

Inevitably, though, resistance bloomed even in the new bastilles… Partly this was due to an influx of politicsed and rebellious inmates.

In August 1798, eleven mutineers from the great 1797 naval mutinies that had paralysed the Royal navy (and terrified the government for a while), including the rebel captain of the Sandwich, escaped from Coldbath Fields.

In 1798 16 men from the London Corresponding Society (LCS), including former military officer Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, were imprisoned in Coldbath Fields on charges of treason. They had been arrested for plotting to incite popular uprisings in Ireland and England in preparation for a French invasion. The harsh treatment meted out to the prisoners while awaiting trial attracted radical MP Francis Burdett’s support, and he demanded a House of Commons inquiry into their case. Burdett’s exposure of conditions there, became a cause celebre.

Many radicals were detained under repressive laws designed to keep down rising radical ideas at home, and sympathy to the French Revolution during the War… LCS leader Thomas Evans was held for nearly 3 years; another detainee was Colonel Despard, later hanged in 1803 for plotting a nationwide radical uprising. The LCS prisoners mounted a steady attack on the regime of solitary. An article in the society’s magazine described the regime as ‘an ingenious mode of intellectual torture.’ It asserted that ‘remorse is to the intellect what the rack is to the body.

“Burdett’s visits to the prison became highly publicized… He uncovered a litany of abuses and brought them to public notice through a speech in the House of Commons, subsequently printed as a pamphlet titled An Impartial Statement of the Inhuman Cruelties Discovered! in the Coldbath Fields Prison.12 Although the motivation for the pamphlet was the alleged ill treatment of the state prisoners, none of the cases it exposed appeared more shocking than the plight of Mary Rich, a fourteen-year-old girl held in the prison for a month after accusing a lawyer of attempted rape. A grim feature of the late eighteenth-century legal system made provision for witnesses in trials to be held in custody, while those actually being prosecuted could remain free until trial if they had sufficient wealth to provide for it. Mary’s appearance in court a month after being committed to the prison caused a sensation: deathly pale and drawn, her emaciated frame appeared crippled from starvation. Despite being seated in a chair, she was ‘scarcely able to hold herself upright’.13 When questioned on her condition, she feebly advised the jury that she had been fed only bread and water for the month and had been left with only scanty bed coverings. Her sickly frame was exposed to a frigid cell without glazed windows or a fireplace. Further, the pamphlet relayed her claim in court that, despite being exceedingly ill for more than four days, she had been denied access to a doctor.

The Impartial Statement catalogued further abuses: prisoners being beaten by turnkeys; some prisoners being chained in irons for several months at a time without provocation; others confined to shattering spells of solitary confinement for only minor infractions; prisoners being fleeced of money for the most basic of necessities; and still others, along with Mary, starved ‘to the point of death’. With Burdett’s intervention, the plight of Colonel Despard also gained significant public attention. Along with Burdett, Despard’s West Indian-born wife, Catherine, commenced a campaign to elicit public sympathy, complaining to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, that Despard had been treated ‘more like a common vagabond than a gentleman or State Prisoner’. One letter, read in the House of Commons and reported in the daily press, complained that he had been imprisoned ‘without either fire or candle, chair, table, knife, fork, a glazed window or even a book to read’. Despard was eventually moved to a room with a fire, though not before, Catherine claimed, ‘his feet were ulcerated by frost’. Burdett’s report on the prison conditions was presented to the House of Commons for recommendation, but failed by an overwhelming majority.

Nevertheless, Burdett’s and Catherine’s crusades against the prison quickly found a receptive public audience. Although the British populace had long been accustomed to allegations of abuse in old prisons such as Newgate, Coldbath Fields was one of the first prisons to arise in the outer London landscape as a testament to the aspirations of John Howard and other late eighteenth-century prison reformers. Here was a prison intended to embody Howard’s humanitarian convictions of protecting prisoners, not only from the squalor, disease and misery of old prisons such as Newgate, but also from the whims of governors and turnkeys and the ruthless prison economy. Instead, Burdett had exposed a site of neglect, barbarity and corruption.” (Christina Parolin)

In 1799, a Board of Visitors reported, having visited the prison, “the prisoners without fire, without candles, denied every kind of society, exposed to the cold and the rain, allowed to breathe the air out of their cells only for an hour, denied every comfort, every innocent amusement, excluded from all intercourse each other…”

In the following year, 1800, there were two rebellions inside the prison, in June and August, which were quelled by the Clerkenwell Volunteers (like most of the Volunteer Companies set up to defeat revolution in France and potential revolution at home). In the August mutiny, on the 14th, prisoners shouted “Murder” and that they were being starved. A crowd were said to have gathered outside in support of the rebels inside the prison (though we’re still looking for confirmation of this) – suggesting a planned revolt by radicals with outside connections…

The revolt, and the agitational effort of both Burdett and Catherine Despard in particular, did have an effect on the prison regime vis a vis political inmates.

“When Burdett took up the case of Despard—one of the first political prisoners to be housed in Coldbath Fields—he found that the former military officer was confined in one of the prison’s smallest cells, measuring a mere 7 ft (2 m) square, which, being set below ground level, flooded during rain. The window of the cell was unglazed so that he was obliged, during the rigours of a hard winter, to jump from his table to his bed, and from his bed to the ground, in order to produce such an increased circulation of his blood as should diffuse warmth through his half-frozen veins.

Despard’s wife, Catherine, reported that despite the desperate physical drill, his legs bore ulcers from the extreme cold of his cell. Combined with his ‘felon’s diet’ of bread and water, Coldbath Fields prison, she feared, had almost achieved prematurely what the hangman would later accomplish on the gallows.

Catherine’s unyielding pursuit of the government to intervene in Despard’s plight saw some eventual improvements in the conditions in which he was incarcerated. Despard’s allies were to be found across the political spectrum. Though Horatio Nelson attended his trial as a character witness, it did little to change the outcome of the final verdict. The intervention of John Reeves, former leader of a loyalist network centred on the Crown and Anchor tavern, and now a conservative magistrate, saw Despard’s prison conditions somewhat alleviated. Following Reeves’ intervention, Despard was moved to an upstairs room in the prison with a fire, was allowed books and papers, and Catherine was permitted to visit him in his cell. When Burdett presented Despard’s case to the House of Commons, the Attorney-General, John Scott, admitted that Despard had been moved to a better room because of his rank, along with other state prisoners from the LCS. Scott regretted the indulgence after it was reported that the men had made the room into a ‘Debating Society of the worst possible species’.68 He also maintained that Catherine was allowed to visit her husband and, with a thinly veiled threat, remarked that in ‘speaking of wives’, it was ‘no small degree of indulgence that the Government had not imprisoned some of them also’.

The relocation of Despard and the other LCS men to another area of the prison takes on greater significance when considering the spatial context of Coldbath Fields. Where Newgate’s architectural plans clearly allowed accommodation for state prisoners as a distinct category of prisoner, no such provision was made in the architectural design of Coldbath Fields. The absence of such specific accommodation could have prompted the Middlesex magistrates’ desperate defence in 1798 that the ‘prison was not fitly calculated to receive’ state prisoners. It is possible that in classifying state prisoners as ‘misdemeanours’, both the architects and the authorities no longer considered that such separate allocation of accommodation was necessary.

For radical prisoners, however, the repercussions were critical. As was the case with radical prisoners in Newgate throughout the period 1790–1820, separation from the remaining prison population was a crucial means of resisting the criminal identity inscribed by the prison space. Yet despite the omission of a dedicated ‘state side’ in the plans of Coldbath Fields, the historical record suggests that radical prisoners of the nineteenth century owed a great debt to the exertions of Catherine Despard; most reported being confined in larger, more comfortable cells and with access to their own yard.” (Parolin)

Future generations of radicals were locked up in Coldbath Fields: veteran of the LCS and 1798-1800 inmate Thomas Evans was again detained here with his son, Samuel Bamford and other reformers in the social and political crisis of the late 1810s (the Evans were interned under the Suspension Act); as were some of the lesser accused in the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820.

Carlile shopmen and other activists in the unstamped newspaper war were also jailed here; as were Chartists, during the movement’s most insurrectionary period, in 1839-40, some for “printing and publishing seditious or blasphemous libel, or for uttering seditious words, or for attending any seditious meetings, or for conspiring to cause such meetings to be held, or for any offence of a political nature”.

Later Chartists held here included Ernest Jones, an important late leader of the movement (and later a proto-socialist), arrested in the turbulent summer of 1848, as some Chartists plotted an insurrection, after the presenting of the petition in April had ended in anti-climax…

The prison closed in 1877. The site was transferred to the Post Office in 1889 and its buildings were gradually replaced. The last sections were demolished in 1929 for an extension of the Letter Office.

Much of this post has been nicked from the really excellent Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London 1790 – C. 1845, by Christina Parolin.

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

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in rebel history, 1972: sit-down strike in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

As we related two days ago, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was formed on May 11th 1972, by a group of mostly served time inside UK jails, to campaign and organise for improvements in legal rights and better conditions within British nicks. PROP had emerged during a wave of protests by both remand and convicted prisoners across a number of British penal institutions; the group’s formation and the publicity that accompanied its founding was to contribute and help escalate this movement.

There had been a number of protests, mostly peaceful sit-down demos, over various demands, between January and early May 1972; mid-late May saw many more. On 13th May, 350 men staged a sit-down at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London. The Scrubs was widely recognised to have one of the most brutal and inhuman regimes at the time.

During the following 6 days there were protest at Brixton, Gartree in Leicestershire (twice), and Strangeways (Manchester). By the end of May, there had been peaceful demonstrations in 15 jails, in which over 2500 inmates had taken part. In Armley Jail in Leeds, 996 men, the whole prison population, staged a 24-hour strike to protest the conditions they were held in. (PROP supported this action with a demonstration outside, which although it attracted on 27 people, did help the sitdown get some good publicity).

PROP’s main problem in supporting the spreading protest movement was communication with prisoners. Prison authorities routinely censored all communications between cons and anyone on the outside. The vast majority of letters sent to PROP from inside, or replies by PROP to any that got through, simply never arrived, if they were sent by regular mail… The letters that got out tended to be the ‘stiffs’ – communications smuggled out by visitors, or by sympathetic staff (often parole officers, though there was the odd screw). The difficulty of regular communication did cause some resentment and disappointment inside: some prisoners active in protests perceived PROP as not up to the job of supporting them on the outside. To some extent PROP were a victim of their own publicity, as they managed to make themselves seem larger, more effective, and more connected to, or responsible for, the protests inside. In reality a fairly small group, PROP weren’t able to fully mobilise the large numbers on the outside to match the willingness of prisoners to demonstrate.

However, these problems didn’t prevent the protests from spreading. In late May, PROP announced that the sitdowns and demonstrations would continue, and would culminate in a national prison strike at some (then unspecified) future date, unless the Home Office Prison Department entered into negotiations over PROP’s demands. The Home Office may not have gone that far, but the protests did force some admission that there were problems that needed addressing – that some of the inmates’ demands were based on legitimate complaints. Some concessions were granted to the remand prisoners at HMP Brixton, for instance, where cons had been among the most active. The prison governor and a Home office representative had met a sitdown protest there on 17th May and gave in to several of the most immediate and easiest granted demands (radios in cells, longer exercise periods, a movie a week), which the more aware cons saw as sops to try to keep them quiet, but also validated the collective tactics inmates were taking.

The collective form and peaceful approach to the protests had proved difficult for prison officers to respond to. Screws dealt out routine brutality and violence to cons on a daily basis, and were accustomed to dealing with the form resistance to this usually took – individual force. Which they could easily overpower by force of numbers (and greater availability of weaponry). Collective peaceful protest left them baffled and they didn’t know how to react. Picking out individuals and labeling them ringleaders also backfired – it generally provoked more inmates to join the struggle, and ‘ghosting’ (a quick move of an identified ‘troublemaker’ to another prison) only succeeded in spreading the movement across the system (this remained a factor in UK prion protest movements – the same dynamic also characterised some of the April 1990 demos following the Strangeways riot).

In June, there were further demos – 20 in the first fortnight, including five between June 11th and June 13th (two at Armley, two at Pentonville, and one at Albany on the Isle of Wight). The authorities may have been ignoring PROP, but on the inside, the organisation’s very existence was becoming a rallying cry. At a Lancashire Borstal, some boys threatened bullying staff with ‘the union’. The Home Office called all prison governors to a meeting in early June to discuss the growing unrest – the most concrete result was a Prison Dept agreement not to interfere with peaceful demos, or punish any prisoner to took part in them.

Home Office concessions to the prisoners’ movement encouraged them to continue with their protests – it also enraged the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the screws’ union, generally a voice for repression and brutality, for treating inmates like the scum the screws felt they were. The POA were (and to some extent remain) usually critical of the prison authorities as being too liberal and allowing prisoners too much leeway. Governors and Home Office officials shouldn’t be meeting with convicts. On the ground, officers felt they were losing control of the prisons to uppity cons and needed to regain the upper hand. If the Home Office were going to give in to the protests, many screws felt the only course of action was to crack a lot of heads, hopefully provoking violence and confrontation, which would very likely put the concessions into reverse and result in tighter regimes and more repression. This would soon be put into practice…

The prisoners’ movement continued to grow into the summer of 1972. Lack of any large-scale reforms, or any offer to meet with PROP or even admit they had any legitimacy, resulted in PROP calling a national jail strike for August 4th, which achieved some measure of support in 33 prisons, and involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners., Given the difficulties in communication this was a fantastic result. A series of blustering Home Office and governors’ denials that many of the prisons involved had experienced any protest was undermined by PROP (and some journalists) gathering careful evidence, which undermined the authorities’ lies about numbers and nicks involved. PROP was taken more seriously the more obviously the Home Office blatantly denied what was obviously happening.

However, bitter sentiment among prison officers was soon translated into action. Since brutality was always present anyway, in the way that institutional life was generally administered, the provocation of trouble was easily planned. Regular cell searches, moving inmates around, visits etc can be handled carefully, or violently – escalations in bullying and brutality were strategically targeted in some prisons where the protest movement had been strong, and the inevitable angry response was highlighted to justify repression (with the help of tame rightwing papers, notably the Daily Express). In parallel, the POA introduced an official ‘GET TOUGH’ policy in response to the ‘state of emergency’ it said the protests had created – in effect a combination of an overtime ban and a non-co-operation exercise, so that in the event of a prison protest, screws would do as little as possible and sabotage the normal functioning of the jail, and the POA would back up any officer who was disciplined as a result. This put the governors and Home Office in a position of being forced to back the screws, even if they could easily see they were blackmailing them, as they couldn’t afford to completely lose the officers’ goodwill, or jails would grind to a halt. During some of the larger protests, prisoners in some nicks had come close to taking over the whole prison (eg at Brixton), and the authorities could see that to allow the movement to carry on risked literally losing control.

The twin tactics of targeted localised brutality and work-to-rule blackmail were, in the end, effective in helping to derail the prison protests in 1972. Although the demonstrations inside continued, vicious brutality at Albany prison (which had seen 8 protests throughout August) provoked angry resistance, which was splashed across the press as a riot and escape attempt. In fact it was a very limited protest, but the publicity bolstered the screws’ confidence and the beatings, harassment and assaults were stepped up. This provoked further agro; a ‘riot’ at Gartree in November resulted, after screws waded in to a group of cons who had failed in an escape attempt.

Although the prison protests had gained a high profile, and PROP’s constant press work had helped focus the spotlight on prison conditions, to some extent PROP’s claims to be either involved in the planning of, or even directing, the demonstrations proved to be something of a divisive tactic. One founding member, Mike Fitzgerald, later suggested that it had taken the group very much on a diversion from the solid reforming program the group had launched with, and hampered any efforts to establish PROP as a day to day representative group campaigning in prisoners interests and on bread and butter issues. Given the massive struggle going on inside though, it was very much inevitable that PROP’s energy would be focused on the protests. But under the pressure, PROP itself began to fragment internally. Divisions opened up over tactics, and the group in effect split into separate organisations. But both carried on doing good work for several years, supporting struggles, helping prisoners legally and on release, publicising brutality and resistance…

Much more on the formation of PROP can be read in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt.

John Barker’s Bending the Bars good firsthand account of one of the May 1972 sit-down strikes in Brixton Prison, as well as being a cracking good read from start to finish.

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

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in radical history, 1972: Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners launched, North London.

Early 1972 saw a wave of prison protests across the UK: some 50 collective demonstrations took place inside between January and May. Any public information about two-thirds of these was censored by the Prison Department. The press ignored or were unaware of the protests.

The protests arose from the absolute desperation of many UK prison inmates, faced with appalling conditions inside most prisons at the time. The vast majority of English prisons had been built in Victorian times. Conditions were basically prehistoric. Prison wings were filthy, cold and overcrowded. Some cons were locked up for virtually the whole day in many nicks, often two or three to a cramped cell; others worked long hours for token wages. Education facilities were thin on the ground; the idea of rehabilitation was a joke. Censorship of letters and restrictions on visits was routine; bullying and everyday violence from screws (who were often members of a rightwing group) was constant. ‘Ghosting’ – sudden moves without warning to another nick miles away – was a regular hazard, and a good kicking and a spell in chokey (isolation) the usual response to any complaint. Vicious violence from screws, generally backed up by institutional repression, provoked angry and sometimes riotous resistance, but little had changed inside for 50 years.

In the midst of the prison protests of early 1972, the first prisoners’ rights group in the UK, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners, was publicly launched, on 11th May. The ‘union for old lags’ as it was sneeringly called in some quarters, did finally attract national media attention. Journalists gathered at the launch, held at the Prince Arthur pub, opposite North London’s Pentonville Prison, where Dick Pooley outlined PROP’s demands and programme.

PROP’s founders were mostly ex-prisoners. Pooley, recognised as one of Britain’s top safe-crackers, had spent half his life (over 20 years) in penal institutions of one kind or another (he was in fact then on parole at the end of a 10-year sentence). Ted Ward, PROP’s London organiser, had served various sentences, including a two-year stretch for breaking IN to Dartmoor Prison to help with an escape attempt; he had also spent many years in community grassroots organising in Islington, including the local Claimants Union. PROP Press officer Douglas Curtis had served time for petty theft and fraud. Mike Fitzgerald, the only one who had not done time, was a Cambridge Student. He also mentions another founder as a woman called Pauline, (but does not give her surname), another ex-inmate and community activist.

PROP was to some extent born from an alliance of ex-cons and some academic supporters, in particular sociologists. Many prisoners by necessity developed a class-based critique of the criminal justice system/prison system; inevitable, really, if you looked around you at the society you lived in, and their own daily experience of its nasty end. Their link-up to some of the sociological ‘school of deviancy’ helped to create a sharp critique of both crime and punishment.

In response to the degrading, dehumanising conditions prevailing inside UK prisons, PROP announced that it had been formed to ‘preserve, protect and to extend the rights of prisoners and ex-prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society, so as to bring about a reduction in crime.’

The organisation’s Statement of Intent continued:

‘For this purpose application has been made to the Charity Commission for the registration of a charitable trust to raise funds and assist PROPL in its efforts to:

  • Campaign for a Prisoner’s Charter of Rights;
    • Secure the right of unimpeded access to Britain’s penal establishment’s by Press and Public;
  • Bring about an end to the mis-application of the spirit and original intent of the Official Secrets Act;
  • Take action to bring about the eventual abolition of all prisons and the substitution of alternative methods of dealing with offenders;
  • Establish local hostels, job placement schemes and educational projects to be run along non-institutionalised lines by local committees with Associate Members’ support;
  • Provide legal assistance for members in court proceedings, internal disciplinary processes, parole applications and any other matters pertaining to the general welfare;
  • Establish and maintain contact an cooperation with the Trade Union movement;
  • Negotiate with the Home Office on behalf of prisoners;
  • Liaise with other penal reform bodies in Great Britain and all other countries of the world where such bodies exist.’

The Charter also set out 26 demands, dealing with the main grievances of prisoners:

‘PROP calls upon the Crown, Parliament, Her Majesty’s Government, the Home Secretary and the Prison Department to accede to these deamnds and to initiate such legislation and issue such directives as may be necessary to secure the early establishment and effective implementation of the following rights of prisoners:

The Right to membership of PROP and the right to communicate with, consult and receive visits from, representatives of PROP;

The Right to conduct elections within penal institutions on behalf of PROP with a view to the appointment of local representatives of that body and the election of delegates to its national committees;

The Right to stand for election as a local representative of PROP and once elected to participate in the decision-making process, to attend all policy and staff meetings within the prison and to act as a spokesman for his or her members in all matters relating to their pay, work and living conditions, leisure pursuits and general welfare;

The Right to canvass and vote for local and national PROP representatives;

The Right to vote in national and local government elections;

The Right to trade union membership and the right to have their pay and conditions determined by negotiations between the home Office and the prisoner’s elected representatives;

The Right to institute legal proceedings of any kind, including actions against servants of the Crown, without first securing the consent of the Home Office;

The Right to contact legal advisers in confidence without interference, intervention or censorship by the penal authorities;

The Right to be legally represented and to call defence witnesses in internal disciplinary proceedings to which the press should have free access;

The Right to parole, provided certain well-established and widely-known criteria are met. This Right to be supplements by the Right to receive expert and independent assistance in the preparation of parole applications, to be present and/or legally represented at the hearing of applications, to have access to all reports considered by the Board from whatever source and the opportunity to refute allegations of misconduct or unsuitability, the Right to a reasoned judgement on the Board’s decision and the Right of appeal to the High Court against that decision;

The Right to communicate freely with the Press and public;

The right to consult with a legal adviser before being subject to any judicial proceedings, including hearing by Magistrates of applications by the police for remands in custody;

The Right to be allocated to penal institutions within his home region;

The Right to adequate and humane visiting facilities within all penal institutions, including the ability to exercise their conjugal rights;

The Right to send and receive as many letters as the prisoner requires without censorship;

The Right to embark upon educational or vocational training courses at the commencement of any custodial sentence, including the Right to sit examinations and to be given adequate and appropriate facilities;

The Right to demand an independent inspection of prison conditions including hygiene, food, working conditions, living accommodation and the provision of adequate leisure facilities;

The Right to adequate exercise periods and the provision of recreational facilities;

The Right to consult an independent medical adviser;

The Right to enter into marriage;

The Right to attend funerals of all near relatives;

The Right to own and sell the products of their leisure-time activities, including hobbies, fine arts and writing;

The Right to receive toilet articles for personal use as gifts from relatives, friends and organisations;

The Right to adequate preparation for discharge, including:

  • Programmes of pre-release courses devised in conjunction with prisoners and their families to assist them with problems of Housing, Employment, Education, Marriage Counselling and Child Care related to their special needs.
  • The right to home leave to be extended to all prisoners.
  • The right of allocation to an open prison and followed by the right of allocation to the pre-release hostel scheme.
  • The right to a fully-franked insurance card on discharge and the supplementary rights thereby to full state benefits.
  • An equal right with all other applicants to employment in state concerns whether they run by central or local authority.

The Right to have all criminal records destroyed within five years of discharge irrespective of the sentence last served.”

PROP’s membership was designed to be two-tier: full membership for prisoners and ex-prisoners; associate membership for supporters who had never been inside. Full members (who would not have to pay membership fees) could stand for election to posts and make use of the organisation’s services; associate members had to pay fees for themselves AND a full member, and were expected to act in supportive roles.
This set-up was designed to prevent PROP being dominated by middle class liberals and ensure that prisoners’ own interests remained at the centre of PROP.

Despite the initial splash of publicity, PROP’s first attempts to establish themselves as a representative body for prisoners that the prison/state authorities would take seriously were not auspicious. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling failed to respond to PROP’s letter to him, informing him of the group’s formation, and suggesting a meeting. But although press coverage was mainly jeering, the publicity did help get the message of the new union’s existence into prisons in its first flush of existence. But on top of this, visitors to most of the major prison in England and Wales were and leaflets announcing PROP’s formation and inviting membership and contact from cons over the few days following the launch, and although many of these were confiscated or barred, visitors carried the news in word of mouth. Sympathetic lawyers, probation officers and other ‘official’ visitors also helped carry the word into nicks. Within a week of the launch, enough mail was coming out of prisons to show that the initial campaign to raise awareness had at least been moderately successful.

A letter smuggled out from Brixton Prison indicates the kind of response PROP received from inmates:

“Dear Mr Pooley,

Sorry that this isn’t nick paper. It’s Saturday night and this note has to go tomorrow so I’ve got to make do with the back of a book.

Speaking for myself and my fellow inmates, we welcome and applaud the efforts you and those connected with your organisation are making on behalf of convicted prisoners everywhere. We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday evening, we know only too well that we got to keep the ball rolling, as unconvicted prisoners there’s little that can be done against us by the screws, so I think we here all agree that it’s easier for us unconvicted to keep on coming out without fearing reprisals from the screws.

A lot of us here, have had a taste of brutality as convicted men, the result of us trying to stand up for our own rights. I was in Wandsworth in 1970, 1971, spending a solid four months down chokey, on medicine, walking abut like a zombie. All this has to stop. This is why we all here, and I think I speak for cons unconvicted and convicted, welcome and once again applaud what you’re attempting to bring about…

We’re after association, better food, etc… We want the right to live like human beings and not be treated as the scum the ruling authority seem determined to brand us. Also we want the right to take educational courses in the nick. (In most nicks this is impossible.)

A lot of chaps want to be in touch.

Sincerely ….

PROP’s response to this letter indicates the problem of communication between inmates and those on the outside, a question that would plague the organisation in its attempts to organise in support of protest inside. ‘We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday’ was taken to mean on the Wednesday after the letter was received, and PROP demonstrated outside Brixton on May 24th 1972, the Wednesday after the letter arrived – to coincide with a demo inside that had in fact taken place on the 17th. The smuggled letter had been delayed in its passage out, causing confusion. PROP’s demo was in the event small, but the lack of a corresponding sit-down inside (as they claimed was happening) dented their credibility (with the enthusiastic help of the Home Office and the press).

But the prison protests that had helped give birth to PROP were blossoming elsewhere…

(This story will be continued on May 13th)

A good write-up on PROP can be found in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt (from which this post was taken).

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

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s penal past: guns smuggled into Newgate, inside ‘Smoaking hot pyes’, 1735.

Newgate Prison, for 100s of years the most potent symbol of state repression in London, hated and feared by the London poor whose lives it loomed over… Inevitably its story is also one of resistance… As it was routinely used to hold those who had been condemned to death, those awaiting transportation, or court appearances which would very likely end in one or the other, many prisoners had little to lose by trying to escape.

Sometimes these were individual feats, Houdini-style, like Jack Sheppard or Daniel Malden. On occasion outsiders launched raids to rescue inmates, as a crowd of Irishmen did to free their mates in 1749, or the Gordon Rioters successfully achieved en masse in June 1780. Others were collective attempts to fight their way free. The first such mass jailbreak attempt we can find evidence of was in 1275; another riot ten years later was aimed at a breakout, which failed.

In 1735 four highwaymen staged yet another attempted jailbreak. Thomas Gray, alias Macray, Joseph Emmerson, John James alias Black Jack, and Henry Sellon, were all imprisoned in Newgate in August of 1735. They had all been sentenced to death at Kingston Assizes on August 9th, “Sellon, for robbing Mr Collins on the Highway… Macray, for robbing Mr Hammerson of his Watch and Money on Barns Common… Emmerson and James… for entering the House of Jasper Hale Esq of Peckham, and wounding him and his Servant maid…”

Macray had already escaped from the Old Bailey once… he also had a few mates rooting for him, having arranged for “14 well-dress’d persons to appear for him here, most of who, swore he was sick in bed the whole Week in which the Fact was committed, but finding they were suspected, all slipp’d out of Court. [Several of them are since apprehended by the Direction of Baron Thomson, in order to be prosecuted for perjury.]”

So it shouldn’t have been very surprising that outside help was clearly involved when Macray and the other three, attempted to escape the prison on August 18th:

“They were all wounded in an Attempt to break out of Gaol, two Nights before, which Mr Taylor, the Keeper, being inform’d of, and that they were filing off their Irons, got his Assistants arm’d with Blunderbusses, Pistols, and Cutlasses, went to the Door, and desir’d Macray to make no desperate Attempt, for there was so Possibility of his Escape. Macray replied, In their present desperate Circumstances they no body, and desir’d him to retire, for the first that entered was a dead Man. Upon this Mr Taylor order’d the Door to be unbolted and open’d a little Way; which they no sooner heard but they discharg’d 8 Pistols and one of the Keepers as Blunderbuss, but without Execution, the Door between them being very strong. Then Mr Taylor and his Guard rush’d in, attack’d them with their Cutlasses, and overpower’d them immediately. Macray was wounded in his Head, and his Arm disabled; Sellon desperately cut in several Places; Emmerson had one Side of his Face cut away; James was but slightly hurt. On Mr Taylor’s Part very little Damage was done. The Pistols were brought to the Prisoners in Smoaking hot Pyes, by the Assistance of a Man at a house in St George’s Fields, whom Emmerson, upon the Keepers threatening to dispatch him, dicover’d. One of the Keepers jingling his Keys at the Door of the said House, the Fellow took him for Macray broke out of prison, and open’d the Door to let him in, but was himself apprehended.”
(Gentleman’s Magazine, 1735)

Concealing a gun inside a ‘Smoaking hot pye’  – eat your heart, out shoe bomber… Smuggling in weapons to help friends locked in Newgate stage escapes was also a long London tradition.

Macray, Emmerton, James and Sellon were all hanged at Kennington Gallows two days later, on 20th August.

But collective breakouts continued; there were further attempts in 1758, 1763, 1771 and 1777…

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

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London rebel history: Marion Wallace Dunlop begins first suffragette hunger strike, 1909

On 5 July 1909, the imprisoned suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, a sculptor and illustrator, went on hunger strike; pretty much inventing the tactic as a modern political weapon.

A member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women, she had been sent to Holloway prison for printing an extract from the bill of rights on the wall of St Stephen’s Hall in the House of Commons. In her second division cell, Wallace Dunlop refused all food as a protest against the unwillingness of the authorities to recognise her as a political prisoner, and thus entitled to be placed in the first division where inmates enjoyed certain privileges. Her hunger strike, she claimed, was “a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me … refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction”. After three and a half days of fasting, she was released.

Marion Wallace-Dunlop, the daughter of Robert Henry Wallace-Dunlop, of the Bengal civil service, was born at Leys Castle, Inverness, on 22nd December 1864. She later claimed that she was a direct descendant of the mother of William Wallace.

She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and in 1899 illustrated in art nouveau style two books, Fairies, Elves, and Flower Babies and The Magic Fruit Garden. She also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1903, 1905 and 1906.

Wallace-Dunlop was a supporter of women’s suffrage and in 1900 she joined the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage. She was also a socialist and from 1906 she was an active member of the Fabian Women’s Group. By 1905 the media had lost interest in the struggle for women’s rights. Newspapers rarely reported meetings and usually refused to publish articles and letters written by supporters of women’s suffrage. Emily Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), advocated a new strategy to obtain the publicity that she thought would be needed in order to obtain the vote.

During the summer of 1908 the WSPU introduced the tactic of breaking the windows of government buildings. On 30th June suffragettes marched into Downing Street and began throwing small stones through the windows of the Prime Minister’s house. As a result of this demonstration, twenty-seven women were arrested and sent to Holloway Prison. The following month Wallace-Dunlop was arrested and charged with “obstruction” and was briefly imprisoned.

While in prison she came into contact with two women who had been found guilty of killing children. She wrote in her diary: “It made me feel frantic to realise how terrible is a social system where life is so hard for the girls that they have to sell themselves or starve. Then when they become mothers the child is not only a terrible added burden, but their very motherhood bids them to kill it and save it from a life of starvation, neglect. I begin to feel I must be dreaming that this prison life can’t be real. That it is impossible that it is true and I am in the midst of it. I know now the meaning of the screened galley in the Chapel, the poor condemned girl sits there with a wardress.”

On 25th June 1909 Wallace-Dunlop was charged “with wilfully damaging the stone work of St. Stephen’s Hall, House of Commons, by stamping it with an indelible rubber stamp, doing damage to the value of 10s.” According to a report in The Times Wallace-Dunlop printed a notice that read: “Women’s Deputation. June 29. Bill of Rights. It is the right of the subjects to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitionings are illegal.”

Wallace-Dunlop was found guilty of wilful damage and when she refused to pay a fine she was sent to prison for a month. On 5th July, 1909 she petitioned the governor of Holloway Prison: “I claim the right recognised by all civilised nations that a person imprisoned for a political offence should have first-division treatment; and as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction.”

In her book, Unshackled (1959) Christabel Pankhurst claimed: “Miss Wallace Dunlop, taking counsel with no one and acting entirely on her own initiative, sent to the Home Secretary, Mr. Gladstone, as soon as she entered Holloway Prison, an application to be placed in the first division as befitted one charged with a political offence. She announced that she would eat no food until this right was conceded.”

Frederick Pethick-Lawrence wrote to Wallace-Dunlop: “Nothing has moved me so much – stirred me to the depths of my being – as your heroic action. The power of the human spirit is to me the most sublime thing in life – that compared with which all ordinary things sink into insignificance.” He also congratulated her for “finding a new way of insisting upon the proper status of political prisoners, and of the resourcefulness and energy in the face of difficulties that marked the true Suffragette.”

Wallace-Dunlop refused to eat for several days. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, the authorities decided to release her after fasting for 91 hours. As Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999), has pointed out: “As with all the weapons employed by the WSPU, its first use sprang directly from the decision of a sole protagonist; there was never any suggestion that the hunger strike was used on this first occasion by direction from Clement’s Inn.”

Soon afterwards other imprisoned suffragettes adopted the same strategy. Unwilling to release all the imprisoned suffragettes, the prison authorities force-fed these women on hunger strike. In one eighteen month period, Emily Pankhurst, who was now in her fifties, endured ten of these hunger-strikes.

Wallace-Dunlop later joined forces with Edith Downing to organise a series of spectacular WSPU processions. The most impressive of these was the Woman’s Coronation Procession on 17th June 1911. Flora Drummond led off on horseback with Charlotte Marsh as colour-bearer on foot behind her. She was followed by Marjorie Annan Bryce in armour as Joan of Arc.

The art historian, Lisa Tickner, described the event in her book The Spectacle of Women (1987): “The whole procession gathered itself up and swung along Northumberland Avenue to the strains of Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women… The mobilisation of 700 prisoners (or their proxies) dressed in white, with pennons fluttering from their glittering lances, was, as the Daily Mail observed, “a stroke of genius”. As The Daily News reported: “Those who dominate the movement have a sense of the dramatic. They know that whereas the sight of one woman struggling with policemen is either comic or miserably pathetic, the imprisonment of dozens is a splendid advertisement.”

Wallace-Dunlop ceased to be active in the WSPU after 1911. During the First World War she was visited by Mary Sheepshanks at her home at Peaslake, Surrey. Sheepshanks later commented: “We found her in a delicious cottage with a little chicken and goat farm, an adopted baby of 18 months, and a perfectly lovely young girl who did some bare foot dancing for us in the barn; we finished up with home made honey.”

In 1928 Wallace-Dunlop was a pallbearer at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst. Over the next few years she took care of Mrs Pankhurst’s adopted daughter, Mary.

Marion Wallace-Dunlop died on 12th September 1942 at the Mount Alvernia Nursing Home, Guildford.

This post was shamelessly nicked from spartacus educational.

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

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s rebel history: Riot in Newgate Prison, 1648.

As we have previously related, for 100s of years Newgate Prison was the most potent symbol and reality of state repression in London, the ultimate representation of terror for the poor.

… and of resistance. Escape attempts were common, some failing, but many succeeding… As many of the prisoners awaiting death at Tyburn were held there, some cons had nothing to lose by trying to break out; desperate measures were sometimes called for…

According to a tract published 26th December 1648: – “Terrible News From Newgate.- On Wednesday, December 20th the Honourable Bench at the Sessions House in the Old Bayley, having given sentences against the convicted prisoners, being 17 in number; on Thursday night last they had their funeral Sermon at Newgate as accustomary, where divers had admittance in to heare the same; and amongst the rest many of the prisoners’ wives who were condemned to die, brought swords and rapiers under their coats (being a designed plot for an escape) and so soon as the Sermon was ended, delivered the said Weapons to the 15 condemned prisoners, who taking their opportunity, about 7 of the clock at night, ran violently at the Turnkey and the rest of the Keepers, wounding them, and forced their passage down the stairs, all of them making a clear escape away.”

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

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

Today in London’s radical history: Cons at Pentonville, Brixton, Scrubs & Wandsworth join in prisoners strike, 1972.

Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was founded as a union for cons in May 1972, during a wave of protest by inmates on British gaols. Conditions for prisoners had long been dire, and had worsened in recent years. Prisoners faced chronic overcrowding, hours of lockup in their cells, given inedible food, with little opportunity for real education, brutal treatment from screws, lack of any right to challenge their treatment. Many prisons were old, cold, dirty and run down, with Victorian facilities. Work was soul-destroying and paid inmates pennies while making private firms or government departments serious money. Visits and letters were subject to censorship and surveillance; medical care was a mix of incompetence and mistreatment.

Screws were trained to enforce violence against inmates, but many also saw it as their place to punish, humiliate and brutalise them constantly. Partly this reflects the class position which see themselves as coming from, a respectable working class, on a higher level than the cons… But violence was also institutionalised: any prisoner stepping out of line could face violence, brutality and isolation, but little had chance of redress within the system.

The immediate spark for the launch of PROP was a series of sit-down protests in Brixton Prison by remand prisoners awaiting trial or sentence, who generally faced a harsher situation than convicted inmates. Remand prisoners were demanding more association, better food, radios and basic ways of passing time, less lockup time in their cells.

PROP was mainly founded by ex-prisoners, men and women who had served various stretches inside. Their founding statement asserted that PROP had been founded in response to the degrading and dehumanising conditions inside, and to “preserve, protect, and to extend the rights of prisoners and prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society…”

PROP’s launch and the quick spread of this news among prisoners encouraged protests inside. Further sit-down took place in Wormwood Scrubs, Brixton, Gartree (twice) and Strangeways nicks in the next week, and this was to escalate. Over 15 prisons had experienced demos by the end of May, and 20 more protests took place in the first two weeks of June. PROP committees were elected in several prisons.

The early wave of anger in remand prisons pushed the Home Office into making concessions. These were very limited (individual razors where 300 men had shared 7, radios, longer exercises, a movie a week), but left prisoners generally with the (correct) conclusion that collective organization could win changes. The Home Office officially tried to play down the role of PROP and minimalise news of the demos getting out, or to belittle them if it did. However they were rattled, and agreed not to punish any cons for taking part.

The mass peaceful nature of the sit-downs baffled the screws, who found it hard to respond. Picking out individuals from a large crowd only heightening tension and escalating trouble. ‘Ghosting’ troublemakers (immediately shipping them out to another prison) only served to spread the protests. The screws, as usual regarding the official decision not to punish protestors as liberal waffle which failed to back up the ‘hardworking officers on the ground’, resorted to provoking violence as a way of justifying intervention by the ‘Heavy Mob’ to shut down protests. Individual prisoners were marked out and beaten up. This was to lead to serious rioting in Gartree and Albany Prisons later in the year.

But as the Home Office refused to negotiate or even discuss PROP’s or the prisoners’ demands, PROP announced plans for a national prisoners’ strike on 4th August 1972. Complaints about conditions had been ignored; protestors had been brutalized, isolated and denied access to solicitors. PROP called for a 24-hour refusal to co-operate with prison authorities, until the following demands were met or given urgent consideration:

• The Right to membership of PROP and official recognition of PROP by the Home Office, and Prison Department as the true representatives of all prisoners;

• The setting up of PROP committees elected by prisoners in all penal establishments;

• The right to parole, providing certain well-established and widely known criteria are met;

• An end to the kangaroo court nature of internal disciplinary proceedings where prisoners are denied the right to legal representation and the effective right to call witnesses;

• The right to Trade Union membership and to have pay and conditions determined by negotiation;

• The right of all prisoners to withhold labour as a protest against unjust and inhuman conditions;

• An end to disciplinary proceedings against prisoners who have participated in peaceful demonstrations and the restoration of all remission and privileges which have been forfeited by the participants in previous demonstrations on charges arising from them;

• An early meeting between representatives of the Home Office and the National Executive Committee of PROP to discuss the restoration of prisoners’ rights and the ways in which they might be enabled to meet their responsibilities to their families and to society.

PROP had announced the strike with two weeks notice; this served to allow time for word to spread around the prison system. In fact, the press did much of this job. Even the prison authorities did their bit; so anxious were they to find out how much support there was for the strike they ended up asking inmates who had not even yet heard of the plan if they were going to take part, effectively recruiting cons into the plan!

In the end some 10,000 prisoners in 34 gaols (Albany, Birmingham, Blunderston, Bristol, Brixton, Camp Hill, Canterbury, Chelmsford, Coldingley, Dartmoor, Durham, Gartree, Gloucester, Haverigg, Hull, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Lincoln, Liverpool, Long Lartin, Maidstone, Strangeways, Northeye, Nottingham, Oxford, Parkhurst, Pentonville, Preston, Stafford, Wakefield, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs) took part, a massive show of strength: perhaps 25 % of the prison population at the time.

The Home Office and individual Prison governors repeatedly denied the strike had any support, until direct evidence contradicted them.

Those who took part in the Brixton protest claimed the prisoners had in effect taken over the running of the prison for a day.

However, the Prison Officers Association (POA) responded with a hardline – a demand for further repression and a work to rule, spreading alarm about prison violence, and on the ground, provoking violence to justify repression. The immediate result was two riots, in Gartree and Albany. With a sympathetic rightwing press behind them, the POA effectively won the case for repression, and although protests continued sporadically, the impetus was lost as no further concession seemed likely.

Meanwhile PROP soon collapsed in internal bickering, and lost confidence among prisoners as they were unable to win any of the prisoners’ demands, or even to manifest the outside support for the prison protests that they had promised. Although PROP continued to exist, it worked thereafter on a much smaller and local scale or on educational projects.

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

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

Today in penal history: Kings Bench Prisoners hold mock election, 1827.

“Nothing during the last year excited more curiosity than the Mock Election, which took place in the King’s Bench Prison; as much from the circumstances attending its conclusion, as from the astonishment expressed that men, unfortunate and confined, could invent any amusement at which they had a right to be happy.”

In July 1827, the inmates of the King’s Bench Prison, in Borough, South London, organised a fantastical mock hustings, to elect an MP to represent ‘Tenterden’ (a slang name for the prison) in Parliament. Three candidates were put up, one of whom was Lieutenant Meredith, an eccentric naval officer. “…As I approached the unfortunate, but merry, crowd, to the last day of my life I shall ever remember the impression… baronets and bankers, authors and merchants, painters and poets… dandies of no rank in rap and tatters… all mingled in indiscriminate merriment, with a spiked wall, twenty feet high, above their heads…”

All the characteristics of a regular election were parodied. Addresses from the candidates to the ‘worthy and independent electors’ were printed and posted up around the prison; contending parties wrote broadsheets & sang songs attacking their opponents; there were processions with flags and music, to take the several candidates to visit the several ‘Collegians’ (i. e., prisoners) in their rooms; speeches were made in the courtyards, full of grotesque humour; a pseudo-“high-sheriff” and other “election officers” were chosen to oversee the proceedings “properly”; and the electors were invited to ‘rush to the poll’ early on Monday morning, the 16th of July.

“Hitherto it had been a mere revel; but on the latter day the frolic assumed a serious aspect, from the interference of the marshal of the prison.”

Worried about the disorder that might arise (and that the inmates might be enjoying life in a manner non-profitable to him and other warders?!), Mr. Jones, marshal of the prison, put a stop to the whole proceedings on the morning of the 16th. Apparently the proceedings were halted violently, exasperating the prisoners. They resented the language used towards them, and opposed the treatment to which they were subjected; until a squad of Foot-guards, with fixed bayonets, forcibly drove some of the leaders into a filthy ‘black-hole’ or place of confinement.

“The three candidates, and other persons who were active in the election, were for some time kept in close confinement, and a sergeant’s guard was introduced, and remained in the prison all night. The result was pacific; but the conduct of the marshal has been much censured and threatened with a parliamentary investigation.”

Quotes from an account of the Mock Election by Benjamin Haydon, imprisoned in the Kings Bench for debt, July 1827.

Mock elections were all the rage at one time… for many years the Mayor of Garratt elections in South London were the highpoint of the social calendar…

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

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

Today in London’s rebel history: Marshalsea Prison & Lambeth Palace stormed by peasant rebels, 1381.

On the night of the 12th June 1381, the main body of the Kentish peasant rebels, inflamed against poll taxes, serfdom and oppressive laws of all kinds, camped on Blackheath. But a sizable minority too angry and inspired to rest even after a long day’s march, pushed on, as far as Southwark and Lambeth. “There they were met by a mob of malcontents belonging to the suburbs and even by numerous sympathisers from the city itself, who had been obliged to take boat across the river to join them, for the drawbridge in the midst of London Bridge had been raised on the news of their approach.”

This advanced guard of the rebellion broke open the two prisons in Southwark, those of the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, and let loose the captives:
“And before the hour of Vespers the commons of Kent came, to the number of 60,000, to South-wark, where was the Marshalsea. And they broke and threw down all the houses in the Marshalsea, and took out of prison all the prisoners who were imprisoned for debt or for felony.”

The Marshalsea Prison was built to hold prisoners brought before that court and the Court of the King’s Bench, to which Marshalsea rulings could be appealed. Also called the Court of the Verge, and the Court of the Marshalsea of the Household of the Kings of England, the Marshalsea court was a jurisdiction of the royal household that, from around 1290, governed household members who lived within the verge, defined as within 12 miles (19 km) of the king. Thought to have been built some time in the fourteenth century (though there are records of an earlier prison of this name), the prison was at one time second in importance only to the Tower of London. Though most of the prisoners held in the Marshalsea throughout its history were debtors, from the 14th century onwards, minor political figures were held there instead of in the Tower, mostly for sedition. William Hepworth Dixon wrote in 1885 that it was full of “poets, pirates, parsons, plotters; coiners, libellers, defaulters, Jesuits; vagabonds of every class who vexed the souls of men in power …”

Having trashed the prison, the peasant rebels “levelled to the ground a fine house belonging to John Imworth, then Marshal of the Marshalsea and the King’s Bench, and warden of the prisoners of the said place, and all the dwellings of the jurors and questmongers belonging to the Marshalsea during that night.”

As Imworth’s house burned, flames flared up all night in the sight of the King and his councillors in the Tower, and of the citizens of London, who watched from their wharves and windows the signs of approaching trouble.

Around the same hour that day, “the commons of Essex came to Lambeth near London, a manor of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and entered into the buildings and destroyed many of the goods of the said Archbishop, and burnt all the books of register, and rules of remembrances belonging to the Chancellor, which they found there.”

Lambeth Palace was (and still is) the official London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury. In 1381 the Archbishop was Simon of Sudbury, former Bishop of London. As the Peasants Revolt gathered pace, Sudbury became one of the main targets of the people’s rage, as he was also the Lord Chancellor of England, the ultimate authority for tax-gathering and raising revenue, blamed for the latest poll tax bearing heavily on the poor. That he was a close ally and crony of John of gaunt, the king’s uncle, long a hate figure for the populace and Londoners in particular, only increased the price on his head. Having released John Ball from his prison at Maidstone, the Kentish insurgents attacked and damaged the archbishop’s property at Canterbury.

On the 14th, the commons flocked to the Tower of London; the most heavily guarded fortress in the land. However, so unpopular was Sudbury with the rebellious peasants that guards simply allowed the rebels through the gates, rushing into the Tower, they seized the archbishop himself, and dragged him to nearby Tower Hill, a traditional execution ground. The peasants consciously satirised and ritualised their instant justice on Sudbury by using the physical spaces of repression – beheading the Archbishop, they stuck his head on a spike on the gate of London Bridge, where authority usually impaled the heads of rebels and traitors.

And on Saturday morning (June 15th), the poor’s vengeance on the Marshalsea prison was completed: John Imworth, “a tormentor without pity”, the Marshal of the Marshalsea, had taken sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. A body of rioters entered the church, “passed the altar rails, and tore the unhappy man away from the very shrine of Edward the Confessor, one of whose marble pillars he was embracing in the vain hope that the sanctity of the spot would protect him.

He was dragged along to Cheapside, and there decapitated.”

All of London’s other prisons, and lockups in other towns, were opened and their inmates freed by the rebellious armies.

Even after the defeat of the Revolt, the Marshalsea remained an object of fear and loathing. Prisoners were sprung in 1450 during Cade’s rebellion; the prison was rocked by riots in 1504; at Xmas 1505, in 1539, in 1592 there was a riot outside the Marshalsea (see yesterday’s blog entry)… more riots broke out in 1639 over the terrible conditions – some prisoners were standing 23 to a cell, unable to sit down…

Lambeth Palace meanwhile, has also been regularly attacked by London rebels: in 1639, 1640, 1780; bombed by the Angry Brigade in 1970. Unlike the Marshalsea, however, it still stands… One for next time eh?

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

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