Rare Doings at Camberwell: A Wander around some of the radical history of London SE5


A walk based on research done for a radical history walk around Camberwell, under the title “The Right To Live”, held on Sunday 25th June 2006, as part of Camberwell Arts Week. The walk was researched, designed and mostly spoken by Melissa Bliss and Alex Hodson, though other locals contributed their own reminiscences… In April 2007 part of this material was reprised as a talk at the Camberwell Squatted Centre (aka Black Frog) in Warham Street. We’ve run some public variations on the same walk since… This text owes much to the original researches and ideas of Melissa Bliss.

This isn’t the history of Camberwell. It’s not even the history of the events, personalities and movements that it covers. It is, at best, a series of linked themes, exploring some social history and the more disorderly and politically radical underside of SE5. It has serious omissions, could cover more social history, more on industrial development and those who worked in those industries; more on the different communities that have made their home here, and the conflicts they have experienced; more on madness and its containment, and especially more on recent gentrification and class. Maybe another time…

Also: we are not historians. We came to history as rebels and activists, fighting for a world where people’s lives, personal relations and survival are organised for our needs and desires, not for someone else’s profit. Our interest in history arises from a wider desire, to change the present collectively. The past, its links to the present and to a future we aspire to create, are not separate areas of study; the ideas and practice of rebellion against the authority of one class over another, and the methods of social control that class society develops to maintain itself, link history, our own battles in our own lives, and the visions of how we would live if we could freely choose. Some of us have lived in Camberwell, and have experienced some of this ‘history’ first-hand.

An earlier version of this text was also published as a Past Tense pamphlet, ‘Rare Doings At Camberwell’ in 2008.

When done as a physical walk, this route could take some time… it could be split up into sections. Walked backwards. Whatever.


Camberwell has a deep and interesting past, full of working class struggles, radical, subversive and downright mad personalities, rowdy popular entertainment and some outbreaks of class war.

A brief Overview of Camberwell/ general history

Up until the 18th Century Camberwell was a rural village, based around St Giles Church Church, the Green, (scene of the annual Fair) and a spa and healing well, which was located up Camberwell Grove.

Some historians believe the healing well may have given the area its name, as they think Camberwell means ‘well of the crooked or cripples’. This chimes in with the local church being named for St Giles, patron saint of lepers. People expelled from the City of London for having leprosy may have settled here for treatment.

However it is also possible that the ‘Camber’ refers to an old settlement of Britons, who in the days of the Saxon conquest of Southern Briton called themselves Cumbri (in modern Welsh, Cymry’). This might be linked to neighbouring Walworth, thought by some to be named by neighbouring Saxons for the ‘Welsh’ (Britons) who lived there. The whole area might have been an enclave of older celtic communities…

The Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell’s old coat of arms. When we did our first version of this walk, we made up an old standard with this and paraded it around, spoofing the old beating the Bounds ceremony

The old medieval parish of Camberwell St Giles included Peckham, Nunhead and much of Dulwich. The parish was controlled by the Vestry; when the parish was replaced as an administrative body by the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell in 1900. In 1965 the Borough was amalgamated with the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark and the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey to create the London Borough of Southwark.

The popularity of the Spa gradually transformed the village into a place of middle class retreat, and farms were replaced by big houses up the hill… The area became more suburban during the 19th century, as London expanded; speculative building firms bought up land and built large housing estates.

Later in the Century, the class of persons living in area ‘went down’, especially after “workman’s tickets” on trains enabled the working classes to live further from their place of work. In common with many other areas of South London, large areas of Camberwell saw mass house building to accommodate newer working class residents. Many earlier middle class areas thus were transformed into working class neighbourhoods from the 1860s-70s – for example around Southampton Way and St Lukes.

The following population figures give some sense of the massive 19th Century growth of the area, though they represent the whole parish and not merely Camberwell the village/suburb:

Census for parish of Camberwell                           Population

1801                                                                           7,059

1841                                                                           39,868

1861                                                                           71,488

1891                                                                           235,344

In 90 years a few rural villages were swallowed up by the rapid expansion of the metropolis.

So who were these people who moved into the area, and where did they live?

In Booth’s Map of Descriptive Poverty, from Life and Labour of the People of London,1890, the relative social class of people living in various parts of the area was sketched out. You can get an interesting picture of what had become a suburb of London, and where people of different classes lived.

  • South, up the hill, from De Crespigny Park, to the top of the hill at least, was upper class, and upper middle class, wealthy, almost exclusively.
  • The middle classes lived all round Church St, the Green, especially in houses lining the main streets. Also middle class was Brunswick Park, the east end of where the Elmington Estate now is, Camberwell Grove, Grove Lane, Coldharbour Lane, and along Peckham Road.
  • The next class down, a mix of the ‘fairly comfortable’ with others on ‘ordinary earnings’, can be found behind Daneville Road, round Wyndham Road and Medlar Street.
  • Mixed areas of ‘some comfortable, others poor’ lived behind the modern magistrates courts and off D’Eynsford Road, round the west part of the modern Elmington Estate…
  • The poor (’18 to 21 shillings a week per family’) clustered to the north of Camberwell Green, round the old Father Red Cap pub/Camberwell Road, and also to the north of Southampton Way, north of Commercial Road (now Commercial Way), and north of the Elmington. “A confusion of alleys and courts enclosed by Lomond Grove, Camberwell Green and Camberwell Road” was described as holding the chronically poor in the 1880s (Dyos)
  • Very poor areas (‘Casual, chronic want’) were found behind the Cock in Cock Yard (behind the modern Tiger (formerly the Silver Buckle) pub), round yards between the southern bus garage and Denmark Hill, and also in the Sultan Street area (known as Camberwell Mill or Freemans Mill), off Wyndham Road. Several streets here – Crown Street, Wyndham road, Pitman Road, and Bethwin Street were said in the 1880s to be “of very bad character”…”The only policemen venturing there were very foolish policemen.”
  • Interestingly though, there were no concentrated areas of the “lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal” as could be seen all over Southwark and Newington further north.

With some exceptions and accepting that this is a broad generalisation, it could probably still be said today that Camberwell New Road, Church Street and Peckham Road form a kind of border, and those who live to the south in the main are better off and maybe hang with a ‘higher’ social class than those who live to the north… Not entirely, and areas are more mixed now than in the past… But it has some validity.

Local industries: In the mid to late 19th century, the printing, small engineering, leather trades became widespread in the area, mainly in the north of Camberwell round Southampton Way, and where modern Burgess Park now lies. The old Surrey Canal that ran from Camberwell to the Thames through Surrey Docks helped stimulate a lot of local industrial growth, especially along its banks.

Revelry, Disorder, Space and Social Control

For centuries, Camberwell Fair was held locally, every August. First recorded in 1279, it moved from being held in ‘Gods Acre’, the immediate grounds of St Giles Church, to Church Street, opposite the Cock Pub (which was by the corner of Denmark Hill); by the 18th century it had moved on to the Green itself.

Originally held for three weeks, (9th of August to September 1st, the latter being feast of patron saint St Giles), by the 1800s the Fair, with it’s catchphrase; “Rare doings at Camberwell”, had been shortened to only 3 days – the 19th, 20th, and 21 August. Local farming had declined, and the Fair’s traditional rural economic functions (based around trade, but also hiring of agricultural workers for the year ahead) had eroded; the Fair now mainly featured drink and food, music, and acts, shows and performances, with a generous side helping of illicit sex, debauchery, and some robbery and violence.

Cheap food stalls of food, (oysters, pickled salmon, fried plaice, gingerbread) mingled with with junk and toy stands; side by side with exhibitions, animals that performed, or had bizarre deformities, plays, merry go rounds, shies etc…hawkers, pickpockets, jugglers, performers, magicians… People from all over South London flocked to the event, with carts, donkeys, old nags, offering rides, often the drivers singing songs or bantering with each other.

But the growing middle class of early 19th Century Camberwell hated this plebeian disruption.

“For these three days the residents of Camberwell were compelled to witness disgusting and demoralising scenes which they were powerless to prevent” …
Peckham Fair, in the same parish, ran every year for the 3 days following Camberwell Fair (namely 22nd – 24th August), and was a similarly troublesome – local authorities had to pay for extra policing for the whole week and passed this onto the parish ratepayers.

The two events attracted petty, and not so petty, crime. In 1802 at the end of Peckham Fair; a “numerous and desperate gang of pickpockets” robbed & assaulted respectable folk en masse as they were leaving the Fair. The gentry and middle classes attending the Fairs were seen as fair game (pardon the pun)…

There were constant attempts to control and restrict the fair and people’s enjoyment of it. Fairs at this time were a major source of moral outrage (think of modern objections to the Notting Hill Carnival every year).

However, the Fairs were a source of income for many of the poor and working classes, both legally, and through crime and the conning of fairgoers; there’s no doubt that it also brightened up people’s lives, an explosion of wild relief of the daily grind of poverty in a huge party.

There were several concerted attempts during the early 19th Century to shut the Fair down. In 1807 a Notice was pasted up:
“Notice is hereby given that no drinking, booths, unlawful exhibitions or music, will be permitted at Camberwell or Peckham Fairs. That the constables have strict orders to prevent all gaming, or seize and carry away all implements used or employed therein, and to apprehend all the offenders, and that no dancing or music will be permitted at public houses, which are required to be close shut at eleven o’clock at night.

By order of the magistrates.”

Apparently “officers from Union Hall Police Office and the Patrol from Bow St, attended… some trifling incidents occurred, but none of serious importance.”

In 1823, a Camberwell Vestry meeting was held to see what authority there was, in the form of an old grant or charter, to hold the Fair, This backfired, as evidence was produced in a Petty Session case to support its right to be held. In 1827, the Vestry managed to ban Peckham Fair for good.

Another attempt to ban Camberwell Fair in 1832 failed, but by 1855, the Fair’s days were numbered: a local Committee for the Abolition of Camberwell Fair was set up by leading residents, who pressurised the parish authorities into buying the Green, and closing down the fair, with the help of the police. The glee of one middle class historian is palpable: the Green was “encumbered for the last time with its horde of nomadic thieves, its coarse and lewd men and women and this concentrated essence of vice, folly and buffoonery was no longer allowed to contaminate the youth of the district and annoy the more staid and respectable residents.”

The Green, said before then to be a Waste, was bought from the Lord of the Manor, landscaped, turned into a ‘proper’ park.

The closing down of Camberwell Fair should be seen in the context of a widespread campaign in the early 19th Century, to impose social and moral control over the growing working classes. National government, local vestries and parish authorities, officials of most churches, and various bourgeois organisations such as the Constitutional Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, were broadly united in attempting to control and ‘reform’ the ‘immoral’ behaviour of the working classes, especially the poor, through encouraging/them forcing them into hard work, proper respect for authority and religion, and by attacking ‘vice’, disorder and immoral behaviour. This meant repression of ‘vice’ in the forms of pubs, prostitution, those who radically challenged religion or the political establishment.

Fairs, widely viewed as hotspots of immorality, disorder and in many cases satirical political plays and speeches, were a prime target. Not only this, but in an era of political upheaval and widespread radical agitation among the working class, any gathering of the poor was seen as dangerous. The open spaces where Fairs traditionally took place were also under attack, through the enclosure of commons, Greens and the increasing landscaping into parks, or development into housing. The physical alteration of space was seen as having a moral effect on the disorderly behaviour of the poor: proper ordered open space replacing ‘waste’ and common was believed to encourage respectability…

For local Vestries, the high cost of policing the Fairs and cleaning up afterwards were also a factor.

But the Green’s tradition as a place of entertainment and hedonism has continued. It has long been a site of public meetings, rowdiness, rallies, protests, and parties.

Not only in terms of its continuing use by street drinkers, who, as in many other parks have gradually reclaimed open space in defiance of those who would keep them socially cleansed and invisible.
Read a longer post on Camberwell Fair

Festivals and parties have also taken place on the Green over the years.

For instance: in June 1998, during Camberwell Arts Week, a Summer Solstice party was held, featuring a three-quarter size model of Stonehenge, made of fibre-glass. Several hundred urban pagans reproduced their own Stonehenge Festival… during which a slightly inebriated reveller fell against one of the stones and, as they were all roped together) nearly dominoed the whole lot!

From 2006-2008, the annual ‘Bonkersfest’ celebration of madness and creativity was held there (more on this later).

Here’s a temporary plaque we put up on the Green to remember Camberwell Fair (some fancier banners about the Fair hang on the railings these days)


Poverty, Crime And Policing

Look over the road to Tiger pub:

Tiger Yard and Joiners Arms Yard, behind the Cock Inn (ie behind the modern Tiger pub & the Joiners Arms) were among the poorest places in Camberwell in the mid to late 19th century… the people who lived here existed in chronic poverty. Large numbers of families living in a few houses, often unemployed and overcrowded. (These yards were still described as one of the area’s blackspots when demolished in 1930s. There had been much agitation by local Labour councillors to demolish the old overcrowded houses and rehouse the inhabitants, despite much opposition from the Tory-controlled Borough Council.)

There’s a great bit of research on the inhabitants of Tiger Yard before its demolition here

Camberwell slums in 1930

The bottom of the hill had always had some poor even when the area was rural; not all the forelock-tugging, law-abiding poor either. Some inhabitants who lived in cottages opposite the Cock Inn (round about Kennedy’s Sausages) were said to watch out for wealthy travellers dismounting from the coach, which stopped at the corner of Camberwell Green, and setting off walking to Dulwich… They would then follow them and lighten them of their possessions in some suitable dark spot…

This re-distribution of wealth led to the building of the constables’ Cage and Watchhouse, which stood on Denmark Hill, next to today’s Joiners Arms, until the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. This was replaced as the stronghold of local law and order by a Police Station the Northwest corner of the junction of the Green and Camberwell New Road, (now the bank) which was built in 1848, and demolished in 1898.

The Cage was succeeded by other centres of control and restraint. On the corner of Medlar Street and Camberwell New Road, Lambeth County Court used to stand, in the early 20th Century (with a Masonic hall and Sorting Office behind it, next to the railway). Camberwell Magistrates Court was built behind Camberwell Green in the early 1970s (we will return to this later).

Wyndham Road used to house the Southwark Diocesan Boys Shelter, in the late 19th/early 20th Century. This was an Approved Probation School for boys 16-19 put on probation in police court. The institution attempted to “build them up morally mentally and spiritually”, by prayer, a tough physical training regime, and training in domestic skills so they could better themselves by becoming servants in hotels and the homes of the wealthy etc. The usual mix of morality and brutality.


Radicals and Rioters

19th Century Camberwell may have been largely a middle-class suburb but also had a local working class tradition: possibly originating in the tradition of London trades traveling out to rural pubs for days of merriment and sometimes political debate.

In the early 19th Century, with working people being increasingly forced off the land and into urban areas, with the growth of factories and massive spread of Cities, working class people were rapidly becoming politicised and conscious of themselves and their class interests. Working class organisations, radical clubs and early Trade Unions formed a growing network across many cities… London was no exception.

In 1832-3 the National Union of the Working Classes met weekly at the Redcap pub on Camberwell Green, and at the Duke of York pub, Camberwell New Road (which stood opposite the modern Union Tavern, but has long since been closed).

The NUWC had arisen from an alliance of radical artisan societies in London, who had been organising both on economic levels, fighting for better wages and conditions, and politically, seeing parliamentary reform and more rights for working people as fundamental to achieving economic improvements… The NUWC were involved in encouraging working class pressure in support of the campaigning for the 1832 Reform Act; however, the Act enfranchised the middle classes and reformed outdated constituencies and corrupt practices, but did nothing for the workers. More radical elements of the NUWC together with other groups, prepared to step up their activities – many felt armed uprising would be necessary to achieve change… This led to confrontations with the new Metropolitan Police, as at the Battle of Coldbath Fields in 1833, when a NUWC rally was attacked by the Met and a policeman killed in the ensuing riot (it was later found by a Jury to be Justifiable Homicide in self-defence, due to the police attack on the crowd!).

In 1833, the Sawyers Arms, Camberwell (which we haven’t yet located) hosted meetings of the 91st Class of the NUWC, in particular they held a dinner for the acquitted George Fursey, a defendant from the Battle of Coldbath Fields.

The Camberwell Division of the Union attended a meeting celebrating the  anniversary of the 1830 French Revolution in July 1833 carrying their “beautiful large blue silk banner…. with a beehive and the bundle of sticks, hand in hand, with the mottos ‘Truth is our guide’, ‘Trial by impartial Jury’, ‘God and our Droits’, ‘Liberty and Justice’.” (Poor Man’s Guardian, July 1833).

The Chartists

As the 1830s went on, the NUWC and groups like them evolved into what has been called the first national movement of the British working class – the Chartists.

The Chartists aimed broadly at an increase in political power for working class people, at that time mostly not allowed to vote and formally excluded from the political process. Chartism became a huge broad-based mass movement, organised around six major demands for political reform that had been the program of the British reformers and radicals since the 1760s…

  1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The ballot – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament-thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

The Chartists’ tactics included huge monster meetings, and a petition to Parliament, presented and rejected three times between 1838 and 1848. The movement was made up of thousands of local branches, whose activities went far beyond pressing for reform, but built a whole culture, of education, songs, history, their own ceremonies and open discussion; they were conscious of their links to radicals of the past and similar movements abroad. and included all kinds of people, women and men, black people… Although most did not advocate the vote for women, some Chartists did, and female democratic associations formed an important part of the movement.

As their petitions and political pressure failed, many Chartists began to advocate a working class seizure of power by armed force, and divisions split these ‘Physical Force’ Chartists from their ‘Moral Force’ counterparts. Several Chartist uprisings were planned in 1839-40, which failed or were repressed. Plotters, and Chartists involved in organising rallies, strikers and other actions were jailed, transported to the penal colonies in their thousands.

Local Chartists who lived in Camberwell include one Simpson, of Elm Cottage, Camberwell, who sold tickets for a Chartist-sponsored soiree in honour of radical MP T.S. Duncombe in 1845; and David Johnston, a moral force Chartist, born in Scotland, a Weaver, then apprentice baker, who was elected Overseer of the Poor in St. Giles, Camberwell, 1831, ‘by popular vote’. Johnston ‘was a keen (moral force) Chartist. Johnston left in 1848 for the US, after ‘rowdies from Kennington wrecked my shop’.

The Chartists held mass meetings in South London the 1840s, mainly on Kennington Common, especially in 1848, the year of the last great Chartist upsurge, when they prepared the third Great Petition for the Charter. While the plans for presenting the petition were developed, physical force Chartists again prepared uprisings; in London in ’48 several riots ensued when rallies were attacked by police. Through the Spring and early Summer the capital was in a state of alert: the authorities feared revolution (which was breaking out in France and across Europe), and Chartists hoped and worked for a popular rising to achieve their rights.

On 13 March 1848, a week after a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square, that led to 3 days of rioting, a Chartist mass meeting was held on Kennington Common. Nearly 4000 police were called out; despite this 400 or 500 demonstrators moved off to Camberwell by back streets, led by a band. When they got to here, Wyndham Road, then called Bowyer Lane a riot broke out; looters armed with “staves of barrels, and sticks of all descriptions”, including palings, rifled shops and fought with the constables. The whole episode occurred within the space of an hour and only nine arrests were made (by a party of’ mounted police, assisted by special constables) at the time, but since a number of the rioters had been recognised by the locals twenty-five were brought to trial in April. Identified among the leaders were Charles Lee, a gipsy, and David Anthony Duffy, a ‘man of colour’ and unemployed seaman, known to the police as a beggar in the Mint, where he went about “without shirt, shoe, or stocking”; and  Benjamin Prophett, known as ‘Black Ben’, another ‘man of colour’ and seaman. These and fifteen other men, of whom four had previous convictions, were sentenced to from seven to fourteen years’ transportation and three to one year’s imprisonment. More on the Camberwell Riot

The Camberwell riot was short, but it attracted some publicity, and contributed to the hysterical prelude to 10 April 1848, when Chartists met nationally on Kennington Common, aiming to march on Parliament. Shocked by the rebellious atmosphere in London and the country, the Government had fortified the bridges over the Thames and brought in the army and recruited middle class volunteers to defend them. The Chartist leaders backed down from confrontation.

Note the participation of black radicals in the riot: the early 19th Century radical movement was notable for the involvement of prominent activists of African descent. One of the leaders of the London Chartists, prominent in the April 10th events, was William Cuffay, a Black tailor whose father had been a slave from St Kitts in the Caribbean. Cuffay was arrested in June that year accused of involvement in the planning of a Chartist Uprising and transported to Tasmania for life.

Other Black radicals well known in South London was Robert Wedderburn, ex-slave, who had come to England, become a Methodist preacher, and then got involved in radical politics. Wedderburn used to preach on Kennington Common. His contemporary William Davidson was executed for taking part in the plans for a radical uprising in 1820.

A plaque we left here to remember the Chartist Riot of March 13th 1848.

After the anti-climax of 1848, the Chartist movement began to go into a decline; although many groups still existed, the Chartists were largely a spent force. Smaller groups of radicals continued to agitate and meet, but mass agitation for reform did not revive till the mid-1860s, when the National Reform League formed and many local reform-minded groups began to spring up. From this pressure came the 1867 Reform Act, which won some limited increase in the franchise for working men.

Liberals and Radical clubs agitating for once again became widespread in the 1870s, many emerging under the influence of the Secularist Movement, others from growing Republican agitation.


Secularists and Republicans

The Secularist movement arose from scattered radical groups, many of which had survived the collapse of Chartism, others of which emerged in the reform agitation of the 1860s. Influenced by powerful speakers like George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh, they discussed, debated and attacked the religious control over many aspects of people’s lives, much stronger and integrated into all walks of social, working and home life then. Secularists spoke at street corners, often in direct competition with Christian preachers, and formed clubs or branches of Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society. Gradually they also became associated with pressure for the right to birth control, and a strong republican strand, demanding the removal of the royals and a British Republic. More on South London Secularists

In the 1870s Camberwell Church Street was a local Speakers Corner: Secularists used to regularly denounce religion in large open-air meetings here. The area in fact became one of their strongholds – the Camberwell National Secular Society branch, an offshoot of the large Walworth branch built a hall at 61 New Church Road in 1882.

The struggle against religious charlatans exploiting the vulnerable is very much alive and kicking. In March 2021, charity regulator the Charity Commission took over administration of the highly dubious Kingdom Church in Camberwell Station Road, after local newspaper, the Southwark News exposed the church for selling ‘plague protection kits’ during the first Covid lockdown.

The commission launched a probe in August 2020 in response to concerns over the organisation’s finances.

“The inquiry’s remit includes looking into the trustee’s management of the charity’s resources and financial affairs, including the potential for funds to be ‘unaccounted for and misapplied’.

In a statement published in March 2021, the commission confirmed that it had “serious ongoing concerns” about the charity and its relationship with two subsidiaries, World Conquerors Christian Centres and The Kingdom Church.

Regulators say the charity does not have a bank account, with its funds instead being deposited in its subsidiaries’ bank accounts.

Both subsidiaries have been removed from the charity’s control – with regulators trying to ascertain whether this was done lawfully.

As the News first reported in August 2020, Bishop Climate Wiseman from Bishop Climate Ministries, part of The Kingdom Church, was advertising £91 COVID-19 ‘cures’.

The bishop went on to defend his actions, saying he could not deny the healing power of the almighty, but later slammed this newspaper as ‘the antichrist’.

Virginia Henley of Hewitsons LLP was appointed as interim manager of the charity under the Charities Act 2011 on February 15, 2021, to fully review the organisation’s future. The commission’s inquiry also continues.

The National Secular Society had reported the church to the commission over its ‘plague protection kits’. Its head of policy and research, Megan Manson, said: “This is a welcome intervention from the Charity Commission.  This church’s future as a registered charity is now being questioned, and rightly so.

“All charities, including religious charities, must be held to account when they engage in unethical and harmful behaviour.””

The United Republican League held Sunday morning meetings in Church Street (and afternoon ones in the Rose & Crown Pub, Acorn Street in Peckham) in the early 1870s, when republicanism was very strong among the working class, and the Royal Family very unpopular. Famous class warrior Dan Chatterton spoke here.
There were also three Radical Clubs in Camberwell in the later 19th century – one in Denmark Hill, one in now vanished Muswell Road (not sure where this was), and North Camberwell Radical Club, in Albany Road.
For more on North Camberwell Radical Club – see Mayday in South London

There was also a Camberwell Radical Club in ‘Gloucester Road’ (possibly Gloucester Grove, SE15?) in the 1880s: William Morris was listed to speak there twice in 1885-6.


War and the Workers

Camberwell Trades Council, representing local trade Unionists and Union branches, was founded in 1913.  Almost immediately it was thrown into the political hotbed with the outbreak of World War 1.

Despite a sustained campaign against the impending war in the months running up to its actual outbreak, most trade unions and Labour Party activists fell in behind the government and supported the national war effort. The war achieved instant popularity, and thousands of men enlisted enthusiastically. Camberwell was said to have provided a good response to the call-up (though nearby Brixton was described as “full of slackers”!)

However, Camberwell Trades Council, in common with a minority of socialists and union activists, took an anti-war position when war broke out. The Trades Council issued pacifist leaflets, including a leaflet calling for people not to worry about paying rent during war, as surely landlords wouldn’t evict people during such a national emergency! The police tried to suppress this leaflet – unsuccessfully.

The Trades Council held meetings about the high cost of living, denouncing privations caused by the War, and launched campaigns for free school dinners for kids; useful work for the unemployed and democratic control and distribution of food.

In 1915 it also founded a Trades Council bakery, officially to try and increase the distribution of bread to the local working class; unofficially the bakery also provided jobs to conscientious objectors on the run from the authorities trying to force them into the army. Although this project collapsed by end of year, its work was incorporated into a similar bakery scheme run by neighbouring Bermondsey Trades Council.

In 1916, when the Government introduced conscription to force men into the trenches, Camberwell Trades and Labour Council also expressed its strongest opposition. It declared conscription in any form “to be a violation of the principle of civic freedom hitherto prized as one of the chief heritages of British liberty.” Anti -conscription demonstrations were held on Peckham Rye and on Camberwell Green by the Trades Council and ‘The No Conscription League’. One motion passed by a mass meeting stressed: “Conscription would be against the best interests of the working class and would be a strong weapon in the hands of reactionaries to enslave the British People.” Trade unionists were outraged when Military Tribunals were set up under the oversight of Borough Councils to hear claims for exemption from conscription. Trades Unionists were in most places appointed to take part in these borough tribunals, but then Tory-controlled Camberwell Borough Council refused to appoint any.

The Anti-war movement locally centred around the Independent Labour Party. Some ILP delegates followed the Christian, pacifist line of George Lansbury. Some were inspired by the ethical conviction that violence, organised or not, was evil and immoral. Others argued against the War on on socialist, internationalist grounds.

Leaders of anti-war activity in this part of South London included Charles Ammon, a member of the Fawcett Association, the postal sorters union, and Parliamentary Secretary of the ‘No Conscription League’ (he later became Lord Ammon of Camberwell), Dr Alfred Salter, (later to become MP for Bermondsey), and Arthur Creech-Jones, twenty-three year old Secretary of Camberwell Trades Council. In 1916 Creech-Jones was called up for army service. On appeal he attended four Tribunals and although supported by Labour Party leaders Fenner Brockway and Herbert Morrison his appeals were dismissed: he was finally arrested in East Dulwich in September. After being taken to the local Recruitment Centre, then based at Camberwell Baths (in Artichoke Place), and refusing to take orders, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons.

Creech-Jones gained much support in the local press. One letter from the National League of the Blind, Camberwell Branch praised his Trades Council work. When he was jailed, he was replaced as Secretary by Florence Tidman, delegate from the Women’s Labour League. Many trade unionist soldiers had returned from the front and were now becoming sympathetic to pacifism and opposed to the war.

Not all Trade Unionists locally opposed the War however. In March 1917  the local branch of the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants disaffiliated from the Trades Council, disagreeing with its anti-war position. Many trade unionists reflected the jingoistic and pro-war/anti-foreigner feeling as the wider population they lived among.

The majority of the local population capitulated to the upsurge of national chauvinism. Camberwell, like many areas of London, had a small german population, often proprietors of small bakeries and other shops – there were German delicatessens, toy shops and haberdashers, and other local shopkeepers proudly announced that ‘hier spricht man Deutsch’. Others worked as music teachers, artists and waiters. There were around 60 German families in the area in 1914.

But many Germans were detained when World War 1 broke out (although some exiles had fled political persecution in Germany, or were descended from political refugees.) Racist hysteria against the “Hun” was whipped up to a crescendo in South London. Riotous mobs burnt and looted shops with German names in East Street, Camberwell Green and the Old Kent Road in October 1914.

The South London Press in early July 1916 reported a heavily underlined banner headline extending across seven columns proclaimed “Camberwell’s Great Patriotic Festival.” Seven miles of cheering crowds, we read, lined the streets to bid farewell to Lieut.-Colonel Hall and the men of the Borough of Camberwell Gun Division as they marched off for training.

Camberwell Borough also played host to Belgian refugees, driven out of their country by the German invasion. 300 were sleeping in Goose Green public baths in October 1914.

In May 1915 anti-German rioting resumed across the country after the ship Lusitania was torpedoed by German u-boats, with the loss of many lives. Sometimes the ‘foreigners’ targetted were not german, due to various levels of stupidity and bigotry intermixing. Frederick George Jeffreys, a 22-year-old plumber’s mate was fined 40s plus 10s compensation for smashing up a hairdresser’s shop in Wyndham Road, Camberwell in May 1915. The Lambeth magistrate H.C. Biron was scathing: “You behave in this way, and instead of attacking a German you attack a perfectly harmless Pole and wreck his shop. Even if he were a German you bring discredit upon your country by behaving in this way.”

Recuperation huts on Camberwell Green, during WW1

Opposition was growing to the war, however, often in small local meetings across the country. At the Surrey Masonic Hall, Camberwell New Road, in June 1915, Charles Trevelyan MP addressed the South London Ethical Society: “The peace, when it did come, should not be made by diplomats sitting in secret, but there should be a real public opinion for the real ending of war on the right lines.” He warned his large audience not to listen to the militarists who claimed the time was not right for discussing the terms of peace. “They would keep on saying this until the last shot was fired.” Trevelyan had been a founder member of the anti-war Union of Democratic Control, established the previous year.

Check out Against the Tide, an excellent book on World War 1 and resistance in Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell.


At the end of World War One, there was widespread social unrest.  Disillusionment with the war increased across the country, as conscription and mass death had hit home, but repressive conditions at work and wage depression led to an upsurge in strikes. The Russian Revolution in 1917 inspired workers across the world to believe a new more egalitarian social order was possible. The unrest spread to the various armies, and mass mutinies helped to end the war, sparking revolt and revolution across the world.
Camberwell was affected by this ferment…

In January 1919 Army Service Corps men in a camp somewhere in Camberwell went on strike, during a mass movement of mutinies and demonstrations to demand faster demobilisation of troops all over Britain and in the army abroad. Despite some investigations we’ve not discovered where this camp was, whether in the Borough or SE5 proper… though theoretically it could be somewhere near to the present Territorial Army Barracks in Flodden Road.

In 1920, the British Government’s determination to send troops, including conscripts, to Russia to try to overthrow the new Soviet state, led to a mass movement inspired by socialists and trade unionists who were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, to prevent troops and supplies reaching Russia. Local councils of action formed to oppose the move, and actions included dockers refusing to load goods and munitions for these ships. In August 1920, the Camberwell Council of Action demonstrated on Peckham Rye, where it called for “complete trade and peace with Russia”, and demanded that the National Council of Action send an ultimatum to Lloyd George along these lines.

The 1926 General Strike

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of losing control of the mass of union membership.

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off.

The General Strike was a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages add conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

Locally Trades Councils or Councils of Action co-ordinated the union branches and workers involved in the Strike.

Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel. This contrasted with other local boroughs eg left-wing Bermondsey, where the local Council supported the Strike and opposed the Government.

Camberwell Trades Council march on Mayday demo, 1st, 1926

Camberwell Trades Council organised the Strike locally. According to a post-Strike Report by the Trades Council:
“only a fortnight before the strike, [we] obtained a roneo duplicator and a typewriter. When the possibility of a strike loomed up we made three tentative preparations for this eventuality, viz:

(a) We enquired for an office, which we might take for a month as a minimum.

(b) (b) We obtained a lien on a hall where we might have a large meeting and would run no danger of the hall being cancelled by opponents.

(c) We made arrangements for a Committee meeting to be called the day after the general Strike began, if it did so begin. On May Day we thought the importance of demonstrating was sufficient to warrant us paying for a band, banner bearers etc, and for us to give a lead in having a good turn out. This we had organized and we secured a fine response from Camberwell workers. Whilst on route to Hyde Park came the news of the General Strike declaration – truly a fitting send off, thus demonstrating to the rich loafers in the West End out power and solidarity.”

The Strike Committee organised effective picketing of workplaces. Tramwaymen and busmen, who made up 3000 of the 8000 workers affiliated to the trades Council, were solid, as were roadmen of the Borough Council also came out, (bar one depot where men were reported working.) Tillings Bus Co., however, of Peckham, a major local employer, was a black spot: large numbers of police specials were stationed to ensure these buses were never stopped from running.

Reports which came to the Strike office as to the need for pickets were transmitted to the Strike Committee concerned at once by an organised messenger network.

The Trades Council concluded that: “we were not ready. We quickly improvised machinery… Everything had to be found on the spur of the moment, and we rose to the occasion fairly well in our own estimation., considering the difficulties of lack of our own premises, voluntary workers, and having to set up, equip and run an office after the Strike had commenced.”

In the Borough of Camberwell, as it was then, two strike bulletins were produced, the Camberwell Strike Bulletin and the Peckham Labour Bulletin – both produced from Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham.

The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reported that a man was convicted of selling the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”. Inspector Hider also saw copies of the ‘Camberwell Strike Bulletin’ also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’. 

Trams were not running, till the local electricity generating station was reopened by naval ratings…

On May 5th, commercial vehicles were stopped & trashed here by strikers. The trams were in the main kept off the roads. Altogether there were 12 attempts by voluntary (mostly middle class) recruits supported by police and special constables to run trams from Camberwell Depot to New Scotland Yard – resulting in crowds of pickets and supporters attacking scab trams, smashing their windows and pushing them back inside, preventing them from running.

The British Worker (A daily paper put out during the Strike by the TUC) reported:
“BANNED TRAMS SCENE: An unsuccessful attempt was made shortly after four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon to run LCC tramcars from the Camberwell depot.

Earlier in the day two lorries with higher officials of the tramways Department and OMS recruits arrived at the Depot, where a strong force of police had been posted.

A large crowd, including tramwaymen, their wives and sympathisers, collected, and when the first car came out of the Depot gates in Camberwell Green there was a hostile demonstration.

Some arrests were made. Following this incident the cars were driven back in to the Depot to the accompaniment of loud cheers.” (British Worker, 5th May.)

Strike-breaking buses were also stoned in Camberwell on Saturday night (8th May) There were huge public meetings at Camberwell Green, as well as at Peckham Rye and at the triangle near the Eaton Arms, Peckham. During a public meeting at Camberwell Green, waves of police with drawn truncheons marched on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

After the TUC sold the strike out, there was confusion here. Crowds of workers gathered at the Tram Depot, not knowing what to do. Each worker had to sign a form on future conditions of service, hours and wages. Some never got their jobs back at all.

At the end of the Strike Camberwell Trades Council sent £10 to the Miners from the funds collected during the Strike, continued that support as the miners fought on alone after the TUC sellout.

Camberwell Borough Guardians took a hard line during and after Strike – issued ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work’ forms to stop strikers getting any dole payments.

Following the defeat of the Strike, the Government brought in the Trades Disputes Act, known as ‘the blacklegs Charter’, which outlawed all General or solidarity strikes and prevented many civil service workers from affiliating to Trades Councils… Camberwell Trades Council formed a Trade Union Defence Committee to oppose the Act – without a lot of success.

A plaque put up here remembering Camberwell working people’s action against scabs in the General Strike

1935 Painters’ strike

On March 15th 1935 a strike erupted over trade union membership among the Camberwell Borough Council painters. Eleven non-union painters were employed, but a week later, there being no agreement between the National Society of Painters and the Borough council, 85 painters were sacked. The dispute became official and following a motion condemning the employers from the Camberwell AUBTW, continued for nearly two months. The borough council was prevented under the 1927 Act from making union membership a condition of employment. Two members of the Camberwell NSP branch, E. Milligan and C Laws, were Chairman and Secretary of the Trades Council Industrial Section which strongly supported the strike.

The London Bus strike of 1958.

The Tram Depot later became a Bus Depot. In 1958, bus workers struck for higher wages, in a dispute that lasted nearly two months, but was eventually severely defeated. On May 24th the T&GWU, Camberwell Bus Garage branch organised a march of 250 from Camberwell Green to Peckham Rye to publicise the busmen’s plight. But the strike hadn’t 100% support in the area. A scab organisation known as the People’s League for the Defence of Freedom recruited drivers to drive buses. The scab drivers later revelled in the fact that they had scabbed and publicised an organisation they had formed known as ‘Blacklegs Incorporated’.

In 1998 this northern section of the Bus Garage was squatted for exhibitions and parties.


Though the 1850s saw the end of Camberwell Fair, in many ways though working-class Camberwell recreation had become no less rowdy for being forced inside off the Green.

The New Grand Hall Cinematograph Theatre in Camberwell New Road, opened in 1912, on the north side of Camberwell New Road, between Depot entrance and Camberwell Passage; (it later became a Snooker Hall).

In 1956 there was a Teddy Girls and Boys riot at the New Grand, after they’d watched the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Bill Haley & the Comets. Teddy girls in black jeans encouraged by their boy-friends swarmed across the rows to stamp seats free from their hinges. They stamped, clapped their hands, screamed and beat out the 12 bar blues by kicking seats until they splintered… The police scattered them, then restored order by escorting the Teddy boy ringleaders from the theatre.

Teds were the hoodies of the time: teenage working class kids, in an era of increasing prosperity emerging after the restrictions and poverty of the war years… They were listening to outlandish music that baffled their elders and betters, and getting together for dancing, drink and some splatterings of violence. Gang warfare was common between different ted gangs. The Elephant & Castle area was one of London’s strongest ted areas.  A 2000-strong crowd of teds had fought the police outside Elephant & Castle’s Trocadero cinema shortly before this, inspiring similar battles across the country, mainly after viewings of the film.  Respectable fears, moral panic and mass crackdown followed.

Teds were often scapegoated as the cause of all troubles and many paranoias of authority and conforming social hierarchies were projected onto them.

Today’s kids are similarly seen as out of control, street violence, knifings, shootings etc are widely seen as new and frightening developments: in many ways the terror and legal/political responses mirror the reaction to the teds, but similar scares have emerged repeatedly in the last 200 or so years. Usually no matter how serious developments are, they are represented as unprecedented; often in fact patterns and numbers are very similar. Not to disparage the genuine despair, fear and anger that the current crop of South London murders arouses. Fear of crime though, is always often out of kilter with the reality of crime.  Returning to Camberwell Green, many kids now avoid the place, seeing it as too dangerous to hang out there; recently Peckham and Camberwell teens have been especially targeted as being out of control.  Control of space and potential troublemakers’ access to it, seen in the enclosure and respectabilisation of the green in the 1850s, is reflected in the 6 month exclusion order regularly imposed on the centre of Camberwell over recent years, allowing the police to ‘escort’ anyone under 16 found in the area home whether they are up to anything dodgy or not.


Around 2001, the upper floor of this building housed the clandestine HQ of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), an undercover unit of the Metropolitan Police Service’s Special Branch.

Between 1968 and 2008, when the unit was disbanded, it organised the systematic infiltration of undercover police officers into campaigning and protest groups. Officers pretended to be activists to worm their way into 1000s of groups, from national organisations to small local campaigns, many using the names of dead children to set up false identities. The police spied on campaigns for justice for people killed by racists and by the police; animal rights activists, peace groups, union branches campaigning around health and safety, the anti-apartheid movement, anti-racists, environmental groups, socialists anarchists, feminists, MPs… Many of the (mostly male) officers entered into deceptive relationships with women in false names; they lived with people, fathered children and then disappeared completely when their tour of duty was done. Many acted as agent-provocateurs to get people arrested.
Over the last ten years activists have exposed many of the names and histories of these officers, but much more of what they did remains secret. After it was proved that the unit had spied on the family and campaign of Stephen Lawrence, murdered by racists in 1993, the government announced a Public inquiry into undercover policing would take place. We are still waiting for the first hearings to be held in 2020.
For more info contact:

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Police Spies Out of Lives

Undercover Research Group

Blacklist Support Group

For a local slant on one of the campaigns infiltrated by the SDS, see later on when we visit the Institute of Psychiatry…


Camberwell became well-known for music halls; many were in the back hall of pubs. Music Hall arose from the last of the old tavern ‘free and easies’, where people could get up and do turns, usually songs or comedy acts.

The People’s Palace of Varieties, or Lovejoys, at the Rosemary Branch, Southampton Way, was held in “a long, shabby room adjoining the tavern, furnished with chairs and tables, and illuminated with flaming gas brackets. At one end a stage with footlights screened with blue painted glass. A Chairman sat in front of the stage facing the audience. He wore the most deplorable evening dress. Another gent sat at the piano on the stage. Everybody seemed to be drinking and talking while a man in shirt sleeves was dashing about with a tray loaded with glasses of beer. Each turn was announced by the Chair. He rapped with his hammer both to attract attention and to assist applause. A tall gent sang a song about his wife, his trouble and strife.”

The Rosemary Branch was demolished in 1971. The Castle on the Camberwell Road bears the name of an earlier pub that housed the Bijou Palace of Varieties or Godfrey’s Castle Music Hall from 1875 to 1889.

The Father Redcap pub, on the north side of the Camberwell Green, originally held a music hall built in 1853. On 2nd December, 1867, the audience here could enjoy “the great W J Collins, a banjoist from America, a Shakespearean sketch, Professor Davis in the renowned rope trick, and Mr Mucus Hellmore in his great delineation of Mephistopholes”

Later it was a gay bar at least back to the 1970s till 1997, and later again the Red Star, a party venue, holding many gigs including benefits for various worthy causes. (we will return to this building later).

In 1896, the Dan Leno company opened the “Oriental Palace of Varieties”, on Denmark Hill, which was soon replaced with a new theatre, with a capacity of 1,553, in 1899, named the “Camberwell Palace”. Famous old timers who appeared here included Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder, Nellie Wallace and Harry Tate.  By 1912, the theatre was showing films as a part of the programme; it became an ABC cinema as “The Palace Cinema” in 1932. Later it reverted to a variety theatre in 1943, but closed on 28 April 1956 and was demolished. (The 1957 film The Smallest Show on Earth, the story of a family-run suburban cinema, was probably based on the Palace).

Nearby at the corner of Denmark Hill and Coldharbour Lane was the “Metropole Theatre and Opera House”, opened in 1894, which held transfers of West End shows: “The theatre had a very ornate interior with private boxes, stalls, dress circle, balcony and gallery. Ladies who came in their fashionable hats were respectfully informed that hats and bonnets were not allowed in the stalls or first two rows of the dress circle.”

No wonder Camberwell starred in a 1915 music hall song. Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green by Lionel Morrekton, about a young lady who went for a ride on the top of a bus with “a fellow, a regular swell”, on what is still the no. 68 bus route:

Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green
All on a summer’s day
Up we climbed on the motor bus
And we started right away

When we got to the end of the ride_
He asked me to go for a walk!
But I wasn’t Camberwell Green
By a very long chalk!

The replacement of live theatre and music by cinema was also reflected locally: the Empire was demolished to build an Odeon cinema in 1939; itself since closed in 1957, becoming Dickie Dirts (see below)… Besides these, on Denmark Hill, where Somerfield now stands, there was the Golden Domes, (later called the Rex and then the Essoldo); across the road, on the site of the Post Office, was the Bijou, known locally as the Bye Joe; and the Coronet, a small cinema in Wells Way.


Where Nandos and the flats behind now stand, was the site of the Empire, later the Odeon, which became, as we said above, Dickie Dirts clothing warehouse. Closing in the late 1970s, it was squatted in August 1984 as a back-up/centre/crashpad/gigspace holding benefits, for the September 1984 Stop the City actions/defence fund. Stop the City was a series of days of action against the capitalist exploiters in the City of London, initially against firms making profits from war and arms manufacture, later expanding to oppose many other causes… 1000s of mainly young anarchist-influenced activists attacked, demonstrated against and besieged City institutions. The Dickie Dirts squat was evicted on 3rd October ’84 by cops, bailiffs and builders; the building’s owners apparently turned up in a Rolls Royce to watch! The three people found in Dickie Dirts at the time were kicked out. The police had broken in on the bailiffs’ behalf; obviously the Met were slightly aggravated by the Stop the City link.

Dickie Dirts was resquatted several times, eg in June 86 for gigs, when  Camberwell indie band House of Love played here.

The Dickie Dirts building, after standing derelict for most of a decade, was demolished in Spring 1993, and a block of flats for homeless young people called ‘The Foyer’ was built on the site, plus a restaurant; this was later replaced by Nandos.

Camberwell has also played host to a number of other squatted venues and social/political spaces and centres, as we will relate…


Crawford squatted social centre, on the corner of Crawford Street and Coldharbour Lane, 2003. Run by the Black star collective (who had previously occupied another squat in the Coldharbour Lane area), the place held gigs, a “lost film festival”, and served as a drop in centre for some local old Jamaican dudes… After the collective handed out invitations to locals to come and get involved (in which they charmingly asserted that they ” are well-mannered and reasonable people…. Not into drugs or anything alike.” This building was still empty 5 years later after its eviction by Lambeth Council.

Looks like the remains of the old Muesli factory still stand


The old Muesli Factory behind the Joiners Arms was squatted around 1992-3… mainly for rave parties etc… By some of our remembrance,  it could be a bit nasty in fact, a lot of aggro and some bad drugs.


And others: the Old Labour Club and Groove Park, which we’ll talk about later), also some others which are bit off the route of this walk:

Location, 299 Camberwell New Rd, Squat party by LSDiezel crew is advertised for 7th Feb 1992. Were other parties held? Probably. Demolished?

Area 7, 64 Camberwell Church Street: An ex-Council Building squatted for an arts centre in 1993 but quickly evicted.

Kwik Fit on Denmark Hill, was squatted for 2 (or more?) punk shows in October + December 2003.

There have been some great local squatted social centres more recently too;

Warham Street, the Black Frog/Camberwell Squatted Centre in 2007

The Library House, behind the Minet Library, squatted 2008



The modern squatters’ movement started in 1969 caused by the contrast of rising rents and widespread homelessness, while thousands of houses stood empty, many being slum clearances and Compulsory Purchase Orders, that local councils had left to rot for years (up to 7 years in some cases). The 1970s saw a huge increase in squatting, both for personal housing needs and increasingly as part of an alternative lifestyle that questioned, opposed or rejected traditional conformist ways of life, including work, the sanctity of private property (including leaving houses empty), and conventional social, sexual and economic values.

Southwark Family Squatters Association had originated in October 1970 when Lewisham squatters occupied some empty houses in Peckham. At this time councils had, under pressure from squatters and lengthening waiting lists, started to licence squats in property they were planning going to use, notably in Lewisham.

Squatting in Camberwell began in January 1971 in Cuthill Road, Allendale Road and Kerfield Crescent (all just to south of Daneville Road) in houses left empty, while the Daneville Road/Selborne Road area was waiting for redevelopment, scheduled in 1974.  Southwark Family Squatters Association moved 4 homeless families in to nos 13 and 25 Cuthill Road, 44 Allendale, and  22 Kerfield Crescent. The Council claimed they were going to repair the houses and use them, but squatters, and others, had their doubts. The families had all been made homeless due to private eviction or were living in properties too small or unhealthy, and had been let down by the council refusing to rehouse them or dragging its feet.

The following report appeared in Camberwell Candles, in February 1971:

“You might be forgiven for not noticing anything very special about these houses. They look ordinary outside And inside, the only noticeable things are the good state of the decoration and the absence of any of those damp patches that afflict many older properties in Camberwell.
But since January, when the Southwark Family Squatting Association moved in
and rehoused four families under eviction orders from their previous homes, 4 of these houses have been the homes of squatters .
Before the squatters moved in these houses were empty with doors and windows boarded up – usually a sign that nothing’s going to happen for a long time.

The Council say that the Houses were awaiting “patch repairs” – which you might find curious if you were to go and inspect them. The only repairs needed that anyone other than the Council can see – are an outside wall that needs some attention, and a roof that leaks slightly into a landing – just enough with
an hour’s rain, as one of the squatters’ children put it, “to make a baby’s puddle” …. hardly enough to warrant boarding the place up when there is a housing waiting list of thousands, many of whom are desperate for a decent home.

Squatting sadness

The story of Southwark’s squatters is a sad one. NOT just because the squatters’ hopes for decent homes are being frustrated the Borough Council sticking to the rules of bureaucracy – though that may
NOT just because some families in really desperate need are being kept waiting because houses intended for them have been taken instead by squatters – though that may be true.
BUT BECAUSE the Council and the squatting associations are in conflict and are
frustrating each other’s activities IN SPITE OF THE FACT that their aims are basically the same – to improve the housing situation in Southwark.
THE REASON for this is simply that the two sides are not cooperating with each
THE BLAME for this non-cooperation non-cooperation is the Council’s. The Southwark Family Squatting Association wants to cooperate: the Council does not


Camberwell’s first squatters are in Cuthill Road, Allendale Road and Kerfield Crescent. Before the squatters moved in, the 4 houses were boarded up and there was no way of finding out exactly what was going to happen to them. The whole area, including Dane ville Road & Selborne Road,is due for redevelopment in 1974. It seems un likely that houses should be kept empty for that long – but it has been known to happen before.


The Press Officer at the Town Hall when asked why these houses had been boarded up, said he had no details of particular properties, but that most such houses were in development areas due for demolition. Southwark now has about 1600 empty houses, 1200 of them due for demolition this year, and the other 400 due for repairs.

The Asst. Town Clerk, Mr Thomas, said that the four houses in question aimed at putting people into property were in fact due for “patch repairs. And he complained that the squatters, by taking over the houses before the repairs were done, had deprived other families at the top of the waiting list of their rightful tenancies.

When asked what repairs needed to be done, Mr Thomas said that he could not give details – not that there was any secret about it, but because with hundreds of repair jobs either on the files awaiting approval or in the hands of various sub-contractors this would be difficult.

Why did the Council not get the repairs done before the squatters moved in? Because, apparently, there is always “considerable delay what with decisions and the sub-contractors’ – with architects’ plans and committees decisions and sub-contractors’ own schedules.


When given Mr Thomas’ information that the houses had been due for repairs, Mr Barry Stone, of the Southwark Family Squatting Association said that if only the Association had known that in advance, they would not have taken them over: “WE are only too pleased if the Council are going to USE a house.
If they would only tell us which empty houses they do not intend to use and which are awaiting repairs, we will vacate the ones they want to use. Our programme is aimed at property  that is not going to be used again.
But the Council refuse to give us any information”.

The squatters have also told the Council that if the Council would co-operate, they would give an undertaking only to house people on the Council’s housing list, and in consultation with an officer from the Council.


Aston and Zoila Bartley are now at 13 Cuthill Road, having squatted previously at Gordon Road Peckham, where they had an eviction order. Prior to that they were in Bermondsey, but the flat was damp and unhealthy and in their opinion “No place for the kids!!
They have 3 children, the youngest a baby of a few weeks born by Caesarean.
In Bermondsey Mrs Bartley had pneumonia and a lot of bronchitis – due
to some extent at least to the damp.

Joseph and Joan Peters are at 44 Allendale Road. They too have squatted before, and been evicted, having left a fiat in Lausanne Road that they found far too small for the whole family.
The Peters have had trouble even getting on the housing list at all,
apparently through letters to and from the Council going astray somewhere along the line. This has been more than usually frustrating, since one of their children is “in care” and not allowed home until “suitable accommodation” is found. But they are hopeful of hearing good news from the Council before too long.
Gloria McFarlane of 25 Cuthill Road lives there with her husband Lloyd and their 4 children. They too were evicted from Gordon Road, having already been evicted from a flat in Bermondsey when their landlord wanted the flat for his own family.
The McFarlanes were offered accommodation in Barry Lodge in Sydenham.
They refused it –  “It was so filthy!”

John & Beryl Lindsay… 22 Kerfield Crescent. They had a flat in Southwark from which the
landlord evicted them in September.
The Council refused to offer them a place at all – for the unfortunate reason that, although they have been together as man and wife for 8 years they are not officially married, and are therefore classed as an engaged couple!
Since they moved into Kerfield Crescent, they have been offered a place in Chaucer House. “But the state of the place was so bad”, said Mrs Lindsay, “that I wouldn’t take
children in there. A friend of mine was sent there –  just for 6 months
they told her – she’s been there four years!”
(Report from Camberwell Candles magazine, St Giles Camberwell Church, Feb 1971)

The were some 1600 empty street properties in the Borough of Southwark at the time. Southwark Council refused to do deals with squatters as other councils had – the local authority was old-Labour controlled, John O’ Grady (later infamously to join the gentrifying redevelopers of the London Docklands Development Corporation) was in charge, and their approach to housing and local politics in general was “we do stuff FOR people, they don’t do it for themselves.” They evicted the Camberwell squatters and trashed the houses to stop them being occupied, claiming the houses could be patch repaired & used for people in the normal way, and that squatters were “queue jumping”.

In response the squatters launched a campaign for the Council to recognise the squatters, and give them licences… their tactics included marches, demos, and deputations to the Town Hall. On 21 April 1971 FSA families invaded the Town Hall Council Chamber, 50 people barricaded themselves in and held an alternative council meeting. When Council Leader John O’ Grady tried to speak the squatters’ Mayor ruled him out of order!

They also occupied Transport House (the Walworth Labour Party HQ) on 10 May 1971, 30 people were involved, waving a banner reading: ‘Labour Southwark fights the Homeless’.

The Council still refused to deal with the squatters, and pressed on in court, but good legal defences meant cases got adjourned in many cases… Some Council social workers were in fact supporting the squatters,  despite pressure from above. Southwark applied for injunctions to stop named squatters entering council property (a tactic revived by Southwark against squatters in the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle in 2006) – but in fact made a mess of this.

We’ll continue this story round the corner in Grove Lane…


Camberwell’s association with mental health care/imprisonment goes back centuries: there were two large ‘lunatic asylums’ on Peckham Road in the 18th-19th centuries… (Which we’ll come to later)

The Maudsley

The Maudsley Hospital dates from 1907, when Dr Henry Maudsley offered London County Council £30,000 (subsequently increased to £40,000) to help found a new mental hospital that would:
– be exclusively for early and acute cases,
– have an out-patients’ clinic,
– provide for teaching and research.

The Hospital was always intended to be a progressive centre of treatment and research rather than confinement and “asylum”. World War I intervened and the Hospital didn’t open until 1923. A specific Act of Parliament had to be obtained (1915) to allow the institution to accept voluntary patients.

The Maudsley continues to provide in-patient and community mental health care to local people in Southwark and Lambeth and nationally across the UK, though contested, and problematic, (see below) In close proximity to the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London it is also a contributor to both psychiatric research and the training of nursing, medical and psychology staff in psychiatry.

As part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust (SLaM) it also has close links with Bethlem Royal Hospital – the original “Bedlam”.

Reclaim Bedlam, and Mad Pride

“In 1997, the Bethlem and Maudsley NHS Trust marked the Bethlem hospital’s 750th anniversary with a series of celebrations. Pete, who had been a patient at the Maudsley, saw nothing to celebrate in either the original Bedlam (“a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty,” in historian Roy Porter’s words), or the state of mental health care.

1997 saw the 750th anniversary of ‘Bedlam’ – the asylum which was the precursor of the Maudsley. Inside the Maudsley were anniversary “celebrations”, outside was a big demo of mental health survivors under the banner of  “reclaim bedlam”, organised by Pete Shaughnessy.

Reclaim Bedlam organised ‘Raving in the park”, a picnic/rave/a sit-in outside the original Bedlam site at the Imperial War Museum to protest.

“Maudsley & Bethlem Mental Health Trust saw itself as la crème de la crème of mental health. In 1997, it was more like the Manchester City of mental health. Situated in one of the poorest areas of the country, it put a lot of resources into its national projects, and neglected its local ones.

It’s history went back to the first Bedlam, the first institution of mental_health. If you pop down to the museum at Bethlem Hospital, you will see a picture proudly displayed of the 700th celebrations in 1947, with the Queen Mother planting a tree. Well, not exactly planting, more like putting her foot on a spade.

So, when some PR bureaucrat came up with the idea of 750th_celebrations, it must have all made sense. An excuse for a year of corporate beanos. The Chief Executive could picture the MBE in the cabinet. There was only one problem: in 1947, the patients would have been well pleased with a party, in 1997 some patients wanted more.

In the so-called ‘user friendly’ 90s, I thought ‘commemoration’ was more appropriate. So, a few of us went to battle with the Maudsley PR machine. It was commemoration vs. celebration.

I think for the first time, we were taking the user movement out of the ghetto of smoky hospital rooms and into the mainstream. We spoke at Reclaim the Streets and political events. We would gatecrash conferences to push the message. I know we pissed users off by our_style; personally I found some users more judgemental than the staff we talked to. They were even a few users who wanted to have their stall at the ‘Funday’ and cross our picket line. Frustrating. When that proposal was put to me, I lost my nut, which meant I threatened to_bring Reclaim the Streets down to smash up their stall. Because of that remark, I had two police stations hassling me up to the day_of our Reclaim Bedlam picnic and the picket at the staff ball, the_appropriate opening event of the celebrations, had to be dropped.

We had our first picnic at Imperial War Museum, one of the sites of Bedlam Hospital; Simon Hughes MP came and spoke. Features in Big Issue and Nursing Times, and we were afloat.

Our next event was to screw up the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s_Cathedral which a member of the Royal Family was attending. BBC2’s ‘From the Edge’ got in on the act for that one, and it’s widely_thought that because of our antics on the steps of St Paul’s – as well as stopping the traffic at 11am with a boat forcing Tower Bridge to open – that the Chief Exec didn’t get his MBE.

Our next event was to join up with ECT Anonymous and the All_Wales User and Survivor Group and picket the Royal College of Psychiatry. It was the first time Reclaim Bedlam had been involved in International Direct Action. Keeping up the pressure on the Royal College of Psychiatry we hijacked their anti-stigma campaign, ‘In Every Family in the Land’. The soundbite I used was: ‘the psychiatrist is patting you on the head with one hand, and with the other hand he /she is using compulsory treatment to inject you up the bum.” (Pete Shaughnessy)

Hundreds of mental patients around the country supported Reclaim Bedlam, and the BBC2 series From The Edge made a programme about it. At a time of many community- care horror stories, a very different message was finally getting out.

Pete and others around Southwark Mind organised a demo against SANE head-quarters in 1999 “opposing their support (at the time) for compulsory treatment orders being proposed by the government – to no small part because of SANE’s lobbying – things started to get serious. We managed to get 200 people turning up to the SANE march – which at the time was an unprecedented figure for a ‘mad’ demo. We had whistles, drums, a 7-foot long syringe together with a kitchen table, corn-flakes and milk, tridents (because we’re the devil), banners, flyer you name it – we pulled out the stops. SANE didn’t know what the fuck had hit them. They dropped their support for CTO’s and to this day, they’re still reeling from this event.”

Then Pete went on to found Mad Pride with Robert Dellar, Simon Barnett and Mark Roberts.

Mad Pride orchestrated a campaign of publicity and protest – holding a vigil on Suicide Bridge in Archway, to remember all of the people who’ve died there and all of the other people who commit suicide – ‘murder by society.’; protesting against the pharmaceutical industry’s predominance over psychiatric services; organising a Mad Pride open-air festival in Stoke Newington in July 2000; the publication of a book ‘ Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture,’ which was highly acclaimed and successful… “we got user-led mental health issues into the media as never before, and we inspired many people. We also, without a doubt, moved the paradigm of the British ‘user movement’ left-wards.”

Pete Shaughnessy tragically took his own life in December 2002.
Sadly Robert Dellar also died in 2016.

See Into the Deep End, Pete’s chapter for Mad Pride – A Celebration of Mad Culture. Edited by Ted Curtis, Robert Dellar, Esther Leslie & Ben Watson.

A plaque we left here in memory of Reclaim Bedlam

At the time this walk was originally thought up, South London mad folk were up in arms about the closure of the Psychiatric Emergency Clinic at Maudsley, the 24 hour emergency service for mentally ill people in crisis. mental health trust, the South London and Maudsley Trust, ran up surpluses in the preceding year, and was told it had to find £8m of savings the following year, because the two primary care trusts which fund the NHS locally were cutting their mental health budgets. The Maudsley’s walk-in emergency clinic, the only 24-hour self-referral service of its kind in the UK, open since the 1950s, was targeted for the cuts. The Maudsley said that King’s College Hospital A&E, just across the road, was creating a separate area to deal with this, and that voluntary sector providers were coming in to run an information service: None of which has happened. Rallies, demos, of mad and allegedly sane alike followed for two years, but the clinic closed for clinical admissions and treatment in January 2007.

The chief executive of King’s admitted that they never had any intention of creating a separate area to replace the emergency clinic. I’d rather be mad than a lying bureaucrat.
The campaign to re-open an emergency clinic continues.

Madness, Creativity, Individuality

“Creative Routes have identified normality as a mental health issue.”

Between 2006-2008, Creative Routes, an arts charity, run by the mad for the mad, organised the Bonkersfest on Camberwell Green: a free annual one day summer arts and music festival, illuminating and celebrating madness, creativity, individuality and eccentricity; combating stigma and promoting good mental health – A day of loony celebrations for everyone – mad or not… Sadly missed.
Creative Routes celebrated and promoted the unique creativity of mad people, promoting mental well-being, and creatively campaigning against discrimination and for the acceptance of individuality in society.

… they also believed MADNESS should be viewed positively facilitating an outpouring of immense and unique creative energy. Wahey!


Institute of Psychiatry – the South London Animal Movement picketed here regularly in the early 1980s, protesting the Institute’s policy of testing on animals. At this time we think Mike Chitty, undercover police spy run by the Special Demonstration Squad (remember them, from Camberwell New Road, above?) was infiltrating this group. The Animal Liberation Front also raided the lab here in 1984, releasing caged rats, destroying computer tapes and trashing the lab.


No 30 De Crespigny Park used to be a long term squat, a very large house, squatted on and off for many years in the 1980s and 1990s, lived in by lots of lovely people; finally evicted in 1999.


Continuing the story of squatting locally (started at Daneville Road, above)…
93 Grove Lane was the site of Southwark’s Homeless Families Department

On 2 June 1971, the office of Edna Cummings (head of the Department) was besieged, then occupied by Southwark Families Squatting Association. 25-30 people got inside, while other squatters stood outside with placards. The occupiers answered phones, and claimed they’d set up a new council squatting department! They demanded Edna Cummings’ resignation and more housing for homeless families. The 5 hour-occupation was eventually removed.

Eventually after the 1971 elections, younger, left Labour councillors who supported the squatters pushed through deals and many squats got licences. In July 1971 the council made deals with the Family Squatting Association, which led to the creation of Southwark Self Help Housing. 30 houses were initially given over to them, many of which had been previously scheduled for demolition. It is still going today, having bought all its housing stock from the Council.
The council office at no 93 was later closed and has been turned into flats.

A plaque left here celebrating the occupation of the homeless families department.


In the 1980s many of Camberwell Grove’s huge Georgian houses were lying empty, in decline. They were in a very bad state of repair, rising damp, wet and dry rot, leaking roofs, gutters/ downpipes knackered, smashed windows. But their old spiral staircases had been listed, so the Council couldn’t just knock them all down, to their great dismay.

Originally several houses, at least numbers 201 to 218, were squatted in 1983, and a community built up, which worked very communally and collectively, at least for a while. Organic gardens, growing vegetables were set up, and many houses shared power supplies with each other – some of it obtained in slightly unorthodox ways:

“I lived for a couple of grim years, in a gigantic pile on Camberwell Grove, just round the corner from the top secret government listening station (easily identified by the large graffiti we used to place on local road signs reading “This way to Top Secret Government Listening Station”). I became adept at tapping neighbours gas and water supplies. At one point a resident eight houses down was supplying 40 squatters with power from the spur that ran the train layout in his garden shed. I think he had half a dozen Hornby Dublo models that, for the six months before they caught us, were drawing more power than the British Rail London to Manchester line…”

In 1984 Southwark Council offered them a deal: short-term tenancies of 18 months up to 5 years though Hyde Housing Association. This sparked a furious debate over what to do; since many squatters in those days, especially those influenced by anarchism and other similar ideas advocated refusing to co-operate with councils and other authorities at all. A leaflet was circulated urging people to do no deals, and a meeting (at no 207 in November 1984) urged this position. The majority voted to accept the deal with Hyde, though. Nos 201-218 were ‘shortlifed’ (given indeterminate licences to remain with no guarantee of rehousing or proper rights, but free from immediate eviction) in February ‘85. They formed a Housing Co-op. Some houses were taken to the high court for eviction proceedings in July 1985, and many were evicted around 1989-90, though some squatting survived and sporadically still houses in Camberwell Grove were being occupied into the 21st Century. I’m not sure when the Co-op was evicted if it was…

We left a plaque here to commemorate the Camberwell Grove squats


This was known as Groove Park, c. 1991-2? A large squat centre/gig venue, occupying a Council children’s home (which closed down after a scandal due to mistreatment of kids in September 1990, and immediately squatted). It was renamed Groove Park, and put on gigs, cafes, raves, and other fun and games. “Human-sized ducks hang from the ceiling. Parachutes in others; industrial waste grows into metal sculptures and the walls have been decorated by a dozen Jackson Pollocks.” 20 odd people lived here, and formed an ‘Arts Co-op’. leafletting the neighbours claiming to be all teetotal non smoking vegetarians (somewhat inaccurately)… Many locals signed their petition to be allowed to remain in the building, including neighbour Terry Jones of Monty Python (though he later came round to complain about the noise, apparently!).


113 Grove Park was formerly a Listening station, run by a MI6/Police/MI5 combination.

MI6 Telephone intercepts were for some time handled at the London Station or VBR, by a group of specialists and linguists known as UKZ and operating with a team of specially cleared BT engineers known as the OND. Metropolitan Police Interception and Special Services Centre was situated at 113 Grove Park, Camberwell, London SE5 and served as a joint MI5/MI6/MPSB/C7/GC & CS unit. This had been in operation as ‘Grove Park’ since around 1919 and was still a covert listening site well into the 1980s.

Some operations were transferred to Sandridge near St Albans in the late 1930’s and that base was taken over by GCHQ in 1946. A fleet of detector vans was based there throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. By 1970’s had reverted to Home Office control and had became a Surveillance Research centre developing equipment for Grove Park and other users.


The large house (a former youth offending training centre) and extensive land here has been empty for a while. The supposed owners are trying to sell it on for 10.5 million as it is, with the planning permission granted. They got a 4 million mortgage from the Secretary of state for communities 2 years ago.. (an expect to make a 6.5million profit when they sell).

There has been a community campaign to prevent the sale and save the land and the trees; hopefully as a community space. The house was squatted previously, and the house and land was squatted as part of the campaign (around 2017); and re-named GroveArk… Check out their wonderful facebook page

The squatters lost in court in August 2019; but on 6 November 2019, they resisted eviction: “squatters and Rebel’s barricaded and climbed on the roof, safe for now.#homes4all Resist ALL evictions. Calling for anyone to come and support tomorrow morning in case bailiffs return. Needs tree climbers , rebel feast tonight. Musical protest resistance tomorrow morning onwards. Wish list people, rebels , pallets, wood, rope, chains and locks, lock ons, food, paint tools, super glue, long ladders, transport, empty building addresses, musicians ( for round the fire in massive tree grove garden .) Cake ,flap jack, torches, bring friends hang out on the frontline for free Adrenalin. Save one of the last groves in this part of south London. Please network to media and social media” 

The building was evicted in January 2020: “The large house on Grove Park that has been squatted on and off for the last couple of years is currently being cleared. Started about 8.30 this morning. About 50 bailiffs and private security and another 30 or 40 police and community support officers. Seemed pretty disproportionate to me. Grove Park itself closed to traffic. Given the general shortage of visible policing in Camberwell and Peckham it seemed a bit galling that so many are able to turn up to oversee the needs of a private landlord. I know they are there to monitor the bailiffs too but it seemed like a lot. By the property owner’s admission the squatters only occupied the property when his maintenance team left the place unlocked. That huge area of mature woodland behind the house will, I guess, shortly be cleared for more ‘luxury’ housing.”

There’s a petition to save the space


St Giles Church features the first recorded black presence in Southwark, as being in Camberwell, in its records of the African John Primero, servant to Sir Thomas Hunt, baptised April 3 1607, buried St Giles Church 3 Feb 1615. (Obviously this only means that earlier records may no longer exist).

West Indians began to settle in numbers in Camberwell in the early 1950s, an offshoot of the Brixton community, though there were more Pakistanis and Indians mixed in here. Caribbeans moved in mainly to the north of Camberwell Green, ie in the poorer parts of the area, mostly in run-down, short lease 2-3 storey houses. The black community here was less dense, more scattered than the more obvious Brixton West Indian community; Camberwell was maybe a slightly more favourable climate than Brixton in some ways. There seems to have been less racial tension, maybe partly because the incomers were less clustered and noticeable as a group.  The long association of Harold Moody and his family here as local doctor and activist may have also contributed to a more accepting attitude (see below, Wren Street).  Camberwell Borough Council were said to be more positive towards the migrants than Lambeth. A figure of 1500 black residents comes up for 1956, perhaps though, this was for the Borough of Camberwell as a whole.

Since then clearly the population has grown, and black people now number some 20 per cent of Camberwell’s inhabitants, according to the stats.

Racism and fascism have reared their head in the area; anti-racism has been around for just as long. We will return to this later on…

Timothy Brown is also buried in St Giles Churchyard: he lived nearby at Peckham Lodge, Rye Lane, in the early 19th Century. He was known as ‘Equality’ Brown due to his outspoken democratic views. Among other things he insisted on calling a meeting of parishioners in the Church to get a resolution of sympathy for Queen Caroline, around 1820: th estranged wife of king George IV had become a cause celebre for opponents of the monarchy and establishment. But the parish churchwardens wouldn’t allow this meeting to be held on church grounds… Inspired by Brown, a deputation set out from Peckham with an address of support for the Queen; ‘Equality” Brown, however, is said to have died in the very day it set out…


Behind the Grove Tavern, at 45 Grove Lane, Camberwell Hall, built in 1748, was by the mid-19th Century used as a venue for social activities, including the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute, who held classes and lectures here. Dickens included it in Sketches by Boz.

The Working Men’s Institutes were set up initially by middle class reformers to oversee education of working class men; partly to help them improve themselves, though also to try to wean them from either drink, immoral behaviour and crime, or from extreme radical politics. They mainly encouraged adult education, sobriety, self-improvement; but they also did provide a venue for many artisans and working-class men to come together and discuss ideas and knowledge. Although politics was generally frowned upon, many groups of working men drew upon this experience, and became radically political active; some groups split directly from WMIs to form self-organised working men’s political and social clubs.

Radical groups met at Camberwell Hall: for example a meeting of the Freedmen’s Aid Society at Camberwell Hall was held to hail the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Art critic John Ruskin lectured here in 1865, it being a short walk from his house Born in Herne Hill, Ruskin lived at no 163 Denmark Hill at this time, opposite modern Ruskin Park.

John Ruskin, 1819 -1900, lived most of his life in Herne Hill and Camberwell, and is best known for his work as an art critic and social commentator; he was also an author, poet and artist. Ruskin’s essays on art and architecture were very influential in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

As an Art critic, he was heavily judgemental. He supported the pre-Raphaelites when they were widely disapproved of as being too avant-garde, and was particularly outspoken in support of Millais’ “blasphemous” paintings of Christ.

His books on architecture, The Stones of Venice and Seven Lamps of Architecture argued that art cannot be separated from morality, by which he meant that the arts should be the expression of the whole moral being of the artists, and of the quality of the society in which the artist lived. He believed that man achieved their own humanity through labour, but through creative labour, not drudgery. He attacked mechanisation and standardisation of goods; this led him increasingly into rebellion against 19th century capitalism. “Mens pleasure in the work by which they make their bread” lies at the heart of a just society, was his underlying thesis. His view was that Capitalism was turning workers into machines: he viewed craft and artisan skill as vitally important, and looked back in some ways to the Middle Ages, to craft-based guilds. He also condemned the separation of manual and intellectual labour… “the workman ought to be often thinking, and the thinker often to be working… As it is… the world is full of morbid thinkers and miserable workers.”

Fundamentally Ruskin condemned the division of labour, which formed part of the heart of capitalism. His ideas were crucially influential on the development of William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts Movement; he also influenced the setting up of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Following a crisis of religious belief Ruskin abandoned art criticism at the end of the 1850s, moving towards commentary on politics, under the influence of his great friend Thomas Carlyle. In Unto This Last he expounded his theories about social justice, which influenced the development of the British Labour party and of Christian socialism. Upon the death of his father, Ruskin declared that it was not possible to be a rich socialist and gave away most of his inheritance.

Ruskin lectured at the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute; his talk on “Work and Play” was given on January 24th, 1865, and took this theme: that work had to be useful, fulfilling and enjoyable.

He founded the charity known as the Guild of St George in the 1870s and endowed it with large sums of money as well as a remarkable collection of art. He also gave the money to enable Octavia Hill to begin her practical campaign of housing reform. He also taught at the Working Men’s College, London and was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, from 1869 to 1879, he also served a second term.

In 1871 Ruskin began publication of Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. Between 1871 and 1878 it was issued in monthly parts and until 1884 at irregular intervals. Ruskin intended the work to be a “continual challenger to the supporters of and apologists for a capitalist economy”. It was Ruskin’s socialist writing that influenced trade unionists and political activists such as Tom Mann and Ben Tillett.

Fors Clavigera: 89th Letter (1873) 

”Trade Unions of England – Trade Armies of Christendom, what’s the roll-call of you, and what part or lot have you, hitherto, in this Holy Christian Land of your Fathers? Whose is the wealth of the world but yours? Whose is the virtue? Do you mean to go on for ever, leaving your wealth to be consumed by the idle and your virtue to be mocked by the vile?

The wealth of the world is yours; even your common rant and rabble of economists tell you that: “no wealth without industry.” Who robs you of it, then, or beguiles you? Whose fault is it, you cloth-makers, that any English child is in rags? Whose fault is it, you shoemakers, that the street harlots mince in high-heeled shoes and your own babies paddle bare-foot in the street slime? Whose fault is it you bronzed husbandmen, that through all your furrowed England, children are dying of famine?”

Like so much of London’s interesting underground geography, Camberwell Hall has now sadly been sold off for housing for the rich. In an advert for the sale of the building, some of its history was regurgitated as sanitised heritage, to help bump up the developers’ profit.
More on Ruskin

We left a plaque remembering the Hall’s past


The old Labour Club, at 84 Camberwell Church Street was squatted for gigs & parties in November 1990 or so… Some of crew involved had previously run the pioneering Peckham Dole House Squat 1989-90, one of first inner London Squat rave venues.

The Labour Club was described by Southwark Squatting/Housing Comic Ship News thus: “Conscientious types, world muzak, Country and western etc… Scenewise, a bit off the beaten track. Labour party nipped back in to resquat their ideological home while occupants were out…”

According to one of the organisers/residents:

“Not much I can remember about the Labour Club, bit too tripped out. Got pigged one night when Eat Static were due to play… The Caff was on a Friday called ‘Fresh From The Skip…’ or something similar… Bands that played included Poisoned Electrick Head, Back To The Planet, RDF, Brain Of Morbius… we also used to put gigs on in what is now The Stirling (or is it The Castle), over the road, even persuaded the Levellers to play for nout…The saddest thing about the place was that we weren’t evicted, we all fucked off to a festival one weekend and when got back to London the owners (the labour party) had squatted it and were turfing everything out onto the road (we’d all moved out by then, squatting somewhere a lot cleaner in Peckham, the Labour Club was very difficult to use as a home although good as a venue). This was after some woman from their head office when it was up Walworth road turned up at the door and ordered us out, then returned with the police a few minutes later after we told her to fuck off. They couldn’t be bothered and told her to take us to court. The police also turned up to check our leccy supply about a month after it was squatted, thinking we were abstracting (not at that point) as our door bell was a length of flex

hanging out the top floor window attached to some empty beer cans; if they’d bothered to look at the flex they’d seen it was attached to nothing. Thick cunts!!…”

A plaque was put up here to remember the Labour Club squat



Under the old Poor Law systems that preceded the Welfare State, the poor who were unable or unwilling to work were the responsibility of the Parish authorities. These local worthies being ratepaying respectable folk, responsible to their fellow ratepayers, tried to spend as little as possible on unnecessary expenses like relieving the skint and destitute. Poor folk were often forced out of the parish if not native, or incarcerated in Workhouses, which increasingly became prisons for the lower orders, feared and hated. Especially `after the New Poor law was introduced in 1834, the Workhouse was made as inhospitable and repressive as possible to discourage people from resorting to it unless they had no other option. Men and women were split up, families divided, backbreaking labour was normal and the food was usually scanty and of dubious quality.

The old Workhouse, Havil Street

Camberwell’s old Workhouse stood here on the corner of Camberwell Church Street and Havil Street. The Workhouse had been built in 1727-8, despite opposition from local worthies, who didn’t see why they should pay for it. It was rebuilt several times here, most notably in 1827. This latest building was “very hot in the summer and particularly draughty in the winter.”

Over the years, the Havil Street site became increasingly important as a hospital. In 1873 a large new infirmary was erected at the north of the site, at the junction with Brunswick Road. Its central administrative block was five storeys high and contained offices, staff accommodation, and special wards.

The infirmary buildings were further extended in 1899-1903 with new ward blocks, operating theatre, and nurses’ home. A large administration block fronted onto Brunswick Square (now St Giles Road). The Board of Guardians, the Borough Council officers responsible for giving out ‘relief’ (benefits)and administering the Workhouse, had their office built on the site of the old Workhouse… (maybe not just because the land was vacant:  presumably the Workhouse site would have had enough bad resonances with the poor to scare some off from applying for relief!?) The Workhouse buildings were demolished in 1905.

In 1930, the Havil Street site was taken over completely by the London County Council and renamed St Giles’ Hospital. Many of the original buildings have now been demolished to make way for flats.

In 1878, Camberwell erected a new workhouse at a site to the west of Gordon Road, Peckham. [Aside: this was the old site of the convent at Nazareth House; after the Workhouse closed its derelict sheds became a dosshouse known as the Spike. The empty hospital buildings were partly demolished for flats in the 1990s, the other half of the site became a scrap recycling project and was then squatted in 1999, to become the famous Spike. Several people lived here, had parties, and organised many projects until its eviction in 2009.]

The Right to Live

Camberwell had a long tradition of unemployed organising themselves to fight for more generous systems of benefits. (Interestingly Myatt’s Fields Park was bought & turned into a landscaped park, after over 10 years of local campaigning, and laid out 1887-8. The work was actually done by the unemployed. After unemployed rioting in the West End in 1886, the authorities set up work-for-your-charity schemes for the doleys to try to stop them causing trouble. The park opened in 1889.)

During the high unemployment of 1905, a Camberwell Joint Unemployed Committee campaigned locally for more relief from the Guardians, having a membership of 1,500.

In the early 1920s Camberwell Green was also the starting point for rallies and demonstrations against unemployment, and against government measures which hit the unemployed hard.

After the First World War, unemployment rocketed. Partly this resulted from the change in the economy from the ending of the War/munitions industries, partly employment and economic figures had been distorted with hundreds of thousands of men in uniform. With large numbers of unemployed ex-servicemen looking for work, and firms laying people off, many working class people were thrown into poverty. This was not taken lying down however. From 1920 on, local unemployed committees organised against government measures to restrict money for relief of poverty and unemployment; against local authorities who were administering these restrictions (and in many cases adding some of their own) and against firms who were laying workers off, or working lots of overtime… Many of these committees were organised by trade unionists and socialists and communists who had been active in the strike movements before, during and after the War, and many members were unemployed ex-servicemen, who had spent years in the trenches only to come back to hardship.

In 1921, most of the Committees combined to form the National Unemployed Workers (Committee) Movement or NUWM.

The early to mid 19th Century saw a sharp rise in the number of people diagnosed as insane and committed to institutions; possible reasons for this include the social dislocation and pressures of industrialisation, urbanisation, with vast numbers of people being forced off the land and flocking into factories and slums to survive; although higher numbers being diagnosed may have contributed.

Rebellious, awkward or unorthodox behaviour could also land you in the asylum; poverty and increasing turbulence of life also drove many people mad. No adequate figures exist, but large numbers of people were forced into asylums as social control, or as a cheap alternative to workhouse.

The alternative to the Workhouse… the Madhouse

As mentioned above, Camberwell has hosted institutions for the treatment/incarceration of people with mental health problems for centuries. Two such ‘hospitals’ used to stand on Peckham Road:

Camberwell House and Peckham House

Camberwell House, a huge private establishment, stood on the north side behind the Town Hall, occupying the land as far as Southampton Way (where the Sceaux Gardens Estate is now). Built originally as a school, it was converted into a ‘lunatic asylum’ in 1846. Holding up to 483 inmates it was the largest of its kind in the metropolis in the late 19th Century.

A painting of Camberwell House

The institution was held to be “the epitome of the enlightened approach to mental disorders at a time when the public asylums were busy creating the ignorance and brutality, the mistrust, that still lingers in the public mind today of mental homes” (Blanch); the proprietors’ pioneering regime contrasted with the cruel and barbarous conditions prevalent in Bedlam and other asylums. “The utmost liberty, with safety, is permitted”, it was said of the regime there.

While it was said to cater to ‘all classes’, the private paying guest was clearly at the forefront of the proprietors’ minds… Not only was care emphasised, but the hospital also provided some pretty plush facilities for its ‘patients’: 20 acres of grounds (some of which were over Peckham Road, where Lucas Gardens are now) cricket, football and hockey pitches, tennis and squash courts, croquet; there were garden parties, dances (in a purpose built ball room!) theatricals, concerts, billiards… Camberwell House eventually closed in 1955: the building are now part of the University of the Arts.

Peckham House, on the other hand, (which stood on the site now occupied by the Harris Academy, Peckham, was clearly intended for the more plebeian end of the market. An old mansion till 1826, it then became a public asylum, in response to the urgent need for “a suitable establishment for the insane poor”; and to the urgent need for local parishes to cut the cost of sending their mad poor to public asylums north of the river.

It was smaller than Camberwell House, holding around 350 people; again it was supposed to be for “all ages and classes”. but in 1844, there were 203 pauper and 48 private inmates.  Pauper inmates were sent from various parishes, (an allowance was paid for their upkeep – 17s. 6d. in 1874, though not sure if that’s per year, per week or what?)

Being a public asylum, Peckham House was regularly checked out by the authorities that paid for it. Although much more so than today, you have to read between the lines, the inspectors reported that the accommodation was ‘excellent’, but consistently there were complaints about the food. Even the stingy worthies who pulled the purse strings were stirred into action: “this house has always been a source of trouble to us upon the subject of diet…”

Peckham House in the 1950s (south elevation)

In 1844, patients received on alternate days either meat, potatoes and bread, or soup and bread. It was described mouthwateringly: “the soup is made from the liquer in which the meat from the whole establishment (private paupers and servants) is boiled the previous day.” Please sir, can I have some more?

All in all, despite its ‘excellent’ accommodation, Peckham House was considered to be in a bad state in 1844, and may have only stayed open because the vestries who paid for it realised that the only alternative place for most of its poor inmates would be the workhouse – at their expense.

Class and money divided those interned here. In 1874, ‘Private’ patients whose “friends paying from one to one and a half guineas for their board, lodging and attendance” lived in separate blocks, in better circumstances than paupers… According to a South London Press reporter,  “the rooms are light and cheerful, ruddy fires burn in the grates. Here are bathrooms, with a supply of hot and cold water, and a bagatelle table for the amusement of the patients… In connection with this block is a pleasant strip of garden…” In the next ward “we rise a step in the social scale. ‘People who have moved in a superior station” my guide whispers as we enter. They are quiet and orderly people… The apartments are superior to the last… lounges and couches give a decided air of home comfort to the place.”  The final ward was “a long and elegantly furnished room…” About 42 ‘ladies’ inhabited this ward, paying fees of 5 to 20 guineas a week… Every comfort was allotted to them.

The asylum in 1874 had clearly improved from thirty years previously  – so that it “can be fairly compared with any similar establishment in the kingdom….”
Peckham House closed in 1952.


 Camberwell unemployed in 1920 occupied Camberwell School of Art, as part of a campaign for free places for the unemployed to meet.

“Their local strength was reflected in the fact that they could ‘pack’ a Labour Party meeting in the Camberwell Baths and get the following motion carried: ‘We the workers at this meeting, under the guidance of the Mayor, realise the impossibility of any proffered solution to unemployment during the life of the Capitalist system. We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of a workers Republic.”

On Sept 21st 1921 there was a mass march of local unemployed, from Camberwell Green to Peckham.

In 1922, Camberwell Board of Guardians (who administered relief) planned to stop milk for babies of the unemployed… On February 1st, Camberwell women marched to the House of Commons, as the order was rumoured to have come down from the Ministry of Health. A Ministry inquiry reversed the decision.

Unemployment being high, it became a hot political issue. In 1922, elections were held for the Board of Guardians (the Council body that administered not only relief but the Workhouses etc). A flurry of electoral leaflets from various candidates addressed the issue. Labour candidates Arthur Andrews and Louis Edwards campaigned on the platform of giving out full rations to those on relief (not as was current policy, on the Mond scale, half-rations). They also opposed giving out food instead of money as out-relief. Their leaflet invoked the class nature of unemployment: “Its is only our class that go to the Workhouse or Infirmary. Send the Labour candidates to make the institutions as comfortable as possible. They stand the same risks as you do of having to go there.”  They also amusingly advised: “Don’t wait for our car [presumably to pick up voters and ferry them to the polls]. We haven’t got one. Workers don’t own cars, they only make them.”

There were also two candidates from the ‘Camberwell Central unemployed’, Burnett and Smith, who stood on the basis of their long activism in local unemployment politics, having been members of delegations to the Board of Guardians several times… What were their affiliations? They disparaged political parties in their leaflet, who would make loud noises to get elected and then make no changes.

Workers Defence

In 1927 the Government introduced the ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work Clause’, as well as cuts in benefit. In 1931 the National Government introduced the means test, and more dole cuts … the response of the local NUWM branches was to organise more broadly-based organisations known as Workers Defence Movements. In 1931 the Camberwell WDM claimed an active membership of 1,000 and got even more support at meetings outside the Peckham Labour Exchange. With the support of the Labour MP, John Beckett, thousands marched along Peckham Road via the Unity Labour Club in Consort Road, to the Rye. (John Beckett later lurched to the right, joining Oswald Mosley’s British union of Fascists.)

Towards the end of 1931 Southwark and Camberwell Workers Defence Movement joined forces for a mass march of 4,000 local unemployed from Walworth Town Hall via Camberwell Green to the Rye. En-route factories and other places of work were visited and employers asked to sign a statement to the effect that they had no work to offer.

The Workers Defence Movement was also involved in preventing evictions, especially during rent strikes, for example in Peckham’s Goldsmith Estate in 1931-2…  They also supported NUWM-organised hunger marchers and passive resistance to public works not given to local unemployed.

Arthur Cooper, Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council after the Second World War, remembers that a common local tactic was to inform the police that the mass unemployed would converge on a local street such as Southampton Way. Hundreds of police would arrive to find Cooper addressing a meeting of ten outside the Samuel Jones factory (a waxed paper works, by Peckham Grove) while the bulk of the unemployed were attending demonstrations in the West End!

Interestingly, in 1999 the College was occupied again, on 10 March 1999, by students in protest at lack of tutors, equipment, space, grants and hours of access.  College management used various methods to harass them, including bogus fire alarms, threats to prosecute, turning off heating & hot water. 8 students were taken to court over the occupation.

During the wave of occupations of universities and colleges over the winter of 2010, part of a wider movement against increased student fees and cuts generally, students took over the upper main room at Camberwell Art College’s Wilson Street building, staying throughout the Christmas holidays.
More here


During the cold war London was divided into 4 (later 5) groups, each reporting directly to Kelvedon Hatch,
in turn each group was subdivided into the individual boroughs, each of them having its own control centre. The South East Group War HQ at Pear Tree House, SE19 had six sub-controls, Greenwich, Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Lewisham & Southwark. The Southwark control, designated 51C5 was located beneath a health centre at the junction of Peckham Road and Vestry Road, SE5, almost opposite Southwark Town Hall. Local officers and councillors would have taken shelter here in the event of a nuclear attack, to ‘co-ordinate action’, while the rest of us died horribly.

After the bunker’s closure, the empty health centre was demolished in the late 1990s because, according to the Southwark EPO, local children kept breaking in to it. The bunker below remains intact. The plot of land is now derelict awaiting redevelopment, one side of the stairway into the bunker below has been filled with concrete leaving a six foot drop onto the steps. A hinged grille has been fixed over the remaining part of the well and this is kept securely locked.
More on the Bunker

Lucas gardens housing peace camp 1981

From October 8-12 1984, local housing activists set up a housing peace camp on the lawn of the town hall. The main focus of the protest was against the council’s introduction of PIOs (Protected Intending Occupier) against squatters, to allow police and council officers to evict them without going to court. (As happened to your current author, PIO’d from a Southwark council flat in the Browning Estate in December 1991. 8 days before Xmas…)


Peckham Action Group

From 1977 to 1982 the Peckham Action Group (PAG) led a campaign against the demolition of the north side of historic Peckham High Street for a new town hall and huge 4-lane high road.

Southwark council came up with a massive scheme to create a dual-carriage highway through the centre of Peckham, with an effectively realigned High Street and a new, grandiose, multimillion-pound town hall.

This led to the formation of a dedicated Peckham Action Group to campaign against the plan. Action included demos and leafletting, lobbying, and the cutting of a now iconic punk rock seven-inch single, ‘No Town Hall’, recorded by the band Crisis. The cover depicted a Southwark sledgehammer embedded in a building, and a coffin bearing the legend ‘RIP Peckham’.

Winning support from councillors, the campaigners were able to help change minds about the new town hall and highway scheme.

This campaign echoed the earlier fight to prevent the South London Cross Route being built through Peckham and Camberwell, which would have led to the demolition of thousands of homes locally. This was a part of the Ringways project, a plan to encircle the capital with concentric rings of motorway and dual carriageway, with radial motorways and links roads fanning out in various directions. Two major elements of the Ringways scheme got built – the M25 and the North Circular Road. The South Circular expansion got bogged down; so did the third and innermost proposal, the ‘Motorway Box’ which would have formed an ‘inner ring road’; this was to have meant the demolition of thousands of homes and the relocation of over 100,000 people. In the north of the city new eight-lane motorways on raised concrete pylons were to be erected through Dalston, Highbury, Camden, Canonbury, Kilburn, Shepherds Bush… The South Cross route of the new autobahns would have driven through Barnes, Balham, Battersea, Clapham, Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham to Kidbrooke and Greenwich.

But locals in all the neighbourhoods threatened with mass demolition got together and fought the ringway proposals in the later 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, opposition movements coalesced into the London Motorway Action Group. The massive economic cost and opposition eventually led to the vast majority of the ‘Motorway Box’ being shelved in 1973.

The only sections that got built of the inner ring road were the A102/Blackwall tunnel, and the tiny M41 in Shepherds Bush, (squatted for the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the motorway, during another wave of protests against roadbuilding).

But interestingly, the so-called Barrier Block, Southwyck House in Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, was built with a startling resemblance to a Swedish Prison, with few and tiny windows and few entrances on the road facing side, because the motorway was expected to bulldoze down Coldharbour Lane through central Brixton (The motorway, and the grotesque Brixton plan designed to go with it, would have also reduced all of central Brixton to a Birmingham Bullring style raised interchange surrounded by 50 storey tower blocks. Its collapse left 1000s of compulsorily purchased street housing empty for several years, which was then gradually squatted for housing, projects and centres, and blues clubs, contributing much of the area’s counter-cultural life for the next four decades.

On 7 March 1990, Southwark Town Hall was stormed by 500 local anti-poll tax rebels, during setting of poll tax rate.


“It began with a faulty electronic appliance starting a fire in a flat. But the flames spread across the outside of the building, taking hold on cheap composite panels, not compliant with building regulations, which had been fitted during a refurbishment. Terrified residents called emergency services and were told to stay put in their homes, where they later died.

In the aftermath, questions were asked. How did risk assessments miss this? How did the system of building regulation allow the refurbishment to take place? How could this happen so close to the wealthiest part of one of the wealthiest cities on earth?

In social housing right now it seems history repeats itself twice as tragedy. Because this is not a description of the Grenfell Tower disaster, but Lakanal House – a fire eight years earlier …” (Inside Housing)

Lakanal House was built in 1959: a 14-storey tower block containing 98 flats. Southwark Council had previously scheduled the building for demolition in 1999, although later it was decided not to demolish it.

On 3 July 2009, a fire broke out a flat on the ninth floor of Lakanal House, caused by faulty television.

One single central stairwell was the only way in and out of the building – this filled quickly with thick dark smoke, making escape – and rescue – difficult. Around 150 people were evacuated or rescued from the flats. The Fire Brigade rescued a number of people from the flats. Many were taken to Guy’s Hospital, King’s College Hospital and Lewisham Hospital with injuries including smoke inhalation.

The fire killed three people in their flats – three people died of their injuries in hospital. Nine other people were treated at an emergency centre set up by Southwark Council. One firefighter was also admitted to hospital after being injured while fighting the fire.

The dead were three adults and three young children: Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her children, six-year-old Thais, and Felipe, three; Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; and 31-year-old Catherine Hickman.

The Fire Brigade had responded with a total of eighteen fire engines attending, setting up an operational command centre was erected on the seventh floor. People within the flats calling 999 were told to remain in their flats instead of attempting to flee, based on the theory of ‘compartmentation’ – the idea that the structure of the building meant the fire could not spread from flat to flat, so staying in their flats would help protect the families while the blaze was contained. This was supposed to be safer than braving the smoke-filled stairwells and corridors.

However, the flames spread from flat to flat and between floors on the outside of the building, as cladding and insulation caught fire. The exterior cladding panels had burned through in less than five minutes.

Catherine Hickman spent 40 minutes on the phone with 999 responders who urged her to stay in her flat; at the end of the call the responder could no longer hear her breathing.

A Fire Brigade investigation into the fire later helped bring to light that it had already been identified, before the blaze, that the structure and layout of Lakanal House posed a risk of enabling a fire to spread, if one should occur in one of the flats.

An inquest into the deaths at Lakanal House found that the rapid spread of the fire, due to the igniting of the exterior cladding, had trapped people in their homes. As in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire eight years later, residents were advised to remain in their homes in the event of a fire. The inquest also concluded that substandard renovations had removed fire-stopping material between the flats – a problem not uncovered by any Southwark council’s fire safety inspections carried out before the fire.

The layout of the flats made escape in case of an emergency difficult. The two-bedroom maisonettes were based on a two-storey interlocking design. The flats are entered from the right or left side of a central access corridor. On the access level, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom. There are stairs to the upper level where a lounge and kitchen stretch across the full width of the block. This means that the lounge for each flat is above one of the bedrooms of that flat and one of the bedrooms of the flat on the opposite side of the access corridor. The flats were built with fire exits from the lounge and the kitchen to ‘exit balconies’ on either side of the building, and also a fire exit from the largest bedroom into the central access corridor, separate from the front door.

The block had no central fire alarm system – not required by virtue of the then Building Regulations Approved Document B for England And Wales.

Southwark Council claimed after the fire that it had recently spent £3.5 million on refurbishment to meet current fire safety standards.

Residents evacuated from the flats sheltered in nearby community centres, helped by donations and solidarity from other locals and people much wider afield. Some of the residents found alternative accommodation with relatives although the majority were provided with accommodation by Southwark Council. Lakanal House was boarded up. Refurbishment work commenced in 2015, and the block had reopened to residents – many of those who lived there prior to the fire found it too painful to return, however. Southwark spent millions on refurbishment of several blocks after the event.

A number of tower blocks of a similar design exist: Marie Curie House, also nearby, is of identical design to Lakanal.

Despite many calls for a proper investigation and inquiry into the causes of the rapid spread of the fire, no public inquiry has ever been conducted into the Lakanal House fire. At the inquest it was concluded that no realistic prospect of any corporate manslaughter charge was possible, despite many clear failings by the council. However, London Fire Brigade eventually brought a case against Southwark Council to court, eight years later. The Council pleaded guilty in February 2017 to four charges concerning breaches to safety regulations. It was fined £270,000, reduced from £400,000 because it had pleaded guilty, plus £300,000 costs.

Less than four months later, Grenfell Tower caught fire, and the blaze spread in a very similar way, up flammable cladding & insulation on the outside of the building. Again, people were told to stay in their flats as this should protect them from fire better than trying to escape down the stairs.

This time 72 people died.

But might Grenfell never have happened, if proper notice had been taken of events in Lakanal? Recommendations for changes in construction and fire regulations, and to how fires are dealt with by the emergency services, after Lakanal House burned were never acted on at national level, leaving thousands of residents living in potential death traps.

After the 2013 inquest into Lakanal, Coroner Judge Frances Kirkham wrote to Southwark council, the London Fire Commissioner, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a series of recommendations to prevent a similar disaster occurring in future.

She made more than 40 recommendations, including that more guidance should be given to residents in high rise blocks, including clear advice on how to react if a fire breaks out and what to do if circumstances changed – for example if smoke starts coming into a flat.  She also recommended that block layouts should be given to emergency workers responding to fires.

The Department for Communities and Local Government, led by then-minister the (Right Corrupt and Frankly Disgusting) Eric Pickles, was asked to publish national guidance on the confusing ‘stay put’ principle and ‘get out and stay out’ policy.

The government was also asked to provide guidance on building regulations and check the safety of materials and whether refurbishment work can reduce existing fire protection, and to consider retrofitting sprinklers across high-rise blocks.

The government published a response committing itself to publishing new building guidance and committing to make fire safety and priority. This was a smokescreen – no review ever came.

Grenfell repeated Lakanal – but on a scale many times worse. The impact has been massive – on residents, families, friends, communities. A wave of support and solidarity for the affected; an upsurge in social housing tenants organising, especially in blocks with similar issues. Huge lip service has been paid by politicians, corporations and councils, in response to the outpouring of outrage. A Public Inquiry has been quickly set up this time. But yet again campaigners and those most involved in the after-effects have been saying for nearly three years that this should never have happened, warnings were there before the fire, and the evacuated have been increasingly marginalised by the authorities. Cynics (AKA people with some experience of the housing system) have been expressing the view that despite everything, they suspect that things will go back to the way they were before. Deaths, outrage, inquiry, recommendations, burial, silence, normality. Repeat.

Why? How can people die in horrific fires – caused by the institutions supposedly there to look after their interests, and by the large corporations contracted to carry out the building work… and no-one puts into practice any lessons learned? How does it happen again: much, much worse?

Could it be because the people in charge of housing and housing policy overwhelmingly do not live in social housing, have never lived in social housing, will never live in social housing, and consider those that do as at best a nuisance to be ignored or ‘managed’, or an impediment to the proper and ‘vibrant’ commercialisation of inner city land, to be shifted, shafted and short-changed? Housing is for profit not people’s need, and the people had better get used to that?

Some say we need another way of living…

Justice for Grenfell

Grenfell United

We didn’t visit Lakanal on our original walk, (the fire hadn’t yet happened) and so didn’t put up a plaque. Mind you – we can’t see any other memorial to the dead on the block. Is there one anywhere?


Una Marson lived here

“No more moaning and groaning, No more self-hatred masquerading as integration. No more rejecting your own Ethiop’s child for somebody else’s Barbie doll. You are part of a strong African-Caribbean influenced literary tradition. Affirm your right as an individual, a woman and a writer to be both Black and British.”

Una Marson (1905-1965), Jamaican writer, feminist, activist, lived in 29 Brunswick Square (now 16 Brunswick Park) for a short while in the mid-1930s.

Born in a middle class rural Jamaican village, her pioneering social work in Kingston’s slum yards, and her expatriate life in London at war, Una Marson (1905-65) became a fighting partisan of Black poetics and politics.

She came to England in 1932, originally for a few weeks, but like many other migrants this turned into many years. She was the first Black woman programme maker at the BBC, where she worked from 1939 to 1946 and helped many service men and women and Caribbean people during the war. West Indies Calling was her maiden programme in her five years of association with BBC, 1940 to 1945. She founded her own programme, Caribbean Voices, in March 1943, and became the BBCs first Black woman producer. But, she became increasingly sceptical and disenchanted with the “internal battles and troubled moments” with BBC managers, who thought only of promoting British authors to Caribbean listeners, influenced by government policy to requisition colonial labour and resources while stifling nationalist activism.

Two main issues provoked her poetic work. She captured the calypsonian air of topical stories, sounds and music; and she exposed colonial fears and prejudices. She combined themes of cultural identity and female sexuality, of self-doubt and disadvantage… “her Black poetics and politics offer a firm basis for a writer’s commitment to a fair and equal world”. Marson explored the multi-layered heritage of Blacks in colonial Jamaica, emphasising ancestral African roots. In Songs of Africa (1930) she applauds the music of Afro-Creole people of the Americas that fosters race pride and the determination to be free. Fragments of colour, people, places and warmth form an intricate pattern. Again, in There will come a time (1931) she cries out for racial equality as the foundation of her dream of the oneness of the world’s diverse peoples. Marson illustrates how women used poetry to express their sufferings and avoid terrible retribution, like the Black preacher during slavery. Her first collection of love poems Tropic Reveries (1930), set in Jamaican colonial culture, explores women’s political and subversive yearning for freedom from cultural domination. Marson honed her skills in political poetry. Her narrative wartime poem Convoy salutes “my own blood brothers/ Brown like me.”

Una Marson became well known in London as a feminist and anti-racist activist, putting her energies into helping disadvantaged Black people in south London. She worked as secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, the first Black-led political organisation in England, in the company of activist CLR James and welfare officer & cricketer Learie Constantine. Believing that building Black solidarity around the world could open the road to Black Freedom, Marson welcomed Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanist message of “African liberation, at home and abroad”. As a writer, she kept in touch with the icons of the “Harlem Renaissance”, African Americans writers Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.

She railed against the maltreatment of women workers, students and nurses, (in particular the discrimination against black nurses) and joined the radical Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Later as secretary to Haile Selassie she traveled to the League of Nations with him in 1936 to plead for Abyssinia, when it was invaded by Italy; and later still the 1960s she worked in Israel. Una has gained a pioneering literary reputation, as the first major woman poet of the Caribbean and a playwright.

See The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965, by Delia Jarrett-Macauley. Manchester University Press 1998. http://www.deliajarrettmacauley.com/

Here’s a plaque we left there in 2006 – though in 2009 an official blue plaque was put up on her former home

Some other well-known feminists who have lived in Camberwell

Mary Hays:  a novelist and early feminist, friend of Mary Wolstonecraft, (author of Vindication of the Rights of Women, the first great feminist text) lived in Camberwell 1807 – 1824. Born in Southwark, almost nothing is known of her first 17 years. She took up writing, probably spurred by an early love affair with a man her parents disapproved of, who shortly afterwards died. her to take up writing. Throughout the 1780s she wrote essays and poems. A short story “Hermit: an Oriental Tale” was published in 1786. It was a picturesque tale, which warned against feeling too much passion. She exchanged letters with Robert Robinson, a minister who campaigned against the slave trade. She attended the “Dissenting Academy” in Hackney in the late 1780s (founders & members of which were very active in the reform and anti-slavery movements)

In 1792 Hays was given a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, which made a deep impression on her, and she became friends with Wollstonecraft. Hays next wrote a book Letters and Essays (1793) and invited Mary Wollstonecraft to comment on it before publication. She was inspired to leave home and support herself by writing. After borrowing a copy of Enquiry concerning Political Justice by William Godwin, she became friends with its radical author, who became a guide and teacher. About this time Hays started writing for the Analytical Review, a liberal magazine, of which Mary Wollstonecraft was fiction editor. She is popularly credited with introducing William Godwin to Mary Wollstonecraft; the two married in 1797. When Mary Wollstonecraft was dying, due to complications following the birth of their daughter, Mary (later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), Mary Hays helped to nurse her and also wrote an obituary of Wollstonecraft for the Annual Necrology. Hays and Godwin drifted apart after Wolstonecraft’s death.

Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), probably Hay’s best-known work,  draws on the experience of her affair with Cambridge mathematician William Frend, and possibly her relationship with Godwin. The heroine falls in love with a penniless man Augustus Harley, and offers to live with him as his wife, without getting married. She is rejected and then turns to Mr Francis, a character based on Godwin. They exchange philosophical letters, but in the end he advises her against becoming too emotional. The critical response to the novel was divided along political lines. Free love is seen to be aligned with social revolution, and domestic repression is shown as upholding the political order.

Her next novel The Victim of Prejudice (1799) is emphatically feminist and critical of class hierarchies. The backlash against the French revolutionary terror led critics to slate the novel as too radical and hysterical. In 1803 Hays published the six volume Female Biographies, detailing the lives of 294 women. However by this point Hays perhaps realised that it was politically dangerous to praise Mary Wollstonecraft, and somewhat bottled it by omitting her from the book.

Moving to Camberwell, Hays associated with many leading literary figures of the age, including Charles and Mary Lamb and William Blake. The last 20 years of her life were somewhat unrewarding, with little income and only her work increasingly ignored. She is buried in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington.

Hays lived in 9 St. George’s Place, Walworth (although Hays refers to the house as being in Camberwell), a short row of houses along Amelia Street, 1803-6, then after moving around alot, then moved to Champion Hill, 1832 -1842.
More on her life and letters

We put up a plaque to remember Mary Hays

Vera Brittain: Camberwell Versus Death. From a well-to-do Derbyshire family, Vera Brittain later became a feminist and pacifist. She served  as a nurse during WW1 at the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell from October 1915-September 1916, as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) member of the British Red Cross.

Her fiancé, Roland Leighton, her brother Edward and many of their friends were killed during the war.

Returning to Oxford after the war to complete her degree, Vera found it difficult to adjust to peacetime. It was at this time she met Winifred Holtby, a close friendship developed with both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene, and the bond developed between them until Holtby’s untimely death in 1935.

Brittain’s first published novel was The Dark Tide (1923). In 1933 that she published Testament of Youth, detailing her war experiences, (which features the Chapter Camberwell Versus Death) followed by the sequels, Testament of Friendship (1940) – her tribute to and biography of Winifred Holtby – and Testament of Experience (1957), which spanned the years between 1925 and 1950. Vera Brittain wrote from the heart and based many of her novels on her experiences and actual people.

In the 1920s she became a regular speaker on behalf of the League of Nations Union, but from 1937, after previously speaking at a peace rally with Dick Sheppard, George Lansbury, Laurence Housman and Donald Soper. she joined the Peace Pledge Union. Her newly found pacifism came to the fore during World War II, when she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers.

During WW2 she worked as a fire warden and travelled around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union’s food relief campaign. She was widely denounced for speaking out against saturation bombing of German cities in her 1944 pamphlet Massacre by Bombing.

Vera Brittain died in 1970.


Squatting in Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove

Many empty houses were squatted in Brunswick Park & Vicarage Grove in the 1980s, most of which were initially divided into flats. There were 70 squatters in Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove, around 1984-87. It was very much a community: squatters set up an active group here, based at 9a, Brunswick Park, in March 1984. Plans for a communal centre in the basement of no 4 were being worked on in October 1984. The Council had no plans for the houses, but tried to evict squatters at first, though by April 1984 they had come to an unofficial deal (after some defeats and adjournments in court) that they wouldn’t evict them till they had plans for the houses. The squatters regarded themselves as “unofficial licensees” after this… But the Council was constantly undecided as to what to do with the buildings; there were rumours (eg one which spread in in November 1984) of plans to evict and gut them, make them unusable. In early ’85 there were still odd attempts to evict individual houses… none succeeded. Cases usually got suspended.

On 24 October 1985, Council officers and workers turned up and evicted two squats here, helped by a van load of cops… and a High Court Sheriff. He claimed there had been notice given, which was a lie. 30 squatters soon gathered outside. Several houses were evicted, people’s belongings were chucked out and their homes boarded and steel-doors attached. Then the Council and their lackeys buggered off… leaving the squatters to immediately re-occupy the houses!

The Brunswick/Vicarage Squatters group still existed in 1987, at this point it had its own van. Some squats were turned into galleries and museums.  But by January ’87 Southwark Council had evolved a pilot scheme to evict Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove squats, do them up and use them for shortlife housing, ie to evict some young single homeless to make room for other young single homeless. This was to become Borough wide policy for long term empties.

25 squatters from the two streets here went to a Housing Committee meeting in August ’87; local council tenants had signed petition on support of them… But the scheme got voted in, and there were no more negotiations. Between 1987 and 1990, many of the squats were evicted, with some legal and not so legal resistance; several got adjournments in court on the grounds that they had had licences from the council, also the council had done work on them while squatted.

Some squatters in Brunswick and Vicarage formed housing co-ops, some of which I think still exist; and squats were still popping up in these streets occasionally until very recently.

Many other streets and estates in Camberwell have known squatting, over the last 40 years: especially the Elmington Estate, Crawford Estate off Coldharbour Lane, and the Southampton Way Estate (many of whose blocks have now disappeared), in Caldicot, Bavent and Cutcombe Roads near Kings College Hospital (many former Lambeth Self-Help Co-op flats, whose long-term residents were moved out by the Hospital, on the grounds that they were planning to demolish them to extend the Hospital for much needed ward space, were squatted, then evicted in 1999 en masse; then sold off for huge profits.)

Skyrocketing house prices, changes in housing legislation, sell-offs of council property, and inner city gentrification (as the middle class decided that decades after leaving areas to the poor, now they want it back) have made self-help housing initiatives like squatting and housing co-ops endangered species, but who knows what will happen, with the so-called credit crunch and increasing council inability and unwillingness to house anyone at all. There are fewer empties than there used to be, but many newly built so-called luxury flats are now lying unused or unsold… Squatting residential property was made a criminal offence in September 2012.

Here’s another 2006 plaque to remember the squats here


Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Camberwell

Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts reappeared on the streets of South London in 1957, having been defeated in their post-WW2 agitation (mainly against Jews) by the Jewish ex-servicemens 43 Group, which battered them off the streets.
Several parts of Lambeth and Southwark had by now a growing West Indian community, which replaced their earlier focus on Jews as their main target for race hatred. By 1961 organisations such as the European Union of Fascists and the British National Party (Mark 1) were meeting regularly in the area. In October 1961 a rally on Peckham Rye organised by the British National Party was attended by 60 people.  The BNP’s John Tyndall, later National Front leader and later still in the 80s, fuhrer of a reborn British National Party, used to speak publicly on Camberwell Green… Never will again though eh, since he popped his little nazi clogs a couple of years back.

In the 1970s the National Front achieved a much larger membership and influence than the hard right groupuscules they emerged from, and became more confident and provocative. The NF did gather a lot of members and sympathisers in South London, though the massive turnout against them in Lewisham in 1977 showed how much opposition there also was. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party election victory in 1979 to some extent cut their support as she adopted many of their policies.

The Front marched from Camberwell to Peckham, a number of times, in the 1970s, in, 1980, and on Oct 23 1982.

Local anti-fascists opposed the rise of such racist groups: Southwark Campaign Against Racism and Fascism was set up in 1976. In 1979 SCARF secretary Rod Robertson was prosecuted under the Representation of the People’s Act, for a leaflet suggesting people not vote for the NF.

But rightwing racist ideas continued to have some local support in Camberwell…

In July 1991: The British National Party (Mark 2) stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for the council by-election in Brunswick Ward, which mostly consists of the Elmington Estate and some surrounding streets. Their campaign was vigorously opposed by local anti-fascists, leftwing groups, and some squatters who lived in the area. etc, However, they did manage to march in force round the estate.

At the time, the Elmington was very run down: Southwark was one of the poorest boroughs in London. The Estate’s local housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known socialist, (also a Labour councillor in Lambeth at the time). The BNP campaign was aimed at attacking her and squatters living on the estate. ” [Rachel Webb} is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”  “Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was seen round the estate at the time. There had also been racist attacks on the estate with dogs set on black kids, and black families had their windows bricked; residents and even passers-by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear, who it appeared had links to the BNP… At the time BNP were doing paper sales in East Street Market and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruiting disaffected white working-class residents.

10 or so people had to sign backing them from the ward, some of whom were living on the estate. It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of nazi streetfighting group Combat 18, lived here at the time – he was officially living on the Elmington a couple of years later.

The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action, who took the position you have to oppose their presence wherever it shows its head, as it leads to/feeds on racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time, even if electorally they were not likely to win the election. A variety of other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors were involved in the opposition to the BNP; others, like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), informed us the BNP were irrelevant, a distraction from the real issues (tell that to the people they were attacking). The SWP later reversed this position and their reformed the Anti Nazi League.

The campaign consisted mainly of leafleting the area, talking to people, a rally on the estate, and public meetings (at least one of which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions).
Tone march against the BNP; the BNP themselves had a march of about 70 people round the estate, which anti-fascists found out about too late and could do very little to oppose.

BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.

A picket was held outside Town hall during the election count. The BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, quite a lot for a fringe candidate in a council by-election. Police heavily protected Nazis at the count.

Some dodgy white residents who were strongly suspected of being among those who signed BNP forms burgled squatters living on the Elmington who were involved in Anti Fascist Action: the squatters were forced to move…

The BNP presence was not massively sustained and built on, as they never stood again. But their strategy of standing in elections did grow after this, to the point here they finally got a neglected councillor a couple of years later in East London.
A longer, and much more thought out, response to this anti-fascist campaign in 1991, can be read here

Since 1991 the Elmington estate, has changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has radically altered the class mix here. Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London these days than fascist boots.


In 1974, squatters moved out of the famous Elgin Avenue in West London, were rehoused by the Greater London Council (which then owned 1000s of houses and flats all over the capital) in Rust Square, New Church Street, St George’s Way, Jardin Street and Albany Road, around the western edge of Burgess Park. 170 people were rehoused in 14 properties. These squatters had fought a long and widely publicised campaign for rehousing by the GLC, and arriving in South London, they of course got active and made links/caused trouble locally. They were still living in the houses in April 1976. At this time Kathleen Hoey and her family were squatting in Kitson Road (behind Addington Square/Rust Square). The council took them off the waiting list because they were squatting council property; however the Housing Dept were at the same time sending homeless people down to the Rust Square squatters group with letters of recommendation!  A widely publicised campaign was waged on behalf of the Hoeys.

Eventually the Rust Square squatters got rehoused again; some on the Aylebury Estate.


Camberwell magistrates Court was opened in 1971 (on the site of houses demolished by a WW2 V2 rocket) and said in the 1990s to be the busiest Magistrates Court in the country. Outside of the usual, some occasions it has seen heavy use include: after the Brixton uprising of April 1981, other riots/rebellions of July 1981, after the 1985 Brixton riot, and during the Poll Tax, when not only were non-payers from Lambeth prosecuted there but anti-poll tax rioters from various shindigs in 1990 at Lambeth Town HallBrixton Prison etc, were had up. Anti-poll tax activists generally supported non-payers here, 1991-93, including a (somewhat damp squib, by my memory) demonstration called against the first prosecutions for non-payment in Lambeth on February 14th 1991: ‘St Valentine’s Day… Massacre the Poll Tax!” 

(More personally the author has known the cells there, more than once, one time for criminal damage after being interrupted painting anti-poll tax graffiti on a wall in Angell Town in Brixton… sadly before the said graffiti made grammatical sense!)


“ the Redcap in its heyday was an ideal mix of performance and people of every bent — cheap, cheerful and sleazy, a sort of beatniks’ Silver Buckle.”

After its incarnations as a music hall, this building used to be the Father Redcap pub.

Here’s a poem on a fight in the pub in the 1960s

A number of pubs in this part of South London were well-known by the 1960s as gay venues including the Union Tavern on Camberwell New Road and the Father Red Cap, here on Camberwell Green, both of which put on regular drag nights. The Redcap gave one of the founders of the gay disco movement his first big break. On 1st July 1971 Richard Scanes (DJ Tricky Dicky), took to the decks at the Father Red Cap and began to play the new disco sound to the local crowd. His aim was to bring disco to a local audience making things more intimate and friendly (compared to what were known as the ‘gay ghettoes’ in town). Scanes said: “At my discos the gay boys and gay girls can dance together and no-one is going to say a word. This time last year you wouldn’t have seen gay people dancing together.” (Check out this issue of Gay News for an interview with Tricky Dicky) In 1975 Tricky Dicky went on to found a purpose-made gay disco, Fangs, which led the way for the first gay superclubs like Bang which opened the following year. Tricky Dicky was famous for finishing his sets at the end of the night by playing what he called a ‘Camp Revamp,’ winding down the crowd with a camp classic – like Marilyn Monroe’s ‘I wanna be loved by you’ for example – something which became a tradition in gay discos everywhere.

The landlord was Charles Holmes who was proud of his pub’s status and put up a Take Courage sign outside saying ‘The Father Red Cap, the Gayest Pub in Town’. Both men were In 1974 Holmes and the manager of the Redcap were pulled up before the courts and each fined £100 for permitting and abetting in running a ‘disorderly house’ after the police had moved in to stop the gay discos.”

But they weren’t discouraged for long and other venues began to follow their lead.

The Redcap closed as a gay pub – around 2007 ? By early 2008 it had re-opened, as the Red Star, putting on dance music and edgy club nights, including gigs by Alabama 3 and other Brixton faves. However, behind the Red Star were the owners of the Brixton Dog Star, a dubious bunch, highly implicated in the gentrification of Brixton… The Red Star lasted a few months, then the building lay empty for a while.

In 2010 the building was squatted and turned into a squat centre, as the Rat Star. The then owner allowed them to stay without threat of eviction. At this time, for a couple of years, Camberwell again became South London’s squat central. Following the Black Frog in Warham Street, and the Library House, the Rat Star was one of a series of local squat centres, with lots of events, gigs, meetings, film nights, part of London’s anti-capitalist scene… Opposite the Rat Star on the other side of Camberwell Road, several other buildings were occupied, and a thriving radical squat scene sprang up.

The Rat Star squat was raided on 27/4/2011, along with two other Camberwell squats and other squat centres, in the wake of the large anti-cuts demo on March 26th that year, which had led to some occupation of shops, damage and fighting with police, and mass arrests.

The raid against Ratstar was carried out under a Section 18 warrant to search for ‘stolen goods’; the TSG officers at the scene appeared find no evidence of theft. 14 arrests made were for “electricity abstraction” (connecting to the electricity supply while neglecting to pay the bill. Another Camberwell squat tradition – see Camberwell Grove above!) Twelve hours later, dozens of cops were still searching the premises for anything incriminating. Members of Counter Terrorism Command, S015, were present at the eviction making use of spotter cards to try and identify possible suspects from March 26th.

Hopefully more on the Ratstar and other nearby squats will be added to this post later…

The Redcap/Redstar/Ratstar is now ‘Nollywood’.


Camberwell Green Congregational Church used to stand here. Dr Harold Moody’s funeral was held here on 1st May 1947. Dr Moody (1882-1947) was a doctor, activist, and founder of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1882, the son of a pharmacist, He came to England to study medicine at King’s College.

He was completely unprepared for the colour bar in Edwardian London. He found it hard to find lodgings; after winning many prizes and qualifying as a doctor in 1910, he was rejected for the post of medical officer to the Camberwell Board of Guardians, despite being the best qualified candidate, because the matron refused to have a ‘coloured’ doctor working at the hospital’: he was told ‘the poor people would not have a n****r to attend them’. In February 1913, he started his own practice in Peckham which became very successful.

For 30 years Dr Moody helped hundreds of black people who came to him in distress, having experienced at first hand a degrading, or humiliating aspect of the colour bar: finding it hard to get lodgings, or work. Moody would confront the employers and plead powerfully on behalf of those victimised.

He was instrumental in overturning the Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925, a discriminatory measure which sought to restrict subsidies to merchant shipping employing only British nationals and required alien seamen to register with their local police. Many Black and Asian British nationals had no proof of identity and were being laid off.

Moody and other black activists founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 in London, with the goal of racial equality around the world: the League was a powerful civil rights force until its dissolution in 1951.Though the League’s primary focus was black rights in Britain, it also pursued other civil-rights issues, such as the persecution of the Jews in Germany. In 1933, the League began publishing its civil-rights journal The Keys.

At the inaugural meeting, the League established four main aims:

  1. To protect the social, educational, economic and political interests of its members
  2. To interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world
  3. To improve relations between the races
  4. To cooperate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to coloured people

In 1937, a fifth aim was added:

  1. To render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity

From the League’s founding until the outbreak of World War II, its primary focus was eliminating the colour bar in the British workplace, in social life, and in housing. Throughout Britain in the 1930s, black people were refused service in many restaurants, hotels, and lodging houses, and also found it extremely difficult to find a job in many industries; the medical profession in particular drew the attention of the league, most likely due to founder and president Dr Moody’s personal struggles in that area. By 1935, a branch of the league focusing on equality in the shipping industry had grown to over 80 members. During the 1930s, The League of Coloured Peoples struck many blows for black people’s rights in the workplace.

Dr Moody died in 1947 at the age of 64. He lived in a house in Peckham on Queens Road which now has a blue plaque dedicated to him. Many hundreds of mourners attended his funeral here.

We put up a plaque to Dr Moody here.


The League of Socialist Artists.

Based at 18 Camberwell Church St in the 1970s, the League favoured ultra-marxist realist art, and sound today hilariously dogmatic. “Our art must serve revolutionary politics. We place our art unreservedly at the service of the working class.” By which of course they meant “under the overall leadership of the  Marxist-Leninist party….”

In some ways they echoed Ruskin’s view of the role of art and the artist: “Within [the] overall tasks of the proletarian socialist revolution a role of unprecedented importance devolves upon… creative artists. For it is precisely through art that science., the knowledge, understanding and experience of the laws of motion of the universe, including particularly of human society, is distilled… artists, whether of the visual or the dramatic arts, are no less than “engineers of the human soul” {JV Stalin}… Quotes from Stalin, in the 1970s, no less.

“Proletarian socialist art is a reflection in artistic form of the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie… The method of artistic creation of proletarian socialist art is therefore proletarian -socialist realism…”

They had some great rhetoric: “we Socialist Artists declare our aims and work to stand completely apart from and in irreconcilable opposition to the formalism and commodity fetishism of capitalist art which serves at one and the same time to mystify the movement  and conflict of social classes, to preach and inculcate the helplessness of man before the “unknowable” universe, and the  “atomic chaos” of the “existentialist” society – as also to provide the effete, luxury loving ruling class with those soporific, sensationalised and alienated titbits which might, for an hour or a day, provide an anodyne to bring forgetfulness of the moment of doom for their class which the approaching proletarian-socialist revolution is bringing ever nearer.” And so on…

Socialist realism was the only path, “In place of the pop art, mobile junk, psychedelic and other fringe lunacy of decaying capitalist art we will erect an art which expresses the dignity of working people, into which life is breathed from out of their very struggles…”

Maureen Scott was a member of the LSA. We love her portrait of Pat Burke, formidable former landlady of the Prince Albert in Brixton

We left a plaque to commemorate the LSA (though we should have made it more abstract/pop-arty)


Camberwell Public Baths was officially opened here on 1 October 1892.

The baths were built as a public resource by the then Camberwell Borough Council, at a cost of £28,575, with two large swimming pool halls, one behind the other.The original facilities at the baths in 1892 were vital for locals, many of whom had no bathroom, or even running water, in their homes, or shared bathrooms and laundry rooms with other families. In the early years, facilities included:

  • Men’s First Class: 24 private baths, one public swimming bath 120 feet (37 m) by 35 feet (11 m) with 81 dressing boxes at the side
  • Men’s Second Class: 40 private baths, one public swimming bath, 120 feet (37 m) by 35 feet (11 m) with 65 dressing boxes
  • Ladies First Class; 12 private baths
  • Ladies Second Class: 20 private baths
  • Public Laundry: 78 compartments
  • Establishment Laundry

Camberwell was one of the first baths with electric lighting, powered with its own generator. There was an apartment at the rear of the building for an engineer who also served Dulwich Baths.

By 1903 the baths were officially reported as failing to achieve their goal of being self-sufficient, being in deficit by £7,000.

This may be linked to an attempt to close the baths in 1907 (see picture) – defeated by local women, it would appear.

The baths were also used as a venue for various political events, including on 11 December 1908, an exhibition of protest banners by the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

During World War 1 the baths serve as the local recruitment centre for volunteers to sign up to join the army; and when conscription was brought in from 1916, Conscientious Objectors were arrested and brought here as the first step to forcing them to serve, or the first step to prison or a detention camp.(See the story of Arthur Creech-Jones, above.)

In 2001 there was controversy when lifeguards at the baths refused to support nude swimming sessions of the Gay London Swimming group. The group agreed to provide their own lifeguards.

From the 1970s, the baths began to fall into decline. Although even then many people locally had no access to a bath or only to shared bathing in their homes. Gradual improvements in domestic arrangements, council refurbs, people having bathrooms put in, buying washing machines, and so on, led to a fall off in income from what had once been a self-financing operation. By the late 1990s, Southwark Council was arguing the building of new facilities at Peckham Pulse meant the baths were no longer needed.

Friends of Camberwell Baths was formed in 1998 to defend against closure.

Save Camberwell Baths Campaign march, 2006

The campaign laster several years. From May 2006 until October the Council planned that the Baths would receive £5m to £6m for full refurbishment. In January 2007 the Council had decided to “provide up to £1.5 million capital funding to ensure that the Centre stays open with its current facilities” – ie, no new money to improve the building. Funding of £1.45 million was however, later confirmed on 31 March 2009 for improving the centre with the total refurbishment budget from all sources amounting to £4.7 million. Additional funds came from the Southwark Investing in Leisure programme of more than £2 million and the Youth Capital Fund allocated £576,000 in May 2009 for a council managed youth programme within the site. The building was closed from Wednesday 25 November 2009 till its re-opening in 28 February 2011.

That’s all for now… More another time…
maybe END AT A PUB: THE HERMIT’S CAVE? assuming it re-opens after all this Corona Caboodle.



If you liked this walk:

why not have a look at our other online radical history walks


All this week in London radical history, 1926: fighting in Southwark during the General Strike

The 1926 General Strike in Southwark

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of workers taking action themselves without them…

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off. Since then the General Strike has entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain.

This text describes some of the events of the General Strike in the then Metropolitan Boroughs of Bermondsey, Camberwell and Southwark, now united into the London Borough of Southwark.

Scenes of clashes between strikers and police at the Elephant and Castle and surrounding areas were immortalised in photographs taken at the time, and the Thames seemed to many as a barricade between the plutocrats of the City of London and the insurgent working class south of the river.

The General Strike was of course a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages add conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

This text was originally published by Southwark Trades Council: unsurprisingly then it concentrates mostly on the activities of local Trades Councils and unions. It describes some of the main events & the atmosphere reasonably well. 

The TUC leaders sold out the Strike, but despite their anger, support for the miners and resentment towards the TUC, neither the Councils of Action, the Trades Councils, the militant left, nor the insurgent workers they claimed to represent, significantly broke out of the official structures, to either broaden the Strike while it was on or to continue it after it had been called off.

Party-obsessed lefties like Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein in their “Marxism & the Trade Union Struggle” have argued for nearly 80 years that what was lacking was a strong centralised Communist Party to direct the struggle. The Communist Party of Great Britain that existed in 1926 was small and weak, for many reasons, including its own rightwing idealogy, the complex history of British communism, the social & economic conditions of the time, and state repression immediately before 1926. But clearly no party however strong or centralised is a substitute for a working class organising for itself. When the union leaders called the strike off, millions of workers, after an initial upsurge, obeyed, whatever their feelings. Workers told not to strike or to go back to work even before the Strike ended, did as they were told. And the CPGB in fact made little attempt to challenge the TUC running of events in fact calling for “All power to the General Council.” There’s an an analysis of some of the reasons for the failure of the Strike here

… and here’s a roundup of events in London during the Strike

1000s of working people fought the cops and scabs for nine days, all over the country. But only by breaking out of TUC control and extending the struggle on their own behalf could the outcome have been any different.


the national scene

On May 1st 1926 the main industrial dispute in the country was the battle between the miners and the coal-owners, and it was this battle which was to lead to the calling of the General Strike. This dispute was the focus of the power struggle between the owners and the workers. In the coal industry the owners had, for over a year prior to May 1926, been attempting to force reductions in wages and increases in hours worked. On July 31st 1925 the Tory government was forced, in return for industrial peace, to offer a nine month subsidy to the coal industry, a condition of which was the withdrawal by the coal-owners of notices of wage reductions. This subsidy ran out in April 1926 and immediately the coal-owners posted lock-out notices in the face of the total refusal by the miners to accept any reduction in wages or increase in hours worked: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.”

By this time the masses of the workers were calling for a General Strike in support of the miners’ struggle, which they saw as their own. They forced this view on the General Council of the TUC, who proposed “coordinated action” – and this proposal was endorsed on May lst at Farringdon Hall by a conference of Trade Union Executives representing 4 million workers. The leaders of the Trades Union Congress were still intent on negotiating with the Government. The government, however, broke off negotiations on the morning of May 3rd on account of the action taken by the printers of the Daily Mail ~ who refused to print the editorial which attacked the steps taken by the Trade Unions. The leaders of the TUC were left with no alternative but to call a General Strike to begin on May 4th.


That day-saw a response to the call which surprised everyone. All transport ground to a halt, no papers appeared, manufacturing industries stopped, workers who were not called out by their unions came out independently (Note 1), and many who were not even in a union joined the strike.

Of the two sides, the Government was definitely the better prepared. Since the previous year they had been working to ensure that they would be the victors in any protracted industrial struggle. In September 1925 they formed the ‘Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS) composed of upstanding members of the middle class, run by retired army officers. Its function was to collect lists of volunteers who would be willing to run the country in the event of a General Strike. On May lst the Government declared a State of Emergency, which suspended civil liberties and allowed them greater freedom to arrest and imprison so-called ‘dissidents’.


On the other hand, the organisation of the TUC was totally inadequate for the requirements of a General Strike, which could only mean that they thought, or indeed hoped, that the strike would be lost very quickly. At a local level, however, the Trades Councils responded by organising in an impromptu but efficient fashion. They formed themselves into Councils of Action and altogether there were 131 of these throughout the country.

The various functions taken over by the Councils of Action included: control of traffic, picketing factories that were on strike to ensure that the “volunteers” didn’t get in, picketing factories not on strike in an attempt to persuade the workers to join the stoppage, distribution of food and information, and alleviation of cases of great distress. In many places the Councils of Action became the only authority, the nearest thing to local control and autonomy in the history of modern Britain. And they had the support of the vast majority of workers in most cases. Their main headache was the constant need to convince workers who hadn’t yet officially been called out to go back to work.

This spontaneous development of the Councils of Action worried the Government more than anything else, and it was these organisations that were subjected to the toughest repression by the police. The possession of a newsletter produced by a Council of Action became a crime that could lead to two or three months hard labour – whilst the rather tame organ of the TUC, ‘The British Worker’, which urged the strikers to go for walks in the country, was allowed to continue printing after an initial five hour stoppage.


After days of secret negotiations with the Government, the TUC informed Baldwin, the Tory Prime Minister, that the strike was off, and the news was broadcast at 1 pm on May 12th. The news shattered the strikers and the Councils of Action, who saw the strike gaining in strength every day and the probability of success with it.

It seems it was precisely this strength that intimidated some members of the TUC General Council such as J.Thomas, who said he “dreaded” that the strike would “get out of the hands of responsible executives”.

When the strikers discovered that the settlement had not included any guarantees about reinstatement they initially decided to stay out, and on May 13th there were actually more workers on strike than on any other day. But the end had come and the workers were left to barter with their individual employers over the terms of their return, with the result that many people didn’t get their job back and many others had to “eat dirt” in order to do so.

Only the miners were left on strike, remaining out until November when they were finally starved into submission and forced to accept the owners’ terms.

Fighting at the Elephant & Castle during the Strike

The strike: south of the river

In 1926 the borough of Southwark was very different to the one that we know now. In the area presently covered by Southwark there were the three Metropolitan Boroughs of Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell.

The major industries in the three boroughs then were the docks, transport services, engineering works and printing. The workers in these industries were well organised, as shown by the example of Hoe & Co. Hoe and Company Ltd, were a printing press manufacturers in Borough Road, Southwark. They employed 900 men, and the printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London. There were three large engineering firms near the Elephant: Hoe’s, Waygood-Otis, and Durants.

In early January 1926, the 900 employees at Hoe’s began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase. The employers threatened a national lockout in the engineering sector involving 500,000 men. (South London Press, March 26 1926) And the workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout.

During the General Strike the workers were militant in their picketing of the firm. Stan Hutchins reports that only 20 apprentices remained at work and that they later contributed to a 100 per cent turn out.


Unemployment in the three boroughs around the national average of 12 per cent. The situation of the unemployed was hard. In 1926 unemployment benefit was about 15 shillings per week for a single man. This rate applied for 26 weeks only, after which unemployed received Poor Law Relief administered by the Board of Guardians for the Borough. After this was exhausted many of the unemployed in Southwark were sent to Labour Camps at Hollesey Bay and Belmont in Surrey, where they were forced to work under overseers.

A statement in the House of Commons (reported in the South London Observer, Wednesday March 24th, 1926) disclosed that one man in seven, and one woman in three were refused benefit at the Labour Exchange, and left to starve or apply for Poor Law Relief. The unemployed also had to sign on every day of the week.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWCM) was very active in the area in organising unemployed workers before and during May 1926. Membership was very high in Southwark and meetings were held outside the Labour Exchange, where speakers would address the people waiting to collect their money. Many members of the organised unemployed were sent to prison during the period 1925-6 because of their political activities.


There were, however, noticeable differences between the three boroughs, especially in the question of social conditions and political organisation, being dominated by different political parties.

Southwark was the smallest of the three, and it also had the worst and most densely populated housing of any metropolitan borough. Its population density was 160 people to the acre, compared with 77 for Bermondsey and a very low 59 for Camberwell. The conditions in one part of Southwark are described in ‘The Book of Walworth’ published in 1925: “It is in the blocks especially in and adjacent to the New Kent Road that we have the greatest concentration of population. Here in streets that are little more than gulleys when their narrow width is compared with the great height of the buildings, live hundreds of people with no outlook in front except the gulley, and none in the rear except a still narrower gully into which at one time inconsiderate tenants threw their rubbish to everyone’s inconvenience.”

On the other hand the borough of Camberwell, with its coat of arms emblazoned with the motto “All’s well”, could, in its official guide book of 1926, proudly boast of the quality of life that its inhabitants enjoyed, with magnificent green spaces, fine educational institutions and other attractions offered to people wishing to move into the area. The handbook states that the council had purchased land for housing up to the tune of £300,000 and mentioned in particular a new estate of 7 houses and 174 flats that were occupied by “the more thrifty and respectable members of the class for whom they were intended” and that at a rent of 10 shillings to ll shillings per week, the estate was more than self supporting with the account showing a “substantial surplus” after paying loans and interest etc.


Bermondsey Borough Council was distinguished not only from the other two but also from the vast majority of the metropolitan boroughs by the fact that it had a Labour controlled council. lt was also distinguished by its policies, many of which ran counter to the London County Council, with which it was having a continual running battle.

One particular fight was highlighted in the October 1925 edition of the Bermondsey Labour Magazine. The council had applied for permission to build a housing project covering four acres; the LCC first tried to block it by withholding permission until it was almost too late, but then gave permission for the same amount of dwellings to be built in an area of one and a half acres, ordering the council to sell the rest of the land. Some facts about the health of the people show the way that the Bermondsey administration was changing the quality of life in the borough. During the three years from 1921, while the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had been in the majority, the average death rate dropped by 30 per cent and the infantile death rate dropped from 16 deaths per thousand to 76, whilst the death of mothers in became the lowest of all London boroughs.


Obviously the political and economic structure of the boroughs colored their response to the General Strike, and it is noticeable that the three boroughs had very contrasting attitudes during that period.

Southwark Council’s response was rather limited, not in intensity but certainly in its democratic base. The mayor was the subject of a special meeting called on May 19th “to consider the action of the Lord Mayor Alderman J.R.Want”, who’d called off all the council meetings, taking power into his own hands, and had sent threatening letters to all local authority workers warning them not to strike. A motion regretting this action as “thereby depriving the elected councillors of their right to share in the government of the borough” was defeated & an amendment expressing “entire confidence in the Lord Mayor” was passed by 49 votes to 14.

Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel.

Of the three boroughs it is not surprising that Bermondsey showed the closest cooperation between Council and strikers. As soon as the strike was announced, “the Borough Council, being Labour, formed an emergency sub-committee which was in close touch with the Council of Action and both the Town Halls [ie Rotherhithe and Bermondsey] were passed over to the Trades Council during the strike, which were used for strike meetings and strike committees.”

In fact, the Council in effect suspended itself and delegated all its powers to this Emergency Committee, which consisted entirely of Labour members.

A comparison of the minutes of the London councils just before and after the strike shows very clearly how they responded to the situation.

Various local authorities passed motions and then circulated them to other local authorities to be endorsed. Of the many, two reflect their contrasting nature. Hackney requested all other Councils to join them in urging the Prime Minister to ensure that after the strike the local authorities would be able to discriminate against the strikers in favour of blacklegs. Southwark and Camberwell both agreed to endorse that Motion. However, the motion from Bethnal Green condemning the action of the government in breaking off negotiations with the TUC on May 2nd was consigned to the waste paper bin; whereas Bermondsey’s Emergency Committee seems to have passed a resolution in support of the Bethnal Green Trades Council motion. The Government had to appoint a retired Army Captain as its Food and Fuel Agent in Bermondsey, because cooperation was not forthcoming from the Council.


At the outset of the General Strike responsibility for the coordination of the strike in the locality fell to the lot of the Trades Councils, which were in the main very unprepared. Bert Edwards writes about Southwark that: “It’s hard to say how the Trades Councils became the centre of things. The only thing you can say is that the publicity had indicated that the Trades Council would be ‘the centre … We had no machinery set up … we didn’t have a typewriter or a duplicator.” There had been a lot of general debate throughout the country about the possibility of a strike and this of course had been a subject of discussion in the Trades Councils. However the actual declaration of the strike on May 3rd caught everyone on the hop. “On the first day of the strike I went around to the Trades Council offices – and I saw to my amazement that there was quite a crowd of people wanting advice. Nobody knew what they had to do.” However, “there was immediate response to the appeal that the Trades Council turn itself into a Council of Action. The Council of Action formed sub-committees dealing with press and propaganda, a contact committee for keeping in touch with the TUC, a finance committee and an enquiries committee.”

We have very little information on how Camberwell Trades Council organised themselves. There is however a letter to the TUC from G.W.Silverside, General Secretary of the Dulwich Divisional Labour Party in which he explains that at a meeting on May 3rd it was decided to collect money and distribute literature. Also “the question of the possibility of duplication arose” and Mr. Silverside explained that he had been in touch with the “Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council who informs me that there are three duplicators available and that they are prepared to duplicate anything that may be necessary.”

In Bermondsey, where the great majority of the population of the Borough were behind the strike, the cooperation between the Borough Council and the Trades Council was much closer than in the other two boroughs. The Trades Council formed a Council of Action which was given the use of the two Town Halls which were put to use every day as meeting rooms, committee rooms and for giving out strike pay. Each afternoon meetings of strikers’ wives were held, and each evening there were mass meetings of strikers, “always packed to suffocation, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, unable to get in.” The Council of Action “sat continuously from day to day and endeavoured to coordinate all local efforts for forwarding the strike.” It also had the use of the local Labour Party offices and their stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment.


The production of news-sheets was a very important part of the work of the Councils of Action. All national newspapers had ceased publication on the first day of the strike, although some managed to produce limited editions with scab labour. These were not widely distributed and of course were in opposition to the strike. The Government also produced a news-sheet, ‘The British Gazette’, under the editorship of Winston Churchill but this was naturally very hostile to the strike and carried only very biased or false information. The local papers in South London were also opposed to the strike. The ‘South London Press’ (SLP) was the most widely distributed paper in the Southwark area. When it was unable to produce a full issue it came out with a single sheet ‘Strike Bulletin’.

On May 7th its front page, announced: “We offer no apology for issuing this week the South London Press at half its normal size. The fact is, we are under a double obligation – firstly to our readers to give them as full a statement as possible in the circumstances which led to the country being plunged into a deplorable strike and unwarrantably involving this journal in the dispute, second to our Advertisers …”

The paper constantly referred to pickets as “hooligans”, “gangs of ruffians” etc. On May 7th it reported that “A great deal of trouble was caused by women who, shouting hysterically, flung themselves into the fray”. Headlines on May 14th announced “How Rowdyism was overcome by Police and Specials”, followed by praise of the cheerful way in which the uniformed forces restored order with their three-foot riot-sticks.

A scab car overturned at Blackfriars

The issue of Friday 21st carries an article on “The SLP in strike time – how it met the great blow against Liberty and Freedom”. The report states that by the night of Wednesday 5th all composing and mechanical staff of SLP were out “most of them unwillingly”. The following week the SLP was without linotype operators except one lion apprentice and two compositor apprentices. All nine members of the machine and stereotyping staff were on strike. So the directors and four of their sons, together with ‘volunteers’, produced the paper and distributed it by using disguised vans.

The only other form of communication was the BBC radio service, but this was entirely under the control of the Government.

There were a number of publications produced by the Councils of Action with varying degrees of success. This was because the Government tried to suppress the strikers’ news-sheets and prison sentences were handed out to those producing, selling or even possessing such publications.

In Camberwell at least two publications were brought out. The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reports that a man was convicted of selling the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’ which was produced in Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham, by Ernest Baldwin (Secretary and Agent for the Peckham Labour Party) and James McLean. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”.

Inspector Hider also saw copies of the ‘Camberwell Strike Bulletin’ also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the Peckham Labour Bulletin.

Southwark Council of Action also produced a news sheet but this was done with some difficulty. To start with they had no duplicator or typewriter, but Tommy Strudwick, a member of the Council Of Action from the National Union of Railwaymen managed to provide this equipment. It was hidden away in a recess in one of his room but after only a few issues the police raided his house and found it. He was arrested and sentenced to two months’ hard labour for spreading disaffection. Strudwick was also involved with two other publications, called ‘Juice’ and ‘The Young Striker’.

Bermondsey Council of Action was much better prepared than the other two. They not only had the stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment belonging to the Labour Party, but also those belonging to the Borough Council. They produced a daily news-sheet, 6000 copies of which were distributed from seven official points. Much of the information for the Bulletin was collected by Dr. Alfred Salter, the Labour MP for Bermondsey. He spent much of his time during the strike collecting “every scrap of authentic news available in the House of Commons and from the TUC head office, and reported it in detail to the nightly meetings in the Bermondsey Town hall” or phone it in for the news-sheet in the afternoon. According to Fenner Brockway of the ILP Bermondsey was probably the best informed centre in the whole country during the nine days of the strike.”


The three Boroughs were strategically very significant during the General Strike. Bermondsey included the Surrey Commercial Docks. Camberwell was important because it housed Tillings Bus Co., one of the largest in London, (1200 people worked here, making it one of the biggest local employers) and many of the main roads from the south coast passed through the borough. Southwark’s significance lay in the Elephant and Castle, which was the meeting of six major roads which were used by many bus routes and by lorries coming in from the docks and the south.

The police were often evident at the Elephant chasing the people away, by riding at them swinging their long truncheons – but the crowd would reform. According to Stan Hutchins there were stewards from the Council of Action, distinguished by red arm bands, who tried to ensure that only traffic with permits from the TUC were allowed through, but many blacklegging volunteers would try to force their way through, and this led to several occasions of violence and even some instances of death. The Sunday Worker on May 9th reported that a volunteer driver who panicked when the crowd tried to stop him, knocked down a motor cyclist and drove onto the pavement, killing two people. On another occasion a bus driven by a blackleg and escorted by police and special constables was stopped by the strikers, emptied of its passengers, and set on fire.

Another bus met this fate in St. George’s Road (just north of the Elephant & Castle) where a No.12 on its way to Dulwich was seized and burned. All in all, the bus service, even with the help of the many volunteers (including students from Guys Hospital and Dulwich College who were recorded as heartily laying into strikers, shouting: “Up College!”) was very limited. [3]

By May 5th it was reported that forty-seven General Omnibus vehicles had been immobilised and, according to a TUC intelligence report, Lord Ashfield, Chairman of the General Omnibus Company, was resisting Government pressure to get More buses on the road. He was only willing to allow the oldest type out because of the danger from volunteer drivers and pickets.

The trams were in the main kept off the roads, but there was an attempt to bring them out of Camberwell Depot on Wednesday May 5th. This was possible once local electricity generating stations had been brought into use with the help of naval ratings. However a large group of strikers and their wives had gathered outside the depot and even the very large numbers of police and OMS could not stop them from smashing the tram windows and pushing it back. The British Worker (the daily paper put out during the Strike by the TUC) reported: “BANNED TRAMS SCENE: An unsuccessful attempt was made shortly after four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon to run LCC tramcars from the Camberwell depot.

Earlier in the day two lorries with higher officials of the tramways Department and OMS recruits arrived at the Depot, where a strong force of police had been posted.

A large crowd, including tramwaymen, their wives and sympathisers, collected, and when the first car came out of the Depot gates in Camberwell Green there was a hostile demonstration.

Some arrests were made. Following this incident the cars were driven back in to the Depot to the accompaniment of loud cheers.” (British Worker, 5th May.) [4]

Buses were also stoned in Camberwell on the Saturday night (8th May).

There was also rioting in Tower Bridge Road, in fact there seems to have been fighting here several times. 89 people were hurt in one police baton charge here.

No vehicle could proceed far without a permit issued by the Councils of Action. Main roads were barricaded and cars which did not have authorisation turned back. If a driver attempted to defy the strikers, his car would soon be lying on its side. Bermondsey Labour MP Dr Salter (a staunch supporter of the strike) only just missed this experience. He was driving down the Old Kent Road without the usual Council of Action symbol on his windscreen: strikers on the kerb threw stones which broke the car’s windows and, as it slowed down, they rushed into the road yelling “Throw ’em over.” However they apologised when they recognised Salter (a popular figure locally) The car was speeded on with the cry of “Good old Alf!” [5]


This wasn’t the only incident reported in Camberwell. Charlie Le Grande, a striker from Stockwell who received his strike pay from the Camberwell Bus Depot talks about the huge public meetings held at the triangle near the Eaton Arms and at Peckham Rye. [6] Another eye-witness account describes the police activity during a public meeting at Camberwell Green as terrifying. He was ten years old at the time. He had been taken by his father and was standing on the edge of the meeting only to see waves of police with drawn truncheons marching on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

It wasn’t only on the streets that the strikers were subjected to attacks from the police. On the 6th May police invaded the Bricklayers Arms, a pub on the Old Kent Road used as a meeting place by the National Union of Railwaymen members working from the Bricklayers’ Arms Depot (an important centre of picketing), and arrested strikers. On May 7th the police raided another pub nearby, the Queen’s Head, and it was reported to the House of Commons by Dr. Haden-Guest, Labour MP for Southwark, that police had attacked people in the pub and had later chased and attacked women and children in the street. [7]

Another important area of activity during the strike was the Surrey Dock. Two thousand men were employed here, and yet only seven dockers turned up for work on the first day of the strike. Lock gate staff continued to work normally, and electric and hydraulic power was kept going by one foreman, but there were no tugs operating. and three ships with food stuffs were held up with no-one to unload them.

As a bonus – the Transport and General Workers Union reported a response of “wonderful solidarity” from the Port of London Authority clerical and supervisory staff in the Surrey Dock – their first-ever strike. The gates of the dock were effectively closed by a very strong mass picket stationed there from the beginning of the strike. The need to open the docks soon became acute as food began to get short in London, but it seemed an impossible task for the Government, given the large pickets at the Surrey Dock.

“Eighty men taken to the riverside to unload foodstuffs on May 7th refused to move without protection from a large and hostile crowd, the police protection was so long in arriving that when it had arrived the eighty men were found to be missing and the cargo was still awaiting their attention”. Later on, a party of Naval ratings were put into Surrey Dock, followed by volunteers brought in from Westminster by boat, who spent the weekend unloading food stuffs to be taken further up river on barges.


Tooley Street, which saw heavy picketing every day, was also the scene of solid resistance to the police and blacklegs and on Thursday May 6th there was a police baton charge that led to thirty-two arrests. Here too the government were determined to open Hays Wharf and ferried in blackleg labour, mainly undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge.

As a group, students were some of the most active blacklegs. On Thursday May 6th the South London Press reported that many students from Guys Hospital had signed on as special constables “being involved with a strong sense of patriotic duty”. On Saturday May 29th the South London Observer reported that the Governors of Guys Hospital had from the secretary of the TGWU branch at Lower Road, Rotherhithe, a protest against the blacklegging by students and a statement that the branch would no longer contribute to the hospital’s funds.

Hays Wharf

The South London Press of May 14th reported that “Oxford undergraduates, numbering 250, together with 400 other volunteers, are unloading foodstuff from ships at Hays Wharf Ltd., Tooley St. The manager of Hays Wharf said: The undergraduates are receiving the usual pay of dockers. They moved between 1500 and 2000 tons per day. Normal output at the wharves is 5000 tons a day’.”


Mass support for the strike was growing in the three boroughs throughout the time it lasted. Bermondsey reported to the Labour Research Department that on May 12th there was no sign of weakening whatever. The workers were more solid the last day than on the first. The spirit of the workers, both men and women, could not have been better. When the “sell-out” was announced “there was a feeling of complete shock and disappointment in Southwark. The Labour Party passed a message through the Council of Action to the TUC urging them to continue the strike.. Then everything collapsed, it collapsed as suddenly as it started. The Council of Action went back to the original small organisation. The employers said on account of the stoppage, they couldn’t take everyone back.”

There were many cases of victimisation and attempts by employers to break the strength of the unions. On May 14th the South London Press reported that Tillings Ltd., the privately owned bus company which employed 1200 men on 400 buses (many of who has struck) had posted the following notice at their depots. “Men should realise that there is no agreement in existence, the Union having broken this. They should also understand plainly that we do not propose to make further agreement with the existing Union as this is the third occasion on which they have broken the agreement. Every man should fully understand these conditions before restarting.”

At Hoe’s engineering works, the employers refused to take the men back as a group “because they were no longer employees”, but agreed to take them back if they applied individually, at their former rate of payment and for their former jobs. Hoe’s said “They are being taken on as vacancies are available.”

The Labour Exchanges received instructions that those who withdrew their labour were disqualified from benefit on the ground that they left their employment without just cause. Sections of the workers were luckier and/or stronger – for instance, the dockers and railwaymen held out for agreements against victimisation. The dockers at Surrey Dock maintained their pickets until May 15th when Ernest Bevin came to an agreement with the employers.

Within a week of the ending of the strike, only the miners were still left out. They remained out until November when the employers finally starved them into submission and forced them to accept their conditions of less pay for longer hours. Bermondsey Council however continued to support the miners families even after the ending of the General Strike and all in all they contributed £7000 to the mining village of Blaina in Wales.


1) Strikers were initially called out on strike in waves, so that not all workers were out straight away. Large numbers of people wanted to join the strike but were ordered by the TUC & the unions to continue working, the idea being they would join later if the strike dragged on – the TUC General Council of course hoped (and made sure) this would never happen.

2: Hoes employed 900 men; their printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London.

They had struck in the 1922 engineers lockout; from then until the General Strike workers here were said to be in “open revolt”. In 1925 Amalgamated Engineering Union members here began an overtime ban in a campaign for higher wages; as a result in January 1926 some were sacked and replaced by non-union labour. This led to both shifts starting a stay-in-strike: Hoe’s then locked out all 900 workers, who began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase.. Hoe’s went to the Employers Federation, who threatened a national lockout in the engineering involving 500,000 men, unless the Hoe’s men went back to work. (South London Press, March 26 ‘ 1926) Hoe’s workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout, but the AEU ordered a return to work, saying the men had been morally right but technically wrong. Bah!

During the General Strike Hoe’s workers struck straight away, though not called out by the AEU, and were militant in their picketing of the firm.

After the end of the General Strike, Hoe’s workers were forced to re-apply individually for their jobs. The firm considered they had sacked themselves.

3: A large number of posh scabs volunteered from Dulwich College. Sons of whores, literally, since 17th century actor Edward Alleyn founded the College with help from the profits off his brothel in Bankside. Shame the suffragettes failed to burn it down in 1913, eh?

4: Note on Camberwell Green: Rumours spread by the South London Press that women pickets stopped trams by putting kids in front of the vehicles seem to be just typical SLP rightwing proper gander?

Trams were also attacked in other areas: in Old Kent Road, near the Dun Cow pub, a tram was overturned by crowds. The passengers were pulled off and scab drivers assaulted. In Walworth Road, crowds blocked tramlines with railings: bricks and bottles were chucked at police when they cleared the lines.

5: Salter, a convinced Independent Labour Party pacifist, did not like this violence, but according to Fenner Brockway he “recognised that it was only incidental to the real significance of the struggle. He was thrilled by the sacrificial solidarity of the workers. “Something happened,” he wrote, “that had never happened in the world before. Millions of men and women deliberately risked their livelihood, their future, their all, to win a living wage for their miner comrades.” Not a man or woman in Bermondsey expected to gain a penny, yet “eagerly, joyfully, unflinchingly,” they came out. “I felt humbled and overwhelmed when I saw what was happening. A transformation of character seemed to be taking place. Small men suddenly became great, mean men became generous, cowardly men became heroes. Self‑regarding thoughts were brushed aside, and ‘our brothers of the mines’ filled every heart. The strike was the most Christlike act on a grand scale since Calvary. I can never pay high enough tribute to the Bermondsey folk amongst whom I moved during those never‑to‑be‑forgotten nine days. The working people of this district are capable of the mightiest acts of effort and heroism if only their best instincts can be touched and roused.” “

6: Mass meetings were also held at Peckham Winter Gardens. Several thousand strikers, families and supporters met there for a social gathering organised by Peckham Labour Party on the evening of Sunday May 9th.

7: Queen’s head Pub, Southwark: 2 lorries full of cops ordered drinkers out of the pub & beat them up, when strikers ran in here after ‘allegedly’ roughing up a special constable at the Power Station…

8) W F Watson: A leading activist in the militant shop stewards movement during World War 1. In 1918-19 he was at the heart of the syndicalist London Workers Committee, an attempt to co-ordinate workers committees in different industries, along the lines of the Clyde Workers Comittee. He wrote a column in Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Dreadnought, which served as an unofficial organ for the Workers Committees 1917-19. Watson was jailed for sedition (for a speech encouraging soldiers not to fight against the Russian Revolution) after the LWC office was raided in March 1919, but on his release it emerged he had given information to Special Branch in return for cash – though he claimed he’d fed them useless info and used the money for righteous causes. The arguments this scandal caused led to the LWC’s collapse. Watson had dropped out of politics shortly after. He was widely distrusted but must have been a capable organiser, & not entirely suspect, if as Stanley Hutchins says he was allowed to carry on working in the Council of Action’s office.

For more information on Watson and the London Workers Committee, see Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst.

9) Archbishop’s Speech: On May 7, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement suggesting the dispute should be settled by negotiation, “in a spirit of co-operation and fellowship” – effectively a return to the pre-Strike status quo, ie end the Strike, continue the mining subsidy, and the mine-owners to withdraw their wage-cuts. In the event the Government ignored the speech, feeling they had the upper hand anyway (and just to make sure the speech had no influence they leaned heavily on the BBC not to publicise it).

Barclay & Perkins Brewery: only 2 workers on strike according to the South London Press: others enrolled as specials.

This text was originally published as part of a pamphlet by Union Place Community Resource Centre/ Southwark Trades Council, 1976.

Republished 2005 with new pictures and a new foreword by Past Tense


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Miscreant Haynau in London

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Today in London riotous history, 1768: the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’

The turbulent career of John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment), through the 1760s and 1770s, seems to connect the eras of eighteenth century political libertarianism and opportunistic opposition to government corruption with the more collective movement for political reform.

Wilkes served as a figurehead for a collection of varied and almost contradictory political and social urges – the national pressure for reform of the electoral franchise, the struggle for ‘liberty’ of the subject, the teeming resentments of the artisans and apprentices against their ‘betters’… His skill in enlisting disparate elements in his personal cause was matched only by his own seeming lack of principles, and his unwillingness to push forward to the full social conclusions of his rhetoric…

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

But he could also excite a rowdy mob… Several times in the years from 1763 to 1772 his supporters thronged the city of London and terrified the ruling elite.

After Wilkes, writing in The North Briton magazine (issue number 45), in 1763, criticised a speech by King George III praising the Treaty of Paris (ending the Seven Years’ War)  he was charged with libel, in effect, accusing the King of lying. This got him locked up in the Tower of London for a while. However, Wilkes challenged the warrant for his arrest and the seizure of the paper, and won the case. His courtroom speeches kick-started the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty!”, which became a popular slogan for freedom of speech and resistance to the establishment. Later in 1763, Wilkes reprinted the issue, which was again seized by the government.

The ensuing uproar caused Wilkes to be flee across the English Channel to France; he was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel, and was declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764.

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

The government were split as to how to deal with the situation, though ‘indignant that a criminal should I open daylight thrust himself upon the country as a candidate, his crime unexpurgated’. Wilkes then announced he would surrender himself as an outlaw to the Court of the King’s Bench, which he did on 20th April. He was initially released on bail, then committed a week later to imprisonment at the Kings Bench Prison, on the edge of St George’s Fields in Southwark, which sparked a renewal of the rioting. The Prison was surrounded daily by crowds, crying ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, ‘assembling riotously, ‘breaking, spoiling, demolishing, burning and destroying sundry wooden posts’ belonging to the prison gates and fence. On May 8th, “a numerous Mob assembled about the Kings Bench Prison exclaiming against he confinement of Mr. Wilkes, and threatened to unroof the Marshal’s house”. Wilkes made a speech from a window and persuaded the crowd to disperse, though they gathered again on the following day, demolishing the prison lobby. The 9th May also saw several riots and protests by striking workers.

May 10th however was to bring fiercer disturbances still. Being the day Parliament was due to open, the government feared that the crowds would get out of hand again, and ordered a troop of Horse and 100 Foot Guards to the Prison. Having received information that “great numbers of young persons, who appear to be apprentices and journeymen, have assembled themselves together in large bodies in different parts of this City… for several evenings last past”, the Mayor of London ordered master tradesmen to keep their journeymen and apprentices off the streets. However, from 10 in the morning, crowds gathered in St George’s Fields from all over London, estimated around 15-20,000 people were present. Various rumours were doing the rounds – that Wilkes would be released to take his seat in Parliament, that he would be removed for trial; that an attempt would be made to break into the Kings Bench and set him and the other prisoners free…

St George’s Fields in he 18th century

Sometime around 11 o’clock, the Southwark magistrates, sitting in their Rotation office in St Margaret’s Hill, received word from the Prison Marshal that the crowds were getting unruly. Magistrate Samuel Gillam and three other justices arrived at the Fields to find that demonstrators had broken through the ranks of the soldiers, who were lined up by the railings surround the prison. Someone had pasted up a poster bearing a poem:

“Venal judges and Ministers combine,
Wilkes and English Liberty to confine
Yet in true English hearts secure their fame is
Nor are such crowded levies in St James
While thus in prison Envy dooms their stay
Here’ o grateful Britons, your daily homage pay

Philo Libertalis no. 45.”

 Justice Gillam ordered the paper torn down, which stirred the crowd up; there were reportedly shouts of ‘Give us the paper!” and ‘Wilkes and Liberty for ever!’, ‘Damn the king, damn the Government, damn the Justices!’, ‘This is the most glorious opportunity for a Revolution that ever offered!’ (which will never catch on as a demo chant). Someone even, allegedly and perceptively, shouted ‘No Wilkes, No King!’

Justice Gillam read the Riot Act, which ordered crowds to disperse or force could legitimately be used against them… in response Gillam was jeered and pelted with a volley of stones, one of which, supposedly thrown by ‘a man in red’, injured him in the face. He ordered the soldiers to pursue his assailant; Captain Murray and three grenadiers chased the man, lost him, and then shot dead William Allen, the son of a publican, in nearby Blackman Street, taking him for the men they were chasing.

The death of William Allen

Meanwhile the Riot Act was read a second time, and the foot soldiers and Horse guards were ordered to fire into the crowd, which they did, killing at least five or six people and injuring 15 more. Some of these were aid to be bystanders or passers by.

A list was later drawn up, listing eleven people killed or wounded-

William Allen (as mentioned above)
William Redburn, weaver, shot through the thigh, died in the London hospital;
William Bridgeman, shot through the breast as he was fitting a haycart… died instantly;
Mary Jeffs, who was selling oranges, died instantly;
Mr Boddington, baker of Coventry, shot through the thighbone, died in St Thomas’s hospital;
Mr Lawley, a farrier, shot in the groin, died on the 12th May;
Margaret Walters, of the Mint, pregnant, died on the 12th May;
Mary Green, shot through the right-arm bone;
Mr Nichols, shot through the flesh of his breast;
Mrs Egremont, shot through her garment under her arm…

Two men were also stabbed with bayonets.

One of the constables guarding the prison was disgusted with the soldiers, who has said had aggravated the situation by their presence, then “fired a random. A great number of them loaded three times, and seemed to enjoy their fire; I thought it a great cruelty.”

The Justices spent all day trying to get the crowds dispersed from St George’s Fields, but in the evening, “some hundreds of disorderly persons detached themselves from the Mob in the Fields” and marched to attack the houses of two of the Southwark magistrates, Edward Russell and Richard Capel, in revenge for the shootings. At Russell’s house, at the foot of London Bridge, saw the crowd break in and smash windows, stove in the front door, and steal a large twenty-gallon cask of spirits, which they drank. Russell home arrived to read the Riot Act; meanwhile Capel drove rioters off from his home in Bermondsey Street, before marching off with soldiers to join Russell and arrest some of the crowd.

There had been trouble in other parts of the capital… A crowd gathering in Palace Yard had rioted outside the House of Lords, shouting for Wilkes and that they were hungry and ‘it was as well to be hanged as starved!’ Another mob had attacked the Mansion House (the home and seat of power of the Lord Mayor)…

The day also saw demonstrations, sabotage and rioting by some of the numerous groups of workers attempting to win wage rises or protect/improve their working conditions  – an explosion of workplace struggle was taking place at this time, overlapping with, sometimes feeding into or taking inspiration from, the Wilkesite movement (though sometimes rejecting it)… eg on the 10th sailors took part in a mass demo at Parliament demanding a wage rise, while in the East End, Dingley’s mechanical saw mill was torn down by sawyers whose livelihood it threatened

The events of the 10th quickly became a cause celebre, nicknamed the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’, and William Allen’s death especially was widely condemned. A hastily conducted inquest concluded the two soldiers who had shot him were guilty of ‘wilful murder’, and their commander, Alexander Murray, of aiding and abetting murder. Warrants for their arrest were issued, and one for Justice Gillam soon followed, for ordering the shooting. In the end all four were acquitted, however.

Thirty four people were arrested in connection with the events of the 10th, on charges of riotous assembly, unlawful assembly invading the Justices’ houses, obstructing the Justices, and similar offences, but the government may have decided in the circumstances to tread lightly, as most were discharged without trial, and only three fined or jailed (compare this to some of the much heavier sentences for silkweavers and coalheavers arising from their strikes)… The shootings reflected badly on them, particularly as Wilkes was a few weeks later able to publish a letter from Lord Weymouth to magistrates ordering them to make more use of troops in putting down riots, enabling him to present the firing on the crowd at St George’s Fields as part of a concerted plan by a brutal and tyrannical government to repress the ‘rights of true Englishmen’.

William Allen’s death in particular aroused sympathy and outrage among Wilkes’ supporters and in the population more generally.

Distressed at the loss of his son, William’s father began a private prosecution of the three soldiers accused of his death. At this time, the majority of prosecutions were initiated and paid for by the victim and could be costly. Donald Macleane, the man who fired the musket, was tried for wilful murder at Guildford Assizes in August 1768. He was acquitted and his accomplices, Maclauray and Murray, were discharged. This only fuelled the suspicions of Wilkes’ supporters of the authorities and the government.

William Allen the elder then decided to petition the House of Commons. On the 25 April 1771 John Glynn MP, a friend and supporter of Wilkes, begged leave to bring up the petition. While the petition was the appeal of a grieving father, a greater concern was the threat of what appeared to be an increasingly oppressive government led by the king’s ministers. They had supported Macleane’s defence and through ‘oppressive and collusive acts’ had ‘entirely defeated [Mr Allen] in his pursuit of justice’. The Secretary at War, Viscount Barrington, had also commended the soldiers and rewarded Macleane. Mr Allen hoped that by petitioning parliament ‘his great and unspeakable loss should be confined to himself, and not be made a precedent, for bringing destruction and slavery upon his fellow subjects.’

The petition prompted a debate on the floor of the House of Commons. The prime minister, Lord North, opposed it being brought up, while Edmund Burke, a critic of North’s ministry, suggested the setting up of a parliamentary inquiry to look into the matter. Sir George Savile MP also spoke in favour of the petition ‘with great energy’ as it ‘came with greater propriety from a father, as he complained of the loss of a son, for which loss he was prevented by power from paying his last duty.’ A division was called by the Speaker and members voted on whether or not to accept the petition. It was decided by 158 votes to 33 that the petition should not be brought up.

The text of the petition was published shortly after being put to Parliament in the Annual Register, a publication edited by one of its supporters. It was accompanied by a letter from Mr Allen, which expressed his disappointment while thanking the MPs who supported his cause.

The death of William Allen played into the hands of critics of the King and his ministers at a time of crisis and boosted popular support for John Wilkes. He was buried in Newington Churchyard, Southwark and a large monument was erected in memory of ‘An Englishman of unspotted life and amiable disposition […] murdered […] on the pretence of supporting the Civil Power, which he never insulted, but had through life obeyed and respected.’

Wilkes himself shortly had his outlawry reversed, but was almost immediately jailed for 22 months for the various earlier charges that had got him outlawed. There followed a bewildering series of successive elections for Middlesex, as he was disqualified, re-elected, declared ineligible, a supporter elected instead… all accompanied by rioting and fights between his supporters and heavies hired by pro-government candidates.

On his release Wilkes was elected an alderman of the City of London, and gradually built up his support there, eventually convincing Parliament to allow him to take his seat as an MP. He did speak in favour of political reform and an extension of the franchise, even to ‘The meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and day labourer’. His attempts to encourage legislation along reformist lines was however, defeated by the power of the political class allied against him.

Historians have questioned the extent to which Wilkes was ever truly committed to the programme he laid out in his March address. Some have concluded that his speeches amounted to little more than grandstanding…

Eventually he would rise to command soldiers repressing the 1780 Gordon Rioters, shooting down those who would have been his ardent supporters ten years before, and become Lord Mayor of London.

But the forces who backed him would remain in play, and as he faded into comfortable accommodation with the status quo that once excluded him, new social movements would arise to assert the demands Wilkes and his supporters had articulated, and take them even further…


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

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Today in London fashion history, 1768: hatters strike for a wage rise

“This day the hatters struck, and refused to work till their wages are raised…”
(Annual Register, 9th May 1768)

This is an interesting snapshot, exposing a glimpse of a struggle; little is then heard of the hatters strike. We know it went on for at least five weeks though, as on 21st June, John Dyer, hatmaker of Southwark, swore that ‘on Thursday last, a gang of Hatters, to the number of thirty, came to his house in the Maze in the Parish of St Olave’s, Southwark, about one o’clock at noon, in a riotous manner, and insisting this informant turn off the men he then at work, which he refused; and, upon such refusal, the gang of Hatters threatened to pull his house down and take this Informant thereout. And this informant saith they would have begun to execute such threats if it had not been for one Mr Phillips who accidentally was at this Informant’s house and did prevail on them to omit it. And this Informant saith there was one Thomas Fitzhugh present aiding and assisting among ye said mob, and came and asked this Informant, and came and asked this Informant whether he would turn off his men which refused; and upon that the said Fitzhugh declared, if he would not, ”damn them who would not have you out(meaning this Informant) and the house down.’ Thomas Fitzhugh was later charged with a breach of the peace and a misdemeanour at the Surrey Sessions, and bailed to appear on 21st July… there is no other record of what happened to him… or of the outcome of the strike. Did they win a wage rise?

The hatmakers appeared to have used the common tactic, where work was organised in small workshops, of marching from workshop to workshop to ensure the workers were paid the going rate, or the rate they were trying to win… This generally involved some intimidation of the masters, and on occasion, any of the workers who were working at less than the rate…

Interestingly,  this is a very early use of the term ‘strike’ by a non-sailors to mean a work stoppage… since the origin of the term is said to have come from the sailors’ strike of the same year, 1768, when they showed their refusal to work by ‘striking’ the sails (cutting the ropes to drop them to the deck).

Hatters are mentioned in reports of the Wilkite riots of 1768-71, as being prominent among Wilkes’ supporters. 1768 was a year of turbulent political rioting, in support of Wilkes’ vague program of reform and liberty, and protests and strikes by numerous groups of London workers… these two intertwined and merged, and sometimes diverged… The trades disputes inspired others, spreading like a wildfire…

On the same day as the hatters struck,  9th May, there were demonstrations by a ‘body of watermen’, complaining of their working conditions to the Lord Mayor, and a protest, probably pro-Wilkes, both at the Mansion House, in the City. The next day. 10th May, was to be even more uproarious, with the Massacre of St George’s Fields, on the hatters’ door step, and across town in Limehouse, Dingley’s sawmill pulled down by angry out of work sawyers.

The Annual Register entry doesn’t specify the location of the hatters’ dispute, but given the later reports about intimidation, it was almost certainly based in Southwark or Bermondsey, London’s main areas of hatmaking for centuries. Hats were manufactured ‘to a greater extent in London than anywhere else’… at least 50 years after the 1768 strike, there were 3500 hatters, pretty much localised to Southwark.

From at least the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Parish of St Olave’s, Bermondsey, was once the centre of hat-making in London and was called the “Hatters’ Paradise.” There were many hatters, or felt-makers, who had premises on Bermondsey Street; they had, at least in the 1590s, a willingness to riot in defence of each other.

In 1770, there was a strike of journeymen hat-dyers in Southwark, again accused of forming a mob to enforce wage rates: ‘at all shops they came to they obliged the men to strike in order to have their wages raised’.

Around 1800, the ‘Maze’, Tooley Street, the northern end of Bermondsey Street, and other streets in the  immediate vicinity, formed the grand centre of the hat-manufacture in London; but in the following decades, the hatmaking scene shifted farther westward. By the 1840s this meant the hat-making trade was mostly concentrated between Borough High Street and Blackfriars Road (though some hatters remained in Bermondsey). Note the name Hatfields, a street west of Blackfriars Road where many hat manufacturing companies were based in the 19th century. It forms the boundary between Southwark and Lambeth.

Being a fashion trade, subject to extreme variations in demand, hat makers could be busy or idle depending on the season, which made it difficult to earn a consistent living. Changes in fashion could mean new hat styles, which could mean having to quickly learn new skills, working with new materials, new techniques… Very much like the Spitalfields silkweavers at this time, and later the East End tailoring trades, haymaking was very much dependent on its proximity to the well-to-do customers in the City and Westminster.

A lot of workers were “out workers”, collecting materials from a ‘master’, carrying out the work at home, and then delivering the finished goods for payment.

The job was unpleasant and dangerous. An important chemical during the shaping of the hats was dilute sulphuric acid, a highly poisonous substance – hence the saying ‘as mad as a hatter’.

Hatters had been active in wage disputes in Southwark in 1763 – a Hatters Society organizing hatters had possibly formed in 1759, later existing as the union of silk hatters.

In 1777, master hatmakers complained to the House of Commons that the journeymen of the trade had entered into a combination, which they called a Congress, passed bylaws, prevented the hiring of apprentices, and threatened strikes to raise wages.

This union exercised what was described as a ‘despotic power’ in the trade in the 1840s; it was involved in inter-trade political organising, and sent money in support of a hatters’ strike in Lancashire in 1840.


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

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Today in London industrial history: uber-factory the Albion Mills burns down, 1791.

The Albion Mills

The Albion Mills, the first great factory in London, formerly stood on the east side of Blackfriars Road, on the approach to Blackfriars Bridge. They were steam-powered mills, established in 1786 by Matthew Boulton & James Watt, featuring one of the first uses of Watt’s steam engines to drive machinery, and were designed by pioneering engineer John Rennie (who later built nearby London Bridge). Grinding 10 bushels of wheat per hour, by 20 pairs of 150 horsepower millstones, the Mills were the ‘Industrial wonder’ of the time, quickly becoming a fashionable sight of the London scene… Erasmus Darwin called them “the most powerful machines in the world.”

But if the trendy middle and upper classes liked to drive to Blackfriars in their coaches and gawp at the new industrial age being born, other, harder eyes saw Albion Mills in different light. They were widely resented, especially by local millers and millworkers…

At one time the Thames bank at Lambeth was littered with windmills – eventually they were all put out of business by steam power. When the Albion opened London millers feared ruin.

Steam was one of the major driving forces of industrialisation and the growth of capitalism. The spectre of mechanisation, of labour being herded together in larger and larger factories, was beginning to bite. Already artisan and skilled trades were starting to decline, agricultural workers were being forced into cities to find work, dispossessed from the countryside by enclosure and farm machinery… Many of those who had not yet felt the hand of factory production driving down wages, deskilling, alienating and shortening the lifespan, could read the writing on the wall.

Mills & millers were often the focus of popular anger. Not only were they widely believed to practice forms of adulteration, adding all sorts of rubbish to flour to increase profits (Significantly in many folk and fairy tales the miller is often a greedy cheating baddie), but at times of high wheat prices and thus, (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though they were often led by women. Rioters would often seize bread and force bakers to it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. But this moral economy, such as it was, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour…

“Dark Satanic Mills”

Cockney revolutionary visionary William Blake, an artisan himself (an engraver), felt and expressed the powerful mistrust of the growing changes. He lived in nearby Lambeth, and it’s thought that Albion Mills could have inspired his references to “dark Satanic mills”. The name Albion may have set Blake off, as Albion as a symbolic name for an idealised England, played an important part in his radical spiritual mythology. Blake was in the 1790s a political radical, like many artisans, inspired by the French Revolution; he also strongly opposed the rational mechanical Industrial Revolution and devised a mystical creative spirituality which set itself very much against industrialisation

Blake took the traditional mistrust of the symbolic figure of the Miller several steps further: in ‘Milton’ he described Satan as the “Miller of Eternity”, whose mills represent the cold inhuman power of intellect, grinding down and destroying the imagination.

“all sorts of base mixtures”

Dark rumours were spread locally about the Albion Works: “The millers, themselves best aware of what roguery might be practiced in their own trade, spread abroad reports that the flour was adulterated with all sorts of base mixtures.” (Robert Southey)

Powerful watermill owners had attempted to prevent Albion being opened: they had managed to deter venture capitalists in the City from investing in the building, but Watt and Boulton had found the money themselves. In 1791, after a shaky start, the Mills looked like they were hitting profitability…

“Success to the mills of ALBION but NO Albion Mills.”

On 2 March 1791 Albion Mills burned down. The cause was never officially discovered, but it was widely believed to be arson by local millers or millworkers, feeling their livelihood was under threat. It was reported that “the main cock of the water cistern was fastened, the hour of low tide was chosen” when the fire started…

The fire could have been accidental: there had been some concerns about safety, and mills were prone to fire, with sparks and friction caused by grinding, and all that dust, chaff and flour about…

“The fire broke out during the night, a strong breeze was blowing from the east, and the parched corn fell in a black shower above a league distant: even fragments of wood still burning fell above Westminster Bridge.”

The interior of the mills was totally destroyed in half an hour, the roof crashing in quickly. The fire could be seen for miles: burning grains and sparks blew all over the City and Westminster.

A huge crowd gathered and made no effort to save the Mills, but stood around watching in grim satisfaction! “The mob, who on all such occasions bestir themselves to extinguish a fire with that ready and disinterested activity which characterises the English, stood by now as willing spectators of the conflagration…” (Southey)

Later in the day locals & mill workers danced around the flames & “and before the engines had ceased to play upon the smoking ruins, ballads of rejoicing were printed and sung on the spot” (Southey). Millers waved placards which read “Success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills.”

After a soldier and a constable got into a row, a fight broke out, leading to a mini-riot; but firemen turned their hoses on crowd (early water cannon!)

“…it was supposedly maliciously burnt, and it is certain the mob stood and enjoyed the conflagration… Palace Yard and part of St James Park were covered in half burnt grains..” (Horace Walpole)

A flood of speedily printed ballads, lampoons, prints and broadsheets celebrated the burning:

“And now the folks begin to shout,
Hear the rumours they did this and that.
But very few did sorrow show
That the Albion Mills were burnt so low.

Says one they had it in their power,
For to reduce the price of flour,
Instead of letting the bread raise,
But now the Mills are all in a blaze,

In lighters there was saved wheat,
But scorched and scarcely fit to eat.
Some Hundred Hogs served different ways
While Albion Mills were in a blaze.

Now God bless us one and all,
And send the price of bread may fall.
That the poor with plenty may abound,
Tho’ the Albion Mills burnt to the ground.”

(Extract from a popular song, published March 10th 1791)

“…maliciously burnt…?”

Was it arson? The Mills stood in Blackfriars, an area together with neighbouring Southwark long notorious for its rebellious poor and for artisan and early working class political organisation. Just as the Luddites, stockingers of the North & Midlands were soon to smash machinery that threatened their livelihoods, did workers displaced or fearing displacement by the Mills take matters into their own hands? 18th Century London workers undercut by the new industrial processes did destroy the machines taking their jobs… In Limehouse in 1768, Dingley’s mechanical Sawmill was burnt down by 500 sawyers put out of work.  Around the same time Spitalfields silkweavers were also fighting a heavy fight against mechanisation and wage cuts, smashing machinery and intimidating masters and workers undercutting the agreed rate.

It’s also possible that disgruntled small millowners were behind the burning. Although Albion had not entirely replaced local water-powered mills, it had caused disruptions in the price of wheat, which may have hit small mills’ profits.

Albion Mills remained a derelict burned out shell until 1809, when it was pulled down. Most of the Steam-powered flour mills subsequently built in London were much smaller. Whether or not it was arson, whether it was the millers or millworkers who burned it, the fire was long remembered and celebrated locally. Rightly or wrongly, in popular tradition, and maybe in the rhymes of Blake, the Mill stands as a symbol of the disruption and disaffection caused by industrialisation, but also of the powerful if ultimately defeated (thus far) resistance to the march of capitalism.

Some Sources/useful reading

  • William Blake, Milton, A Poem in Two Books (1804)
  • Broadsheet with a popular song celebrating the Burning of the Mills, Published March 1791, by C. Sheppard
  • Robert Southey, Excursion To Greenwich, in his Letters from England, 1802-3.
  • E.P. Thompson: Customs in Common, especially Chapter 4, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century.
  • George Rude, Wilkes and Liberty.
  • Icons
  • Lost Industry


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

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Today in London’s indebted history: Amazons of Southwark Mint repulse the bailiffs

From around the mid 1670s until the mid 1720s, there were certain areas in London whose inhabitants claimed certain rights and liberties, most notably to be free from being arrested for debt.

Imprisonment for debt was a constant threat for nearly everyone in eighteenth century London. Due to the scarcity of coin, many transactions had to be done on credit, making everyone a debtor of sorts, even if they were owed more than owing. And because this was a civil process, not a criminal one, everyone was at the mercy of their creditors, who had a powerful legal arsenal at their disposal. Debtors could be confined before any hearing. Release could only be obtained through settling the debt, even though imprisonment precluded earning the money necessary to do so. No determinate sentence was set, and time in jail did not work off any of the sum owed. Consequently, debtors could find themselves locked up for very long periods for trifling sums.

Many creditors resorted to the law, and many people suffered for it. The available figures suggest there were thousands of debtors incarcerated at any one time. Before the American revolution ended transportation, the vast majority of the prison population were debtors. The prison reformer John Howard found 2437 so incarcerated in 1776; a pamphlet of 1781 listing all the debtors released by the Gordon Rioters from London’s prisons alone gave a similar number; government enquiries revealed 9030 locked up in 1817. To hold all these people there was a vast national network of gaols: nearly 200 across England and Wales in the eighteenth century, with 10 in London and Middlesex and 5 more in Southwark

One way of avoiding prison was by taking refuge in the sanctuaries. There were eleven of these active in London and surrounds in the 1670s: on the north bank of the Thames in Farringdon Ward Without were Whitefriars, Ram Alley, Mitre Court, and Salisbury Court; on the north side of Fleet Street Fullers Rents; the Savoy off the Strand, the Minories by the Tower, Baldwin’s Gardens in Middlesex, and in Southwark Montague Close, The Clink and The Mint.

Each of these places claimed some sort of independent jurisdiction. In some case, such as Whitefriars, Montague Close and the Minories, there was a memory of religious sanctuary, notwithstanding the abolition of that right under James I. In others, there were charters allowing a level of autonomous governance, as with Whitefriars again, and the Clink. The Savoy was owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. And with the Mint in Southwark, there seemed to be both an administrative vacuum, and the ambiguity of being within the ‘Rules’ of the King’s Bench, an area outside that prison but where inmates were allowed to live.

What all these refuges had in common was a population of debtors prepared to physically defend these claims and take on the bailiffs that would arrest them.

Poor Robin’s Intelligence was a two page broadsheet, written by the hack journalist Henry Care, published through 1676 and 1677, and sold by “the General Assembly of Hawkers” on the streets of London. Care coined the term ‘Alsatia’ for the area around Whitefriars, after the territory nominally part of France but with many independent cities.

Although not a resident of any of the sanctuaries, Care was clearly well informed of the goings-on in them, and regularly reported, in a fantastically florid and mock-heroic style – but always sympathetically – the frequent battles with the bailiffs.

An early account of such a fight described the ‘Amazons’ of The Mint in Southwark, one of the longest lasting sanctuaries, surviving until 1723. On its dissolution, nearly 6,000 Minters applied for relief and exemption from prison, giving an indication of the size of that shelter. Of these, some 7.5% were women. Although, under the iniquitous doctrine of ‘Feme Covert’, married women and their property were subsumed to their husbands and so not considered capable of having debts in their own name, single and widowed women were at risk of imprisonment as much as men. And judging by Care’s account, they were fearsome opponents of the duns:

“From the Mint in Southwark, May 17” [1676]
“A party of Counterians [bailiffs] strongly ammunition’d with Parchment and green Wax [Warrants of arrest], lately made an entrenchment upon the prerogative of this place, hoping to bring us in subjection to those Laws from which by custom we are exempted; but the White and Blew Regiments of our Amazonian guards resisted them with such an invincible courage, that the assailants were forced to a very base and dishonourable submission, prostrating themselves in the very Highway, and begging Quarter; their chief Commander we took prisoner, who freely offer’d all his wealth for his ransome; so that being solemnly sworn upon a Brick bat, never again to make the like presumptuous attempt, and humbly acknowledging himself to be the son of a Woman by birth, and a Rogue by practice, with the blessing of a good woman, which she gave him cross the pace with a Broom-staff, he was by consent dismiss’d.”

Most of the sanctuaries were dissolved by statute in 1697; the Mint persisted until abolished by legislation in 1723. Refugees from there set up in Wapping for a short period, until suppressed by the army. Civil imprisonment for debt was ostensibly abolished in 1869, but in reality was made ‘contempt of court’, a criminal offence. Coupled with the increasing financial demands of the state upon the population by way of taxes, imprisonment for debt continued unabated.

For moer on the debtors’ sanctuaries, see Alsatia.org.uk

Today in London festival history: illegal attempt to hold Southwark Fair, 1763.

Southwark Fair was for several centuries one of London’s largest and most important annual fairs. Established in the early middle ages, its charter ratified by king Edward IV in 1462, by 1550 it was held on St Margarets Hill (now part of Borough High Street, Southwark), in its later incarnation it moved to the edge of St Georges Fields, next to the Marshalsea Prison. After a riot in 1743, the Fair was held on Borough High St till 1763, when it was abolished.

The Fair had started life slightly further north around St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) and was also known as Our Lady Fair, (for Mary, you know, the mother of God,). It was originally held on 7, 8 and 9 September to coincide with the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary but by the time it reached its heyday in the early 18th Century, it lasted for two weeks. Stalls and booths were erected along St Margaret’s Hill (now a part of Borough High Street) and in the surrounding courts and alleys as far as the church of St George the Martyr and the bowling greens of St George’s Fields.

Originally the Fair was an open-air market with economic functions, such as selling food and the annual hiring of rural labourers. The fair was a vital part of British life, presenting one of the few opportunities for trade and commerce in agricultural England.

The early fairs enabled peasants to obtain necessities, farmers to hire workers, helped the spread of new products… They also widened the gene pool, providing a meeting place for young folk…

As the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions progressed and the urban population grew, the fairs’ focus shifted, from trading (which was now possible on a more regular basis in the cities), to popular amusement and entertainment.

Along with the St. Bartholomew and Sturbridge Fairs, the Southwark Fair “was one of the three great fairs of importance described in a Proclamation of Charles I as ‘unto which there is extraordinary resort out of all parts of the kingdom'”.

By the eighteenth century, as with many urban fairs, Southwark Fair had evolved into a place of attractions, and entertainments. By 1720, Southwark hosted various distractions, including mime shows, farces, song and dance shows, conjuring tricks, puppets, acrobats and rope dancers; theatrical performances, both tragedies and comedies, tightrope walkers, boxing competitions, performing animals, magicians, puppet shows and waxworks. Plays were performed in the courtyards of inns. Some of the stall-holders collected money to help the prisoners in the Marshalsea.

Drink was of course rife and drunkenness widespread. Numberless stalls set up for the provision of refreshments; the many pubs of Southwark teemed.

The diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys both wrote accounts of visits to Southwark Fair:

“I saw in Southwark, at St. Margaret’s Faire, monkies and asses dance and do other feates of activity on ye tight rope; they were gallantly clad à la mode, went upright, saluted the company, bowing and pulling off their hatts; they saluted one another with as good a grace as if instructed by a dancing-master. They turned heels over head with a basket having eggs in it, without breaking any; also with lighted candles ” in their hands and on their heads, without extinguishing them, and with vessells of water, without spilling a drop. I also saw an Italian wench daunce and performe all the tricks on ye tight rope to admiration; all the Court went to see her. Likewise here was a man who tooke up a piece of iron cannon of about 400 lb. weight, with the haire of his head onely.” (John Evelyn, 13 September 1660)

“To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet-show of Whittington, which is pretty to see; and how that idle thing do work upon people that see it, and even myself too! And thence to Jacob Hall’s dancing on the ropes, where I saw such action as I never saw before, and mightily worth seeing; and here took acquaintance with a fellow who carried me to a tavern, whither came the music of this booth, and by-and-by Jacob Hall himself, with whom I had a mind to speak, whether he ever had any mischief by falls in his time. He told me, ‘Yes, many, but never to the breaking of a limb.’ He seems a mighty strong man. So giving them a bottle or two of wine, I away.”  (Samuel Pepys, 21 September 1668)

“The Fair attracted people from all walks of life, from the high class to the low, even royalty, and attracted the highest quality actors and other entertainment.  Some companies advertised their forthcoming performances at the Fair.  In 1731, Lee and Harper advertised their production of Jeptha’s Vow and the Fall of Phaeton which was to take place in their booth on the bowling green behind the Marshalsea.  There was to be a variety of singing and dancing in between acts and in addition a pantomime entertainment entitled the Harlot’s Progress.  Another advertisement described Jeptha’s Vow and The Fall of Phaeton, “the whole intermix’d with Comic Scenes between Punch, Harlequin, Scaramouch, Pierrot and Columbine”. This latter can clearly be seen in Hogarth’s illustration which also shows a large poster for the “most celebrated entertainment called The Siege of Troy”  advertised by Lee’s Great Theatrical Booth in 1734.  Another company, Yeates (Senior and Junior) advertised a performance of the “Ballad Opera” The Harlot’s Progress in 1722 “To which will be added Yeates (Junior) Incomparable Dexterity of Hand … and at a Large Room near Booth, 2 Large Ostriches, lately arrived from the Deserts of Arabia being Male and Female”.

Another entertainment was advertised in 1733 by Pinchbeck and Fawkes:

Divert the Publick with the following surprising Entertainments at their great Theatrical Room at the Queens Arms joining to the Marshalsea Gate … The diverting and incomparable Dexterity of Hand, perform’d by Mr Pinchbeck who causes a Tree to grow out of of a Flower-Pot on the Table, which blossoms and bears ripe Fruit in a Minute … the famous little Posture-Master of nine Years old, who shows several astonishing Postures by Activity of Body …an amazing Musical Clock made by Mr Pinchbeck, 2 beautiful moving pictures and performs on several muscial instruments … a curious Machine being the finest Piece of workmanship in the World for moving Pictures and other curiosities  … while the Booth is filling the little Posture-Master will divert the Company with several wonders on the slack rope…”

 William Hogarth depicted Southwark Fair in an engraving of 1733, (above).

As London expanded rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fairs increasing lost much of their old rural economic functions, becoming more and more festivals of debauchery, and a public order headache for the local authorities. Increasingly hated by the better off, on moral, disorder and policing expense grounds, there was pressure to restrict and abolish these festivals of wildness and eliminate the waste and common spaces where they were held.

“It is tempting to explain the decline of old sports and festivals simply in terms of the displacement of ‘rural’ by ‘urban’ values. But this is misleading. The more robust entertainments, whether in their ugly form of animal baiting and pugilism, or in more convivial festivities, were as often, or more often, to be found in the eighteenth century in London or the great towns as in the countryside. They continued into the nineteenth century with a vigour which recalls both the unruly traditions. of the London apprentices of Tudor times, and also the very large proportion of nineteenth‑century Londoners who were immigrants from the village. The greatest festival of all was Bartholomew Fair, with its menageries, pickpockets, pantomimes of Harlequin and Faustus, card sharpers, plays, exhibitions of wild men and of horsemanship. In 1825 the Trades Newspaper complained:

For weeks previous it is denounced from the pulpit and the press, and stories are raked up of apprentices led away from the paths of honesty, of ruined maids of all‑work, of broken heads and brawling…

In the previous decade the authorities had feared that the Fair would become ‘the general rendezvous for sedition and the signal for insurrection’.

On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution, which drained the countryside of some of its industries and destroyed the balance between rural and urban life, created also in our own minds an image of rural isolation and ‘idiocy’. The urban culture of eighteenth‑century England was more ‘rural’ (in its customary connotations), while the rural culture was more rich, than we often suppose. ‘It is a great error to suppose,’ Cobbett insisted, ‘that people are rendered stupid by remaining always in the same place.’ And most of the new industrial towns did not so much displace the countryside as grow over.” (EP Thompson)

The attack on fairs went hand in hand with the accelerating enclosure of land; the loss of access to the open space and marginal lands the poor had always used. For the wealthy and powerful, this was knocking off two birds with one stone: more profit, less tumult. Sometimes the disorderly use of greens and commons was a major justification for fencing them off: fairs were a common example of the kind of turbulent practices enclosure and later landscaping/creating laid-out parks could do away with. The ordering of a space could be used to order the people, since the nature of the built/leisure environment was held to have a central moral or immoral effect on those who used it.

Also, by the late eighteenth century, fairs, in fact largescale gatherings were feared by the powers that be, as possible sources of riot, haunts of the ‘Mob’… Not to mention the satirical shows which mocked the government and established mores. Put this together with the concentration of alcoholic debauchery and open-air sex… Repressing the fairs was not only an element of the narrowing of popular culture, a mass movement in European social development, which had been squeezing out carnivals, festivals and rowdy or pagan-tinted traditions for two centuries… By the 1760s, the crusade against rowdy entertainment was also a crucial plank of disciplining the unruly and reluctant lower orders – used to holidays, days off, unruly pleasures – with the aim of forging a more moral workforce, with internalised religious constraints and external forces and ties to keep them sober and more productive.

Southwark Fair was notorious for outbreaks of trouble. A woman had been trampled to death by the crowd in 1733 and a whole farrago of crime was associated with the Fair.

In the course of the 18th century, there were several attempts to restrict the Fair to its original e-day duration – these all proved ineffective. In 1710 several warrants were issued for the arrest of fair stall holders who did not respect the regulated three days. In 1718 it was decreed that fair booths that did not respect the by-law would be taken down and the owners prosecuted. The decree was flyposted on the town walls so that no-one could claim ignorance of the rules. In 1743 the better-off residents of the area, having had enough of the blatant ignoring of the rules by the took the matter to court “in order to preserve the Morals of their Children and Servants from being Corrupted (Daily Post, 23 August 1743). This legal action met with popular hostility – a riot resulted, which deeply alarmed critics of the Fair. This lead to its being moved to nearer to the Mint.

In 1750 a new petition was addressed to the Lord Mayor, which demanded the suppression of this fair “tending only to the Destruction of Youth of both Sexes, and the Encouragement of Thieves and Strollers (Penny London Post, 6 August 1750). The Daily Advertiser of the 18th September warned its readers that the Southwark Fair would, from then on, take place ONLY from the 18th to the 20th September. Any stallholders who would not take account of these new official dates would face arrest. However, the law was once again openly flouted, with as many stalls setting up for longer than three days, as usual. The local authority was forced to re-state the decree the following year, without much more success.

Eventually, the pressure grew too strong. In June 1762, the City of London council decreed that Southwark Fair be closed down. On 19th September 1763, several stall holders who tried to set up their booths in defiance were forcibly expelled by the police. Hundreds of years of fun and frolics were at an end.

If the closing down of Southwark Fair was an early battle in this war, over the next century almost all of London’s street fairs were to vanish, banned by the authorities. Resistance to this process was strong: in some cases attempts to close down fairs on some legal pretext were fought for decades.


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

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Today in London’s penal history: breakout attempt at New Gaol, Southwark, 1775.

Various sites around Southwark’s Borough High Street had served as County Gaol for Surrey over the centuries; jostling with a number of other prisons built in a relatively small area of what was for years London’s southern lawless edge… (Some erected here because Southwark was unruly and famed for crime, prostitution and dodgy characters… others just because land was cheaper and available.)

From 1580 onward the county gaol was kept in the house called the White Lion, a coaching Inn, just north of St. George’s Church, in Borough High Street, Southwark’s main drag. Stow, in 1598, speaks of “the white Lyon a Gaole so called, for that the same was a common hosterie for the receit of travellers … This house was first used as a Gaole within these fortie yeares last, since the which time the prisoners were once removed thence to a house in Newtowne, where they remained for a short time, and were returned backe again to the foresaid White Lyon, there to remaine as in the appointed Gaole for the Countie of Surrey.” 

The Gaol had long been a target for rebels and rioters: in 1640, in the run-up to the outbreak of the English Civil War,” the rabble apprentices released the whole of the prisoners in the “White Lion.”

In the 1650s the inadequate state of the Gaol led the magistrates to try to negotiate taking over the old Clink Prison near the river, but this fell through… The Gaol fell into disrepair as the keeper neglected its upkeep. By 1666 the White Lion, at least the part of it as was still available for use as a prison, was in such a bad condition that the sheriff was obliged to commit his prisoners to the Marshalsea. This state of affairs continued, in spite of numerous complaints, for over 50 years. In 1718 the Court of Sessions decided to levy a penny rate to cover the cost of building a new Bridewell and County Gaol, but 2 years later it was reported that no money had been paid in to the Treasurer.

Eventually, “after 70 years of delay and vacillation” the magistrates were threatened with being indicted “for having no county gaol”, and in the early 1720s a new County Gaol was built, on the same site off Borough High Street, next to the Southwark House of Correction (the authorities did love to cluster their lock-ups, prisons, workhouses and other repressive institutions together in them days… Now the fashion is to shove them out in the country where its awkward for relatives to visit.)

Like most of Southwark’s prisons, the New Gaol was to become a venue for resistance and rebellion. In March 1775, several prisoners attempted a collective breakout:

“Robert Rous, one of the turnkeys of the New Gaol, Southwark, seeing a prisoner, who was committed there for different highway robberies, with rags tied round his fetters, ordered him to take them off; and on his refusing to do it, he immediately cut them off; when finding both his irons sawed through, he secured him, and then sent up tow of his assistants to overlook a great number of prisoners who were in the strong room, and all [bound] him with their irons, which they had knocked off. Rous hearing of it, went up with a… pistol, and extricated his fellow-turnkey from their fury, and then locked the door. All the turnkeys as well as constables, now surrounding the door and the yard; and the prisoners fired several pistols loaded with powder and ball at two of the constables; when, the balls going through their hats, and the outrages continuing, one of the constables, who had a blunderbuss loaded with shot, fired through the iron grates at the window, and dangerously wounded one fellow committed for a burglary in the Mint. At length a party of soldiers, which had been sent for from the Tower, being arrived, and having loaded their muskets, the room was opened, and the prisoners were all secured and yoked, and 21 of them chained down to the floor in the condemned room. Some of the people belonging to the prison were wounded.” (Annual Register, 1775.)

By the time of this escape attempt, the ‘New’ Gaol was already in decline, and new fashions both in prison reform and surveillance rendered it out of date. Between 1791 and 1799 a new County gaol was built at Horsemonger Lane, next to County Sessions house (court). At this time it was the largest prison in the country. It remained Southwark’s principal prison until 1878.


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

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Today in London’s immoral history: ‘Holland’s Leaguer’, notorious Bankside brothel, resists siege by constables, 1632.

Holland’s Leaguer was a notorious 17th-century brothel which stood, near London’s playhouses, on the south bank of the River Thames.

It was run by a famous prostitute named Elizabeth Holland, and its prestigious clients included King James I himself. The ‘leaguer’ – meaning fortress – was a mansion with a moat and drawbridge, near Southwark’s Old Paris Garden. In winter 1631–32, King Charles I ordered for it to be raided, but the prostitutes outwitted the soldiers by luring them onto the drawbridge and plunging them in the moat below. Nevertheless, Holland’s Leaguer was closed later that year.

Holland’s Leaguer had originally been part of the estate known as the Liberty of Old Paris Gardens, later a famous centre of pleasure and wild nightlife.  It lay on the South Bank of the river Thames, In Southwark’s Bankside, an area long famous for brothels, prostitution and immoral goings-on. The Leaguer stood close to the Thames bank; being close to the Swan, Globe, and Hope theatres meant it attracted those attending plays, as well as being popular those who hired a waterman to row them across the river to the waiting women. It was run by a prostitute named Elizabeth (Bess) Holland. Bess was possibly married to a member of the Holland family, big in the Elizabethan underworld.

Opened in 1603, Holland’s Leaguer was the congregating place for all the Dutch prostitutes in London. It sat alongside the river and was described in 1632 as a ‘Fort citadel or Mansion Howse’; fortified by a moat, drawbridge and portcullis. In general most other houses of prostitution at the time were barely different from ordinary dwellings.  But Holland’s Leaguer was exceptional, and claimed to be an island, outside local legal jurisdictions. The Leaguer hired an armed bully or Pandar to deal with disagreeable patrons or intruders who got in without paying.   The place ran on an organized system, forming a sort of community for the women who worked there.  There were garden walks for sauntering and “doing a spell of embroidery or fine work,” (apparently this meant flirting).  The property extended to a summerhouse, which was used for liaisons. The river was used for disposal of awkward customers. Unlike the less decent Bankside stews, Holland’s Leaguer was generally a high-class affair: patrons included King James I and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.  It had a business-like atmosphere, good food, luxurious surroundings, modern plumbing, medical inspections, clean linens, and high-class prostitutes. A visit to Holland’s Leaguer and dinner with the top prostitute or ‘queen’, Bess, cost around £20 a head (maybe £1700 today), and this presumably did not include any after dinner activities.

Holland’s Leaguer operated as a female community, in some ways set apart from the rest of society, owned and managed by a woman, which was unusual enough to be controversial, and may have contributed to the attempt to raid the brothel in 1632. Holland’s Leaguer became so popular that in January 1632 it was besieged by soldiers on the orders of Charles I who had ordered it to be closed down. However, when a troop of soldiers arrived, the story goes that Bess lured them onto the drawbridge and let it down, depositing them into the moat. The prostitutes inside then emptied the contents of their chamber pots, which were filled with boiling hot water, on to the soldiers who naturally hastily retreated. Bess evaded the city authorities and despite two summons to the Court of High Commission in 1631, she managed to escape the city and set up shop elsewhere by the end of 1632. She became known widely as “Elizabeth Holland a woman of ill reporte.”  Holland’s Leaguer ran on its own for a few years but eventually closed down and the property sold in the 1680s.


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