Today in London anti-fascist history 1978: Blockade against National Front march on Brick Lane.

BRICK LANE, a long East End street which runs from Whitechapel to Bethnal Green, was one of the earliest parts of the East End to be built up. Being just outside the walls of the old city or London, many who came to live here over the centuries were migrants, from other parts of Britain and Ireland, and later from further afield. Successive waves of migrants built communities here – from the Irish in the 17th and 18th centuries, through French protestants expelled from France, Jews fleeing persecution and murderous pogroms in Russian ruled eastern Europe in the late 1800s.

All of these communities faced distrust, discrimination and violence as the grew and out down roots… And when Asians began to congregate in the Brick Lane are in the 196s and 70s, things were no different… Bengali migration into the area began on a large scale in the 1950s. The men came first, arriving in the fifties as guestworkers to help solve the labour shortage. Later, they sent for their wives and families, many leaving extreme poverty, natural disaster and war in Bangladesh. Spitalfields and Whitechapel again saw the growth of concentrated migrant communities, once again mainly poor and facing the same dynamics of racism and resistance as those before them, as well as an ongoing struggle between insularity and integration into the East End…

As Asians arrived in Brick Lane after the Second World War, the majority of the old Jewish community had moved out – though often continuing to run ragtrade businesses there. There was no dramatic increase in immigration from Pakistan (or later Bangladesh) until the mid-60s; though Brick Lane was already being described as an Asian ghetto. The highest ratios of Asian-born people were around parts of Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane); Princelet Street, which is still the most densely populated; and Old Montague Street.

In 1963 the Graces’ Alley Compulsory Purchase Order had initiated the gradual demolition of the old seameds and brothel district in Cable Street, a mile south of Brick Lane. For more than 20 years it had been a centre for seamen from north, east and west Africa, and then for immigrants from India and Pakistan. Much of the Cable Street community moved northwards – to Brick Lane.

Politics in the Indian sub-continent also played an important part. With the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate country in 1974 and its subsequent crises, Brick Lane became the centre of a new community.

From the 1960s, racist attacks against Bengalis in the East End began to mount: increasing in 1970 as the “skinhead era” arrived. The increase in attacks by young people, often from the area, against Pakistanis and Indians was a significant aspect of this new phenomenon.

In early 1970: “Paki-bashing” was first recorded, on when several daily papers mentioned attacks by skinheads on two Asian workers at the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. On April 5 The Observer claimed that Tosir Ali was murdered on April 7, and Gulam Taslim documented 36 cases of racial attacks in this period. On April 26, 1970 some 50 youngsters went on the rampage in Brick Lane and five Pakistanis were injured. It was in this year, as well, that the discussion of self-defence began, and mass meetings of the Asian community were held in different parts of Tower Hamlets. There were meetings with MPs and the police, and demands for action.

Brick Lane had a long history of anti-immigrant, fascist and far right groups organising. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists claimed 4,000 members in Bethnal Green, and in the 1940s, Mosley’s Union Movement used to meet in Kerbela St, off Cheshire Street.

The Cheshire Street/Brick Lane corner was later a meeting point of the National Labour Party, which had formed E London branch in a Cheshire Street pub in 1958. This group later merged into original British National Party in 1960. The BNP held regular meetings on this same spot and nearby locations in the Cheshire Street and Brick Lane district in the early 1960s, and their paper Combat was sold there and regularly featured East End issues.

This BNP was one of the three groups that merged in 1967 to become the national Front, which was to exploit racism and anti-migrant feeling like no group before it, and rise in strength and influence in the 1970s. The NF originated in hardline nazi groups, but adopted a veneer or patriotism and British iconography; amidst widespread migration from both Asia and the West Indies, increased racism across the UK provided a fertile recruiting ground for such filth. Through the 1970s the Front achieved wider influence, and won large numbers of votes in local elections. NF marches, meetings and actions were opposed in strength, leading to mass confrontations like the Lewisham 1977 events…

The smaller, more explicitly neo-nazi British Movement was also active in the East End, especially Bethnal Green and Hoxton.

The National Front and the British Movement both organised the existing race hatred, enabling many disturbed and alienated young people to see the Asian community as scapegoats and victims, as well as exploiting the widely held feelings of powerlessness and inability to effect change among mainly working class populations,  and encouraging blame for poverty and lack of opportunity in ‘foreigners’. They undoubtedly took advantage of a vacuum left by the collapse of once powerful local socialist movements, the cynicism bred of the lack of principle of local politicians…

It was during 1976 also that the increase in National Front activity in the vicinity of Brick Lane increased. attempts of the National Front to gain a base in East London, and provocative newspaper sales in Brick Lane. “The National Front has been concentrating on utilising bands of white youths to give verbal support to Front members selling newspapers in the lane. An Advertiser reporter recently saw NF supporters swearing and spitting at Asians who walked past members selling papers near Bethnal Green.”

The NF later (1978) had HQ in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane.

But as old as the tradition of racism and fascism, was the pattern of migrant communities getting together to fight back, and organising for themselves when the authorities ignored or abandoned them. In 1976 the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London was set up as a broad-based body to draw attention to the inadequacy of the protection offered to Asian people by the police and the authorities. The great increase in racial attacks in the area had been catalogued by the Spitalfields Bengali Action Group. Attacks increased further with the killing of two students from the Middle East who were attending Queen Mary College in the East End.

On the day that John Kingsley Read of the National Party made his infamous “One down – a million to go” comments in Newham on the Chaggar murder, ARCAEL organised a mass meeting in the Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. The meeting was chaired by Mala Dhoride, and addressed by Darcus Howe of the Race Today Collective, Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney, and Dan Jones, Secretary of Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council. It was followed by a 3,000 strong protest march to Leman Street Police Station demanding action to “keep blood off the streets.: Self defence patrols were developed by the local Bengalis with help from black newpaper Race Today. ARCAEL to some extent had taken the path of black self-organisation Race Today advocated, rejecting the older Bengali businessmen of the Bangladeshi Welfare Association, whose line was to trust police and appeal for help to the government.

Police in the area responded to complaints about racist attacks with apathy or blatant collusion with racists. Cops tended to arrest anyone defending themselves against racist attack, or anyone opposing racists, and would escort racists around on demos etc. Symbolically, a British Movement graffiti slogan had remained for some months after being painted on the outside wall of Bethnal Green Police Station. The organisation of self-defence groups among the Bengali community around brick Lane did had an effect: racial attacks calmed down for a while.

1977, though, saw more attacks, carried out by gangs of white youth from neighbouring estates.

In 1978, events stepped up further: began with murder of young Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali on May 4 in Adler Street, Whitechapel. This triggered a massive wave of protest throughout East London. 7000 marched in protest from Whitechapel to Downing Street.

On June 11th, a day which followed considerable Press coverage of GLC plans for housing Bengalis in what were described as “ghettos”, 150 youths rampaged through the Brick Lane district, smashing windows, throwing bottles and lumps of concrete, and damaging shops and cars. A week later, June 18, an anti-racist march was held, organised by the Anti-Nazi League and the Bengali Youth Movement Against Racist Attacks (a short-lived alliance between three of the major Bengali youth organisations in Tower Hamlets, all of which had started in 1976) Some 4,000 people, black and white, took part in this march. But the following Sunday there were further violent incidents, many of the attacks by white racists taking place in side streets. However, during the whole period, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested: some 50 anti-racists and less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.

During this period, the Asian community and other anti-racist groups had been actively involved in occupying the National Front selling site in Bethnal Green Road, an occupation which had been inspired by the comment by Chief Superintendent John Wallis at a public meeting of the Council of Citizens of Tower Hamlets that the only way for anti-racists to get rid of the National Front was for them to arrive earlier! When they followed his advice, they were removed by the police on the grounds that a reach of the peace was likely to occur. The first mass blockade of this site took place on July 16th 1978.

On September 24, 1978, while 100,000 people took part in an Anti-Nazi league-organised Carnival Against the Nazis in Brockwell Park, Brixton, a large anti-racist demonstration was held in the East End to “defend Brick Lane” against the possibility that a National Front march might come close to the district. Some 2,000 anti-racists blocked the entrance to Brick Lane, although in fact the NF had gone via side streets to a meeting in Hoxton. During the course of the day, there was a good deal of criticism of the Anti-Nazi League who had organised the Brixton carnival, miles away from Brick Lane.

The Anti-Nazi League, formed by the Socialist Workers party and others, had certainly helped build a cultural anti-racism which contributed to a nexus in opposition to NF violence… But it was seen by some militant anti-fascsists as posturing and bottling the direct  physical confrontations needed to beat the NF and other rightists off the street. Organising a carnival the other side of London while the NF threatened to march in the Brick Lane area did not help this perception.

The Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee, while it did not explicitly attack the ANL, insisted that the defence of Brick Lane was the “top priority”. In their bulletin, issued before the demonstration, the Committee noted:

‘Far fewer racist attacks have taken place in Brick Lane over the last few months which the local people attribute not to the increased police pressure but to the active defence which is being carried out by black people and anti-racists.”

Other groups were less kind to the ANL. One group accused them of “an organised betrayal of the fight against fascism”. It was a confusing but critical day. An ANL spokesman commented that “the NFs feeble attempt to disrupt the carnival and invade Brick Lane was completely defeated”. On the other hand, the purpose of the NF march was to announce the establishment of their new national headquarters in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane. The headquarters was later to become the subject of a government inquiry after Hackney Council had refused planning permission.

The National Front and other hard-right ‘fringe parties’ lost much of the support they had built up in the 1970, after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected in 1979, going on to nicked their racist thunder and institutionalise racism and anti-migrant sentiment on state action. Around Brick lane and other parts of he East End, a lot of work done over 10 years to prevent both racist attacks and defuse self-organised self-defence, had physically frustrated street-based fascism, but it was never completely driven off. Through the 1980s the remnant of the NF and its offshoot, a revived British National Party, were constantly being faced down by anti-fascists; in the early 1990s, a renewed struggle saw stand-offs and pitched battles with BNL papersellers in Brick Lane, usually with Anti-Fascist Action and other grassroots anti-racist groups at it heart. The tradition of Bengali youth mobilising for self-defence also continued, in the form of groups like Youth Connection,  the Tower Hamlets 9 Defence Committee and more…

But if local racial aggro calmed down, nazi propaganda was still bearing fruit for Brick Lane; in April 1999, 7 people were slightly hurt in a bombing by nazi nutter David Copeland, who had already planted a bomb in Brixton and would kill 3 people with a third bomb in a gay pub in Soho a week later.

Brick Lane is a very different place these days – the Bengali community remains, less threatened by racist violence. Gentrification and the hipsterisation of Spitalfields and neighbouring areas has altered the rundown and working class nature of the Lane; many residents, white and Bengali, may yet end up being replaced by white trendies, as the shops and cafes have increasingly been…

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An entry in the
2016 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London industrial history, 1769: The Bold Defiance attack looms of silkweavers working below the agreed rate, Spitalfields.

Pretty much everyone has heard of the Luddites, although many people still have a misconception about the reasons why they destroyed machinery. The weavers of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Leicestershire smashed machine looms not because they were blindly opposed to progress, or afraid of new technology, but because the introduction of machinery was undermining the livelihoods of themselves and their communities. They viewed new technology through the eyes of artisans accustomed to a certain amount of autonomy: from being well-paid workers working mainly under their own terms, often in their own homes, they were being reduced to poverty, and clearly saw that mechanisation was transforming them into wage slaves, increasingly forced into factories. Their challenge to new technology was based on both desperation and self-interest: machine-weaving was benefitting the masters and increasing their profits, at the workers’ expense, but machines could be used to improve the lives of those who created the wealth, if their use was controlled by the workers themselves.

It’s all about who’s making the decisions, and in whose interests… A question of control, how new technological developments change our work, strengthening us or those who live off our labour; a question that remains alive and crucial today.

Less well known than the Luddites, though, another group of workers also fought the imposing of machinery and the factory system against their interests – the silk weavers of Spitalfields, in London’s East End. Four decades before the Luddite uprisings, the silkweavers’ long battle against mechanisation came to a head in violent struggles. Like the Luddites, their campaign was volatile and violent, and  was viciously repressed by the authorities. But their struggles were more complex and contradictory, in that sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.

Spitalfields is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Described as City’s “first industrial suburb”, from the Middle Ages, Spitalfields, (together with neighbouring areas Bishopsgate and Shoreditch), was well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, the poor, criminals, and outcast and rebellious clustered here.

From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery-stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth-century pogroms in east Europe, and the Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s…

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bishopsgate, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, spreading as far as Mile End to the east, and around parts of Clerkenwell further west.

Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members…

Silk production demanded much preparation before actual weaving began: throwing, where silk that has been reeled into skeins, is cleaned, twisted and wound onto bobbins, employed thousands in London already by the 1660s, though later throwing was dispersed to other towns.

In the early years weaving in Spitalfields was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Company were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.

Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.

A twentieth century account described the organisation of weaving in the area, based on reports from the previous century:

“The manufacturer procures his thrown ‘organzine’ and ‘tram’ either from the throwster or from the silk importers, and selects the silk necessary to execute any particular order. The weaver goes to the house or shop of his employer and receives a sufficient quantity of the material, which he takes home to his own dwelling and weaves at his own looms or sometimes at looms supplied by the manufacturer, being paid at a certain rate per ell. In a report to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837 Dr. Kay thus describes the methods of work of a weaver and his family:-

A weaver has generally two looms, one for his wife and another for himself, and as his family increases the children are set to work at six or seven years of age to quill silk; at nine or ten years to pick silk; and at the age of twelve or thirteen (according to the size of the child) he is put to the loom to weave. A child very soon learns to weave a plain silk fabric, so as to become a proficient in that branch; a weaver has thus not unfrequently four looms on which members of his own family are employed…”

“The houses occupied by the weavers are constructed for the special convenience of their trade, having in the upper stories wide, lattice-like windows which run across almost the whole frontage of the house. These ‘lights’ are absolutely necessary in order to throw a strong light on every part of the looms, which are usually placed directly under them. Many of the roofs present a strange appearance, having ingenious bird-traps of various kinds and large birdcages, the weavers having long been famed for their skill in snaring song-birds. They used largely to supply the home market with linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches, and other song birds which they caught by trained ‘call-birds’ and other devices in the fields of north and east London.”

The wide high windows that shed enough light for their work can still be seen everywhere on older buildings around Spitalfields.

Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade (one of the earliest recorded being that of 1620-40). “On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skilful operatives, who are discharged from work.” This, and other issues, could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters, and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

For two hundred years, through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Silk Weavers of the East End conducted a long-running battle with their employers over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers, and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles.

The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through the 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the ‘physical force’ wing of the Chartist movement of the 1830s. This support arose partly from obvious causes – the weavers’ precarious position and sometimes uneven employment were always likely to draw a sizable number towards radical politics. But radical activists, like leveller leader John Lilburne, also camapaigned and agitated on behelf of the silkweavers, and populists like Wilkes easily tapped into their grievances… Their fierce collectivity in their own interests extended, for some, to a wider class consciousness; but also made them vulnerable to exploitation by manipulation by bosses and demagogues.

Through the later 17th to the late 18th century, the silkweavers regularly combined to fight for better conditions, often attacking masters employing machine looms, which they saw as leading to reduction of wages and dilution of their skills. At other times, the journeymen and masters united tactically to press for parliament to pass protectionist laws that kept prices for their finished goods high…

But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials,  and went on strike. There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, (known as ‘cutters’ for their tactic of slashing silk on offending masters’ looms), and ended in murder and execution. Some of these tactics had long roots in local history and tradition – others could have been imported with irish migrants from the Whiteboy movement in Ireland.

In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms: “in riotous manner [they] broke open the house of one of their masters, destroyed his looms, and cut a great quantity of silk to pieces, after which they placed his effigy in a cart, with a halter about his neck, an executioner on one side, and a coffin on the other; and after drawing it through the streets they hanged it on a gibbet, then burnt it to ashes and afterwards dispersed.” [From the “Gentleman’s Magazine”, November 1763]

The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

Riots and demonstrations continued in 1764-5… As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture: this was to be used with devastating effect four years later.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.

Trouble was also breaking out between groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads. On 30 November 1767, “a body of weavers, armed with rusty swords, pistols and other offensive weapons, assembled at a house on Saffron-hill, with an intent to destroy the work of an eminent weaver without much mischief. Some of them were apprehended,  and being examined before the justices at Hicks-hall, it appeared that two classes of weavers were mutually combined to distress each other, namely the engine weavers and the narrow weavers. The men who were taken up were engine weavers, and they urged… that they only assembled in order to protect themselves from a party of the others who were expected to rise. As they had done no mischief, they were dismissed with a severe reprimand…”

The events of 1762-7 were, however, merely a curtain raiser, for the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, and executions.

In the Summer of 1769, some of the masters attempted to force a cut in rates of pay. In response, some journeymen banded together to organise resistance, forming secret clubs, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop). This group met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, (modern Boundary Street, in Bethnal Green).  The Bold Defiance started raising a fighting fund, as part of which they attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or worked a loom. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing-style notes: “Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”

One major silk boss threatened by the cutters was Lewis Chauvet, whose factory stood in Crispin Street, Spitalfields. A leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin, Chauvet banned his workers from joining the weavers’ clubs or paying any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.

Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

But on the 26th September, a minor master weaver, Thomas Poor, and his wife Mary, swore in front of a magistrate that their seven looms had been slashed by a group of cutters led by John Doyle and John Valline. However, before giving evidence they had inquire with Chauvet about receiving the reward – and Doyle had already been arrested, so they may have been prompted to name them… Certainly Doyle and Valline later protested their innocence.

On 30 September 1769, after a tip off from a master weaver who had had the squeeze put on him, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled in an upstairs room, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two weavers (including a bystander) and a soldier dead; but the cutters escaped through the windows and over rooves. Four weavers who were drinking in the pub downstairs, and one found in bed upstairs were arrested, and held for a few weeks; though no-one was brought to court over the deaths.

But Valline and Doyle were convicted of the attack on the Poor’s looms and sentenced to death under the 1765 Act, despite very dubious identification evidence. They were hanged on the 6th December 1769, at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road opposite the Salmon and Ball pub. Though Tyburn was the usual place of execution, the major silk manufacturers pressured the authorities to have them ‘scragged’ locally, to put the fear of god on the rebellious weavers. An organised attempt to free them was planned, and the men building the gallows were attacked with stones:

“There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends.”

Doyle and Valline were offed, proclaiming themselves not guilty of the silk cutting. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows and burn his furniture.

Two weeks later on December 20th, more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford (or Horsfield) and John Carmichael. Horsfield had also been implicated by the Poors; Daniel Clarke, another silk pattern drawer and small employer, was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against Eastman, who he claimed had cut silk on Clarke’s looms. Clarke had previously tried to undercut agreed wage rates, and had it seems testified before against insurgent weavers, in his native Dublin. Clarke had originally told friends that he couldn’t identify the men who’d cut his silk, but after contact with Chauvet miraculously his memory changed. It’s possible Eastman was a cutters’ leader Chauvet wanted out of the way; Clarke also named one Philip Gosset, locally suggested to be the chairman of one of the cutters’ committees (Gosset, however, was never caught). Contradictory evidence, protests, a weavers’ march on Parliament to ask for pardon, all fell on deaf ears: the authorities were determined to make examples of the accused. This time, though, afraid of the local reaction after the riots that followed the deaths of Doyle and Valline, they were executed at Tyburn.

Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a twist to come. On 16th April 1771, the informer, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford. He was finally caught, and dunked in the Hare Street Pond, a flooded gravel pit in Bethnal Green; the crowd stoned and abused him, and after they let him out of the pond he collapsed and died.

In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – but the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge to law and order. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law –  and Robert Campbell were hanged on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’; once again, local punishment was deemed necessary to overawe the uppity weavers, and they were stretched in Hare Street. Horsford’s widow, Anstis, was also charged with murder, but wasn’t executed (possibly she was acquitted, I’ve had trouble following the case reports!). Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the justice of an angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

Although prices were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal.

This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time. The Acts were renewed for 50 years, and ensured that some weavers, at least, had some security if income and protection for unscrupulous employers… The Acts’ abolition in the 1820s was a cause celebre for the laissez-faire capitalists of the days – and helped to drive silkweavers into catastrophic poverty and decimate the trade locally.

This post is a shortened version of ‘Bold  Defiance’, published as a pamphlet by past tense in 2012 and available from our website

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s history: splits deepen among silkweavers, Spitalfields, 1768.

As previously recounted elsewhere on this blog, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the silkweavers of London’s East End were well known for organising collectively to defend their interests; often using violence if they had to. Their methods of struggle took a number of forms over the several centuries that the trade was strong in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Most often the journeymen weavers would be pitted against the masters, usually trying to keep wages high, exclude men working for less than the agreed rate, and sabotaging masters who paid too low… At other times organised violence was used to smash machine looms and threaten those using them, as the looms were seen as also lowering wages

Throughout the 1700s, successive waves of struggles, often turbulent, had kept mechanisation at bay and contributed to laws restricting imports of cheap textiles from abroad considered threatening competition. But by the late 1760s a long-running wage struggle between masters and workers had evolved into all-out war.

Trade fluctuations, widespread smuggling of silks and other pressures had led to widespread unemployment and reductions in wages in East London’s silkweaving districts by 1762. 7,072 looms were out of employment. This led to mass discontent among journeymen weavers, manifesting as attempts to raise wages and impose their Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases).

They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike. There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, (known as ‘cutters’ for their tactic of slashing silk on offending masters’ looms), and ended in murder and execution. Some of these tactics had long roots in local history and tradition – others could have been imported with Irish migrants from the Whiteboy movement in Ireland.

As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.

In November 1767 trouble also broke out between distinct groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads.

To some extent the machine loom weavers mentioned above can be described as identifying with their masters against fellow workers. In the ensuing fierce struggle of the cutters’ riots, organised weavers used intimidation and sabotage to disrupt the income of masters paying less than the agreed wage rate. Because of the nature of much silkweaving in Spitalfields, with piece-work often being allocated to workers weaving on looms in their own homes, these acts of violence inevitably meant targeting workers at home. This enflamed what seem to have been already bitter relations; the masters may well have been rubbing their hands at the angry splits opening up, as the prospects for lowering wages even further might have seemed rosy.

Although accounts of silkweavers’ violence often concentrate on the ‘cutters’ attacking looms of weavers accused of working for less than the rate, or blindly attacking machine looms, the machine loom weavers themselves were hardly passive victims in this struggle.

A month after machine loom weavers fought handloom weavers in Saffron Hill, another fight erupted on the edge of Spitalfields: an organised attempt by machine-loom workers to target others they accused of being behind recent sabotage of machine looms:

“On Sunday night great disturbances happened in Spital-fields, in regard to the masters having lowered the price of work four pence per yard; but at length a dispute arose among the journeymen, dividing themselves into two parties, when breaking of particular houses windows became general, several of whom were taken into custody, to be dealt with according to law, among whom was a publican charged as a ringleader in the affray….

“A large body of journeymen weavers well armed, having assembled on the Sunday night in Bishopsgate-street, they proceeded to the houses of many journeymen weavers, distinguished by the names of single-handed weavers, in resentment, as they declared, for the latter having been lately concerned in destroying the looms and works belonging to the engine-loom weavers. At these houses several of the journeymen single-hand weavers were seized by their antagonists and kept in custody most part of the night; but before morning they all made their escape, except three men, who were on Monday carried before Sir Robert Darling, knt. And George garret esq. at the Angel and Crown in Whitechapel. In the curse of a strict examination of the several parties, it appeared that the engine-loom weavers, who were the complainants, had acted in a very blameable manner, as they had not only assembled and taken people into custody without any legal warrant or authority, but that they had fired into several houses, and committed divers other illegal acts, to the great terror of many persons, and the disturbance of the public peace. Therefore, upon the conclusion of this examination,, which lasted near six hour (in which the magistrates, to their honour, acted with much discretion and impartiality) the above three men, who were charged with having been concerned with many others in destroying some of the engine-loom weavers works, upon giving sufficient security for their appearance, were admitted to bail, to answer the said charge at the ensuing sessions of the peace for county of Middlesex. The mob of journeymen weavers at both parties being the greatest almost ever known, during this long examination, obliged the magistrates to send a party of guards to keep the peace; and at the conclusion of the affair, the single-handed weavers carried off the above three men in triumph. And we are also informed, that the magistrates were unanimous in opinion, that no adequate remedy can possibly be applied to put a stop to these outrageous disturbances between the different branches of journeymen weavers, which threatens destruction to this valuable manufactory, until the legislature shall have established by law the standard prices of labour between the workmen in all the said various branches of business.”

A day later the army were sent in to ‘keep the peace’:

“Yesterday about noon, a party of guards was ordered to march from the Tower into Spital-fields, to preserve peace and good order in those parts, which so irritated a body of the weavers, that they foolishly opposed them, with old swords, flicks, and bludgeons, and even struck some of the soldiery, who were obliged to return the same in their own defence, by which several were slightly hurt on each side, and some of the offenders obliged to surrender at discretion, and were delivered over to the civil power.” (Annual Register, January 1768).

This wasn’t the last time the army was sent in to the area, as the above events heralded the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69 (the ‘Cutters’ Riots’): a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, executions, and the revenge killing of an informer. But in 1773, the weavers would win a measure of wage protection, arbitrated by local magistrates, which would last for 50 years.

It would be interesting to pursue research here, into who each side consisted of. To some extent, over previous decades, long-standing communities in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green and neighbouring areas had faced competition for work from new comers. In the 17th century some English weavers had resented the arrival of large numbers of French hugenots, protestants fleeing religious repression in France. Later, this community itself faced cheap labour, as weavers fleeing poverty in Ireland migrated to East London. How much of the division between machine work and handloom work was ‘racial’ in this way I am not sure – though for sure resistance united the descendants of Irish and French weavers, some of whom were hanged side by side in 1769. I hope to look more into this when I can…

If you are interested in reading more about the Spitalfields silkweavers and their collective violence, our pamphlet Bold Defiance, is available to buy on our publications page.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s xenophobic past: Anti-Irish riot in Spitalfields, 1736

From the Middle Ages, London’s then ‘Northeast Suburbs’, Spitalfields, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch, were well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, they fell outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, so criminals, outcasts, the poor and rebellious clustered here.

After 1500 Spitalfields underwent rapid urban growth. London expanded massively as large numbers of people flooded into the city: many dispossessed by rural enclosures, and deprived of the traditional welfare system by the Dissolution of the Monasteries under king Henry VII. In the City of London, trade was also expanding in many and varied directions, there were numerous jobs to be had, in both legitimate and illegitimate sectors. New rich classes were emerging, with new needs, requiring new services, and opening up exciting new chances to rob them. Neighbouring poor areas like Spitalfields absorbed many of these incomers.

The district between Aldgate and Brick Lane became a centre for homeless and drifting people – “idle, vagrant, loose and disorderly persons” – by the early 18th Century. The Brick Lane area especially remained associated with severe social problems: according to Mayhew, the lane and the streets running off it included not only lodging houses but also considerable numbers of brothels. Brick Lane, said the Rector of Christ Church in the 1880s, was “a land of beer and blood”.

Spitalfields housing was inevitably usually of low quality, overcrowded, run-down, often sub-divided, especially in the slums or ‘rookeries’.

But Spitalfields has also been described as City’s “first industrial suburb”. From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery- stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth‑century pogroms in east Europe, and Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s. Many have been identifiably apart in religion or race. In the last decade or two newer communities like the Somalis have added to the mix. Colin Ward described Spitalfields as an inner‑city ‘zone of transition’, a densely populated ‘service centre for the metropolis’ where wave after wave of migrants had struggled to gain a foothold in the urban economy.

By the early 18th Century there were numbers of Irish people living in Spitalfields. Due to their race, their religion (catholic, amidst overwhelmingly protestant English), by language, the Irish were often segregated, wherever they lived in England. London was no different – lodging houses, streets and neighbourhoods became generally Irish in character.

Frequently they were extremely poor or destitute. The extreme poverty of the Irish locally was often noted. This lasted for more than a century: the radical Francis Place remarked in 1816 that the native poor of Spitalfields were better off than the Irish. Irish migrants were blamed for working for cheaper wages, especially in the building trades, and were on occasions attacked by ‘native’ workers.

In summer 1736, reports spread of English builders being let go from the building of Christ Church, to be replaced by Irish workmen, said to be working below the agreed rate (supposedly at somewhere between half and two thirds of what the previous workers had been paid).

In July this sparked three night of anti-Irish rioting in Spitalfields:

“Tuesday 27 July 1736, the alarm was given by the Deputy Lieutenants of Tower Hamlets. They were barricaded inside the Angel and Crown tavern in Spitalfields, and calling desperately for reinforcements. Outside, the East End had erupted in violence. It was feeling against the Irish that triggered it. London was full of Irish workers. They flooded into the capital in search of jobs on building sites or out in the fields and, like all immigrants before and after them, they were accused of stealing English jobs. Within hours of the trouble starting, Walpole had informers mingling with the crowd, and sending back regular reports from public houses. ‘Some of [the crowd] told me,’ Joseph Bell scribbled hastily to his master, there was such numbers of Irish who underwork them, they could not live and that there was an Irish man in the neighbourhood who employed numbers of them & they was determined to demolish him and drive the rest away.’ It turned out that the contractor for Shoreditch Church ‘had paid off his English labourers and imployed Irish because they worked cheaper.’ The same thing was happening in the weaving industry. 

On the first night of the riots, Irish public houses were attacked. A squad of fifty soldiers under Major White, officer on duty at the Tower, found itself up against a crowd he estimated at 4,000. On Thursday, a boy called Thomas Larkin was shot dead in Brick Lane. The next night was even worse. Richard Button, a brewer’s assistant, ‘saw the mob coming down Bell Yard, with sticks and lighted links. One of them made a sort of speech directing the rest to go to Church Lane, to the Gentleman and Porter.’ The crowd was organised by now. These were no longer spontaneous demonstrations. Quite a few of the leaders had papers with lists of Irish pubs on them. ‘One of them was called Captain Tom the Barber, and was in a striped banjan. I would have taken notice of him’ Richard Button told the Old Bailey later, ‘but he turned away and would not let me see his face.’ The authorities were having to take ever stronger measures to deal with the situation. Clifford William Phillips, a Tower Hamlets magistrate, was woken by neighbours about ten o’clock, despatched a message to the Tower for help, and then set off towards the riot. ‘The street was very light,’ he recalled afterwards, ‘and I could see (at a distance) the mob beating against the shutters with their clubs and hear the glass fly … I heard the hollowing at my house, and the cry in the street was Down with the Irish, Down with the Irish.’ As Richard Burton remembered, it was only the appearance of magistrate and soldiers that prevented worse violence. ‘Justice Phillips coming down, and the captain with his soldiers. they took some of [the crowd], and the rest made off immediately, and were gone as suddenly, as if a hole had been ready dug in the bottom of the street, and they had all dropped into it at once.”‘

The Angel and Crown might have been on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.

Several pubs known as haunts of the Irish were trashed or destroyed; crowds of between 2000 and 400 were involved. The Irish armed themselves and fought back, gunfire allegedly killing one attacker and wounding several others.

A scurrilous pamphlet, entitled ‘Spittlefields and Shoreditch in an uproar, or the devil to pay with the English and Irish’, emerged shortly after the riots, listing those killed and injured, but also clearly ranting against the ‘incomers’: “It is shocking to behold the Cruelty or Impudence of some People, who, even in a strange Country, by the Natives thereof they get their Living; yet these ungrateful wretches are ever belching out their most dreadful oaths, Curses and Imprecations against those very People by whom they have Subsistence. The Truth of what is said here will evidently and plainly appear, by a genuine Relation of the fights which have happened between the English and the Irish in Shoreditch and Spittlefields, which will set forth in true light the Insolence of the Irish, who were Aggressors in this hitherto unheard of Action. It is hoped that proper Means will be taken by the Magistrites to quell those audacious Rioters, and to put a Stop to their wicked, cruel, and inhuman Purposes.”

The pamphlet goes on to blame the trouble on Irish provocation – a familiar story which continue wherever racists gather to harass, attack and murder migrants, yet its any migrants who resist who get blamed and arrested.

Although resentment arising from competition for work was said to be the immediate spark for the pogrom, the general culture of anti-catholicism, dominant in Britain from the 16th century, and particularly sharp in London, may have also been lurking in the background. It has been suggested that the presence in Spitalfields of a large community of Hugenots, and their descendants, French protestants expelled from France some 50 years before, played a part in the trouble – though evidence of Hugenot involvement is scanty. In the 1680s, of course, ‘native’ silkweavers in the East End had petitioned to protest the immigration of 1000s of french weavers into their area, competing with them for work. This may not have precluded the Hugenots’ children from joining anti-Irish protests.

Irish folk may by the 1730s have begun to move into the silkweaving trade, which Hugenots dominated, and Irish workers were later accused of undercutting the rate in this occupation (though I am not sure this was an issue in 1736). By the 1760s, however, Irish weavers were violently resisting wage cuts and sabotaging looms alongside the grandchildren of French exiles and the ‘native’ English.

However, there were further attacks on the Irish during the anti-Catholic phase of the Gordon riots in 1780 (in which many local weavers were said be involved). ‘Integration’ was a rocky road, proceeding unevenly, with alliances forged by some in the face of common interests, constantly at risk of being undermined by longstanding prejudices…

Which may well have some lessons for us in our own time. If only we ever learned from history, eh?

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

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Today in London radical history: the Hebrew Socialist Union founded, Spitalfields, 1876

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to introduced a new era in Jewish migration. A significant wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and parts of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish area. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s.

Anti-semitism has a long history, but large-scale Jewish migration into the area sparked a new and specific campaign against it. There was fierce anti-immigrant agitation; and not just from right-wingers. Central figures in this campaign included people like Major Evans-Gordon, the MP for Stepney, (whose speeches and writings are remarkably similar to those of Enoch Powell later), the Reverend Billing of Spitalfields, the local vicar; and rightwing anti-semitic journalist Arnold White… but also from East End trade unions. An early rally against Jewish immigration produced a resolution to Parliament calling for bans on migrants, signed by 43 unions including the Dockers Union; pioneer socialist and much revered dockers leader Ben Tillett was notably outspokenly very anti-immigrant, but in fairness, many of the dockers he represented shared xenophobic views.

Much of the writing and speechmaking described them as being of inferior race of humanity, and tried to establish a causal link between the Jews and poverty, and the creation of social evils in the areas they inhabited. Arnold White’s symposium The Destitute Alien in Great Britain was published in 1892. Books like WH Wilkins’ ‘The Alien Invasion’ described them as being of inferior class, questioned whether they in fact brought Russian persecution upon themselves, and campaigned for strict immigration laws.

Facing such a hostile reaction, the migrant Jews tended to respond in one of three ways: religious isolationism, a turn to more orthodox judaism; working hard and attempting to assimilate; thirdly, to radicalism, trade unionism and ideas of class solidarity, usually across ‘religious’ lines.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the baker. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

But a core Jewish community was already living in the East End, having begun to coalesce in the 1870s, even before these forced migrations, and socialism was already leavening within it…

In May 1876, the Hebrew Socialist Union was founded here, at no 40 Gun Street, Spitalfields. (The current building at no 40 replaced the building they met in, which was demolished in 1976). The HSU’s founders included Aaron Lieberman, who had emigrated to London the year before, having been involved in populist and socialist politics in Russia, and Isaac Stone. The Union aimed to organise among the Jewish working class, spread socialism among Jews and non-Jews,and to support workers’ organisation and struggles; they held educational classes on philosophy, history, revolution, socialism. Although they organised Jewish workers separately from ‘native’ workers they were not separatist, and they did make a noble but ill-fated attempt to approach Irish workers locally, who were often very anti semitic. The Hebrew Socialist Union also promoted the formation of a tailors union in August 1876.

But the group was paralysed by constant doctrinal disputes; for instance, over whether small masters and peddlers were workers and should be allowed in to the HSU; mostly, though, over religion, assimilation and observance. Aaron Liebermann was very anti-religious, but many of the members combined some radical views with religious belief.

As well as internal division, the Hebrew Socialist Union also faced hostility from the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Many Jews in established communities, which had more or less made themselves acceptable and respectable to British society, were worried or even opposed to the influx of poor Eastern Jews, especially with so many being of the radical persuasion; would the latent anti-semitism always present here be provoked, and would they, the older more assimilated communities, also become targets? The great and good among the more accepted Jews adopted a dual approach: charity towards the new migrants, but accompanied by pressure to settle down, work hard, integrate into ‘normal’ British life, and not make trouble. On the other hand they attacked the HSU in print, trying to discredit them by suggesting they weren’t Jewish, but gentile inflitrators, and they often found support for this among local East End bosses. Workers found to be HSU members were sacked. Rabbis denounced them, and the Jewish Chronicle accused them of being secret Christian missionaries. Union meetings were infiltrated by religious jews incited by this propaganda, and degenerated into rowdy argument.

Partly as a result, and partly due to dissensions between the more intellectual Lithuanian socialists, and practical-minded workers (mainly from Galicia), both the HSU and its offshoot tailors’ union were shortlived. The HSU collapsed in September 1876, the tailors union split from its socialist founders but collapsed when the treasurer ran off with its funds.

Aaron Lieberman left for America, where he was sadly to kill himself in 1880; but he had in fact proved an important influence on the growing Jewish socialist movement in Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe through his writings in the journal Vperyod, which helped form Jewish socialist movements in those countries.

And brief as its life had been, the Hebrew Socialist Union had laid some foundations for the movements of Jewish radicals, socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists, which continued for decades. Jews formed the basis of East End tailors unions, the movements against sweating in the clothing trades, the groups around the papers Poilishe Yidel and Arbeter Fraint, and thus of the strong East End anarchist movement before World War 1, and later of the Jewish membership, a vital strand in the Communist Party long into the 20th Century. 

Tis always worth reading: William Fishman’s classic East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914… and  Anne J. Kershen‘s Uniting the Tailors: Trade Unionism Amongst the Tailoring Workers of London and Leeds, 1870-1939 is also worth checking out.

For a righteous modern Jewish radical organisation get on down to Jewdas

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

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Today in London’s radical history: 4 day silkweavers’ riot against machine looms erupts, 1675.

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bishopsgate, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, spreading as far as Mile End to the east, and around parts of Clerkenwell further west.

For two hundred years, through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Silk Weavers of the East End conducted a long-running battle with their employers over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry.

Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade (one of the earliest recorded being that of 1620-40). “On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skillful operatives, who are discharged from work.” This, and other issues, could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters, and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

From its early beginnings silkweaving in the East End was a cottage industry, with workers mainly operating handlooms in houses doubling as workshops, at piece work rates, employed by small masters or through middlemen and dealers. Silk clothing and products were highly desirable, and profits were to be made, but the independence and skill of the weavers brought inevitable pressure to find ways to cut labour costs.

Machine looms began to replace handloom weaving for the manufacture of silk ribbons in the 1660s. But in August 1675, in a three-day riot, dozens of bands of weavers roamed the city, smashing machine looms or burning them in the streets; they also attacked french weavers who were accused of competing for jobs. Outbreaks of class violence often bubbled over with competing complaints and motivations, and we know today nationalist or xenophobic resentment often sits side by side with more clear-sighted recognition of where the power really lies.

Some of the crowds in the 1675 riots wore green aprons, then a suspect colour politically, having been associated with English Civil War radical grouping the Levellers. Following so soon after the 1668 Bawdy House Riots, where wearing of green had been accompanied by more overtly seditious slogans about liberty and tearing down parliament, the weavers’ movement scared the authorities; although they quickly realised the weavers were centrally motivated by solely economic grievances. However the government worried that such movements could be manipulated by the scattered republican and fifth monarchist underground, still sporadically attempting to launch uprisings or assassination plots.

The powers that be seized a former Fifth Monarchist radical and silkweaver, John Mason, whose interrogation produced “desperate words”, where Mason is said to have looked forward to a time when men would not “labour and toyl day and night… to maintain others that live in idleness.” But he had also been more of a victim than a ringleader (having had an engine loom of his own smashed). Perhaps he was expressing a dream of an end to wage labour… or maybe he saw in mechanisation a vision of an easier working life.

The insurrection was suppressed by the army, but a result of the riots was that full mechanisation was delayed in the Spitalfields silk industry for a century.

But the pressure to reduce costs would remain, and the need would be met eventually, by slow expansion and technical innovation, by gradual employment of ‘unskilled’ workers (often women, migrants or children) to ‘mind’ the machines; in some cases by moving production away from London to other town where workers could be found outside the reach of the East Londoners’ powerful moral code. The issue could be put on hold but not deferred forever.

The 1675 events also left the authorities with a healthy fear of the effects of poverty among the weavers. When recession in 1683 caused great ‘distress and desperation among the journeymen weavers”, it was suggested that a troop of cavalry be stationed in Whitechapel as a precaution against disorder. Again and again the riotous nature of the weavers would necessitate state violence to put it down. Just as often, however, Parliament or the local state (in the form of the magistrates), would find ways to accommodate the weavers’ demands – sometimes from a desire for social peace, sometimes as winds of political and economic theory chimed with the voice of the silkweaving trade.

The riots also showed the silkweavers the power they could exert if they acted collectively, and collective organization, not always expressed through violence (but often enough, as seemed necessary), became a hallmark of their struggles to maintain a good standard of living. This would emerge as struggles to impose decent wages and conditions on their employers, to force restrictions on imports of cloths and fabrics that competed with silk, and to prevent under-cutting of the wage rates by mechanized weaving. As with John Mason’s case, this led to confused and seemingly contradictory movements within the same moments. For over a century and a half after 1675, though, the East London silkweavers fought for their interests with a determined collectivity.

More on the Spitalfields silkweavers and their struggles can be read here

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

Today in London’s radical history: Spitalfields silkweavers win laws to protect their wages, 1773.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the silkweavers of London’s East End were well known for organizing collectively to defend their interests; often using violence if they had to. Their methods of struggle took a number of forms over the several centuries that the trade was strong in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Most often the journeymen weavers would be pitted against the masters, usually trying to keep wages high, exclude men working for less than the agreed rate, and sabotaging masters who paid too low… At other times organized violence was used to smash machine looms and threaten those using them, as the looms were seen as also lowering wages; in some ways the silkweavers foreshadowed the later struggles of the Luddites.

The 1760s had seen silkweavers fighting a constant violent war to keep their wage levels up, which had ended in riots, secret clubs of weavers engaging in sabotage and extortion, responded to with executions, military occupation of the area, and murder of informers. Most accounts of the struggles of the weavers end with the hangings of the ‘cutters’ in 1769… But ironically, following on from this catastrophic defeat, the silkweavers were about to win one of their biggest victories.

Although as a result of the battles of the 1760s, wage levels for silkweaving were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal.

This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time.

The Act of 1792 included those weavers who worked upon silk mixed with other materials, and that of 1811 extended the provisions to female weavers.

However the Acts also correspondingly imposed fines on the journeymen for attempts to combine together… The Spitalfields weavers did manage to form a Mutual Aid Society, a Friendly Society in effect, in 1777: “some Mutual zealous, spirited and virtuous men proposed to form Aid themselves into a Society in the year 1777, or thereabouts. Society, for mutual assistance should any of their masters oppress them or refuse to abide by the prices for work authorised by the Justices according to Act of Parliament. The Society or Committee was known by the name of the Union, and was held for many years at the sign of the ‘Knave of Clubs’, in Club Row, Bethnal Green… it took the form of a Committee of delegates from each of the Benefit Clubs and Friendly Societies which were so numerous among the Spitalfields weavers.”

Its aim was “To secure the price of labour in the broad silk weaving trade, and to defray the expenses of law should any master or journeyman transgress the provisions of the Act of Parliament passed in 1773.” Run by an elected Committee and a paid secretary, met regularly at an appointed “House of Call,” in order to receive reports from the trade and weekly subscriptions from the membership, who paid a penny a week. This was the first of many attempts to form a united society of weavers, that all foundered after a shorter or longer existence, over the next hundred odd years, which according to most accounts achieved little for their members, due mainly to the decline in the East London silk trade. (Unions in silkweaving in other towns met with more success.)

The Acts did enable peaceable bargaining between masters and workers: “In 1795 a Committee, consisting of delegates from the Union of Journeymen and from a Trade Society which the masters had formed, met and agreed on a general rise of prices. They also decided the rates for newly introduced works of silk mixed with other materials which had by the Act 42 George III, Cap. 44, been brought within the scope of the original Act. This list the justices sanctioned…”

The Spitalfields Acts were renewed several times until 1824. Opinion at the time as to their effect on the local silk industry was sharply divided: in the 1810s/1820s they were the subject of a pamphlet war and verbal exchanges in the newspapers. Historians also disagree. On one hand wages were not reduced to starvation levels across the board, as had happened before. On the other it was claimed they had a negative effect on the weavers and industry; some manufacturers upped sticks and moved to other silk manufacturing towns (Macclesfield, Norwich, Manchester, Paisley and Glasgow among them); the Acts were confined to the County of Middlesex, so they shifted to where they could pay cheaper wages. It did sometimes mean that some men would be working at full rates, while others would have been laid off by masters unable, or unwilling, or who didn’t have enough work, to pay the proper rate; a slump in the trade between 1785 and 1798 forced thousands of weavers completely out of work. Although things were better between 1798 and 1815, the post-War recession bit hard; at a public meeting held at the Mansion House on 26 November 1816, for the relief of the weavers, the secretary stated that two-thirds of them were without employment and without the means of support, that ‘some had deserted their houses in despair unable to endure the sight of their starving families, and many pined under languishing diseases brought on by the want of food and clothing.’

The writers of some pamphlets attacking the Acts claimed that the interference of the magistrates ensured that all work was paid the same rate, machine-woven silk just as hand-woven; this, it was suggested, was handicapping masters, preventing any incentive for technological improvement… The same old argument, which again can be heard today every time workers combine to try and win higher wages – small businesses can’t afford to pay a living wage, it’ll cripple them and hobble the economy, the state should abolish as much regulation and red tape as possible; the market will set decent wages by its own mechanisms… We all know what happens when the market takes over…

By conscious and collective class struggle, the weavers forced the stare, at least locally, to guarantee a measure of living standards. Obviously the interests of the authorities was partly in social peace; but the ruling elites were divided at the time as to the merits of paternalist intervention in industry, or laissez faire, allowing manufacturers carte blanche to exploit where they would, regardless of the consequences for the workers. Rival factions in the magistracy and London merchant classes could even enter in semi-alliance with rebellious workers or sponsoring strike-breaking gangs, as in the Wapping coalheavers and sailors dispute of 1768.

But it’s also true that the gains for the weavers were partial; some workers were protected; others my have starved; and the local nature of the struggle meant that manufacturers were able to up sticks and transfer mechanised weaving elsewhere, eventually contributing to the doing-in for the Spitalfields silk industry. Limited gains are worth celebrating, but now, even more so than then, capital is always mobile, seeking ways to undercut our achivements; especially if we sit back. You have to keep pushing out the boundaries – or else they will push you back. Although there were some communications and solidarity expressed between silkweavers in different cities in the 1760s, over the next few decades the masters were able to move operations without a concerted movement to resist them. We have to be more mobile, more international, even, than them, to even resist the erosion of the little we have – never mind seizing more…

A STATE OF QUIETITUDE AND REPOSE

One major result of the Acts, at least between 1773 and 1824, seems to have been an end to weavers’ riots and cuttings… or any strikes at all. It is argued in pamphlets in the 1820s that the Spitalfields weavers were also diverted from radical, reforming and revolutionary politics, especially in the 1790s and 1810s when other similar groups of workers were widely attracted to such ideas. For instance, no or few weavers were supposed to have taken part in the widespread food rioting of 1795. Local anger may have also been diverted in 1795 by the opening of London’s first ever soup kitchen in Spitalfields. Its founder, Patrick Colquhoun, stated that the aim of doling out free food was to prevent the poor being attracted by revolutionary ideas at the time of the French Revolution & widespread radical activity; he was a clever theorist of controlling the troublesome workers with repression and paternalism hand in hand, and was also instrumental in forming the Thames River Police, an important forerunner of the Metropolitan Police.

Whether the weavers were bought off completely is debatable though, as they were also said to be a significant element in the London artisan radical scene in the 1790s: including the London Corresponding Society and its more conspiratorial offshoots. However it may be relevant that when Leicester framework-knitters met London trade unionists in 1812 during the Luddite upsurge, the Londoners pointed out how the workers in London weree all organised, ‘combined’, “the silkweavers excepted, and what a Miserable Condition are they in.” The Acts may have exerted some quietist influence on Spitalfields workers, keeping them from coming together again in their own interest, with the magistrates claiming to be acting for them. By 1812 certainly the silkweavers of London were allegedly involved in abortive conspiracies for an uprising with Luddites and others – they and tailors were in fact said by government spies to be the chef London end of a nebulous revolutionary organisation…(although this was possibly invented by spies to justify their pay, and eagerly believed in by authorities and manufacturers as a justification for repression.) Later Fergus O’Connor was to call the Spitalfields weavers “the originators, the prop and support of the Chartist movement.”

So if it is the case that some weavers were skint while others worked, the Acts may have worked to reduce militancy and split the weavers movement. It’s also a factor, that although the rebelliousness of the weavers pushed the local state to step in and acts as an arbitrator, in the end this disempowered the workers. By the time the Spitalfields Acts were withdrawn, the immense pressure the organised weavers could put on the masters had been dispersed, replaced by a reliance on the Magistrates; this collective power couldn’t, as it turned out, be rebuilt when it was needed.

As we said above, the division over the Acts reflects a split in attitudes to workers militancy from the autorities: whether to pacify them and reduce trouble, or condone the reduction of wages regardless, and savagely repress any resistance. Sir John Clapham noted that many masters supported the Acts, because they ensured that “the district lived in a state of quietitude and repose.”

In the 1770s the paternal idea of a local state intervention to keep the peace in everyone ‘s interest prevailed, but in the harsher times of the laissez-faire 1820s they were an expensive anachronism. Manufacturers may well have moved their business out to areas with less of a rebellious tradition however, whether the Acts had existed or not.

It is certain that Repeal of the Acts in 1824, under the ‘progressive’ Whig program of economic liberalisation, was very unpopular among weavers (an 11,000 strong petition was got up in 3 days against repeal, and there were demos at parliament) and resulted in widespread wage cuts and extreme poverty. The trade was sabotaged. But the fight had seemingly largely gone out of the weavers… Although there were some strikes, loom-cutting and window smashing, it was ineffective.
The East End’s silk weaving trade went into a serious decline in the mid-nineteenth century, although remnants lasted into recent times… But the collective power of the silkweavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green deserves to be remembered.

This post is largely an excerpt from the past tense text: ‘Bold Defiance’

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar

 

Today in London radical history: silkweavers attack the East India Company HQ, 1697.

The silkweavers of London’s East End had a long history of organizing collectively to defend their interests; often using violence if they had to. Their methods of struggle took a number of forms over the several centuries that the trade was strong in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Most often the journeymen weavers would be pitted against the masters, usually trying to keep wages high, exclude men working for less than the agreed rate, and sabotaging masters who paid too low… At other times organized violence was used to smash machine looms and threaten those using them, as the looms were seen as also lowering wages.

At other times, though, masters and journeymen would broadly be united, in an alliance to defend the whole trade; usually when threatened by cheaper fabrics imported from abroad. For decades in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries masters and weavers espoused protectionism against imported textiles, and put pressure, sometimes using riot and assault, on both parliament and other authorities to erect import bans or high tariffs, and social pressure on individuals caught wearing such garments… The extent to which there was manipulation of the mass of weavers by more powerful masters, to use them to extort favourable rulings in Parliament, is debatable – although encouraging collective violence was a dangerous game, as it was also turned on the masters regularly.

One of their most powerful enemies of the weavers in this was the mighty East India Company, a global capitalist enterprise, run from London, which had large holdings in India and other parts of the far east… The Company was a major importer of silks from India, and other textiles.

In 1697 silkweavers’ riots erupted, against imports on foreign silks, widely seen as undercutting prices for East London cloths. Again masters encouraged crowd violence. Weavers besieged parliament, marched on Lewisham’s silks mills to smash machine looms operating there; and on January 21st they attacked the HQ of the East India Company, (in Leadenhall Street, in the City: the site is now occupied by the Lloyds Building). They also threatened the house of Joshua Childs, the East India Company’s dictator.

These disturbances as well as pressure from silk-weaving manufacturers’ organisations (such as the Royal Lustring Company, which had taken advantage of a Hugenot workman bringing to England the secret of giving a lustre to taffeta) in succeeding years led to several protectionist laws being passed in parliament in the 1690s and 1700 to protect the industry from competition from foreign cloths, especially French silks.

1719-20 saw another prolonged agitation, this time over imports of calico, dyed and patterned cloth from India, which had become very fashionable. Silk, wool and cotton weavers widely perceived calico as causing reduced demand for their products (calico was quite a bit cheaper. than silk..) Calico printing was now becoming an industry of size in London.

In petitions to Parliament the calicoes were denounced “as a worthless, scandalous, unprofitable sort of goods embraced by a luxuriant humour among the women, prompted by the art and fraud of the drapers and the East India Company to whom alone they are profitable.” The protests of 1719-20 were to some extent successful, leading to a ban on calico, enshrined in the Calico Act, as well as penalties for anyone convicted of wearing printed calicoes.

In 1765, however, wage riots broke out again; at a time of high food prices & unemployment. In May 8000 silkweavers, armed with bludgeons and pickaxes, paraded in front of St. James’ Palace with black flags, surrounding the Houses of Lords, after the Duke of Bedford engineered the defeat of a bill in the House of Lords designed to protect the silkweaving trade by placing high import duties on Italian silks. They then besieged and attacked the Bedford’s house, in London’s Bloomsbury. The fourth Duke of Bedford was a whig politician, in and out of various positions of power. But he also had extensive interests in the East India Company, which was again engaged in importing cheaper Indian textiles – also undercutting the weavers’ livelihoods, made him an even more hated target.

The East India Company had also launched an imperialist war to seize economic power in India, defending trade monopolies with their private army. They caused mass starvation in 1769 and 1770 by cornering the market in rice and refusing to sell it except at exorbitant prices. Using genocide and mass starvation, they gained almost complete rule over in the sub-continent. Their control led to rebellion and mutiny, most notably in 1857; it also sowed the foundation of the British Raj.

Read more about the Spitalfields Silk weavers:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/bold defiance.html

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html

Today in London’s rebel past: Rent Strike Begins, Flower and Dean Street, 1939.

2016: housing in London spirals into a morass of high rents, inflated property prices, homelessness and housing benefit cuts… Resistance is growing…

A time to remember that those who face this before us didn’t just take it lying down… To remember some of the many tenants who organised rent strikes against greedy landlords charging exorbitant rents for run-down and over crowded housing, back in the 1930s…

77 years ago today, one such rent strike started, in Flower and Dean Street, in London’s East End.

Flower & Dean Street, just off Commercial Street in Spitalfields, was long notorious for the poverty of its residents. A remnant of the old rookery, largely cleared in the 1840s by the building of Commercial Street (an early experiment with driving wide new roads through poor areas to break up neighbourhoods considered dangerous to public order and morals…)

In the 1880s, the Flower and Dean Street area was still a ‘rookery’, “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders of course.

Partly to revive the moral middle class campaign to improve (ie clear and reduce the treat from) areas of endemic poverty, blocks of model dwellings were erected by early housing charities. Although there was genuine desire to improve the working class, there was also a feeling that the deserving and the undeserving poor needed to be separated, to prevent moral contamination of the former by the latter.

However, housing here remained in many ways grim – overcrowded, unsanitary and not that cheap. The private landlords who owned much of the area charged high rents for crap conditions. Not that THAT dynamic still exists in London, oh no (in the week attempts to impose controls on landlords’ ability to rent out sub-standard housing was defeated, with the help of 73 landlord MPs).

Into the 1930s and the terrible housing conditions in the area began to ignite discontent and collective action. Much of the grassroots work organizing tenants at this time was alter claimed to originate with members of the Communist Party (CP), who were strong and active in the area at the time – but members of the Labour party and other activists were also involved.

In June 1933, a mass demo successfully defended family in Flower and Dean Street against eviction.

But it was in 1938-9 that the struggle became huge, as mass rent strikes were organized in the borough of Stepney, which then included this area. The CP were heavily involved, and a useful short account of the rent strikes can be found in Phil Piratin’s book, Our Flag Stays Red. Piratin was a local CP member, who later became a CP councillor and MP. Two years of organizing among tenants in various streets and blocks came to fruition with rent strikes that erupted in 1938. Between August 1938 and mid-1939, tenants organized, refused to pay rent, and physically resisted violent eviction attempts.

In the Flower and Dean Street tenements, most of the tenants were Jewish. Their tenants’ committee was led by a woman, Clara Garrett (women were often to the fore in the rent strikes, in the East End as elsewhere). The tenants decided to strike on January 16, and turned their building into a ‘fortress’. Demonstrations and picketing went on for weeks, all entrances were guarded, and there were even street marches publicizing the tenants’ demands for lower rents and repairs. One weekend, 38 children from this East End slum dwelling demonstrated in front of the landlord’s home, in fashionable and far-off Golders Green, a well-to-do London suburb. The owner finally caved in five weeks after the strike began; this struggle served as a prototype for many other actions.

Locally, apart from Flower and Dean Street, there were rent strikes during 1938-39 in Hogarth mansions, Brunswick Buildings, Pelham Street, Montague House, Hawkins, Estate, Langdale Mansions, Brady Street Mansions, Juniper Street, Commercial Mansions, Lydia Street, Fieldgate Mansions, Duckett Street, Ocean Street, Philchurch Street, Eileen mansions, Bromehead Square, Fenton Street, Mariner Street, Anthony Street, Settles Street, and Golding Street… The rent strikes though, spread further afield, and soon there similar outbreaks in Bethnal Green, Clapham, Willesden, Finsbury, Poplar, Bermondsey, Paddington, Battersea, Highgate, Norwood and Shoreditch… And in Birmingham, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Sunderland Oxford and Sheffield…

More rent strikes were also to break out in the East end during World War 2. And later, in the 1970s, many of the model dwellings built to improve working class housing in Spitalfields and Stepney had decayed themselves and become slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. Tenants resistance would again change the outcome… (but that’s for another day).

Further reading:

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red.

Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto.

Henry Srebrnik, Class, Ethnicity and Gender Intertwined: Jewish women and the East London Rent Strikes, 1935-1940 (Women’s History Review, Volume 4, Number 3, 1995).
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/pdf/East%20End%20Immigrants%20and%20the%20Battle%20for%20Housing.pdf

Sarah Glynn, East End Immigrants and the Battle for Housing: a comparative study of political mobilisation in the Jewish and Bengali communities (Journal of Historical Geography 31 pp 528545) (2005).

More very interesting stuff on rent strikes can be found at www.sarahglynn.net

A past tense pamphlet on an earlier rent strike, in Glasgow during World War 1, can be found online at http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past tense publications.html

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html

More on Flower & Dean Street, the old rookery, housing and ‘regeneration’, will hopefully appear in a past tense pamphlet on Spitalfields and Brick Lane, soon…

Today in London’s rebel past: the army sent into Spitalfields, 1768

… The army was sent into Spitalfields, to keep the peace, during silkweavers’ riots…

The silk weavers who lived and worked in large numbers around Spitalfields and Bethnal Green had a long history of organising to defend their livelihoods, whether threatened by wage cuts, by undercutting of pay rates by cheaper labour or mechanisation, or through the importing of cheaper textiles from abroad. They were notorious for tactics such as the smashing of mechanical looms which undercut their relatively high wage rates, boycotting or threatening employers who paid less than agreed rates for piece work, and slashing the clothes of the well-to-do who wore cheaper fabrics, such as Indian printed calico, rather than their woven silk. Several times in the 1760s disorder in the area became so constant that the government sent in troops or constables to repress the roving groups of ‘cutters’, who slashed silk on looms of offending masters.

In many ways the Spitalfields silkweavers’ tactics and the pressures they faced anticipate those of the Luddites of the north and midlands in the early 19th century, though in notable ways the outcome was, at least in the short term, very different.

From 1767-69 fighting and sabotage was almost a daily affair in Spitalfields, Bethnal Green and bordering areas. This would culminate in the raid on the Dolphin Tavern in September 1769, know as the HQ of the Bold Defiance, the most infamous gang of ‘cutters’…

Read more: http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/bold defiance.html