Today in London dole history: Greenwich/Deptford guardians offices occupied by unemployed, 1922.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement emerged as a powerful organisation of the unwaged working class in Britain during the post-World War 1. Although the NUWM later became associated with the huge national hunger marches, in its early phase it was based on local action by small self-organised unemployed groups, working on issues affecting the unemployed. Often this meant pressing for more generous ‘relief’ payments or other handouts. These were grudgingly dispensed by the local Boards of Guardians, local officials appointed by the parish, whose remit was to keep down the costs to rate-payers by restricting relief or by forcing people with no work into workhouses.

In 1921-22 local unemployed groups put pressure on Boards of Guardians for help for the poor. As just one example of this struggle, we reprint a snippet from Southeast London:

“The Greenwich and Deptford unemployed organised a deputation on 18th January, 1922, to the guardians’ offices with the intention of compelling the board to grant one hundredweight of coal to those who were on relief. This coal allowance had been promised three weeks previously, but had not been actually provided. The deputation, numbering twenty, were received by the board. Trouble started as soon as the deputation began to state their case – members of the board continually interrupting them and trying to tie them down to the discussion of only one item.

As the board would not listen quietly to their case the deputation decided on direct action. The doors were fastened and windows were guarded, and for an hour and a half the business of he board was held up whilst threats were hurled at the unemployed by the chairman for their unconstitutional action. Ultimately the police, who had been repeatedly rattling the door, forced it open, but strange to say, when the police entered the chairman asked them to withdraw. He then opened the meeting of the board, while the unemployed stood around the room. Within the space of two minutes he took a vote on the question of the coal allowance, deciding that it should be granted from that afternoon onwards and promising to call a special meeting to deal with the other points that the deputation had raised.” (Wal Hannington, Unemployed Struggles 1919-36)


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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next day they returned to Parliament:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London welfare history: Camberwell unemployed protest end of milk ration for babies, 1922.

South London’s former Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell had a long tradition of unemployed organising: during the high unemployment of 1905, a Camberwell Joint Unemployed Committee campaigned locally for more relief from the Guardians, having a membership of 1,500. Interestingly too, Myatt’s Fields Park in the Lambeth end of Camberwell was built in 1887-8 by the unemployed! After unemployed rioting in the West End in 1886 the authorities set up work-for-your-charity schemes for doleys. Locals had been campaigning since 1874 for pastureland and market gardens here to be turned into a park. It opened in 1889.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 1922, the Camberwell Board of Guardians (the Council body that administered not only relief but the Workhouses etc.)announced plans to stop distribution of free milk for babies of the unemployed. On February 1st, Camberwell women marched to the House of Commons, as the order was rumoured to have come down from the Ministry of Health. A Ministry inquiry reversed the decision.

Unemployment being high, it became a hot political issue. In 1922, elections were held for the Camberwell Board of Guardians. A flurry of electoral leaflets from various candidates addressed the issue.

Labour candidates Arthur Andrews and Louis Edwards campaigned on the platform of giving out full rations to those on relief (not as was current policy, on the Mond scale, half-rations). They also opposed giving out food instead of money as out-relief. Their leaflet invoked the class nature of unemployment: “Its is only our class that go to the Workhouse or Infirmary. Send the Labour candidates to make the institutions as comfortable as possible. They stand the same risks as you do of having to go there.” They also amusingly advised: “Don’t wait for our car [presumably to pick up voters and ferry them to the polls]. We haven’t got one. Workers don’t own cars, they only make them.”

Not a line that would pick up votes today.

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

Another interesting snippet on Camberwell unemployed organising…


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

Today in London’s employment history: unemployed workers occupy Edmonton factory, 1921.

After World War 1, with the end of the war economy, and the de-mobbing of millions of soldiers and sailors from the armed forces, Britain (and much of Europe) sank into recession, with mass unemployment, poverty hardship the main reward working class people received for supporting and fighting in the war.

However, the end of the war had also thrown up revolution, mutiny, mass movements aiming not just at fighting for a bigger slice of the social pie, but a whole new arrangement of society.

While attempts at revolution shook Russia, Germany, Hungary, in the UK, one of the biggest movements that arose in the post-war years was that of the unemployed. Originating in local committees of the unemployed, struggling for livable levels of relief (the dole), and support for those out of work and their families, and against the harsh social control the workless were then subject to, by 1921 the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) was born.

Many of the committees were based on groups of ex-servicemen, out work and angry after years of the trenches…
… but the movement was also very much a continuation of the pre-war industrial unrest of 1910-14, the wartime shop stewards’ struggles, and, to some extent, reunited the strands of the socialist movements divided by the war.

One of the early campaigns the unemployed committees focused on was against the working of overtime in factories, arguing that those out of work could be employed instead of existing workers doing longer hours. In 1921, in London, the main tactic was to invade workplaces where overtime was being worked and convene meetings of the workforce to argue for an overtime ban and the hiring of those on the dole to instead.

Wal Hannington, national organizer of the NUWM, who organised the raid with Lilian Thring, takes up the story:

“The success of these raids on the smaller firms encouraged us to tackle the big factories. The first big firm to be tackled was one at Edmonton, where approximately 1500 men and women were employed. The raid took place on 15th December, 1921. It was carefully prepared, all the necessary details concerning the plan of the building being ascertained beforehand. A much larger body of raiders was needed to carry out this job. We used about 150, and great care had to be taken in mobilising them near the works in order not to arouse suspicion. I was in charge of the raiding party, and at 4.15 pm I gave the signal for all raiders to rush the main entrance of the firm, enter, and close the gates behind them. The commissionaires on the gates were taken unawares and with the first inrush they attempted to slam the gates to, but the raiders tackled them while the rest of their colleagues entered.”

Once inside, the gates were firmly shut and the telephone exchange near the entrance was captured by a group detailed for this task; but subsequent events proved that we still had left a loophole for communications with the police. The bulk of the raiders proceeded to the main workshops. We selected a shop where there were millions of finished fragile articles [lightbulbs] and where considerable damage would have been done if the police had been brought in and caused trouble.”

Sympathetic engineers inside the factory switched off the production line. Lilian Thring went to address a meeting to the many women working in the factory.

“The news of the raid spread rapidly through the works and the workers gathered in large numbers to hear what we had to say. Many expressed warm sympathy for our stand against overtime. After the meeting had been in progress half an hour we received a message asking us to send a deputation to the main office to interview the responsible officials of the firm. The deputation was courteously received by the management who stated that they were very desirous of getting on with the interview as quickly as possible in order to facilitate the withdrawal of the unemployed from the factory. Whilst the interview was proceeding a knock came at the door and we were informed that 200 police had been brought into the factory. They were, however, not interfering with the men but were just standing about awaiting orders from the management. After a further quarter of an hour’s discussion with the management, the principal of the firm and another manager decided to sign the following agreement which we put to them:

  1. That all overtime should cease at Christmas.
  2. That in the event of the management contemplating the working of overtime at some future date, before putting it into operation they should first explore all channels to find suitable workers by applying to the local labour exchange, local trade-union branches and the local unemployed organization.

The main argument of the management had been that they had to work overtime because they were unable to obtain suitable workers. We, of course, had strongly disputed this, but the agreement which they gave us met with our approval and when the results of our interview were reported to the men in the shop it was accepted without dissent. We then asked the manager if the workers would be paid for the time which they had been stopped working by the raid. We received a promise that they would be paid and then the raiders formed up four abreast and marched out of the works, singing the ‘Red Flag’ and the ‘Internationale’. As they came out they were cheered by a huge crowd who had heard of the raid and had gathered outside.”

This phase of the unemployed movement was by far the most successful, creative and autonomous. Organised locally, at the grassroots, addressing issues shared by millions but at an immediate level. Increasingly, however, through the 1920s, the NUWM became more centralised, controlled by members of the Communist Party who had always formed the central plank of the movement… The creative, local focus was also more and more submerged into a culture of mass national stunts like the hunger marches, which drew mass attention but absorbed vast amounts of energy. However the unemployed movement of the 1920s and ’30s represents a movement of huge importance, especially in their constant attempt to link waged and unwaged workers, their challenge to daily austerity as it was implemented directly in people’s lives, and an attempt to work out how to share out the meagre resources allotted to us under capitalism while also fighting for more…

Two books worth reading on the NUWM: Unemployed Struggles, 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve In Silence, Richard Croucher. 


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

Today in London radical history: Unemployed occupation of Wandsworth Workhouse defeats dole cuts, 1921.

In 1886 a new workhouse was built to imprison the poor of the Wandsworth & Clapham Poor Law Union, in Swaffield Road, off Garratt Lane, Wandsworth, now part of Southwest London, but then in open countryside.

Under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the Boards of Guardians were obliged by law to ‘help’ local poor folk unable to support themselves either with ‘outdoor relief’ (a minimum dole) or with ‘indoor relief’ – accommodation and work in the workhouse. In practice the workhouses were made oppressive, cruel and humiliating, to dissuade as many people as possible from applying. Families were split up, food was pitiable and inedible, long hours of grinding work were imposed under often sadistic overseers.

The Poor Law had been brought in because of a widespread concern among authorities and the upper and middle classes that the cost of welfare was spiralling out of control, and a convinced belief that people would rather seek an easy life, ie claiming relief, than work. The Act was therefore designed to make claiming relief so painful, degrading and inadequate that people would rather take any work instead.

If this sounds in any way familiar… There are many parallels between the way the power-that-be in the 1930s were viewing the poor, and discussing the ‘problem’ of the cost of welfare, and how this debate in recent years has also been framed. For an interesting exhibition, put together by the Anarchist Time Travellers, which illustrates the links between the two, see This Way to 1834.

Although there were riots in northern England when the Act was introduced, and a sprinkling of resistance by the working people forced into workhouses throughout the 19th century, all in all, the system worked quite well from the perspective of the rich. Fear and hatred of the workhouses (which became known as ‘bastilles’ for the notorious french prison) grew so that people would rather starve outside than in, and the shame of having to apply to enter became internalised deeply into working class consciousness.

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

As an example of the local struggles which gave birth to/characterized the early years of the NUWM: in July 1921, the unemployed in Wandsworth and Battersea were told by the local Board of Guardians they would not receive any outdoor relief, but would all have to apply to workhouse. The Battersea & Wandsworth Unemployed Committee decided that the best was to deal with this was to swamp the Workhouse. 1000 people all applied for tickets to enter, at the same time! Then, in late July, 700 unemployed people, including whole families, took over the building, having marched from Clapham Junction with a bagpiper at their head! (Interestingly, this became a sort of local tradition: I remember in the early 1990s, anti-poll tax and anti-cuts demos in Wandsworth used to march on the town hall with Alasdair from metal-bashing band Test Dept playing his pipes at the head of the procession).

Having occupied the workhouse, the unemployed refused to recognise the authority of the Poor Law officers, and refused to accept the measly food and harsh conditions. As there had been 900 people already in residence in the workhouse, the institution descended into chaos. A massive solidarity demonstration took place outside in support of the occupation. “From the hall of the workhouse speeches were delivered to the demonstrators outside. Then, to the amazement and jubilation of the demonstrators, about 9 o’clock just as it was getting dusk, we saw the red flag run up on a flag mast over the workhouse.” Eventually the embattled Poor Law Guardians withdrew their order and restored outdoor relief on 27th July.

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


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

Today in London rebel history: Peter Lilley, Minister for benefit cuts, egged by disability protesters, Balham, 1995.

“The political fortunes of the phrase ‘something for nothing’ over the last twenty years are instructive. ‘The something for nothing society’ was introduced into the political discourse of welfare by Peter Lilley at the Conservative party conference in 1993; it was adapted by Tony Blair as ‘the something for nothing culture’ to frame New Labour’s welfare reform agenda in the late 1990’s. Variations on the phrase continue to frame policy statements on social security on both Labour and Conservative sides, reinforcing the message that the main problem faced by social security is one of non-reciprocity, of people taking out who have failed to put in.”


“Messed up the suit that he’d bought from Marks… 
Never trust a man with egg on his face”
(Adam and the Ants. Couldn’t resist it really).

Peter Lilley. Former Secretary of State for Social Security (Minister for Workhouses). Rightwing ideologue. One of the ‘bastards’ who managed to make John Major look like a moderate. Climate change denier. Surely a man for whom the phrase ‘swivel-eyed loon’ is a compliment to be embraced.

Appointed to front the 1990s tory onslaught on the poorest, Lilley set out his stall early on at the 1992 Tory conference, promising to put an end to the “something for nothing society”. I wonder if he came up with that phrase himself. Obviously it’s utterly futile to point out which sort of people really get something for nothing under capitalism – it’s really not them as is on the dole. ‘Something for Nothing”. This neat little soundbite has achieved a remarkable half-life ever since, and still pops up like a fascist little Gollum on a regular basis. Actually fascist little Gollum isn’t a bad description of Peter Lilley.

With the number of benefit claimants growing in the post-92 recession, Lilley’s mission was clearly to cut the numbers of those on the dole. There were a number of reforms launched to attack claimants. A particular target was those claiming Invalidity Benefit on the grounds of being unable to work due to disability. It’s worth saying that the tories might have thought going for the disabled was attacking a soft target. Big mistake.

During his 1992 Conservative Party conference speech, Lilley cursed his whole future by doing what politicians should really never do – he sang a funny song to illustrate his political intent. I say funny. Spoofing the Lord High Executioner’s “little list” song from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes. Really.

“I’ve got a little list / Of benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out / And who never would be missed / They never would be missed. / There’s those who make up bogus claims / In half a dozen names / And councillors who draw the dole / To run left-wing campaigns / They never would be missed / They never would be missed. / There’s young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue / And dads who won’t support the kids / of ladies they have … kissed / And I haven’t even mentioned all those sponging socialists / I’ve got them on my list / And there’s none of them be missed / There’s none of them be missed.”

Peter Lilley once had ambitions to lead the tories. The above shows how it was never gonna happen.

In 1995, Invalidity Benefit was replaced with Incapacity Benefit. Rebranding is a part of sabotaging welfare rights… thus both benefits and government departments have had a succession of visits to the deed poll office since then. But the introduction of Incapacity Benefit did alter the landscape significantly, bringing in the All Work Test – basically a series of hoops to try to weed out scroungers by trying to break their arms while proving they can in fact do a spot of weight-lifting. Instead of being signed off by the GPs, the decision as to whether they were genuinely unable for work or malingering would be judged by government-employed doctors (sacked from the prison medical service for being incompetent and brutal?). Also Incapacity Benefit was taxable (unlike its predecessor), and that claimants were to be assessed to be able to do any work at all, not just their regular job.

The introduction of Incapacity Benefit caused a rebellion among claimants, stimulating an already active movement of disabled people campaigning around issues like lack of access to transport, their patronizing treatment by charity, among many others. Peter Lilley’s obnoxious fronting of the vicious campaign and bringing of musical satire into disrepute made him a hate figure; as a result he had egg thrown at him by disabled protestors on July 11th 1995. His house in Canonbury was also besieged and graffitied at some point too, though this was by protestors against the Child Support Act.

The All Work Test is now called the Work Capability Assessment, (soon it’ll be the Life Enablement Opportunity) but the principle has been internalised to our society now and into many heads that should know better. Both Tory and Labour have demonised claimants and a barrage of propaganda is been fired off on a regular basis to remind us that those of us on shit pay are paying all out taxes to support ‘scroungers’. Not bankers and bureaucrats. It’s a good job that there’s so much part-time crap work around though or this country would be in real financial trouble though eh?

Interestingly in 1994, Peter Lilley hired John LoCascio to advise his department on ‘claims management’. LoCascio was at that time second vice president of Unum, the leading US disability insurance company. He joined the ‘medical evaluation group’ that was set up to design more stringent medical tests. Unum and Atos, more recently contracted to carry out the Work Capability Assessments, have a long inter-twined history, and have both been integral to the implementation of this twisted repressive agenda. For vast profit. Who says the system isn’t working?

Interesting stuff on Lilley and Unum 


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

Today in London’s radical past: the unemployed try to take over Islington Town Hall, 1920

The unemployed try to seize Islington Town Hall, 1921.

On 3rd January 1921, a group of local unemployed organised a march on Islington Town Hall, planning to seize it, and use it as a social centre and meeting/organizing space.

This followed the eviction of the unemployed from the Essex Road Library, (which had been built during World War 1, but was immediately requisitioned as a Food Control office). At the end of the war the economy became depressed, and unemployment rocketed, fuelled by the demobbing of hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen. Local agitations around welfare, reducing overtime for those in work to enable the unemployed to get jobs, and so on, led to the creation of unemployed actions groups. The Islington unemployed were at first granted use of the Library by EH King, Islington’s first Labour mayor, but in December 1920 King called on the police to eject them. The Council cut off the light and water, but to no avail, food and candles and water were brought in. Although held by force for a few weeks, it was then stormed by a few cops early one morning and evicted. King followed this up with a violent attack on the unemployed ‑ the vast majority of whom were ex‑servicemen ‑ describing them as ‘unemployables’ and accusing the organisation of financial dishonesty.’

In response the unemployed group plotted to occupy the Town Hall on January 3rd 1921.

Unfortunately their plans leaked out, and their raiding party, about 500 strong, was beaten off. Having marched on the Town Hall, demanding to see Islington’s mayor EH King; and been told he was not at home, they tried to charge into the building, but large no of cops beat them off… A battle developed in Upper Street, and quite a few marchers were nicked, some were had up for obstruction, or possession of offensive weapons, (lead pipes, daggers, bottles of petrol, and one fire-arm!) Many arrested were from Tottenham and Edmonton, as the local group had called in support from other North London groups. All three of these areas had very large and active unemployed groups, emerging from the strong working class movements that had grown up pre-WW1 (many of who were also active in opposing the war, through groups like the North London Herald League [NLHL].)

The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced in September 1921 when the majority of the local Labour Guardians voted to rescind an increase in outdoor relief (dole paid to unemployed not forced into the workhouse) to which they had earlier agreed.

Among the leaders of the Islington unemployed agitation were Harry Lynch and H. E. Martin, both of whom seem to have been associated with the NLHL; Martin had also been a member of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation.

This was the most interesting and radical phase of the post-war unemployed movement. Later in 1921, hundreds of local unemployed groups federated to form the National Unemployed Workers Movement. However, the increasing control of the Communist Party over the NUWM led to a much more hierarchical structure, less grassroots and local control and initiative, and a concentration on national stunts like the hunger marches.

More on this can be found in:

Don’t be a Soldier: The Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918, Ken Weller.

• Unemployed Struggles, 1919-1936: My Life and Struggles Amongst the Unemployed. London: Lawrence and Wishart, n.d. [1936], Wal Hannington

We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, 1920-46, Richard Croucher, 1987.