Rent Strike Now? Inspiration from the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike

This blog normally concentrates on highlighting and discussing historical events in London. Only because we live here and this is where we mostly write about…

We’ve made an exception for this post, as we’re in exceptional times. But also times that illustrate starkly that the conditions we are currently facing are, in fact, concentrated secretions of the same old same old…

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There’s lots to be written about social changes that we are – voluntarily, or less voluntarily – undergoing as a result of the rapid spread and catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Mass deaths… horrific isolation for many… the lack of adequate protection for healthworkers, for people who live or work in care homes; for those who aren’t being paid if they don’t work, so have to carry on putting themselves and other at risk… the unequal distribution of deaths depending on your social class, ethnic background… underlying it all the unviability of a worldwide social system based on social division and economic exploitation, a society so precarious in its brutal rapaciousness that it totters when faced with a pandemic of these proportions. The horror of personal loss and fear for yourself and others; the devastation anger and pain…

People are writing that elsewhere… We might return to some of these aspects another time. Our approach is generally historical; we try where we can to link current events with struggles and movements of the past, to see what parallels and differences we can illustrate, to inspire, yes, inform, yes, but also just to throw up points for discussion which we think might be useful. (Others may disagree…)

The many economic measures hurriedly thrown up by the various nation states to support people unable to work while lockdowns and social distancing restrict our movement are not exactly unprecedented, if slightly unexpected when coming from a neo-liberal regime like the UK’s… But altruism is not suddenly the flavour of the month. After failing to convince even their own supporters that a eugenically-minded ‘herd immunity’ policy was scientifically unfeasible (as well as possibly dooming a future tory majority?) the massive ‘support’ program has been brought in to try to limit the inevitable anger and revolt that forcing people into lockdown poverty would provoke.

One way or another we’ll be paying for this for decades, and if experience is anything to go by, some of us will pay more than others; the classes with the most resources will be asked to pay less proportionally, and those who create the wealth, or can’t work, or have little or nothing, will again be squeezed as much as they will take. And more. Millions who cannot pay their way already can expect more holes in their pockets.

While millions cannot work, many of who aren’t getting paid, the bills keep coming in… Landlords are, unsurprisingly, not all cancelling rents, and the government is not even considering legislating to force them to – obviously, as the government is there to represent the interests of the propertied classes, and rent is one of the underlying pillars that keep propertied classes – well, propertied.

The new Government package lays down that landlords in England and Wales have to give three months’ notice before starting eviction proceedings. It’s worth noting though that this change won’t affect eviction proceedings already under way. Scotland’s emergency coronavirus legislation will also prevent private and social tenants being evicted for up to six months, by increasing the amount of notice the landlord needs to give before they can take steps to take over the property. In Northern Ireland no decision has yet been made (possibly the DUP will re-introduce the ducking-stool for tenants in arrears ?)

Beyond these three or six-month points, you’ll be expected to “work with your landlord to establish an affordable repayment plan which takes your circumstances into account”. Which for many tenants means – you might as well start packing.

The Government has also said that existing rules for social landlords dealing with rent arrears will be extended to also include private landlords. This is to “support engagement” between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes. It will ask landlords to be compassionate and allow tenants to stay in their homes wherever possible – while associations representing local government and housing associations have already said that no social renter should be evicted due to coronavirus. However – rent still has to be paid. If not now – later. Not getting paid now ‘cause you’re stuck at home? You MIGHT not have to any rent while the lockdown is over – but your arrears may well build up and your landlord will certainly come knocking down the line…

While private landlords are also now eligible for a three-month buy-to-let mortgage payment holiday if their tenants are ‘experiencing financial difficulties’ – no accompanying legislation lets tenants off paying the rent. There is no legal obligation for a landlord claiming a mortgage holiday to pass this on to their tenants. Relying on the moral sense of landlords to do so – like Captain Smith calling on the iceberg not to hole the Titanic below the waterline (except a government of landlords and property magnates knows for sure what non-regulation means… the monkey never pokes the organ grinders…)

None of this exactly SURPRISING. If you’ve been paying attention.

Across the world, people are starting to respond to this, with some rent strikes having already started, and many other folk are starting to discuss the idea. There are proposals for a mass collective rent strike to begin on May 1st, International Workers’ Day… That’s this week folks!
Read/download a guide to rent striking during the Covid-19 Crisis

Rent strikes historically have had some success, at some times, in some situations. Like most tactics for forcing concessions from the properties, working collectively tends to work better than fighting alone. Refusing to pay rent now might not result in immediate eviction in these extraordinary circumstances, but might also get individuals into hot water when ‘normal conditions’ are restored. For some people it won’t be a question of choice – no money coming in means no moolah for the landlord.
But collective action might produce a different result. As with any struggle, what people want and expect to get out of it is a good start. Abolition of rents until the end of the virus crisis? All sorts of possibilities beyond this exist, though it would seem a good start.

Whether it has a chance of succeeding, across the board or even in some places, depends on developed  – or the development of – levels of social solidarity and preparedness to act together, stand by each other and – without mincing words – break the law as it stands. This type of cohesiveness varies wildly from country to country and from city to town to neighbourhood in the UK. This country in particular (though not uniquely) has seen four and a half decades through which social solidarity has withered and been weakened; much of this process has been more or less deliberately engineered to push society towards certain economic conditions and to undermine the strength of working class communities and their ability or willingness to organise collectively. Hand in hand with the destruction of industries where workers’ autonomy an§d self-organisation was strong has gone the full-scale selling of the dream of home ownership and the selling off of social housing. Both workers’ organisation on their own behalf and widespread access to social housing had resulted from decades of struggle against the crap housing and bad conditions/low pay/exploitation and lack of control at work. Both high unionisation/autonomy at work and council housing were partial concessions won in the face of fierce resistance by the ruling elites, to prevent the whole of their wealth an control being taken away; as soon as conditions allowed, these concessions were reversed. To the point where social housing and control over your labour are a pipe dream for most of us.

Working class solidarity evolved over centuries was always partial (and subject to chasms of experience based on race, sex, and any number of prejudices), but has been decimated in many communities since the 1970s. Whether the solidarity being developed now through mutual aid groups being set up to support each other through the lockdown can be part of a rebuilding is an open question we can all supply the answer to; will some of them survive the ‘end’ of the crisis (assuming there is an ‘end’) ? Could they be the basis for ongoing mutual aid in our daily lives ?

Simply in terms of rent and rent strikes, there are interesting lessons to be learnt from previous struggles. We’ve decided to post up an account of the rent strikes that took places in Glasgow during World War 1, partly because the practical methods of organising are inspiring and useful, though may not be immediately applicable to many in our atomised and isolated semis; this is only a contribution. But technology available to us now enables connections the residents of 1915 Glasgow closes never dreamed of. On the flipside, the limitations of adhering to social distancing rules can make our old expressions of solidarity, like traditional demonstrations, etc, difficult. But there’s lots of creativity, out there… ways around restrictions…

Another reason to flag up Glasgow 1915 is the parallels, in terms of the location of the struggle in times of international crisis, and the ideology of national unity, sacrifice for the greater good that people of the time would have recognised echoes of in the calls for us all to do our bit, stay at home, protect the NHS etc. Leaving aside the toxic divisions between the tories over whether to push for global capitalism or national capitalism, its easy to see that patriotism is a sham designed to make us imagine We Are in It Together –
when we’re in the Shit and our rulers think they’re It…

During World War 1 millions fell for the national unity sell, and many died for that. Small minorities spoke up and pointed out that the working class of all countries have everything in common and we have nothing in common with our bosses. However – there were those who supported the war effort AND those who opposed it who worked to resist exploitation and crap pay and conditions, expand workers’ autonomy, and to seize as much in terms of concessions out of the state and the owners as they could. Not without massive fractures and contradictions, true. Normal economic and social relations were pushed aside to a limited extent during the war (and the second one…) and this not only opened up opportunities for change, but the pressure of war, death, fear, horror made many sit up and think – isn’t these another way? A different way of being not based on profit and slog but people and love?

The ideology of the Glasgow Rent Strike should be examined critically therefore, as much as their methods and tactics admired; it is also worth seeing it as part of an evolution of resistance to the war and the development of self-organisation and revolutionary potential, as well as a parallel stage in the creation of the social housing of the following century and other welfare developments.

There are some other links to other historical rent strikes and more, at the end… only a beginning towards places to read up.

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‘We Are Not Removing’

The Glasgow Rent Strikes During World War 1

In 1915 one of the largest rent strikes in urban history broke out in parts of Glasgow, in response to steep rent rises imposed by private landlords. Within months, after more than 20,000 joined the refusal to pay rent, organising a grassroots movement that physically resisted evictions and contested them in the courts, the upheaval forced the British government into passing emergency legislation to control rent levels.

Miserable Dwellings

From the late nineteenth century, Glasgow’s shipbuilding and naval engineering industries were booming, partly sparked by the demands of imperial expansion, and then by the growing expectation of a war amongst the great powers in Europe.

The growing demand for workers to man these industries led to a huge rise in the population. But housing did not keep pace with this increase. Much of Glasgow’s housing stock was severely overcrowded and in a terrible state; 70 per cent of the population lived in over- crowded one or two room flats, usually in tenement blocks. On top of this some 11 percent of accommodation was consistently empty, partly due to blatant speculation by landlords. The increase in demand worsened this situation, pushing rents up.

“The working people of Glasgow live in great many-storied barrack dwellings, in which are one roomed ‘houses’, two-roomed ‘houses’ three- roomed ‘houses and so on. In these ‘houses’ one finds a bed built into the wall of each room. In the kitchen, the bed is open to the view, though curtains are sometimes put up by the tenants. In the parlour, the bed is often hidden behind a wall and entered by what looks like an ordinary cupboard door which is only about a third of the bed’s length in width. The unhealthy stuffiness and darkness of such a bed and the difficulty of making it and keeping it clean may be imagined. The municipal authority do not allow any new cupboard beds to be built.

The overcrowding and the jerry buildings of Glasgow are proverbial, and for the miserable dwellings, very high rents are charged.” (Woman’s Dreadnought)

“In Clydeside there was more discontent about rents then elsewhere because the housing conditions were so much worse. There were streets and streets of one-room apartments, with whole families living in the one room and four or five families sharing one toilet on the stair. The tenement houses were all privately owned and there was a lot of opposition from the landlords to corporation housing. Rents were low because wages were low, but still they were difficult to collect. Rent arrears led to frequent moonlight flittings, which were possible because there was no shortage of dwellings in Glasgow before the war. The builders had even stopped building houses for rent because there was no profit in them.”

(Harry McShane)

Any kind of hovel

“There seemed to exist in the minds of the capitalist and exploiting class the idea that any kind of hovel was good enough for the working class; but an awakening was taking place throughout the country, and a demand was being made for a better standard of housing…” (Helen Crawfurd)

These pressures had led labour movement activists to put housing reform at the centre of their political programmes in Glasgow from the 1880s; immediately before the war socialist groups were pushing forward demands for municipal housing to be developed, and organising tenants associations to oppose rent increases. These demands were also linked to growing opposition to the high rates the working class had to pay for public services such as water, and gas.

But the outbreak of World War One was to sharpen the crisis in Glasgow’s housing and spark a revolt that would have long-term effects on social housing both in the city and nationwide.

Glasgow was a major centre for naval construction and munitions and arms factories. The war created massive demand in these industries, which was fed by a rapid influx of workers and their families into the city. Some 16,000 moved into the city and 4000 into its suburbs in 1914-15; as many as 60,000 new workers had by some accounts come to seek jobs in the city and its environs.

Private landlords seized the opportunity to jack up their profits: rents were increased some 23 percent, most notably in the industrial areas surrounding the shipyards where demand was highest.
With the war creating bad conditions for financial speculation many landlords saw that their ‘unearned income’ wasn’t accruing enough profit and so this had to be realized through rent increases. Rents increased steadily, as well as food prices during this period.

“When the war started all the unoccupied houses were taken up workers drafted into the workshops and shipyards for war production. The landlords immediately started to raise the rents and to apply for eviction orders against the old tenants who couldn’t pay. The hardest hit were the unemployed and the elderly, and the soldiers’ wives; but it even became difficult for the employed workers, despite increased wages, to meet the demands of the house-factors.
The struggle against rent increases and evictions became keenest in Govan and Partick, where most of the skilled workers in engineering and shipbuilding lived. New workers were moving into these areas all the time; everyone was looking for a house near his work because of the long hours of overtime.”
(Harry McShane)

Rent arrears or non-payment was treated very harshly – resulting in eviction, seizure of any possession to pay for the defaulted amounts…

Unrest was already boiling in the factories and shipyards. Glasgow, like many other cities, had seen a swelling of workers’ organising and strikes, as well as growth in socialist, anarchist and syndicalist ideas in the years before 1914; “the largest wave of working class struggle since Chartism.” These movements were to crystalise in the War years, producing the Clyde Workers Committee, the shop stewards movement, and would continue after WW1.

But while these developments were building in the workplace, the rent strike was mainly created and given its strength by the mass participation of women, in the community. Community organising was in fact somewhat disparaged by many of those who built the shop stewards movement, to start with; they saw the ‘point of production’, where workers were directly exploited by the bosses, as the crucial venue for class struggle. The rent strike was to prove that this was too narrow a view of exploitation and of resistance, and where it could be effective. It was also to cross the boundaries between ‘home’ and ‘workplace’, as workers came out on strike to support rent strikers. “What is inferred here is a short-sightedness typical of a political climate that sees industrial combat as a central and separate sector – the exploitative is seen as residing only around the workplace, a more male domain. But capitalist relations are secured and integrated in society at large; at the point of consumption as well as that of production, with both being regulated by government.”

Obviously, the war was used as an excuse to keep wages at a minimum. “so consequently the Rent Strikes can be seen in close relation to the industrial unrest on the Clyde of 1914-15, noted for the rise of militant ‘shop-stewards’ to echo a shop-floor distrust of
moderate union leaders who by 1916 were in collaboration with employers and government ministers. John MacLean, later jailed for opposing the war, saw in this conjunction of industrial and social strikes the first step “towards the political strike”. MacLean was also critical of
the TUC and Clyde Workers Committee for not becoming directly involved with the rent strike itself but remaining within the bounds of the workshop movement, itself later co-opted.”

The Role of the Independent Labour Party

“The housing conditions in Glasgow in 1914 were appalling and the Labour Party before the war initiated a Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. The two strongest sections of this Association were in Govan and Partick (the principal industrial areas of the city). Mrs Mary Barbour, afterwards a councillor and magistrate in Glasgow, was the leading woman in Govan, while Mrs Ferguson was the leader in Partick. Many women participated and were active in this organisation. They included Mrs Laird and Mrs Morrison of the Co-operative movement… The idea behind this movement was to bring women of all political parties into the agitation and drive for better housing in Glasgow.

Agitation against rent in- creases and evictions for non- payment of rent developed all through 1915. A Housing Conference, attended by 450 delegates, opposed rent increases and called for publicly funded and subsidised housing.

Although the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had called the conference, as was central to the propaganda against the landlords, it was a grassroots movement based on self-organised committees, springing up in the first months of the year, that led to the rent strike beginning in 1915.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“Mrs Mary Barbour organised the women in Govan to resist the rent increases. They got together to resist the sheriff officer when he came to evict anybody, and had processions two hundred strong against the house-factors. Mrs Barbour became a Govan legend; even now her name is still used by the Labour Party at election times…

Mary Barbour

Most of the women who led the fight on rents were in the Independent Labour Party. Andrew McBride was in the thick of it with them. Andrew was a little fellow, modest and not much of a speaker, but he was the Secretary of the Glasgow Labour Housing Association from before the war and really built it up… Andrew Hood played a big part. He was editor of the Partick Gazette and used it to publicise and used it to publicise the rent strike – later he became a Labour Lord Provost.” (Harry McShane)

While the Labour Party had a strong organisation on which a movement could be based, the movement had already to some extent autonomously organised, in many areas, into ‘Close Committees’. If Labour had hoped that solutions to the city’s housing problems could be achieved via petitions, representations, legal obstructions and not by Rent Strikes, the mainly working class women who formed the backbone of the strike had their own experience, their own ideas, and from the first found methods of defeating evictions gained strength from the particular geography of their housing.

Joseph Melling in his account of the rent strikes (which does emphasise the part played by the Labour Party) reports that there was a considerable amount of friction between the tenant committees and Labour councilors… As often happens. The party had pre-existing policies and an interest in a more legalistic solution, but also hoped to benefit electorally… the autonomous movement that was developing at the grassroots had its own interests, and undoubtedly it was the physical resistance to evictions that transformed the rent strike into the threat that it became.

Other left groupings were also involved, for instance the Women’s Labour League, also the Marxist British Socialist Party (formerly the SDF), of which John MacLean was a leading light.

We are Not Removing

The movement quickly became huge. From the start, as well as regular procession in the streets demanding the rent rises be withdrawn, and calling for a new housing policy, the campaign was based on refusal to pay the rent, legal defence in the courts and physical prevention of bailiffs eviction of non-payers.

“All day long in the streets, in the halls, in the houses, meetings were held. Kitchen meetings, street meetings, mass meetings, meetings of every kind. No halt, no rest for anyone, all in reparation for the sitting of the court when the test case came on…”

Some Dalmuir rent strikers

By October 1915 there were about 25,000 tenants on rent strike. From Govan and Partick, the strike had spread to Parkhead, Pollokshaws, Pollok, Cowcaddens, Kelvingrove, Ibrox, Parkhead, Govanhill, Shettleston, Richmond Park, Cathcart, Kinning Park, Dalmuir.

St. Rollox, Townhead, Springburn, Maryhill, Fairfield, Blackfriars and Woodside.
“The strikes were all against private landlords, as was always the case in Glasgow, and were helped by the fact that people had to take their rent to the house-factor (the solicitor who managed the rents for the landlord). They could see who was going into the house-factor’s office and knew who was paying and who wasn’t.” (Harry McShane)

“The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association took up this issue, and
in the working class districts, committees were formed, to resist these increases in rents. Cards, oblong in shape, were printed with the words

‘RENT STRIKE, WE ARE NOT REMOVING’ and placed in the windows of the houses where rent increase were demanded. When the increased rents were refused, the property owners immediately took legal action for the eviction of the tenants. The women then organised resistance to these evictions in the following way. In the Govan and Partick districts the working class houses were mainly tenements. One woman with a bell would sit in the close, or passage, watching while the other women living in the tenement went on with their household duties. Whenever the Bailiff ’s officer appeared to evict a tenant, the woman in the passage immediately rang the bell, and the women came from all parts of the building. Some with flour, baking, wet clothes, washing, and other missiles. Usually the Bailiff made off for his life, chased by a mob of angry women. The idea caught on, and it was a common experience to go through the working class districts, and find almost all the windows with these cards in them. In Govan, on one occasion, where a woman had been persuaded by the House Factor to pay the increase, having been told that the other tenants had paid, Mrs Barbour got the men from the shipyards in Govan to come out on the street where the House Factor’s office was, and then went up with the woman and demanded a return of the money. On the factor being shown the thousands of black-faced workers crowding the street he handed it over. This went on for months, with increasing
publicity and propaganda until every hall in the working class districts was packed. Rent Strike meetings gave the opportunity for anti-war and socialist propaganda from the platforms. I soon found myself in the thick of this fight, addressing meetings, always somewhat disgusted that the workers were asking so little when the whole world was theirs by right.”
(Helen Crawfurd)

Tactics adopted by the rent strikers also included: pulling down the bailiffs’ trousers to humiliate them! Without a doubt we should be reviving that… ‘Rough music’ played on pots, pans and other household implements was also used on the demonstrations, to alert people of impending evictions, and imply to intimidate the factors and sheriff ’s officers.


The Woman’s Dreadnought, a socialist-feminist paper run by Sylvia Pankhurst in London, reported on the Rent Strike in October 1915, in a report that illustrates that Glasgow was not alone – strikes has broken out in other cities:

“On Thursday, October 7th, a deputation accompanied by a procession of 15,000 people – mostly women – went in the midst of great enthusiasm to the City Council with banners inscribed:- ‘Our husbands, sons and brothers are fighting the Prussians of Germany. We are fighting the Prussians of Partick! Only alternative – municipal housing.’

Mr William Reid who introduced the deputation, said that rents had been raised since the valuations were confirmed so that the landlords might evade the payment of extra taxes. The increased costs of higher rates, bond interest and repairs was estimated at 5 per cent on a rental of £10, 10 shillings, 0 pence. But the rent of £10 houses has been raised by 15 shillings to 40 shillings.

Landlords were therefore making a profit out of the war at the expense of poor tenants.

The Town Clerk explained that the representations of the deputation could not be discussed until the next meeting of the council unless a majority of two thirds should decide to discuss them now.

Baillies Stewart, Mitchell and Izett urged that the matter must be dealt with at once to prevent the people being turned out, but as their motions failed to receive a two-thirds majority the matter was postponed.

On Tuesday, October 12th, the landlords applied to the Sheriff for nine eviction warrants. Six of the tenants were munitioneers, and as it was said that if munitions workers’ or soldiers’ wives were evicted rioting

would ensue, the Sheriff adjourned these cases for a week. In three other cases eviction notices were granted to take effect in four days.

Will the neighbours allow these people to be turned out? Strikes against increased rents are developing in many other places.

In Birmingham, registered letters were sent out by landlords, giving no- tice to quit, and stating that rents would be doubled. As soon as the rent strikers learnt the contents of the letters one of their scouts went round in front of the postman advising householders not to accept delivery of the landlords’ registered letters. The advice was accepted and when the rent collector called on Monday, he was accompanied by a policeman. The tenants tendered their rents minus the increase and it was accepted.

In a Northampton working class district, where an increase of 6 pence on a 6 shilling house rental has already been made since the beginning of the war, the tenants have met a demand for an additional 6 pence with a blank refusal.

Occupants of houses in working class districts in Dulwich have received notice of an increase of one shilling per week. One landlord has threatened an increase of another shilling before Christmas. The tenants in many streets have decided to refuse to pay any increase. In Bermondsey the landlords have given notice to raise rents and the tenants are organizing resistance.

In Tooting the 350 rent strikers have won the day, the landlords after a stiff fight, agreeing to withdraw the increase…

It should at least be possible for the government to appoint an impartial body who could decided whether or not the owners of the property were securing from the addition in rent any advantage from the national emergency.

In our view such a compromise would be absolutely futile. When food is taxed manufacturers and shop keepers raise the price and the poor consumer who lives by his or her own exertions has to pay. When rates, taxes, bond interest and so on go up, landlords raise rents and again the poor person living from hand to mouth by his or her own exertions has to pay. The rich and powerful always pass on the burden to those who are poorer. The poorest have no one to whom they can pass the burden on. What is to happen unless this sort of thing is stopped?”

(“Fight Against Grasping Landlords”, article from the Woman’s Dreadnought, 23rd October 1915.)

Apart from the areas mentioned by the Dreadnought, there were also reports of rent strikes in Aberdeen, Belfast, Birkenhead, and Dundee.

Down Tools

“By the end of the year strong feeling had built up about evictions of soldiers’ wives and widows and their children. The people’s attitude to the war had changed; the stories were coming back from the trenches,
it was plain that the war was lasting much more than six months, and they just weren’t prepared to go on suffering. The support for rent strikes and the rise in discontent and ill-feeling were so great that the government began to consider whether or not to bring in legislation on rents – although many in the government were completely opposed to limitation. Then, in November 1915, an industrial strike against the rent increases finished all the discussions.

In November 18 tenants were taken to court in an attempt by the factors to get rent deducted from their wages at source. One of them was an engineer in the Dalmuir shipyard called James Reid and all the shipyard workers from Dalmuir, Fairfield, Stephens and other yards and factories downed tools and marched to the court in support…”
(Harry McShane)

The notices to prosecute issued against Reid and other Dalmuir Rent Strikers ended with thousands congregating in George Square outside the Court House. Five major shipyards and one munitions plant came out in support of the defendants, and other plants sent deputies in support to threaten general strike action; despite the war- time regulations against industrial action. The threat of a crossover between industrial struggle and the rent strike made the situation highly volatile, especially given the state’s dependence on the munitions and shipbuilding industries.

“The men from the shipyards and engineering works in Govan, Partick and Clydebank came out in their thousands. I will never forget the sight and sound of those marching men with black faces. Thousands of them marched through the principal streets down to the Sheriff ’s Court and the surrounding streets were packed. John MacLean, afterwards imprisoned for his anti-war activity, and first consul for the USSR in Glasgow, was one of he speakers, who from barrels and upturned boxes addressed the crowds. Inside the court the judge and his attendants were attempting in a tense atmosphere to make decisions on the nine cases. The court was also packed.” (Helen Crawfurd)

“At the court-house there was a mass meeting in the street. Maclean, Gallacher, McBride and others spoke; the police pulled the platforms from under them they continued speaking, and the meeting demanded that the sheriff receive a deputation. To discuss a case with a deputation of workers before the proceedings opened was against all
the court rules, but once again Sheriff Lee was in charge and he agreed. After he had met the deputation he phoned Whitehall, who assured him that the rent restrictions legislation would be introduced in the next month. The house-factors still wouldn’t agree to an adjournment of the case, and Sheriff Lee decided it on his own responsibility.”

(Harry McShane)

The Birth of Public Housing?

After this confrontation all pending legal actions against striking tenants were dropped, and the Secretary of State for Scotland asked the Cabinet to order the freezing of rents at a pre-war level. Less than a week later, the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act was introduced into Parliament, and was law by the 25th of December.
It prevented the increase of rent on all homes whose rental did not exceed £90 a year. “This applied to the whole of Britain, so that the fight put up by those brave Glasgow women was crowned with success, and the working people of Britain reaped the benefit.” (Helen Crawfurd)


“When the Act came into force it pegged rents to the levels they were before the war broke out, and only allowed a 40 per cent increase if repairs were carried out. In the 1930s it was possible for the socialist movement to use that act and encourage tenants to with-hold rents until they got their repairs done… Even past the second world war there were some tenants in private homes that had been rent-controlled in 1915.”
(Harry McShane)

Later in 1919 the Housing and Town Planning Act was passed, mandating local authorities to build council housing and providing the cash… This is widely celebrated as the ‘Birth of public housing’; in which the memory of the Glasgow Rent Strike was a powerful influencing factor.

Obviously the legislation was implemented not through any sense of class justice, but “in the interest of the state as a whole.” The immediate and desperate needs of British Capital as a whole was threatened by the potential of the rent strike to spread to the industrial sphere.

Although municipal housing had been a labour movement demand for years, and although there were many factors in the creation of public housing, it was to some extent the extra-ordinary wartime conditions that allowed the tenants to triumph. The acclaimed climate of ‘national unity’, “we’re all in the same boat”, etc, was without doubt double-edged. It did allow the state to close out and repress some industrial and social struggles on the one hand, but did also create some space for those struggling from below to posit demands for social improvements, especially against interests seen as profiting from wartime conditions. Clearly workers and employers/the state were not ‘in the same boat’, but the rhetoric of sacrifice did sometimes cut both ways. Landlords raising rents where war work was leading to housing shortages, in this light, laid themselves open to charges of war-profiteering. The State found it difficult to side with profiteering landlords against munitions workers, and soldiers’ families.

One commentator on the rent strike and its significance identifies the difficult position the British state was put in, and the willingness of the ‘executive committee of the bourgeoisie’ to cut loose the landlords if the interest of the ‘national capital’ demanded it:

“The separate capitalist interest of the socially unproductive landlords during the first years of the war, upping rents to profit from the shortage of accommodation, and the increased spending power of the many workers, men and women, engaged in overtime on munitions production, threatened to undermine the effectiveness of the main British capitalist offensive. The object of this offensive, as we have already noted, was to increase the efficient investment of capital and the level and rate of productivity of the labour force, to intensify exploitation. But this offensive depended for its political effectiveness upon the state presenting it as a national mobilization of both capital and labour that would transcend all private interests or class divisions in a national partnership based upon the appeal for increased productivity for the war effort. The ‘selfishness’ of the landlords was undermining the state’s appeal to the national interest by producing working class resistance to rising rents and was threatening to tar the industrial capitalists with the same brush, despite the state propaganda about the control of industrial profits that was thrown as a sop to the working class. Already the working class in Glasgow in their slogans and posters, were identifying the landlords, ‘The Hun at Home’, as they were dubbed, with the ‘national enemy’, the Germans. Working class tenants were defending themselves against the bailiffs, starting with the defence of those worst hit by the rent rises and attempted evictions, the war widows on their miserable pensions and wives of soldiers serving in France who had young children to look after and so could not take advantage of the work to be had in the munitions factories. Since the class movement developing around the rent struggle threatened to spread to production and paralyse the ‘war effort’, the state was forced to ‘side’ with the tenants against the landlords and cut away the ‘parasitic’ capitalist interests of the landlords from the main body of ‘progressive’ capitalist interests it saw itself as the representative of.” (Steve Vahrman)

To some extent this pressure to adhere to a kind of ‘national unity moral economy’ survived until after the war (and could be observed even more after World War Two).

However just as it was the collective spirit of the rent strikers that made it imperative to settle the conflict quickly, after 1918, the situation was exacerbated by the high post-war workers militancy.

A growing unemployed movement and strike wave fed into by the expectations of ex-servicemen and the families, who took the loudly professed ideal of sacrifice and unity at face value (sometimes genuinely and sometimes tactically) and pushed for widespread social change. The mutinies and revolutions which contributed to the war’s end also struck fear of revolt into the minds of the more astute ruling class strategists who foresaw that public housing and other large-scale improvements in working class life would be likely to stave off more violent upheaval.

Was the rent strike implicitly backed by capital? It is suggested by Joseph Melling that the Clydeside industrialists in effect supported the demand for rent freezes and even for state-subsidised public housing, not only because it meant and end to instability that was threatening social peace and thus productivity, but also long-term because they thought it would do the same in the long term – pacify and integrate militant working class movements.

According to Manuel Castells: “The enemies of rent strikers were not the capitalists but the landlords, and individual speculators… Two- thirds of Glasgow housing was built by individual owners borrowing money from small bondholders who were charging increasingly high interest. This explains both the inadequacy of the housing production and the harshness of the landlords who had to collect their rents in order to pay their interest. As well as this class of wealthy urban rentiers, the strikers also had to fact the building industry, a very small business sector operating on an ad hoc basis under the control of the landlords.”

Thus defeat for the landlords was not as such a defeat for large capitalist enterprises. The big losers were the landlords, and the building industry; one result of the rent strike was a depression in the private building industry, which in fact stimulated the need and push towards municipal housing even more.

The Rent Strike and Class Composition

But to discuss the rent strike in terms of capital and its interests is in some ways to undervalue the positive aspects of the self-organisation and unity the rent strikers achieved. Given the high level of both legislation and social pressure against strikes, agitation, under war- time conditions, the rent strike movement reached an impressive level of solidarity. It is true that they were able to articulate the boundaries of the struggle in terms that did not in themselves oppose the war, even to cast the landlords as the ones sabotaging the patriotic consensus, stabbing soldiers in the back etc. Nevertheless they were more successful in winning substantial intervention from the state than other contemporary struggles, notably the Clyde shop stewards movement. Both these two upheavals, though, also formed part of a continuum of struggle in Glasgow that began before the war, and continued after it.

Some commentators have flagged up the 1915 rent strike as arising from the conflict around craft privileges, the breakdown of old strata of traditional skilled workers – especially in the context of the industrialists’ wartime need to break these down, in the interest of mass industrial production.

A hypothesis exists of the 1915 rent strike as a manifestation of old labour unionism; by some commentators it is contrasted with the shop stewards movement developing in the city at the same time, and in which a newer, more homogenous class movement was developing in opposition to old labour aristocracies and craft divisions. Although skilled artisan workers formed the backbone of the Independent Labour Party, which as we have seen was heavily involved in the movement…

But according to Castells, the strike provided a common ground for unity between different segments of the city’s working class, “at the very moment when workers were weakened within the factories both by the recomposition of the work process and by the dramatic altering of the procedures for unionisation and labour representation.”

However the strike was clearly only won by the support of the trade unions (Castells illustrates this by pointing out that a rent strike in nearby Clydebank in 1922 was defeated, despite again having 20,000 participants, when the local unions did not give their support.)

In terms of different strata of the working class and their involvement in the movement, Sean Damer noted the character of the areas where the rent strike was strongest: “What is interesting to note about these areas of the city is that they are markedly different: heavily industrial areas, more respectable artisanal areas, and slum areas.”

It may be that the struggle gained strength from its ability to forge unity between skilled artisanal areas and more unskilled, traditionally slum, neighbourhoods.

This is interesting, if you compare it to Quintin Bradley’s analysis on the Leeds rent strike (which began in January 1914 and ended in March, before WW1 had begun). In The Leeds Rent Strike of 1914, A reappraisal of the radical history of the tenants movement, he identifies the Leeds Strike as arising specifically from the aristocracy of labour, skilled craft workers, people who saw themselves as a cut above the slums, who were facing rent rises on their somewhat better quality housing and being forced to pay or told to move to the slums… They struck to defend themselves against being driven down wards socially, to distinguish themselves from the poorest. The Leeds rent strike was heavily defeated. Beyond this he goes on to question the twentieth century tenants movement’s view of itself and its history, suggesting that the movement’s birth had more to do with a respectable strata of the working class defending its precarious position above the slum-dweller/unskilled, that with an egalitarian vision of public housing for all.

It would be interesting to know if research bore this out for Glasgow, or even for parts of the city, in 1915. And how it compares to later rent strikes.

Quintin Bradley’s article is online here

Women led the Movement

All accounts agree women led the campaign – they were at the head of the mass demos, central to the structures that spread the strike and kept watch/alerted the closes and blocks to impending evictions; they were the ones who launched violent attacks on House factors and sheriff ’s officers attempting to evict people.

“The presence of women as the backbone and main co-ordinators of
the rent strikes is an obvious fact bearing in mind the rigidity of society at this time, but documentation of these ‘housewives’ only exists in the guise of those women who were particularly vociferous in the context of the Independent Labour Party. A certain silence descends on the motivations and thoughts of the “two women for each close” involved on committees in the Richmond Park Strike, and on the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association established in 1914. Joseph Melling mentions a Boilermaker telling a group of shipbuilding tradesmen that “The men laughed the idea of a rent strike to scorn.”

Some were widows, of soldiers, many were workers in factories and munitions works themselves… A number had been suffragettes pre- war. There had been a massive entry of women into the industrial workforce, to replace men away at war. It may have been important factor in women’s leadership of the struggle – they were the breadwinners in many families, already breaking down labour privileges in work previously restricted to men. Manuel Castells has suggested that this process had an impact on their autonomy, their ability to make decisions and take charge of the strike. But this fails to take into account previous history… women had a traditional role in asserting moral economy of the lower classes and imposing it on their ‘betters’; in bread riots and similar protests through the preceding centuries, women can be seen taking a central role.
While the rent strike may have seen women taking centre stage, ironically the end of the war had a negative impact on many women – not only as returning men expected their jobs back and there was mass unemployment as war economy was wound down, which affected women heavily as their position in the workplace was precarious. But, also, the ‘restoration of authority’ and normal relations was an important pressure in post-war Britain, and restoring the gender power relations that had been shaken by the war and by struggles like the rent strike was seen as part of this. Mass unemployment also contributed to this, forcing women on the defensive, back into customary roles.

Welfare and Class Warfare

To some extent the Rent Strike is an important struggle in the development of a welfare state, especially in terms of how organised workers imposed some of their needs and demands on the state and forced it to integrate some forms of recognition of them from the representatives of capitalist interests.

It also was a stage in the development of a political leadership in Glasgow that was to dominate politics there for decades, and play a part in transforming the city in to a stronghold of both Labour and the Communist Party; witness how both Mary Barbour and Andrew Hood rose to high positions in the City administration in later years.

Both of these two developments reflect the underlying social-democratic nature of the workers movement of the time, despite some of the syndicalist methods the Clyde Workers Committee had adopted and despite the autonomous elements that won the rent strike. Much of the welfare state, as it was gradually adopted between the early twentieth century and the late 1940s, was the result of pressure from below, working class movements pushing for far-reaching changes, but channeled through a political leadership via the Liberals, Labour and the Trade Unions.

Without getting into a complex and possibly sterile debate about whether this represented concessions granted to prevent a militant working class from taking more by force, it is undoubtedly true that capital internationally, and in the UK particularly, through the twentieth century, up to the 1970s at least, managed, or tried , to integrate working class aspirations to some extent. In the decades since, a great deal of the concessions won have been under threat, some has been dismantled, others have been slowly disintegrated or undermined, and much of what remains is now subject to a renewed onslaught under the banner of ‘austerity’, ‘sharing the burden of getting the national debt down’… Social housing is probably the sector of the social-democratic welfare state that has suffered the heaviest restructuring since the Thatcher government of the 1980s took aim at it. If Glasgow can be seen as an important point in its development, does the rent strike also have lessons for dealing with the problems of modern urban housing?

Changes in housing can hardly be gone into in great detail here. But in the decades after the World War 1, social housing, mostly run by local councils, expanded massively, to the point where 42 percent of the UK population lived in council housing in the late 1970s.

Since the 1980s, it has been both declining in size, firstly due to a massive increase in the tenant right to but schemes, and has been semi-privatised (in the form of being hived off to housing associations and more recently of arms length management organisations). New council housing hasn’t been built, in any significant amounts.

To some extent social housing’s decline has led to council housing, in many parts of the UK, being relegated to a safety net for people with no alternative, dismissed and despised by many as a last resort, rather than a collective aspiration with a shared positive ethos.
Right to Buy, the Thatcher government’s cleverest policy in many ways, has played a part in the almost total identification of home ownership with self-respect, achievement and respectability. If you can’t achieve it you aspire to it. Private rents have also soared, especially since laws restricting rent levels were abolished – again under the Thatcher government – in the Housing Act 1980 and in subsequent legislation through the 1980s.

The massive growth in owning your own gaff has been part of an undeniable atomisation of ideas of collectivity in Britain since the 1980s, which has had huge positive consequences for capital, for
its ability to reshape society in the interest of profit with very little chance of mass opposition. It also created a huge new internal potential for expansion in markets for moneylenders, builders, developers and so on. Hence, though, the spiralling madness of house prices, private rents, and the impossibility for many of social housing.

On top of this the whole idea of ‘working class areas’ has broken down in many places – for instance, in London, integration of ‘rich and poor areas’ has spiralled; people of many backgrounds now live cheek by jowl, even former council flats on estates having been sold off – in some cases whole blocks. Gentrification has accelerated this.

All this has many results – but one is undoubtedly that movements- like the Glasgow Rent Strike would be much harder to build now. Although tenants of private landlords built the first rent strikes, and won them successfully at times (not just in Glasgow, also London’s East End rent strikes in the later 1930s), in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, rent strikes became better known for taking place among council tenants. Being all tenants of the one big landlord, in the same boat, living in the same blocks, made it easier to organise. Physical geography may well also play a big part in social struggles around housing. The Glasgow and East End 1930s rent strikes worked best when organised around people living in blocks… making collective self-defence easier, to keep look out, and helping in the process of meeting other people and building solidarity with them, etc. It is more difficult in isolated housing… though not impossible…

Many private flats these days might be owned by someone who owns just one or two properties… it’s not just home ownership that has become integrated into the mindset, but also the aspiration to own somewhere to rent to others…

This diffuse and fragmented housing map seems then ideal to divide us from each other. However… if history tells us anything it’s that no barriers can stand against us when we’re cunning, and start making links outside the immediately obvious. In recent years London, for instance, has seen tentative steps towards the beginnings of a private tenants movement, with small local groups of ‘renters’ getting together to campaign and protest.

The adoption of the World War 1 rhetoric of national sacrifice, we’re all in it together, unity in the country’s interest, by the current administration, is striking. What is certain is that if working class people stop pushing forward the boundaries, imposing our needs and

desires on capital, then capital’s own class warriors will push back. As they have been very successful in the last 35 years, the question uppermost is – how fast can we get pushing?

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Sources

This episode by no means marks the end of Rent Struggles in Scotland, but the seed of more prolonged rent strike that took place between 1920 and 1927 in Clydebank, which employed widespread contestation in the courts as well s civil disobedience.

Sean Damer, Rent Strike! The Clydebank rent Strike of the 1920s (Clydeside District Council, District Library.)

Joseph Melling, Rent Strikes, People’s Struggle for housing in the West of Scot- land, 1890 – 1916. (Polygon Books, Edinburgh).

Steve Vahrman, 1973, introduction to John MacLean’s War After the War.

Harry McShane, No Mean Fighter (Pluto Press 1978). McShane was a long time Glasgow communist activist and trade unionist, sometime ally of John MacLean; a veteran of the Clyde Workers Committee, the unemployed struggles of the 1920s and ‘30s… After some thirty years in the Communist Party of Great Britain, he left in the early 1950s, remaining a committed Marxist.

Manuel Castells, The Industrial City and the Working Class, in The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements, 1983.

Helen Crawfurd was born in 1877 in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. She played an active role in the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association and was a member of the Independent Labour Party during this period. Preceding the rent strikes she was militant throughout Britain as part of the women’s suffragette movement, being arrested once in Glasgow and once in Perth, and twice going on hunger strike. Her account of the Rent Strike was taken from her unpublished memoirs that lie in the Marx Memorial Library.

Also worth a look:

Rent Strike 1960: An edited account of The St Pancras Rent Strike

The Barcelona Rent Strike of 1931.

1930s Rent strikes in London’s East End 
.
.. and another account that discusses this rent strike in comparison to later East End housing battles…

Watch a film about the East End strikes

The Struggle Against the 1972 Finance Act

A film about the 1972 Kirby Rent Strike in Liverpool

And it’s not just rent strikes – an account of 1930s mortgage strikes in South East London

We’ll add more here when we can… let us know of good links

 

Today in London radical herstory, 1914: International Womens Day march sees launch of newspaper the Woman’s Dreadnought

“The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and “The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and the procession joined the meeting in the square. …Miss Patterson exclaimed, ‘We feel that the time has come for action. Follow the flags. See if we can find something to do’ and proceeded towards Whitehall with strong contingent of men, women and boys …The arrest of Miss Patterson was a signal for wild disorder, many of her supporters throwing themselves on her captors. Eventually mounted police dispersed the crowd. Altogether ten persons were arrested”.  (Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1914, p.9.)

On 8 March 1914 the East London Federation of a Suffragette held an International Women’s Day demonstration in Trafalgar Square, to demand votes for women. The march saw launch of its newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought.

The march was met by mounted police who waded in to inflict considerable violence on the demonstrators. Five women and five men were brought to court the following day, where an angry magistrate complained “Half Scotland Yard had turned out to keep a lot of desperadoes in order!”


The East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS), had only two months before had formally split from the largest militant suffragette organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had engineered their expulsion, mistrustful of the ELFS’s emphasis on centring the campaign for the vote among working-class women in London’s East End.

Leading light in the ELFS was socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, whose political divergence from her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel was only past of the story. Sylvia had undertaken hunger strikes in prison to the point that the authorities temporarily released her to ensure she did not die in their custody, and was at constant risk of re-arrest and imprisonment (she was in fact re-arrested again on the 8th March demonstration).

Sylvia Pankhurst would later recall that the WSPU leader (who was also Sylvia’s older sister), Christabel Pankhurst, demanded that the ELFS form a separate organisation on the grounds that

‘a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. ‘Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!’ 

The ELFS completely rejected this view that richer women were more effective suffragettes, publishing an impassioned defence of the necessity of campaigning ‘from below’ in the first edition of the Dreadnought:

‘Some people tell us that it is neither specially important that working women should agitate for the Vote, nor specially important that they should have it. They forget that comparatively, the leisured comfortably situated women are but a little group, and the working-women a multitude.

‘Some people say that the lives of working-women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful force in winning the Vote, many though they are. Such people have forgotten their history. What sort of women were those women who marched to Versailles?

‘Those Suffragists who say that it is the duty of the richer and more fortunate women to win the Vote, and that their poorer sisters need not feel themselves called upon to aid in the struggle appear, in using such arguments, to forget that it is the Vote for which we are fighting. The essential principle of the vote is that each one of us shall have a share of power to help himself or herself and us all. It is in direct opposition to the idea that some few, who are more favoured, shall help and teach and patronise the others’.

The ELFS’s insistence on applying to the struggle the principle of self-representation that they saw embodied in the vote also entailed a rejection of Christabel Pankhurst’s assumption that all women shared the same interests and therefore richer women could fight on behalf of working-class women.

The ELFS had a strong alliance with East End socialists & workers in particular trades, especially the East End dockers. ELFS members had supported dock strikes in 1912, & the organisation continued to work closely with dockers. Many dockers wives became suffragettes. In March 1913, dockers had supported a march to Holloway, where suffragette Scott Troy was on hunger strike; Troy had organised support to help feed 1000s of dockers families during 1912 strike. ELFS had a branch which operated at the East India Dock Gate, the entrance to one of the biggest docks and a well-known speakers corner for trade unions and socialists. Every Sunday in spring & summer the ELFS staged processions that began or ended at the dock gates.

Sylvia Pankhurst speaks

The ELFS also distinguished themselves from the WSPU and other suffrage groups, in that they campaigned for universal adult suffrage – many working men also could not vote. This brought them closer to workers’ organisations, which remained suspicious of the WPSU in some ways.

Although Sylvia Pankhurst was the focus of EFLS activity, other leading women included Charlotte Drake, ex-barmaid, labourers wife & mother of 5; Melvina Walker, a one-time lady’s maid and dockers wife, whose tales of the high society she had served made her a popular speaker; Nellie Cressell mother of 6, who later became Mayor of Poplar; Annie Barnes and Julia Scurr, later councillors in Stepney & Poplar; Jennie MacKay, ex of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), also later a councillor; Louise Somerville, veteran of the Socialist League and Amy Hicks, also ex-SDF.

The 8 March was held to commemorate International Women’s Day, (initially called for at an international socialist conference in Copenhagen in 1910 by the German socialist Clara Zetkin, to draw attention to the struggles of working-class women). Choosing this day for their demonstration highlighted the working-class and internationalist politics that characterised the ELFS.

Melvina Walker

The demonstration was also notable, as it saw the launch of a new publication, the ELFS’s own newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia Pankhurst.

The paper was started by Pankhurst at the suggestion of Zelie Emerson, after Pankhurst had been expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union by her mother and sister.

On the drawing board it was titled Workers’ Mate, but appeared as The Woman’s Dreadnought, with a weekly circulation of anywhere between 10-20,000. It cost a penny; it was advertised by Graffiti campaigns around the East End. Police harassed the women and men who sold it on the streets.

Despite frequent violent re-arrests, imprisonments and hunger strikes, Sylvia Pankhurst ensured the newspaper came out each week; even a policeman arresting her in May 1914 asked her ‘how I found the time for it’. During Sylvia’s regular spells of imprisonment, Norah Smyth alternated as acting editor with Jack O’Sullivan. Smyth used her photography skills to provide pictures for the newspaper of East End life, particularly of women and children living in poverty.

East London Federation of Sufragettes street stall

Until World War 1 began, it covered London-based, mostly East End news: including women’s suffrage, battles with borough councils, fights with police, women’s lives… When WW1 began, it also began to voice opposition to the slaughter, resistance to conscription, and campaigns around the austerity and shortages the war brought. It was viewed by the authorities as having such a dangerous influence that its offices were subject to repeated police raids.

The Dreadnought would go through several incarnations over the next ten years, as the emphasis of the organisation around Sylvia would change and evolve, through suffrage campaigns, resistance to world war and austerity, support for revolution… In July 1917 the name was changed to Workers’ Dreadnought, which initially had a circulation of 10,000. Its slogan changed to “Socialism, Internationalism, Votes for All”, and then in July 1918 to “For International Socialism”, reflecting increasing opposition to Parliamentarism in the party.

Norah Smyth

On 19 June 1920 Workers’ Dreadnought was adopted as the official weekly organ of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). Pankhurst continued publishing the newspaper until 1924.

The first edition of the Dreadnought declared: ‘the chief duty of The Dreadnought will be to deal with the franchise question from the working women’s point of view’. ELFS members, for the most part women who worked in manual jobs, became the Dreadnought’s journalists, reporting on the concerns of their own communities and workplaces which, Sylvia Pankhurst later wrote, ‘produced far truer accounts than any Fleet Street journalist, for they knew what to ask and how to win the confidence of the sufferers.’ One of these members was Florence Buchan, a jam factory worker who had been sacked when her employers found out she was a suffragette, whose first article exposed the dangerous conditions in jam factories. Her interviews with local striking workers conveyed the sacrifices they made, but also their spirit and humour. Women workers at a preserves and tea packing factory told her that when they tried to go on strike the foreman had locked them in the workroom, and when the women told the male workers what had happened they gave the foreman ‘a good thrashing’; the women concluded ‘there are too many bosses’.

Hoping to engage widely with the local community, Sylvia Pankhurst initially wanted the Dreadnought to be free but this proved unaffordable so they charged a halfpenny for it (half the cost of most political publications) in the first four days after printing after which they distributed the remaining copies from the 20,000 print-run house to house around the East End free of charge.

Going door to door also helped the ELFS to in its aim to connect their political campaign with the economic and social issues of the local community. ELFS members would knock on every door in a particular street, ask the women at home about their lives and then report the conversations they had with the women in the Dreadnought, revealing the problems of ordinary people’s lives. In one such report one woman told of the domestic abuse she was habitually subjected to when her husband discovered they had run out of money – ‘they ask you what you’ve done with it all, and then they start on you’, while others spoke of unemployment, hunger and extortionate rents. The ELFS reporter then summarised her political conclusions from the conversations:

‘Denial to the Government which calls these women unoccupied.

‘One came face to face with the unemployed problem.

‘With Poverty. – Housing Question. – Women as Slaves. – Sweating of Women. – Insurance Act as a failure. – Great faith in women. Suffragettes to be found in slums.’

The Dreadnought gained a reputation for amplifying the voices of people that the establishment did not want to hear. The fact that the Dreadnought carried stories which it received from people writing into paper about injustices they wanted publicised demonstrates the trust and credibility the publication had built up.

During World War 1, the East London Federation of Suffragettes opposed the war, (unlike the leading suffrage organisations, the WPSU and the NUWSS). Sylvia insisted on the Fed and the paper taking this view, which did lead to some ‘pro-war’ ELFS activists leaving, and lost the ELFS much support; initially, as the war was popular and opposition considered traitorous. Several well-off backers who had funded the organisation pulled out, outraged at its anti-war stance.

The Mothers’ Arms toy making workshop

However, as the war went on, and deaths mounted, conscription was introduced, and shortages and privations started to it, the ELFS started to regain support. Gradually, the group evolved from a political organisation into a feminist social welfare movement, focusing on the daily needs of East End women. From this they developed political and social demands reflecting the impact the war was having on the poor: for control of food so people wouldn’t go hungry; against rent rises and wage cuts. A rent strike was attempted in August 1914. At this time some East End women were taking direct action – seizing food from shops without paying. At their Bow HQ, a former pub renamed the ‘Mother’s Arms’, the ELFs set up two cost-price restaurants to feed those with little money, and workshops where women could make items to sell to get by.

Cost price eating at the Mothers’ Arms

In the First World War the Dreadnought also exposed the way in which imprisoned Conscientious Objectors were being deported to the warzone in France where, under army jurisdiction, they could be shot. Its front pages reported the dangers of the chemicals women war workers were exposed to in the factories, something that was down-played and denied by their employers. Despite the establishment’s attempts to suppress all information about the mutiny in the British army at the notorious army camp at Étaples in France in late September 1917, the Dreadnought was able to report this news on its front page because a soldier wrote in:

‘The men out here are fed up with the whole b___y lot.

‘About four weeks ago about 10,000 men had a big racket in Etaples, and they cleared the place from one end to the other, and when the General asked what was wrong, they said they wanted the war stopped. That was never in the papers.’

Throughout its existence the Dreadnought sought to represent the most radical section of contemporary social movements. Formed to give expression to the working women’s campaign for the vote, it opposed the First World War from the moment it broke out and in 1914 it became the first English publication to print the anti-war speech of the German socialist Karl Liebknecht.

In June 1917 The Woman’s Dreadnought changed its name to The Workers’ Dreadnought, reflecting the increasing breadth of the campaigns it was taking up. The newspaper championed the Bolshevik Revolution and printed the writings of leading revolutionaries across Europe. In 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst became the first newspaper editor in Britain to employ a black journalist when she invited the Jamaican poet Claude McKay to work on the Dreadnought.

The Dreadnought consistently opposed racism and imperialism and sent its reporters to Ireland to expose atrocities committed by British troops. The paper also (uniquely among the UK left at the time) opposed colonialism, and attacked racism among some East End workers – explicitly linking socialism to anti-racism & anti-colonial struggles. In contrast, other contemporary left papers like the Daily Herald were overtly racist.

Influenced by the Russian Revolution, the ELFS transformed itself into the Workers Socialist Federation, reflecting a change in orientation: towards revolutionary socialism. In a marked change of course from their origins in the suffrage movement, the WSF adopted an anti-parliamentary communist stance, and opposed participation in elections as a bourgeois distraction from the class struggle. They also rejected affiliation to the Labour Party, in contrast to large parts of the Communist scene in the UK (and in contradiction to Lenin’s advice).  The WDF did not forget conflicts with the Labour hierarchy during the war. The Workers’ Dreadnought now advocated soviets and workers control of production, and promoted the forming of workers committees in several London factories; it also flirted with syndicalism/industrial unionism, which was seeing a revival as part of a new post-war upsurge in industrial militancy in 1918-19, which saw a plethora of strikes. Billy Watson, who attempted to set up a London Workers Committee to unite workers’ struggles from below, wrote a regular industrial column for the Dreadnought in 1917.

Pankhurst developed her own theory of ‘social soviets’: councils of working class inside AND outside workplaces, to include people not in work, eg housewives, unemployed, elderly, children… This was an advanced position for a leftist of the times (where the workplace was generally considered the only place for class struggle to take place). He vision was of a local & decentralised form of socialism, under workers’ control. This all reflected Sylvia’s interest in practical problems of how socialism would run on a local level, food, welfare etc – all of which arose from the ELFS practical experience during WW1.

The WSF were the first communist group to make contact with the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 Revolution; over the next few years the group’s relationship to the situation in Russia would in many ways define its trajectory. The WSF affiliated to the communist Third international in 1919. But in the same year, Sylvia Pankhurst went to Italy, Germany, Holland, making contacts with the left fractions of the communist movement, with whose positions she clearly agreed, on elections, parliamentary participation, in particular. This would get the WSF denounced by Lenin in 1920 in his ‘Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’. While the WSF was heavily involved in struggles in London against the UK plan for military intervention in Soviet Russia, news coming from the USSR increased Sylvia’s distrust of the directions the Soviet revolution was taking. Nevertheless, the WSF reformed (in alliance with Aberdeen, Holt & Croydon Communist groups, Stepney Communist League, Gorton Socialist Society, the Labour Abstentionist Party, & the Manchester Soviet) into the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in 1920: the first UK Communist Party. Lenin also thought this move premature.

After many raids during the war, the Dreadnought’s spreading of communism was guaranteed to attract more police attention. The Dreadnought offices were raided again under the draconian Defence of the Realm Act, for publication of articles which referred to discontent in the navy: the CP(BSTI) had some contacts among rebel sailors, eg black sailor Reuben Samuels, and Dave Springhall.

Claude Mackay

It was through Jamaican-born Claude Mackay that these contacts had been made. Though later better known as a poet and writer, a crucial figure in the Harlem Renaissance, in 1919-20, McKay was living in London, and had become a communist. He fused communist ideas with anti-colonial and anti-racist thinking, and bridged the black nationalist and socialist scenes, critical of where both fell short from within. As well as writing for the Dreadnought (at times during Sylvia’s imprisonment he virtually edited several issues), he also frequented a mostly black soldiers’ club in Drury Lane, and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch (successor to the 19th century old Communist Club  A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. During this period that his commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji SaklatvalaA. J. CookGuy AldredJack TannerArthur McManusWilliam Gallacher, and George Lansbury. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In April 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled “Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine“, it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general. Lansbury refused to print McKay’s response. This response then appeared in Workers’ Dreadnought. In response to the “Black Horror on the Rhine” stories that the Daily Herald was running, McKay wrote:

“Why this obscene maniacal outburst about the sex vitality of black men in a proletarian paper?” Rape is rape; the colour of the skin doesn’t make it different. Negroes are no more over-sexed than Caucasians; mulatto children in the West Indies and America were not the result of parthenogenesis. If Negro troops had syphilis, they contracted it from the white and yellow races. As for German women, in their economic plight they were selling themselves to anyone. I do not protest because I happen to be a Negro … I write because I feel that the ultimate result of your propaganda will be further strife and blood-spilling between whites and the many members of my race … who have been dumped down on the English docks since the ending of the European war … Bourbons of the United States will thank you, and the proletarian underworld of London will certainly gloat over the scoop of the Christian-Socialist pacifist Daily Herald.”

The Dreadnought office was raided in October 1920, after the paper published the articles about discontent among sailors, and Sylvia Pankhurst was charged under DORA for publishing these articles. Mackay, in a room at the top of the building, was warned by Pankhurst’s secretary, Mackay smuggled the original letters from which they derived out of the building, and burned them. He escaped arrest, but Sylvia was sent to prison for six months in 1921 for publishing them. At her trial she defiantly called for the overthrow of capitalism, telling the court: ‘this is a wrong system, and has got to be smashed.’ 

Mackay left Britain shortly after, feeling things were getting too hot for him. He later spent time in the Soviet Union, though he distanced himself from communism in later life.

The Dreadnought was in the news again only a few weeks later, after a crowd attacked women working there who had disrupted the first November 11th Armistice Day commemorations.

The CP(BSTI) entered into negotiations with other socialist groups to form a united Communist Party, including the British Socialist Party (BSP) – the anti-war majority of the old Social Democratic Federation – and the mainly Scottish-based Socialist Labour Party. Throughout the protracted discussions, the ‘communist left’ attempted to form a left bloc in or allied to any new Communist Party, which many had realised would be dominated by more right wing members of the BSP. The 21 theses laid down by the Communist International caused some debate, as they included stipulations Pankhurst and the left communists had serious issues with. 4 CP(BSTI) branches refused to agree to them & left. Although the majority of the CP(BSTI) did unite with the new Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in January 1921, by this time problems had led to division between Pankhurst & others, and she was in immediate conflict with the new party hierarchy. All CP publications were supposed (under the 21 Theses) to be subordinated to party control, and the Workers’ Dreadnought was not accepted as a party paper; Sylvia was ordered to cease publication. The new party also did little to support her while she was in jail. Though she joined the CPGB on her release, she maintained contact with the European left communists – the KAPD, left factions & the Workers Opposition. She was ordered to give up the Dreadnought, and refusing to do so, was expelled from the CPGB in September 1921.

After her expulsion, Pankhurst & a few others (including Melvina Walker & Nora Smythe) formed a Communist Workers Party (CWP), but this was only ever a small propaganda sect. They attempted to revive their old speaking places and links in the East End but the group never really took off. Sylvia also refused to unite with another left communist grouping in Britain, the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, mainly due to personality differences…

Sylvia carried on publishing the Dreadnought, and allied herself and the CWP to the Fourth International of left wing communist groups, including the KAPD, & Belgian, Dutch, Bulgarian, Czech left communists (known as International of Opposition Parties). They shared their criticisms of developments in Russia, and built up links also to the Workers Opposition in the USSR.

But being excluded from the CPGB pushed Sylvia and her group to the margins, and movements they had built up were declining or divided. CWP-backed alternatives to the mainstream communist-backed union movements or the National Unemployed Workers Movement were either small and weak or short-lived. Revolutionary Growing more out of touch, the CWP collapsed by 1924. Lack of support, money and energy led Sylvia to halt publication of the Workers’ Dreadnought in July 1924.

Although Sylvia eventually moved out of the East End, she remained active politically, and would go on to be an early campaigner against the rise of fascism, as well as outspokenly fighting for international solidarity with Ethiopia when it was invaded by fascist Italy. She died in Ethiopia in 1960. The ELFS and its successors had done some amazing work in the East End, from agitating among working class women and men over the vote, through grassroots day to day solidarity in the face of war and repression, resisting the war effort, supporting revolution and correctly criticising the USSR’s turn to authoritarianism and the western communist parties’ slavish falling into line and opportunism. Like many another suffragette, her health was irrevocably damaged by hunger strikes in prison; but she never stopped trying to change the world for the better…

Read Copies of the Women’s/Workers’ Dreadnought in the British Newspaper Archive

Worth a read: Sylvia’s accounts of her activism, in The Suffragette Movement, and The Home Front (about the ELFS in WW1).
Also Barbara Wilmslow, Sylvia Pankhurst, a good account of the various phases of Sylvia’s political journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in anti-war history, 1917: spycops’ fit-up! Alice Wheeldon & her daughters go on trial for ‘plot to murder’ Prime Minister Lloyd George.

“Alice Wheeldon and her family were commie scum
Denounced World War 1, sheltered deserters on the run
Fitted up by MI5, died from the prison damp –
You won’t see Alice’s head on a stamp!”
(‘Spycop Song’, Dr Feelshite)

If you thought that revelations of the last few years about undercover police officers infiltrating campaigning and political groups, trade unions, families of people killed by racist and the police (just a few examples), and in some cases acting as agent provocateurs, had been going on for just 50 years, since the founding of the Special Demonstration Squad, and was some kind of aberration from our democratic traditions – think again. In one form or another, this practice has been an integral part of policing dissent and controlling or disrupting movements for social change – for hundreds of years. It is literally the norm, not a deviation.

101 years ago today, Derby socialists and war resisters Alice Wheeldon, her daughters Hettie, Winnie and Winnie’s husband, Alfred Mason, went on trial at the Old Bailey, all charged with conspiracy to murder the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and Labour Party cabinet minister Arthur Henderson.

In fact the supposed ‘plot’ was a fit up, set up by a spy working for the intelligence unit of the Ministry of Munitions.

Alice Wheeldon lived in Derby, with her four children Nell, Winnie, Hettie and Will; the family were all active campaigners for many social issues of the time, notably women’s rights, pacifism and opposition to conscription. Alice and Hettie were activists for women’s suffrage, members of the Women’s Social & Political Union before World War 1, as well being involved in socialist propaganda. To make a living she sold second hand clothes in the market and later from a shop.

If enthusiastic support for the pointless carnage of the First World War was still by far the view of the majority of the population, opposition had grown over the previous two and a half years. The mass deaths, privations, hunger and hardships at home, forced conscription into the armed forces, as well as mass government repression, had sparked hatred and demoralisation, resentment, and resistance. Soldiers were passively and actively avoiding combat and would soon by mutinying; strikes were multiplying, organised by grassroots shop stewards movements, (as the trade union leaders mostly supported the ban on workplace struggles during wartime); food riots and rent strikes had broken out in 1915 and 1916. And refusal to be conscripted, resistance and draft-dodging, had given birth to underground networks of war resisters, mostly young men on the run from the authorities, often sheltered by sympathetic pacifists, socialists and anarchists. A plethora of organisations – the No Conscription Fellowship, the Socialist Labour Party, British Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, parts of the Union of Democratic Control, the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Women’s Socialist Federation in East London; parts of the Independent Labour Party, the Women’s Freedom League, the shop stewards networks, anarchist groups and christian pacifists… and so many more…  

The government feared all these movements were linked, and to some extent there were rebel networks, with loose origins in the workers’ movements that had erupted before the war, the militant suffragettes who had rejected jingoism when war broke out, and the leftwing political groups who denounced the war on internationalist grounds. From the outside it could also appear that this opposition could link up to wider discontent among the ‘general population’, and that a serious rebellious threat could arise to the war effort and even to the state and the vast capitalist interests that had needed the war.

The government was determined to disrupt and discredit the growing opponents of the war, and pretty much allowed the secret state to operate freely, with carte blanche to use whatever methods seemed necessary. The press was already happy to trumpet that strikers, pacifists, etc were passively doing ‘the Kaiser’s work’, if not actually being paid by Germany; the more evidence could be drummed up that honest and peaceful opposition to the conflict was in fact a cover for more sinister, treasonous and violent intent, the more potential support for opposition they thought could be warded off.

The Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit, a branch of an organisation that was to partly evolve into MI5, faced with an immediate threat of being dismantled, conceived a strategy of discovering a treasonable plot in Derby, which with its munitions factories, was a heartland of Britain’s war effort. 

The Wheeldons were on the one hand a typical anti-war family with William Wheeldon and Alf Mason (Winnie’s husband) both facing conscription, (William was an anarchist ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector), and all of the family including Alice’s sons-in-law were heavily involved in both overt and underground resistance: in the above ground activities of the No Conscription Fellowship, but also in hiding men on the run, helping them escape the country in some cases. They sat also in the middle of the networks the authorities and military intelligence an Special Branch had in their sights: Arthur MacManus, (then ‘courting’ Alice’s daughter Hettie, and a friend of her son William), was heavily involved in the shop stewards meetings and planning class struggle in the factories, particularly in nearby Sheffield, the stronghold of the shop stewards committees since the pioneering Glasgow stewards had been largely broken up by arrest and repression in 1916. Their friends and comrades spread across the midlands and the north of England. 

An MI5 agent, using the name Alex Gordon, and posing as a conscientious objector on the run from the authorities. He had turned up in Sheffield, just as 10-12,000 skilled engineers and other workers came out on strike against the conscription of a fitter, Leonard Hargreaves, at Vickers plant there, in what appeared to be a case of the employers breaking agreements with the unions to not force certain grades into the army. the strike terrified the government, who backed down and released Hargreaves. (It’s worth noting that bitter divisions were opening up in the working class, as unions representing skilled workers were prepared to strike over such actions, but less skilled workers were often not supported.) ‘Gordon’ was not the only spy around – several other ministry of munitions agents were reporting on the strike, the socialists and other workers opposing the war in Sheffield and nearby towns. The reports of the spies tended to focus on prominent individuals like the Sheffield shop stewards activist and later communist theorist, J. T. Murphy, Arthur MacManus, and others, as being largely responsible for anti-war and workers agitation – missing the point that both movements were made up of grassroots networks based on daily grievances and built horizontally, not hierarchically. But the spies fed into their handlers view that taking out some of the prominent faces would crush the movements entirely. 

Alex Gordon was really Francis Vivian, who had been involved in the British Socialist Party before the war, so may have been known (if only by repute) to some of his targets, building trust. He moved across to Derby, in late 1916, supervised by another spy, known as Herbert Booth, who reported to Major Melville Lee at the Ministry of Munitions. Booth and Gordon seem to have played on the Wheeldon family’s angry desire to strike back at the warmongering government they hated, and a plot was hatched, according to the Wheeldons later, to poison dogs guarding prison camps where arrested ‘conchies’ and war resisters were being held, so they could be helped to escape. However, Gordon and Booth presented the poison, which was ordered, as evidence of a plot to poison the new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. They reported a succession of conversations, a mix of invented and real talk, no doubt, of threats and plans to off the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleague, Labour’s Arthur Henderson, who was widely vilified by anti-war socialists; as well as unnamed others.

Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, her daughter Win Mason and Win’s husband Alf Mason were all arrested at the end of January 1917. William Wheeldon was picked up but managed to escape and disappeared. 

The four were tried at the Old Bailey with the Attorney General, the trial beginning on March 6th 1017; future Lord Chancellor, the rightwing politician F.E. Smith leading the prosecution. The legal profession was apparently leant on heavily not to defend them, and the lawyers who did were not very effective. The accused were brow-beaten and their case was not really presented; the dice were loaded against them. The government were determined to use them as a example. Whether or not the spies’ superiors believed the plot was real, or their political bosses really feared for their lives, the trial was a useful weapon to beat the anti-war movement with, at least to split moderate critics of the war from the more radical elements.

Gordon was not present to testify in the trial so the defence could not cross-examine him on his evidence.  The court proceedings show that the evidence was flimsy and that the intention of the prosecution was to publicly destroy the reputations of the accused and then to convict them on that basis.

Hettie Wheeldon was acquitted but the others were sentenced to varying prison terms and their application to appeal was refused. Alice received ten years imprisonment, Alf Mason seven years, Winnie five years. 

Alice went on hunger strikes in Aylesbury Prison, which severely affected her health. Conditions inside were harsh and she was over fifty. Given her failing health and officialdom’s fear that she might die in prison, which could rebound badly on them, she served less than one year of her 10-year sentence. Doubts had also started to arise about the trial and the authorities may have thought they would settle if she was quietly released. From Holloway Prison she was released on licence at the instigation of the Prime Minister – the same Prime Minister she was accused of conspiracy to murder. Her daughters Nellie and Hettie accompanied her back to Derby but her life was made impossibly hard. She was ostracised by many neighbours, and her clothes business was ruined. She and Hettie (who had lost her job as a teacher despite her acquittal) tried to grow and sell veg to survive. They tried to pick up their political activism, re-establishing links with some of the comrades. But both Hettie and Alice caught the flu in the terrible 1918-19 epidemic that struck at a weakened Europe after the war, and for Alice, worn out by prison, it was fatal. She died in February 1919. 

Win and Alf Mason were released unexpectedly at the end of the war, having also gone on hunger strike. After their release, in 1919, Winnie and Alf moved to London where they lived for a number of years with Winnie’s other siblings. Eventually they moved to Hampshire where Winnie was noted for raising awareness of the rise of Fascism. In 1949, shifted to Welwyn Garden City where Alf had built a modern house in the new town. Win was diagnosed with lung cancer and died there in 1953; Alf died in 1963.

Hettie married Arthur MacManus, in 1920 and they had a stillborn child, but she died from peritonitis following on from appendicitis the same year. Arthur became a leading member of the new Communist Party of Great Britain (Alice’s other daughter Nellie also became a CPGB activist). William Wheeldon’s story is perhaps the most poignant in the story of the anti-war movement, in Britain and internationally, and where it ended; he became a communist, moved to the Soviet Union and made there, believing in and working for the Soviet project for many years, Until Stalin had him arrested and shot in the purges in 1937, where he was forced to confess to being a longtime British spy.

A hundred years after the frame-up of Alice and her family, after the profit-ridden carcass-fest of World War I, there is a campaign growing to remember the Wheeldons and the Masons. Derby people and the family have long been convinced that the impact of these outrageous charges has reverberated down the generations. Now Deirdre and Chloë Mason, great grand-daughters of Alice Wheeldon and the grand-daughters of Alf and Win Mason, are seeking to clear their ancestors names so history will record that this was a miscarriage of justice… 

Check out the website of this campaign

A plaque was placed on Alice’s shop in Derby a couple of years ago to mark the plot.

Sheila Bowbotham’s excellent history/drama crossover, ‘Friends of Alice Wheeldon’ is a great book, and worth reading if you can get hold of it.

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The machinations of the secret state that backed the fit-up of the Wheeldon family is complex and we would like to write about it, especially given the relevance of spies infiltrating movements for social change to our own time. This will have to wait for another time; but sufficient to say, spies sponsored by both Special Branch and the Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit were both operating against socialists, strikers, anti-war activists. But they were also competing against each other for influence, and reported to rival power centres in government. The spies themselves were part fantasists, part telling their handler what they wanted to hear, and part freelance self-interested opportunists. Some of them experienced half-regret for their actions: ‘Alex Gordon aka Francis Vivian attempted in some bizarre way to re-ingratiate himself with socialists after the trial, part-justifying and part apologising for his part in it. This dynamic is familiar to those of us targetted by modern spycops, some of who have publicly blown the whistle on their former bosses, some of who have returned to friends and lovers after their deployment ended, torn between their ‘job’ and the attraction of the life of rebellion and love that our movements at their best are capable of… But many more hide behind the walls built by the police and secret state, fearing exposure, claiming they are afraid of our revenge, or more honestly, the embarrassment of people they now finding out the glorious war they fought against environmentalists and families of racist murder victims, while deceiving women into sex.

As a heavily restrictive Inquiry into Undercover Policing attempts to cover up most of the history of political spying of the last half century, under the guise of pretending to uncover it, some of those spied on are attempting to push for as much information on those who spied on us and those who controlled them as we can get. Results so far are not encouraging; most of the names revealed so far have been brought into the open by us.

For more information about current campaigning vs undercover policing, check out:

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Undercover Research Group

Police Spies Out of Lives

The Network for Police Monitoring

http://spycops.info/

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The massive potential of the rising anti-war movement, the rebel networks of which Alice and all her family and friends were part of, was in the end broken, partly by the repression of the state, both open and secret, But also by the divisions of he movements themselves. The shop stewards movement launched strikes in 1917, but they were crippled by the splits between skilled and unskilled workers. The coagulating brilliant links that the conchies, suffragists, socialists and the class-conscious workers were forging did produce the Leeds Convention in June 1917, influenced and cheered by the Russian Revolution, attempting to unite trade unions and protest against the war. But it allowed itself to be dominated by the Labour Party and union leaders, who helped to derail its revolutionary potential. The powerful links developing through the war did continue to grow, and produced massive strikes in 1919, which in parallel with mutinies in the army could have led to a more fundamental social change – but was sold out by unions leaders, and hamstrung by people’s own doubts and lack of desire to push forward.

This post could have covered much more of this interesting period and the fascinating people and groups evolving at this time, and resisting the capitalist war machine with heroic but grounded love for each other, as well as clear-sighted hatred for the classes that profited from the slaughter.

Across the years we salute Alice, William and Hettie Wheeldon, Win and Alf Mason, their friends and comrades, and the movements they played a part in. If the world they hoped to build has not yet come about – tremble on your thrones, powers of the earth! Just you wait, you bankers!

 

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Yesterday in suffrage/anti-war history, 1915: the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies splits over support for WW1.

This should have gone out yesterday… but we were partying with Lady Stardust…

By the 1890s there were seventeen individual groups that were advocating women’s suffrage in the UK. This included the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage, Liberal Women’s Suffrage Society and the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage. On 14th October 1897, these groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Millicent Garret Fawcett was elected as president. Other members of the executive committee included Marie Corbett, Chrystal Macmillan, Maude Royden and Eleanor Rathbone.

The NUWSS held public meetings, organised petitions, wrote letters to politicians, published newspapers and distributed free literature. The main demand was for the vote on the same terms “as it is, or may be” granted to men. It was thought that this proposal would be “more likely to find support than a broader measure that would put women into the electoral majority, and it might nevertheless play the part of the thin end of the wedge.” (Remembering that up to two thirds of men were also unable to vote up until the twentieth century). Its message was directed at the Liberal Party, who it was hoped would win the next election. However, as one historian pointed out, the NUWSS’s achilles heel was that it remained “irrationally optimistic about the Liberal Party”. Liberal thinkers had been very supportive of votes for women individually, and Liberal-oriented groups had formed the original backbone of the movement that produced the NUWSS. But Liberal Party leaders consistently failed to implement women’s suffrage, gradually alienating many activists.

Dissatisfaction among women activist with the slow progress of support for women’s suffrage within the Liberal Party coincided with the increasing strength of a working class movement with an ambivalent attitude, at best, to women voting. While many Independent Labour Party, Social Democratic Federation members and trade unionists were supporters of female suffrage, just as many were opposed. However, many suffragists, both among what were later divided into the militant and constitutional camps, also became socialists, members of the Labour Party and trade unionists… If there is a tendency to portray suffragettes as posh (especially in fiction, films etc), the movement was in fact broad based, with mass working class membership; although in common with many other social movements, the power structures of the existing society were reflected in their organisation (a dynamic not unknown today…) and middle class women tended to dominate the leadership positions.

Though initially supportive of the militancy of the Women’s Social & Political Union when it was founded in 1903, including prison hunger strikes, NUWSS leaders like Millicent Garret Fawcett increasingly disagreed with the Pankhursts over their ‘violent’ tactics, especially deliberate property damage, which she thought were alienating MPs and the ‘voting public’. She favoured lobbying, education and gradual winning people over by persuasion, and focused efforts on Bills in Parliament, such as the 1912 attempt to give votes to all heads of households.

As growing political tension in Europe slid into World War One, in common with trade unions and socialists groups, the NUWSS campaigned against the possibility of war. IN Summer 1914, Millicent Garrett Fawcett issued a statement on behalf of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. “We, the women of the world, view with apprehension and dismay the present situation in Europe, which threatens to involve one continent, if not the whole world, in the disasters and horrors of war… We women of twenty-six countries, having bonded ourselves together in the International Woman Suffrage Alliance with the object of obtaining the political means of sharing with men the power which shapes the fate of nations, appeal to you to leave untried no method of conciliation or arbitration for arranging international differences to avert deluging half the civilised world in blood.”

Two days after the British government declared war on Germany (on 4th August 1914), the NUWSS declared that it was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. That night Millicent Fawcett chaired a meeting against the war. Speakers included Helena Swanwick, Olive Schreiner, Mary Macarthur, Mabel Stobart and Elizabeth Cadbury. Fawcett said there were millions of women who thought that war was a “crime against society”. She added: “A way must be found out of the tangle… In the first place they should try and avoid bitterness of national feeling. They should on the one hand keep down panic and on the other the war fever and Jingo feeling.”

However, in common with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and the WSPU leadership, when it came down to it, Garret Fawcett and many NUWSS leaders supported the War effort, partly pragmatically, believing mass women’s support for the war effort would lead a grateful granting of the vote for women in response. But also, because the movement reflected the wider society, and if for some, the struggle to win the vote was just part of a wider program to change society for the better, there were others who wholeheartedly bought into the nationalist and imperialist mindset of the time. And that wasn’t just the suffragettes – millions of socialists, trade unionist and even some anarchists fell in behind the war myth.

Although Fawcett supported the war effort she refused to become involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. The WSPU under Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s leadership took a very different view. After secret negotiations with the government, on the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Christabel Pankhurst, arrived back in England after living in exile in Paris. She told the press: “I feel that my duty lies in England now, and I have come back. The British citizenship for which we suffragettes have been fighting is now in jeopardy.”

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as “We Demand the Right to Serve”, “For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work” and “Let None Be Kaiser’s Cat’s Paws”. At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men. She told the audience: “What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!”. Emmeline would go on to spearhead campaigns to shame men who had not volunteered into signing up, carry out vitriolic attacks on pacifists and opponents of the war, denouncing any opposition as treason and accusing anti-war activists of being German spies. (She went as far as specifically making lists of trade unionists who went on strike, passing the names to the army and demanding they be forcibly enlisted and sent to the trenches. On at least one occasion this was carried out.)

Despite not going anything like this far, Millicent Garret Fawcett refused to argue against the First World War. At a Council meeting of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies held in February 1915, Fawcett attacked the peace efforts of people like Mary Sheepshanks. Fawcett argued that until the German armies had been driven out of France and Belgium: “I believe it is akin to treason to talk of peace.” Her biographer, Ray Strachey, argued: “She stood like a rock in their path, opposing herself with all the great weight of her personal popularity and prestige to their use of the machinery and name of the union.”

The NUWSS contained probably more pacifist feminists than the WSPU; as a result the organisation’s support for the War was less strident, (and unlike the WSPU they continued to campaign for the vote throughout the slaughter). There was a tussle in the organisation over whether to support or oppose the war, though, and many pacifists were forced out, after they tried to push the NUWSS towards an anti-war position. On March 4th 1915, this split came to a head at an NUWSS executive meeting, and while the majority of the executive – and possibly the activists – were anti-war, the pro-war leadership managed to mobilise the mass of the (mostly passive) national membership, in support of their position.
Ray Strachey, a leading acolyte of Millicent Garret, and definitively pro-war, wrote to her mother: “We have succeeded in throwing all the pacifists out… They wanted us to send a delegate to the Women’s Peace Conference at the Hague, & we refused. Then they resigned in a body – and they included the majority of our senior officers and committees! It is a marvellous triumph that it was they who had to go out and not us – and shows that there is some advantage in internal democracy, for we only did it by having the bulk of the stodgy members behind us.”

After a stormy executive meeting all the officers of the NUWSS (except the Treasurer) and ten members of the National Executive resigned over the decision not to support the Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague. This included Chrystal Macmillan, Margaret Ashton, Kathleen Courtney, Catherine Marshall, Eleanor Rathbone and Maude Royden. “Wounding language was used on both sides. Mrs Fawcett did not normally turn disagreements among friends into quarrels but this one she experienced as a personal betrayal. It became the only episode in her life that she wished to forget”.

Kathleen Courtney wrote when she resigned: “I feel strongly that the most important thing at the present moment is to work, if possible on international lines for the right sort of peace settlement after the war. If I could have done this through the National Union, I need hardly say how infinitely I would have preferred it and for the sake of doing so I would gladly have sacrificed a good deal. But the Council made it quite clear that they did not wish the union to work in that way.” According to Elizabeth Crawford: “Mrs Fawcett afterwards felt particularly bitter towards Kathleen Courtney, whom she felt had been intentionally and personally wounding, and refused to effect any reconciliation, relying, as she said, on time to erase the memory of this difficult period.”

In May 1916 Millicent Fawcett wrote to Prime Minster Herbert Asquith that women deserved the vote for their war efforts. In August he told the House of Commons that he had now changed his mind and that he intended to introduce legislation that would give women the vote. On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities. MPs rejected the idea of granting the vote to women on the same terms as men. Lilian Lenton, who had played an important role in the militant campaign later recalled: “Personally, I didn’t vote for a long time, because I hadn’t either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30.”

The Qualification of Women Act was passed in February, 1918. The Manchester Guardian reported: “The Representation of the People Bill, which doubles the electorate, giving the Parliamentary vote to about six million women and placing soldiers and sailors over 19 on the register (with a proxy vote for those on service abroad), simplifies the registration system, greatly reduces the cost of elections, and provides that they shall all take place on one day, and by a redistribution of seats tends to give a vote the same value everywhere, passed both Houses yesterday and received the Royal assent.”

The First World War ended in November 1918. Millicent Fawcett lost “no fewer than twenty-nine members of her extended family, including two nephews” in the war. Whereas the WSPU “were prepared to accept votes for women on any terms the government had to offer… the NUWSS continued to press its old case for equality with men”. Garret Fawcett was urged to stand for Parliament in the 1918 General Election, but aged seventy-one, she decided to retire from politics.

After the granting of the franchise for women under 30 in 1919, the NUWSS became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, working mainly for a lowering of women’s voting age to 21 to match men.

Read a PDF of The British Women’s Peace Movement during World War I. 

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All this week in suppressed military history: soldiers strike, demonstrate and riot, demanding faster demobilisation, 1919

When World War 1 came to an end, in November 1918, there were millions of men in uniform across Europe. After the initial nationalist fervour and pro-war enthusiasm that had seen mass enlistment in the first year or two, the war fever had largely abated. Mass slaughter, the stalemate of trench warfare, the horrors of soldiers’ experience – trauma, disease, cold, horrific wounds, as well as vicious military discipline, punishment of those who refused orders, were unable to fight any more… Many of those on the many fronts across the continent had been conscripted.

After over 17 million deaths and even more wounded, all most of those in the respective armies wanted to do was go home. Long years of war had left widespread cynicism and disillusion with the war aims, with the high command, with pro-war propaganda…

Out of this war-weariness, and inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, (itself a product of army mutinies and revolts from a population enraged by the privation and poverty the war had aggravated), French and British army mutinies had erupted in 1917-18. Revolts, mutinies and uprisings among her allies left Germany mostly fighting alone by the beginning of November, and German mutinies had played a major part in Germany’s decision to open talks about ending the war with the allies…

But celebrations of peace were somewhat premature. Several western governments, notably Britain, France and the US, were determined not to end the fighting, but to carry on the war – against their former ally, Russia.

After the October Revolution had overthrown the liberal government there, the new Bolshevik government had fulfilled one of the main aims of the revolution – to pull Russia out of the war.

This in itself enraged France and Britain, as it left Germany free to move large forces to the western front. But the overthrow of tsarism and then the bourgeois Kerensky government, and the beginnings of social revolution across Russia, also terrified governments worldwide. And the leading allied nations were among the most worried. What if workers across Britain took Russia as an example? There had already been a huge upsurge in workplace organising, strikes, and social struggles as the war progressed… The British and French establishments were determined not only that radicals inspired by the Soviet upsurge be repressed, but to organise military intervention in Russia, to support the anti-revolutionary forces already fighting a civil war there, and if possible help them restore a more acceptable regime and crush working class power.

By this time of course, in Russia itself, the processes were already at work that would hamstring working class control and produce a Bolshevik dictatorship which would largely destroy any real communist potential within 3 years… However, it was all one to the western powers.

Plans to mobilise some of the millions conveniently still under orders and turn them against Russia were already underway long before the Armistice between Germany and the Allied powers was signed on 11 November.

An agreement had been drawn up in December 1917 between France, Italy and Britain to act against the Bolshevik regime, subsidise its opponents, and prepare ‘as quietly as possible’ for war on them.

Between February and November, British troops had already been sent to invade parts of Russia. Clauses within the peace agreement itself make it clear that troops were to be moved across Europe to the east, and ensured that free access to the Baltic and Black Sea for French and British navies would ease plans to invade Russian territory.

And immediately after the ‘peace’, plans were stepped up, along with a concerted propaganda campaign against ‘bolshevism’ in the press, designed to whip up support for military intervention.

But the plans involved reckoning on thousands of soldiers as pawns, and that British workers would have no view or no say in the matter. This was to be a serious miscalculation.

In the early months of 1919, there were still over a million British soldiers still in uniform, some in France but many more in army camps in this country. Many were expecting immediate demobilisation now the war was over; this expectation turned to frustration and then to eruptions of protest. Attempts to delay demobilisation in order to facilitate intervention in Russia were certainly going on, but bureaucratic delays and simple problems of scale were also for sure causing backlogs and a slow process of sending soldier home. But in January 1919, a number of mutinies, protests and demonstrations in army camps in southern England and around London, demanding immediate demobilisation, broke out, causing serious alarm in government circles; especially as industrial unrest was increasing. Mutinies, links between discontent in the armed forces and on the home front had led to the Russian Revolution and to revolutionary uprisings still then raging in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere…

Preventing millions of enlisted and conscripted soldiers from returning to civilian life when the war was over was bound to spark resentment – the only question was how this would be expressed, as grumbling, or active protest.

The answer soon came, appearing first of all in army camps in Folkestone and Dover, on the south coast of England.

“On the morning of Friday, 3 January 1919, notices were posted that 1000 men were to parade for embarkation at 8.15 a.m. and another 1000 were to parade for embarkation at 8.25 a.m. The men wrote across them: ‘No men to parade’. Word was passed along from rest camp to rest camp that men in one, nearly 3000 of them, had held a meeting and had decided not to march down to the boat, but to visit the mayor of Folkestone. Shortly after 9 a.m. a large body of men from No. 1 Rest Camp marched in orderly fashion to No. 3 Rest Camp at the other end of the town. There the column was heavily reinforced, and all marched down the Sandgate Road to the Town Hall. On the way they shouted in chorus: ‘Are we going to France?’ and answered with a louder ‘No!’ Then: ‘Are we going home?’ – and in response a resounding “Yes!’ Over 10,000 men assembled at the Town Hall. Several climbed on to its portico and delivered speeches: their complaints that many applications for demobilisation, in order to return to waiting jobs, were being ignored, were greeted with cheers. The mayor told the men that if they went back to camp they would hear good news: a remark answered by the singing of ‘Tell Me the Old, Old Story’! During the demonstration at the Town Hall the soldiers saw an officer taking photographs from the window. They entered the building and demanded an interview with him. He turned out to be an Australian taking the pictures as a souvenir, and offered the film to the soldiers – which they accepted. Finally, the town commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel H.E.J. Mill, promised the men that if ‘any complaints would be listened to’: and they then returned to their camps in a long procession, preceded by a big drum. At the camps they were told (1) that the pivotal and slip men who had work to go to could, if they wished be demobilised at once, from Folkestone; (2) that those who had any complaints could have seven days’ leave in order to pursue their case; and (3) that those who wished to return to France could do so. ‘They seemed reassured,’ reported the Times Correspondent, who underlined that there had been ‘no rowdyism’. He said that later a number of the men did return to France: however, the Daily News correspondent wrote that the morning mail boat to France had sailed without any troops.

On Saturday morning, 4 January, there was a new demonstration. Despite the assurances given the previous day, ‘a certain number’ had been ordered to France that morning. They refused, and a large number marched to the harbor to station pickets there, while other pickets were posted at the station, meeting the trains with men returning from leave: all joined the strike. Only officers and overseas troops embarked on the boats for Boulogne, which left ‘practically empty’. According to the Morning Post correspondent, an armed guard had been mounted at the harbour,

‘whereupon a representative of the soldiers threatened that, if it remained, they would procure their arms from their quarters at the rest camp and forcibly remove the guard. The latter was consequently withdrawn, and the malcontents placed pickets at the approaches to the harbour to prevent British soldiers from entering. Dominion soldiers were allowed to go.’

Probably about the same incident, a Herald investigator several days later said that the guard consisted of Fusiliers with fixed bayonets and ball cartridges. When the pickets approached, one rifle went up: ‘the foremost picket seized it, and forthwith the rest of the picket fell back’. Everywhere the feeling was the same, he said: ‘The war is over, we won’t fight in Russia, we mean to go home’.

The same reporter stated that the soldiers also tore down a large label, ‘For Officers Only’, above the door of a comfortable waiting room. The Times report went on to say that several thousand men, including the new arrivals carrying their kits and rifles, marched to the Town Hall, where they were once again addressed by their spokesmen. It was announced that a ‘Soldiers Union’ had been formed, and that it had elected a committee of nine to confer with the authorities in the Town Hall. There would be, immediately afterwards, a meeting with the general and town hall commandant at No. 3 Rest Camp. The whole mass of about 10,000 men marched there to await the report of the conference, which lasted into the afternoon. Finally, the delegation announced to the soldiers that the pledges made the previous day had been renewed. Late that evening, in fact, special staff from the Ministry of Labour arrived, and went to each rest camp to complete the necessary formalities.

One more the correspondent remarked that there had been ‘no rowdiness’, and that the townspeople spoke ‘in the highest possible terms’ of the soldiers’ behaviour. Thereafter everything proceeded as had been agreed.

It is not without interest that, as it turned out, one of the nine delegates was a solicitor in civil life, and another a magistrate. The composition of the delegation was: one sergeant of the Army Service Corps (chairman), a corporal of the Royal Engineers, a gunner of the Royal garrison Artillery, and the rest privates, several of whom were trade unionists.

After this unprecedented action at Folkestone, another took place at Dover on Saturday 4 January. About 2000 men took part, holding a meeting near the Harbour Station, at which a deputation was elected to see the military and civil authorities. The Daily Chronicle report gave further details:

‘A number of men had reached the Admiralty Pier , where transports were waiting for them, when suddenly there was a movement back, and men began to leave the pier. They streamed off along the railway, in spite of official protests, and on their way to the town met a train loaded with returning troops bound for the pier. The soldiers called on the newcomers to join them, and the carriages were soon emptied. Continuing their march, and all in full field kit and carrying their rifles, the troops mustered at Creswell, and from the railway bridge some of their number addressed the others on demobilisation grievances. They decided to send a deputation to the military and civil authorities, and the men then fell in and marched to the Town Hall, which was reached just before 10 o’ clock… The troops represented scores of different units, and a number of Canadian and Australian men.’

At the Town Hall, they formed up on either side of the road and in the side streets. The mayor admitted them into the Town Hall, and the overflow into the adjoining Connaught Hall. While waiting for a reply from the military authorities, the men sang popular songs, and the arranged for their free admission to the cinema. In the afternoon, at the Town Hall, they received promises that grievances would be ‘looked into’, and returned to their rest camps. A War Office statement printed by the Times said that the soldiers’ representatives were seen first by General Dallas, GOC Canterbury, and then by General Woolcombe, head of the Eastern Command. He had returned from leave when hearing of the ‘trouble’, and from Folkestone had telephoned he Home Army Command at the War Office for instructions. A report in the Times next day stated that ‘all cases had been enquired into’, and that soldiers were being allowed freely to telegraph their employers: if the latter replied favourably, the men could go home to start work at once.

Later on Friday, 3 January, the London evening papers had printed brief accounts of what was happening at Folkestone: which of course had become known at Dover. But almost immediately, in the words of the Evening News the following Monday, ‘the censorship came into action, with the result that all authentic news was stopped’ (though the Star, on Saturday, 4 January defied the ban). There can be no doubt about the military authorities’ reaction. The London letter in the Plymouth Western Morning News on 6 January, referred to ‘someone’s desire to conceal the truth: an attempt had been made on Friday and Saturday to hide the trouble at Folkestone… despite the efforts of the War Office to conceal it, nearly 10,000 men took extreme action’. The Birmingham Gazette on 8 January confirmed that ‘when the Folkestone trouble first arose, the War Office invoked what is left of the censorship system to keep the whole matter out of the newspapers.’ And on the same day The Ties, evidently more directly accessible to War Office pressure than the provincial press, revealed another aspect of the events by now occurring in many places when it stated in its leading article:

We are asked to publish, but have no intention of publishing, a great many letters on the subject of demobilisation which show the deplorable lack of responsibility on the part of the writers… fanning an agitation which is already mischievous and may become dangerous… These demonstrations by soldiers have gone far enough.

But The Times was too late. The demonstrations had certainly spread far beyond Folkestone, thanks to the reports in Friday’s evening papers: The Times itself had to report, on Tuesday 7 January, that the Folkestone and Dover demonstrations had been ‘followed by similar protests in other parts of the country’, and there might be more that day.

At other camps in Kent the demonstrations had already begun. At Shortlands, near Bromley, where there was a depot of 1500 men of the Army Service Corps, a committee of twenty-eight had been formed at breakfast on 6 January, including five NCOs [non-Commissioned Officers – officers who had risen through the ranks from private. Ed] and three cadets. Their chairman was a private from Canada, who had been at the front, and been transferred to the ASC. They marched in column to Bromley, where they held a meeting in the Central Hall. The chairman stated their main grievances: delay in demobilisation, and being held in the army to do civilian work. During the meeting a message arrived at the camp, saying that there would be no more drafts overseas, those men already out on a convoy would be sent back to the depot, and demobilization would start on Wednesday, 8 January. On their return, the commanding officer asked for names of the ‘ringleaders’, but this was refused, and next morning he had a two-hour meeting with the committee. Apart from the promises already made, he agreed to send to the War Office a ‘points system’ of priorities for demobilisation which the committee had drawn up. This provided: married men with work to go, and those running a one-man business – 1 point; years of service to be additionally credited a follows: 1914 4 points, 1915 3 points, 1916 2 points, 1917 1 point; men over military age, 1 additional point; those transferred from the infantry, 1 additional point. It appointed a sub-committee of five to visit other ASC Depots in the London area… On 8 January the committee issued a statement that all the other ASC depots had approved the scheme, but with 2 points instead of 1 for men with one-man businesses. Two days later demobilisation began.

At Maidstone on 7 January, a demonstration of several hundred soldiers of the Queens, 3rd Gloucestershire and 3rd Wiltshire Regiments, marched down the High Street at 10 a.m., and held a meeting explaining their grievances. Thence they marched to the Town Hall, where the mayor received a deputation from them and promised to forward their representations to the proper quarters. The demonstration had been preceded by interviews with their officers, at which the soldiers had demanded an end to unnecessary guard duties, drill and fatigues. During the afternoon demonstrations it became known that these demands had been conceded. The demonstrations had been renewed by 600-700 men of all three regiments.

At Biggin Hill, Westerham, on 7 January, some 700 men working on aeroplanes and wireless instruments refused to go on parade, and took possession of the camp. All its sections were placed under guard except for the officers’ quarters. They got ready twenty-eight motor wagons for a journey to Whitehall. They were persuaded not to see the plan through by the ‘tactful speech’ of their former colonel, who addressed them in a large hangar. The next day (8 January) he promised his help if they put their grievances in writing. This they did, complaining of: (1) insufficient food, badly cooked; (2) indescribable sanitary conditions, with eight washbasins for 700 men; (3) exploitation by officers, who required the men to do private jobs for them; and (4) delays in demobilisation. The ex-colonel offered to accompany a deputation to the War Office if required. On 9 January officials from the War Office visited the camp, and made immediate improvements in the sanitary and working conditions. On 10 January all except thirty-four men were sent home on ten days’ leave. Meanwhile, on 8 January, a number of RAF lorry drivers had refused to convey the 200 civilians working on the aerodrome from their homes in South-East London several miles away; this had been done previously by civilian drivers, and the RAF men demanded pay for this work at civilian rates. They resumed work on 11 January, after an investigation had been promised.

At Richborough ‘there was a demonstration by troops’ on 8 January’; but beyond this bare mention in Lloyd George’s own paper, nothing so far had been found.

As the London newspapers were already reporting the early strikes at Folkestone and Dover, unsurprisingly, the movement soon spread to the capital and its environs:

“At Osterley Park – a big manor house in its own grounds, west of London – at least 3000 men of the Army Service Corps were stationed. Most of them had served in France, and had been wounded, in the infantry; later they had been drafted into the ASC, and nearly all were ex-drivers of London buses, many with long trade union experience. They had recently laid their grievances about demobilisation before their commanding officer, but had had no definite reply. Accordingly, on Monday, 6 January, the soldiers broke camp, and about 150 took out three lorries and drove to Whitehall, intending to call on Lloyd George. They told reporters that more would have come with them, but officers had removed parts of the mechanism of other lorries. From Downing Street, where they were joined by man of other regiments, they went to the Demobilisation Department at Richmond Terrace, where a deputation of six was received by a staff officer of the Quarter-master-General’s department. He informed them that from Wednesday 8 January, 200 a day would be demobilised, adding that their complaints could not be investigated unless they returned to camp. This they did, followed by several staff officers and Ministry of Labour officials in a car. In the afternoon a second deputation of two privates came to Whitehall from a meeting of both ASC and other units. The War Office later issued a statement to the meeting saying that a beginning had already been made with dispersals for the Army Ordinance Corps, the Army Service Corps, the Army pay Corps and other military organisations. Meanwhile, at the afternoon parade in Osterley, a staff major had also told the soldiers that the Army Council, in session on Saturday 4 January, had decided to put the Army Service Corps on the same footing as other units, and that none of them would be sent on draft overseas.

The special significance of the latter assurance is underlined by a statement in the evening Pall Mall Gazette, on the day of the demonstration, that ‘the excitement among the Army Service Corps at Osterley and elsewhere is attributed in many quarters to oft-repeated rumours that plans are being prepared for the sending of a force to Russia’. In spite of assurances received on this score, all training ceased on 7 January, and 100 men were told they were being demobilised immediately. The demonstration of the others proceeded the following day.

At Grove Park (southeast of London), about 250 Army Service Corps drivers broke camp on 6 January and marched to the barracks half a mile away, asking to see the commanding officer. A sergeant-major who tried to stop them at the gates was knocked over in a scuffle, and the men entered. There they were ‘met in a conciliatory spirit’ by a senior officer, who, standing on a box, expressed sympathy with their grievances, and said everything in the officers’ power was being don to secure their release. A spokesman of the men said that many of them had had letters from their employers offering them re-employment, but nothing had been done, and they were being kept in the army doing no useful work. At the commanding officer’s request, they paraded again after dinner and filled in ‘Form Z16’ (for demobilisation). Fifty men who had been ordered to go to Slough, three hours journey by lorry to scrub huts, refused, saying it was unreasonable to expect men to stand closely packed in lorries for such a period.

At Uxbridge (North-West London), on Monday 6 January, 400 men from the Armament School (used as a demolition centre) broke camp at midday and marched along the High Street singing ‘Britons Never Shall be Slaves’ and ‘Tell Me the Old, Old Story’. At the market place they held a meeting, where they were addressed by the commandant, and then marched back. One of them told a reporter that, apart from the slowness of the demobilisation, ‘the food had been rotten since the Armistice, 1 loaf between 8 men, 5 days a week sausage.’ That morning the men had upset the tables, and gone out. On their return they formed a Messing Committee composed of 4 or 5 privates, 1 sergeant and 1 officer. Not satisfied, on Tuesday 7 January, they set up a Grievance Committee in each squad, composed of officers as well as men, to bring forward their complaints to the commandant. They also sent a deputation by lorry to the War Office.

From Kempton Park (southwest of London), on Tuesday 7 January, shortly before 3 p.m., thirteen large army lorries drove to the War Office in London, with forty to fifty soldiers in each lorry. General Burns had visited the depot that morning, but had not been able to give them any satisfaction. All were in high spirits, ‘determined to get what they called their rights. On the lorries they had chalked ‘No red tape’, ‘We want fair play’, ‘We’re fed up’, ‘No more sausage and rabbits’, ‘Kempton is on strike’. Held up at the Horse Guards (the War Office), they elected a deputation of eleven, which went into he War Office ‘amid ringing cheers’. The result of the interview was not published, but it could not have differed from what was secured elsewhere.

At Fairlop naval aerodrome (near Ilford, east of London), orders were posted on the morning of 7 January that eighty men were to proceed to other camps. All 400 men paraded and asked for a conference with the commanding officer, Colonel Ward: the transport men meanwhile got out their lorries to go to Whitehall, should the interview prove unsatisfactory. The colonel, however, came to a mass meeting held in a hangar, and agreed that every man with papers showing he had employment to go to, or who came from a one-man business, should have a day’s leave immediately, to get the papers endorsed, and could then go home pending demobilisation.

At the White City (well within the boundaries of West London itself), about 100 Army Ordnance Corps men on 7 January refused to leave barracks for the 1.30 p.m. parade, and sent a deputation to one of the officers demanding (1) speedier demobilisation, (2) shorter working hours, (3) no church parades on Sunday, and (4) weekend passes when not on duty. They asked for a definite answer within a week, and meanwhile resumed duty.

In the Upper Norwood Camp (in South-East London), there was a distribution centre for men discharged after lengthy illness. ‘After many previous discussions among themselves’, they sent a deputation on Sunday, 5 January, to interview the commandant. Then, on 6 January, they discussed with him complaints raised by the men, chiefly, that, even after twenty-eight days in hospital, they were being discharged.

But the most impressive demonstration of all in the London region, was that at Park Royal (in North-West London) on 7 January, where there were 4000 men of the Army Service Corps. That day a committee elected by the soldiers submitted to their commanding officer the following demands: (1) speedier demobilisation; (2) reveille to be sounded at 6.30 in the morning, not 5.30; (3) work to finish at 4.30 in the afternoon, not 5.30; (4) no men over forty-one to be sent overseas; (5) all training to stop; (6) a large reduction of guard and picket duty; (7) no compulsory church parade; (8) no drafts for Russia; (9) a committee of one NCO and two privates to control messing arrangements for each company; (10) a written guarantee of no victimisation. Most of these demands were agreed to.

However, at 1 p.m. on 8 January a big deputation arrived at Whitehall to present heir demands themselves. This had been agreed to by the committee: they left volunteers behind to look after the 300 horse at the depot. Their intention was to see the Prime Minister.

At Paddington, and again at the Horse Guards parade ground, they were met by General Fielding, commanding the London district, who tried to stop them, even threatening to use the police against them. Fielding promised them that demobilisation would take place ‘as soon as possible’: but as regards the assurance which they wanted that ‘they would not be sent to Russia’, he could give them none. This failed to satisfy them; they defied him, and marched in a body to Downing Street. Apparently the general told them ‘they were soldiers, and would have to obey orders’.

Finally Sir William Robertson, former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, came out to speak to them and hear their demands. He agreed that the commanding officer of the Home Forces should receive a deputation of one corporal, one lance-corporal and one private for half an hour. The deputation returned with a group of officers, who announced that the outcome of the talk was satisfactory, and Sir William Robertson had promised to send a general to Park Royal to investigate their complaints. While all this was going on, crowds of the general public were watching the proceedings and encouraging the men. One of the offices invited the men to go back to camp. But they insisted that first of all they must hear a report from the deputation itself. Two or three of its members spoke. They confirmed that the same percentage of men at Park Royal would be demobilised as elsewhere: no one who had been overseas or was over forty-one would be sent on draft – ‘including to Russia’, added the Daily Telegraph reporter – and those already notified for draft were to be sent on Christmas leave, if they had not been already.

On their return, the men held a meeting in the canteen and expressed their satisfaction at the settlement.

Among the demonstrators at the War Office on 6 January were 259 soldiers due to return from leave to Salonika. They were nearly all time-expired men who had served in Greece (some for as long as three years) and before that in India. They were addressed by the Assistant Secretary for Demobilisation, General de Saumarez, who told them that those with demobilisation papers already prepared would be discharged immediately, and the remainder could go to the reserve battalions at home. If they could get their employers to send them the necessary form requesting their discharge, they too would be demobilised at once. Next morning, Thursday 9 January, after assembling at the War Office again, they were marched to Chelsea Barracks, and there either demobilised or sent on fourteen days leave for the purposes indicated.”

The events continued to spread around the country and among British soldiers stationed in abroad, including those already embarked for intervention in Russia. We don’t have space to detail all of it here, but there were protests, strikes and subsequent negotiations – at Lewes, Shoreham, Smithwick;

at Aldershot, Winchester, East Liss, Beaulieu Camp near Lymington, on the Isle of Wight… Bristol, Falmouth, on Salisbury Plain, Newport and Swansea… Felixstowe, Bedford, Kettering, Harlaxton in Lincolnshire; at Leeds, Manchester, Blackpool; in Scotland – at Edinburgh, Stirling, Leith, Rosyth and Cromarty…

In Southampton, in ‘mid-January… the docks were in the hands of mutinous soldiers and 20,000 men were refusing to obey orders… deserted troop ships picketed by soldiers’. Lord Trenchard, sent to sort the situation out, was shouted down and hustled when he went to speak to 5000 men in the customs sheds. He ordered 250 soldiers from the nearby Portsmouth garrison marched to the sheds and load their rifles, he forced the men’s surrender, and used water hoses to drench and subdue 100 others… More than some of the other protest, the Southampton situation scared the government, who saw it as an embryonic soviet, and repressed any mention of it in official papers or memoirs for decades.

The spirit of rebellion spread, if much more uncertainly, to the navy: at Milford Haven, where there was a ‘mutiny not accompanied by violence, on board a patrol ship, the HMS Kilbride: the men refused to carry out their duties on the pay they were receiving (in contrast to the way the army dealt with the protests, 7 sailors were court-martialled for this, 1 being sentenced to 2 years hard labour, 3 to 1 year and 3 to 90 days detention);
at Devonport, where the lower ranks elected a committee to air their demands;
at Liverpool…

The protests, rebellions and mutinies were not limited to Britain – because the majority of British soldiers were still posted overseas. British soldiers in France erupted in much the same way as the British-based squaddies had done. There was unrest and some rioting, across many detachments. The climax was an outright mutiny at Calais, on 27 January. After a private was arrested for making a seditious speech, railwaymen and Army Ordnance Corps men went on strike; although the private was quickly released, this sparked a strike among 5000 soldiers, who demanded immediate return to England, with leave to seek employment. The soldiers’ mutiny was heavily repressed with armed force, and the ‘ringleaders’ received long sentences at court-martial; the Army Ordnance Corps protest lasted longer, and won some concessions. But discontent went on, and there was some fighting after one of the most vocal was nicked.

Read a first-hand account of the Calais Mutiny

There were also similar rebellions at Le Havre, Etaples (scene a year and a half before of a serious wartime mutiny), Boulogne, and Dunkirk.

… and among troops already involved in the British-allied plan to intervene militarily in Archangelsk, in northern Russia to support ‘white’ (anti-Soviet) forces. British, French, American and Polish forces were under British command here, but socialist propaganda and discontent were rife, and news of the demob protests reached these troops via socialist papers. Troops in Archangelsk refused orders to advance, mass meetings were held, and committees elected, and the commanders of the invasion force reported back to London that they were not confident of the men’s reliability. Some ‘ringleaders’ had to be arrested… But a serious blow was dealt to the allied attempt to smash the Russian Revolution by force.

The soldiers’ strikes not only forced the government to speed up demobilisation and lightened wartime conditions for those awaiting release.

It also did make the government think twice about conscripting soldiers into an intervention force for sending to Russia. Clearly squaddies were not necessarily going to be happy to be pawns this time. Public opinion in Britain was already heavily against intervention in Russia… But the widespread and almost immediate concessions to the protests show the scale of the terror that the British government was barely managing to conceal – that the increasing industrial unrest, social weariness with war privations and dissent among the forces would link up, as they had in Russia… The idea of a British Revolution may seem ridiculous now, but it seemed a genuine possibility in 1919… If you lose control of the armed forces (not forgetting that the police also went on strike I 1918 and 1919…)

The soldiers strikes of January certainly scotched the idea that a mass military force could be sent to help smash the Russian Revolution. It wasn’t the end of the British government’s plans to support the ‘white’ armies fighting against the Bolsheviks: attempts to send arms and other aid to the white Russian forces continued for over a year and a half, but were eventually in practical terms scuppered by the organised action of workers on the docks.

In fact though the fear of the British authorities that the soldiers’ strikes could develop into revolution was very likely overstated. Overwhelmingly the demonstrations, even when they became more confrontational, was for immediate demands, and largely subsided when they were granted. As a leading historian of WW1 mutinies and dissent concludes:

“most of these affairs focussed on the men’s demand for immediate demobilisation. With few exceptions, notably the confrontations at Folkestone, Dover and Whitehall, the demobilisation mutinies were dealt with by local and regional Commands. Their cumulative effect was serious because it caused the Government to accelerate demobilisation. But even the most optimistic socialists never felt it was a prelude to revolution. For example, the British Socialist Party newspaper, The Call, on 16 January 1919, commented: ‘The soldiers’ strike has arisen primarily out of disgust with which the intelligent fighting man regards the attempt to deal with him on the question of demobilisation as with an unreasoning machine and that it is not the outcome of considered revolutionary opinions, it would be foolish to dispute.’ 

Though the Communist historian Andrew Rothstein has tried to politically inflate these events into a tribute to the Russian Revolution, where a mutinous flag was flaunted it was the Cross of St. George or the Union Jack, rather than a rebellious red banner. Furthermore, few politically significant links were sustained between the mutineers and their turbulent industrial counterparts.” (Julian Putkowski, A2 and the Reds In Khaki)

Interestingly, though, the text from which this quote was taken details the extent of British secret state spying on soldiers’ and ex-servicemens’ organisations that sprang up in 1919, most notably the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Union, which does seem to have been associated with the Folkestone mutiny, and was itself connected to the left through its links with the newspaper, the Daily Herald. It is really worth a read: A2 and the Reds In Khaki

We took the accounts above from Andrew Rothstein’s book, ‘The Soldiers Strikes of 1919’.

We also hope to type up the full accounts of all the January 1919 protests soon…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London transport history: women tube workers return to work after equal pay strike, 1918

It’s generally well-known that during World War I, thousands of jobs normally done by men were taken over by women, as hundreds of thousands of men left to fight in the trenches and at sea (whether voluntarily, or increasingly as the war dragged on, against their will). The mass enlistment of women into work and supporting the war effort is generally also credited with the British government finally agreeing to ‘grant’ (some) women the vote in 1918, in supposed gratitude to the part women had played during the war.

Less well-known is a large-scale strike in August 1918, that began in West London and spread around a number of other cities and towns – women workers, doing jobs usually restricted to men, striking to obtain equal pay for equal work. On top of the labour shortage, the war brought new jobs as part of the war effort – for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons led to munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. There was initial resistance by employers and male workers to hiring women for what was seen as ‘men’s work’, but the introduction of conscription, in 1916, made the need for women workers urgent. The government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives.

Thus women were soon working in areas of work that had previously been reserved for men, for example as railway guards, ticket collectors, bus and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank ‘tellers’ or clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories. However, they received lower wages for doing the same work, and thus began some of the earliest demands for equal pay.

Women’s employment rates increased during WWI, from 23.6% of the working age population  in 1914 to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918. It is difficult to get exact estimates because domestic workers were excluded from these figures and many women moved from domestic service into the jobs created due to the war effort. The employment of married women increased sharply – accounting for nearly 40% of all women workers by 1918.

But because women were paid less than men, male workers suspected that bosses would continue to employ women in these jobs when the men returned from the war. (in fact this didn’t happen; usually the women were sacked to make way for the returning soldiers, though in some cases women remained working alongside men but at lower wage rates.) A series of unofficial strikes by men did take place, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women, and responding to what they saw as a threat of wages generally being reduced. However, these actions “simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women.” Other male workers took the slightly less chauvinistic approach of persuading the women workers to join trade unions, in a bid to prevent them being used as pawns in wage-lowering.

However, even before the end of the war, many women refused to accept lower pay for what in most cases was the same work as had been done previously by men. Public transport was an area where women were employed in large numbers.

“By February 1915, 21% of the men employed in London’s bus and tram services had joined the armed forces and only 3.5 percentage points of the shortfall had been made up. By late 1915 it was quite obvious that women would be needed to keep London’s transport infrastructure working. The first female bus conductor was taken on by Tilling’s (one of the smaller of the main bus operators) on their No 37 route in late 1915. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the main bus provider in the capital, lagged a bit behind but eventually took on bus female bus conductors in February 1916.”

By the end of the war, the London General Omnibus Company alone was employing over 3,500 women, and thousands more were employed by the other bus and tram operators in London as well as on the tubes.

“As with most expansions of women’s work during the war, this change was greeted with much publicity around women doing their bit and how they could do ‘man’s work’. By mid-1918, the number of women employed on buses across the country had increased from 300 to 4,500 (on trams it was even greater: from 1,300 to nearly 22,000). It was estimated that 90% of conductors on trams and buses were women. Generally, men were retained as drivers and doing some of the heavier (and dirtier) engineering roles. The conducting role was said to be beneficial to the health of those women who did it.”

Although strikes were nominally illegal, the latter half of the war did see a rise in stoppages. Public transport was no exception. There had been a large bus strike in 1917, sparked when the London General Omnibus Company refused to recognise the Vehicle Workers Union. It lasted a few days, and was mostly solid. Out of a total of 1900 buses, only 20 were running on May 13th! The day after, it was reported that “The situation in the London bus strike today has undergone very little change. There was a repetition this morning of yesterday’s scenes as thousands of workers proceeded to business. Trams and tubes absorbed much possible the extra traffic thrown upon them.”
Services were resumed on May 15 pending negotiations – after discussion the strike was ended on the 18th. The strike was part of a huge wave of strikes in 1917, building as prices raises and wage constraints during the war hit hard, as knuckling under ‘to support the war effort’ began to crumble under disillusion with the war aims, horror at the casualties – and the surge of hope inspired by the February Russian Revolution…

Both management and the unions had consistently opposed conceding the principle of equal pay for what was obviously equal work.

“A large majority of women tram and bus conductresses joined unions by 1918. Many had been practically compelled by men members to join the union. The understanding was that they should be employed on exactly the same terms as men whilst their employment must terminate by the end of the war. In some cases women were employed on short shifts, but this policy was opposed by the Union. It was feared that any relief of this kind would not only give employers an excuse for deductions from wages, but add to men’s hours of work. It might even have the undesirable effect of encouraging women’s employment in the future. Women drivers who were entirely composed of commercial private employees formed a comparatively small section of members, probably less than 1/8th.

The larger number of women drivers involved for auxiliary war service were not encouraged by the government to join Trade Unions. Women tram and bus conductors who were well organised for a start, had little difficulty in obtaining men’s minimum rates of wages, but the question of war advances was a matter of constant dispute. The important National Award for February 1918 which men received an aggregate advance of 20/- a week on pre-war rates, laid down that, “Where agreements or awards already exist providing the same rates to be paid to women as to men, such agreements or awards are to hold good and an increase to be paid accordingly.” In the absence of such agreements, women were to receive only an advance of 4/- on the current rates. The London Women Bus Conductresses were at once accorded the full bonus and a subsequent decision of the committee of production by which they were refused, a further advance of 51- met with such a determined resistance that the decision was reversed. All women were however by no means so successful Outside London the women’s claim had been prejudiced for the most part by the terms of previous awards by which they received not more than about two thirds of men’s war advances. In London, however, their claim was undeniable and here they secured the full sum of 20/-, bringing up their earnings to 63/- a week. In the following July a fresh appeal was made to arbitration, and men were granted a further advance of 5/- a week. But this time the women were left out. The award met with an unexpected storm of indignation. London women bus conductresses were not accustomed to such treatment. They had, moreover, begun to taste power. A protest meeting was held at once and they announced their intention to take drastic action unless their claim received attention. It did not receive attention.”

Their claim for equal pay ignored, women workers on London buses and trams went on strike in August 1918 to demand the same increase in pay (war bonus) as men. The strike spread to other towns in the South East and to the London Underground. This was the first equal pay strike in the UK which was initiated, led and ultimately won by women.

The immediate cause of the trouble was that whereas the award of the Committee on Production gave a war bonus of five shillings to the men it declined a similar concession to the women employees.

On August 16th, 1918, a meeting of women at Willesden bus garage decided, without consulting or even informing either the management or the trade union leaders, to strike the following day. The next morning Willesden stopped work; they were immediately joined by women at Hackney, Holloway, Archway and Acton bus depots or garages, and thereafter the strike spread like wildfire. By the evening thousands of women had stopped work. The demand was initially for a 5 shillings War bonus, a demand which became upgraded, as the dispute escalated, to a call for equal pay for women workers, or as the strikers put it ‘Same work – same money’. « One conductress thus explained the situation, “When we were taken on by the Company they promised to give us whatever rise the men had. We are doing just as much work as the men who realise the justice of our case and are supporting our strike.”

It was reported that : “Male employees who are opposed to the women’s claim base their opposition to the fact that many conductresses are the wives of soldiers and are receiving separation allowances, whereas the men have families to support. No intimation of their intentions was given and many early morning workers found themselves unable to get to business. The inconvenience increased during the day. People in the Hayes and Hillingdon districts who desired to get to Uxbridge or Southall to do their Saturday shopping were faced with the alternative of walking or going without provisions. There was no question of buying locally for many of the villages are rationed for meat, butter etc at town shops and were therefore in an awkward position.”

Many of the men conductors and drivers who had heard nothing about the plan, as it had been more or less secretly organised by the women. The strike continued to spread. By August 23rd, women bus and tram workers at Hastings, Bath, Bristol, South Wales, Brighton, Folkestone, Southend, Weston-super-Mare and Birmingham had joined in, about 18,000 women out of the 27,000 employed in the industry had stopped work.

Back in London, many women working on the tubes – supported by some men – had also stopped work, on the same issue. The transport strikers had a series of mass meetings at the Ring, Blackfriars, where 4,000 women, many of them with children, well supplied with sandwiches and lemonade, made a day out of it.

“Sir George Asquith, the chief industrial commissioner, had held a number of conferences with the parties engaged in the dispute with the hope of arranging a settlement, but it was not until Wednesday night that an arrangement was reached.   A conference under the auspices of the National Transport Workers Federation was held in the morning and a resolution was passed committing the unions affiliated to the organisation of “Immediate appropriate and determined action” to enforce national adoption of equal pay for equal labour to women and men. The unions represented at the conference were the Amalgamated Association of Tramway and Vehicle Workers London and the Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers, National Union of Vehicle Workers, National Union of General Workers and Dock, Wharf and Riverside General Labourers Union.

The terms of the resolution adopted by the conference were sent to Sir George Asquith, chief industrial commissioner, and in the afternoon delegates from the conference were received by him. After discussion lasting four hours the following official announcement was made, “The three Unions concerned with representatives of the National Transport Workers Federation met with Sir George Asquith today and after lengthy conference decided to recommend to the Executive Committee the following terms.

Resumption of work pending reference to the Committee on Production of interpretation of their awards, namely whether under Clause 14 of the Award of July 9 the Committee be understood to nullify any agreement or undertaking and in particular any such undertaking as is alluded to in Clause 4 of the Award of March 8 and on the claim that equal total payments be made to women as to men for equal work in the tramway and omnibus, undertakings who were parties to the Award of March 8 and July 9 and that any present changes of payments are to date from the beginning of the first full pay day following July 9 and that any future changes of payments should take place jointly with those of the men. The Hearing will take place on Monday next at 2.30 and the Awards will be issued as speedily as possible.”

The public were surprised and not a little inconvenienced, but its sympathies were in the main on the side of the women. Even The Times admitted the strength of the women’s case which lay precisely in this – That their work was as well done as any man could do it and that everyone could see that it was. The Committee of Production by which body the award had been given was obliged to yield to the storm and to re-consider its decision and the women won their case. Such was the victory of the women tram drivers that Mary McArthur, the Leader of the Women’s Union declared the award to be the absolute vindication of the principle for which we are contending.”

The bus and tram strike was eventually settled on August 25th, after a tumultuous meeting at the Ring, and despite a vocal element opposing calling a halt to the struggle. However, the women working on the underground stayed out until August 28th. The women received the extra 5s War bonus, but the principle of equal pay was not in fact conceded. The details of organisation of this important struggle are obscure; indeed it is rather surprising that this strike, which must be one of the largest ever engaged in by women for their own demands, has not attracted more attention from historians of the labour movement.

London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

Parts of this post were taken and slightly edited from Don’t be a Soldier! by Ken Weller.

And Hayes People’s History

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

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Today in London history: War is the Ruin of the Drinking Classes, 1917.

Immediately after the outbreak of World War I, Parliament passed the Defence of the Realm Act  (on 8th August 1914) criminalising anything they could think of that could impede the war effort. A notable section of the Act restricted licensing hours in pubs, to reduce drunkenness, hangovers and nipping off work early for a swift one impacting on war production… Before the war, pubs could open from 5 am in the morning to 12.30 pm at night. The DORA slashed licensing hours in cities and industrial areas, which could only now open 12.00 noon to 2.30 pm and 6.30 to 9.30 pm. (However, in most rural areas, people could continue to buy alcoholic drinks throughout the day. Mostly cider, presumably.)

Other governments involved in the conflict were also worried about this problem. In August 1914 Tsar Nicholas II outlawed the production and sale of vodka. This involved the closing down of Russia’s 400 state distilleries and 28,000 spirit shops. The measure was a complete failure, as people, unable to buy vodka, produced their own. The Russian government also suffered a 30% reduction in its tax revenue. Attempts to reduce alcohol consumption were also made in Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Italy.

This drastic reduction in British opening times was only the beginning of a campaign against alcohol that was to last throughout the war. “David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, led the campaign against alcohol. He had been told by shipbuilders and heads of war factories, that men’s wages had gone up so much that they could earn in two or three days what would keep them in drink for a week. A Newcastle shipbuilder complained that double overtime on Sunday meant no attendance on Monday.” In January 1915, Lloyd George told the Shipbuilding Employers Federation that Britain was “fighting German’s, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink.”

This campaign was to reach absurd proportions.

“Lloyd George started a campaign to persuade national figures to make a pledge that they would not drink alcohol during the war. In April 1915 King George V supported the campaign when he promised that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal household until the war was over. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War and Richard Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, followed the king’s example, but [Prime Minister] Herbert Asquith, who was a heavy drinker, refused to take the pledge. The National Review commented: “The failure of the Prime Minister to take the King’s Pledge has naturally aroused comment.” Asquith retorted angrily that Lloyd George had “completely lost his head on drink.” Not in that way, I mean, he’s gone over the top on the sub- oh forget it, poor me another one. Lloyd George being a welsh chapel lad was a teetotaller anyway, so it wasn’t exactly a stretch…

With mass enlistment from young men, to be followed (as the first wave of recruits died en masse in France and Belgium) by mass conscription, women were recruited in large numbers to work in many industries where male workers had previously rigidly excluded them (often through the trade union structures), as well as particularly in making munitions and other war materiel. This was to open up all sorts of opportunities to women, sparking social change that shot off in all sorts of directions. However, one that most bothered the government, pro-war press and the Daily Mail-reading swivel-brained, was that the wages these women workers were al of a sudden receiving gave them massively increased spending power. And they liked to spend it on drink:

“The government was particularly concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female munition workers. A survey of four pubs in London revealed that in one hour on a Saturday night alcohol was consumed by 1,483 men and 1,946 women. Newspapers claimed that soldiers’ wives were “drinking away their over-generous allowances”. The Times reported that “we do not all realise the increase in drinking there has been among the mothers of the coming race, though we may yet find it a a circumstance darkly menacing to our civilisation”.”

The moral outrage sparked by women living it up gathered pace. The Liverpool Echo – under the headline “Light on the ways of women drinkers” – reported in 1916 that “the great increase in the number of women visiting public houses during the past year has demanded drastic treatment”. Press reports and letters from the public talked about “the army of women crowding the public houses”, that the amount being drunk by women was “abnormal”, drinking the pubs dry so that and that male workers heading home from work were “unable to obtain any refreshment”.

Women drinkers were compared to prostitutes; a new scare warned soldiers would return at the end of the war to “find their wives dishonoured and drunkards”.

The bizarre range of measures thought up to “eradicate this blot” included banning women from pubs, selling licences to BUY drink, fitting clear windows to pubs, removing “partitions, snugs and other obstacles likely to facilitate secret drinking”.

In October 1915 the British government finally fell off the edge, announcing a number of several measures to enforce further reductions in alcohol consumption. “A “No Treating Order” laid down that any drink ordered was to be paid for by the person supplied. The maximum penalty for defying the Government order was six months’ imprisonment. The Spectator gave its support to the legislation. It argued that it was the custom of the working-classes to buy drinks for “chance-met acquaintances, each of whom then had to stand a drink to everyone else” and believed that this measure would “free hundreds of thousands of men from an expensive and senseless social tyranny”.

It was reported in The Morning Post on 14th March, 1916: “At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public-house. He said his wife gave him sixpence to pay for her drink. Mrs Smith was also fined £1 for consuming and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid, £5 for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board.”

Ernest Sackville Turner, in his book, Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: “In Newcastle police reported a licensee who, with his manager, had sought to evade punishment by causing a customer who had ordered eight drinks to consume all of them. As time passed the Order began to be flouted, to the relief of bar-room scroungers who had been having a thin time, but the police fought back. In Middlesbrough fines on innkeepers went as high as £40. The licensing authorities had powers to close public-houses which allowed treating and occasionally exercised them.” 

The government also increased the level of tax on alcohol. In 1918 a bottle of whisky cost £1, five times what he had cost before the outbreak of war. This helped to reduce alcoholic consumption. Whereas Britain consumed 89 million gallons in 1914, this had fallen to 37 million in 1918. Convictions for drunkenness also fell dramatically during the war. In London in 1914, 67,103 people were found guilty of being drunk. In 1917 this had fallen to 16,567.”

Another effect of the war on drinking was a huge increase in prices. However wages were also increasing. Price and wage inflation rocketed during WW1. Prices had scarcely increased since the 1850’s, in some cases actually having fallen. In four years of war, they doubled. Pre-war the average weekly wage varied from 26s. 4d. per week to 34s. 4d. Half the women employed were paid from 10s. to 15s. per week. In 1917 London bus drivers were earning 60s. per week, cleaners, never the best paid, were getting 40s. By 1918 even agricultural labourers, the lowest paid manual workers, were earning 60s. to 70s. a week. Munitions workers earned considerably more – from £6 (120s.) to as much as £10 (200s.) or £20 (400s.) per week.

So drinkers had, for the most part, plenty of money to afford the higher price of beer, but the problem was a limited supply of beer available. Pubs were allocated a ration of beer based on their pre-war sales; however in some areas the population had increased dramatically – for instance where there had been an influx of munitions workers. In some places, there was just not enough beer to go around. And this caused trouble. Shortages encouraged publicans and brewers to raise prices; this narked their customers, but when some landlords couldn’t resist breaking agreements to put up the price of a pint across a neighbourhood, all sorts of aggro broke:

“The Price of Beer Yesterday – Threatened Strike of Publicans. —- BATTLE OF THE BAR.
Weekly Dispatch, April 8th 1917

There were some remarkable fluctuations in the price of beer in London yesterday, with a tendency to go back to the old prices.

At the Black Dog in Shoe Lane, London, bitter was only 3d a half pint – 2d. less that the price fixed by the Licensed Victuallers’ Central Protection Society London: at the Temple in Tudor Street the charge had also gone down to 3d.; at the Mail Coach in Farringdon Street it was still at 5d.; at Gatti’s Restaurant in the Strand itt was 4.5d.; at the Wellington Restaurant, Fleet Street, 5d.

In South London, in Camberwell and Peckham, there has been a battle of the publicans ever since Monday last. At a meeting it was agreed to put up the prices, but when the time came a minority did not do so. The news spread quickly and the old-price houses were beseiged. Another was held and again an agreement to raise the price was reached, but this time a few of the publicans had a vendetta against the men who played the trick on Monday. One man in Peckham Road put outside his house a notice stating that as other publicans in the district had been disloyal the old prices would be charged until further notice. Many others are doing the same. Yesterday in these old-price houses, it was fighting room only. In Manchester a boycott of formidable character is taking place.

In Manchester and Salford yesterday pickets were stationed near many beerhouses in the industrial areas, and the takings of hundreds of licensees decreased by over 50 per cent.

In Liverpool the boycott also continues. There has been a great drop in the trade and, contrary to expectation, the workmen have shown no sign of buying beer at the new price. At Sunderland the premises of one publican who declined to advance the prices and charged 4d. a pint were crowded to the doors, while people intending to enter premises charging 6d. and 7d. were assailed with cries of “Come out, you blacklegs” from pickets.

A strike was threatened by publicans in Chatham and Rochester yesterday. The licensed victuallers and beerhouse keepers there have decided to accept no further supplies of malt liquors from the brewery until they reduce their rates to the prices prevailing in the greater
part of the county of Kent. According to present arrangements the public is henceforth to pay 10d. a quart for its mild ales and 1s. 6d. a quart for bitter ales.

PROHIBITION BY PRICE.
“It’s prohibition by price – so far as beer is concerned.” said a London publican yesterday. He said that his sale had dropped by 50 per cent since the prices were increased in his establishment last Tuesday.

Old walked in and asked for “a pint of bitter,” and when told the price had been raised to tenpence walked out without touching the drink – a remarkable example of self-denial but typical of the kind of protest the British workman will always make when he feels, rightly or
wrongly, that he is being badly imposed upon.

The new rise in the price of beer in a consequence of the war, which to many men is a more startling fact than the inflation in the prices of foodstuffs or luxuries. Twopence on on tobacco was serious, but as one ounce lasts the average smoker two or three days he did not feel the
call on his pocket so much. But tenpence for the morning pint every morning has come as a brutal shock. Mild ale is only 7d., but to a man accustomed to bitter the change is extremely distasteful.

SPIRITS AS ALTERNATIVE.
But the consequence of the prohibitive price would not be serious if it simply compelled a man to become a total abstainer.

The truth is that beer drinkers are not becoming total abstainers; they are becoming addicted to spirits.

The other day a man walked into a well-known buffet in Fleet Street and ordered a small bottle of Bass. At the same time the man standing next to him asked for a Scotch whisky. For the Bass the barmaid demanded the new price, 7d.; for the whisky she turned to the other customer and said, “Fourpence, please.”

The beer drinker hesitated, then looking at the whisky, said: “Will you change the Bass for a Scotch?” The barmaid said that she could not do that, and the convert to whisky grunted, “Well, this is the last bottle of beer I’m going to buy. I shall save threepence by drinking spirits.” At the same place a customer had two glasses of mixed vermouth and they did not cost him any more than a pint of beer.

A manager who controls many public-houses, both in the City and the East End, said yesterday that there had been a very sharp rise in the consumption of whisky.

“Several men I know,” he said’ “who for years have had a pint of beer every morning, which was their only intoxicating drink for the day, and never touched spirits, now call for a ‘double Scotch.’ It costs them twopence less than the beer.”

He says that the same habit is also growing among the dockers.

The publican, of course, refuses to condemn these customers for giving way to what is a bad habit merely because the country’s food peril makes it imperative that the brewing of beer should be drastically cut down. The publican’s attitude is that beer is a very important food to a numerous body of workers, whose constitutions have become so habituated to the drink that they feel ill without it.

OLD STOCKS AT OLD PRICES.
A curious situation created by the new prices is that many public-houses which have large cellars and a considerable supply of barrels bought at the old price have not yet raised their charges. The result has been a migration, temporary, of customers from a new-price house to an
old-price house close by.

The new scale of prices as fixed by the Licensed Victuallers’ Central Protection Society of London is:

half pint ______Glass
Mild ale ______3.5d. _____-
Bitte ________5d. ______4d.
Stout ________5d. ______5d.
Burton _______6d. ______5d.
Mild and Bitter _4.5d. _____3.5d .
Stout and Mild __5d. ______4d.
Mild and Burton _5d. ______4d.

Other prices: Small Bass 7d.; Guinness 8d.; London stout (screws) 5d.; pale ale (screws) 5d.; barley wine nips 6d.; lager, light or dark, 8d.

It has been pointed out on behalf of the brewers that the existing large stocks of malted barley, sufficient to brew the 10,000,000 barrels of beer authorised for this year, are useless for any other purpose.

This has been denied by Dr. Saleeby, who says that malt cake is an admirable food for cattle, and can be turned directly into meat an milk, and that if the cakes were supplied to farmers they would release for food the unmalted barley, oats, and sedes now being used as food for cattle.

In any case the public have got to make up their mind that, high price or low price, there is not enough beer to supply the old demand, or anything like it, and a good many people have got to do without it.

It is stated that a dozen or more metropolitan brewers have decided to offer their customers (or “tied” houses) the old “four ale” at 90s. a barrel and a trade discount, which will enable the publicans to sell at 3d. a half-pint and make a reasonable profit. These brewers have always maintained that 100s. per barrel, the present price, was more than the circumstances warranted. There is a feeling that the present prices for beer will come down before the end of this month.”

Many licensing laws and restrictions introduced during World War 1 remained on the stature for decades. Because social control during wartime tends to become entrenched. Wars are very useful for that.

The above article was nicked from here…

Other bits were taken from here (sure the telegraph was somewhere there slagging women off for drinking back then)

And here.

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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: Brotherhood Church finally closes its doors, 1934.

On corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road, on Islington’s border with Hackney, where a block of flats now stands above a Tesco Express, there once stood a church, for a few years one of North London’s leading socialist and anti-war spaces…

According to Ken Weller:

“The Brotherhood Church was founded in 1662, as an independent congregational chapel. In 1862 it moved to Southgate Road; at this time it was a conventional chapel, although it had some fairly radical connections. In 1892 the Reverend Bruce Wallace became the Minister. Wallace was a Christian Socialist. In 1887 he had founded the socialist paper Brotherhood at Limavady in Northern Ireland, in which he developed the ideas he was later to put into practice.

When Bruce Wallace took over he renamed the Southgate Road Chapel the Brotherhood Church, and it rapidly became the centre of a whole range of radical and socialist activities. The Brotherhood Association, the Church’s ‘political’ wing, had about 15 branches by the turn of the century, mostly in London but one or two elsewhere.

There were also several associated churches, for example those at Croydon, Harrow Road, Forest Gate and Walthamstow (It’s possible that the Walthamstow Brotherhood Church was connected with the Walthamstow Free Christian Church. whose minister, Reg Sorenson played an important part in the movement opposing World War 1 in North London). Also connected with the Church was the Co-operative Brotherhood Trust which operated several workshops and shops, of which at least one, the shop at 37 Newington Green, seems to have lasted until after the 1914-1918 War. In the 1890s, the Croydon Brotherhood Church was the main publisher of Tolstoy’s social writings; its minister.J. C. Kenworthy was also a well known anti-War campaigner.

About the turn of the century, the Brotherhood movement spawned a number of communities in the countryside where members lived together. There were four of these in Essex alone, and while many were relatively short lived, one at least, ‘The Commune’ at Stanford-le- Hope, was in existence until the Second World War. ‘The Commune’ and some other Brotherhood-connected groups seem to have played quite an important part in the informal network helping ‘dodgers’ on the run. After the end of the War ‘The Commune’ provided a recuperative haven for a number of anti-War activists, notably Reg Sorenson and Fenner Brockway and their families.

The politics of the Church were basically christian socialist and pacifist – a number of its members were Quakers. There was a strong Tolstoyan anarchist current and William Morris was an important influence.

The Church had strong links with the socialist movement, exemplified by the record of one of its prominent members, H. A. Barker.

Barker also illustrates how, whenever you look at the wartime radical movement, you have only to scratch the surface to find strong connections with previous radical waves embedded within them. Barker (1858-1940) was a Trustee of the Brotherhood Church for its last 30 years. A builder by trade, he was born in Shoreditch and seems to have lived in the general area all his life; as a boy he had been confirmed at the Southgate Road Chapel before it was taken over by Bruce Wallace. Barker was a pioneer socialist. He was probably a member of the Labour Emancipation League, a forerunner of the SDF, and he was certainly a very early member of the latter. In December 1884 Barker left the SDF with the Socialist League split, and he became a very active member of the new body, of which he eventually became National Secretary between 1886 and 1888.

In 1888 Barker left the Socialist League with a number of other members who objected to the growing anti-parliamentarianism of that organisation, and he helped to found the Labour Union, a short-lived socialist group which played a prominent part, with H. A. Barker much to the fore, in the industrial struggles in North London in the 1889-1890 period, notably the successful and pretty violent strike of coal porters at the St Pancras Arches complex in July and August 1889, which led to the formation of the Coal Porters’ Union. The Labour Union was also heavily involved in a disastrous strike of postmen at Mount Pleasant and other local post offices in July 1890, which was completely smashed by the authorities.

Barker went on to play a leading part in the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and he was a member of its first executive. He was an active member of the Brotherhood Church from its formation until its closure.

A notable event at the Church under Bruce Wallace was the Congress there in 1907 of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party which was attended by virtually all the prominent figures of both the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Party (Among those present at the Brotherhood Church on this occasion were Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Gorky, Zinoviev and Rosa Luxemburg).

In January 1911 the Church was taken over by F. R. Swan, who got the job with the help of the Reverend R. J. Campbell of the City Temple. Campbell had been Secretary of Finsbury ILP. Swan had lost his previous living because of his support for Victor Grayson, the successful independent socialist candidate in the Colne Valley election of 1907. He was a member of the ILP and had joined the staff of the Daily Herald virtually from its foundation.

Under Swan’s ministry the Church became even more explicitly political. Its service took the form of a reading from the Bible – in accordance with a clause in the Church’s trustee agreement – readings from other books, the singing of songs from the Labour Songbook, and a speaker. Among the huge number of speakers before the War were Annie Besant, Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and George Lansbury.”

During WW1 the Church was one of the main North London centres of anti-war activity, on socialist-pacifist grounds, but opening its doors to anti-war activists of other stripes too, such as the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst and other East London federation of Suffragettes/Women’s Suffrage Federation/Workers Socialist Federation (our Sylv and friends liked to change the moniker of their crew more often than Karl Marx changed his razor blades).

Various elements of the Brotherhood Church movement seemed to have played a very significant part in the informal networks helping men on the run from the authorities and dodging conscription during the war.

As recounted last week on this blog, several anti-war meetings here were attacked by ‘patriotic mobs’, often composed largely of soldiers, and not uncommonly stirred up by the police and Special Branch.

“Perhaps the peak of the Brotherhood Church’s involvement in the anti-War struggle came in July 1917 when, in response to the February Revolution in Russia, the Leeds Convention met to set up Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates. The Convention decided, among other things, to hold a series of regional meetings, one of them to be held in London. The original London hall having failed to materialise due to police pressure, the meeting was moved to the Brotherhood Church.

This meeting took place on July 28th. There were about 250 delegates including a number of servicemen. There had been some attempt to keep the venue of the meeting private but even so the authorities were well prepared. Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, noted in his diary on 27th July in relation to the meeting:

They will have a rude awakening tomorrow, as I have arranged for the Daily Express to publish the place of the meeting and strong opposition may be expected.

Leaflets were also distributed in the area stating that a pro-German meeting was taking place and that ‘scores of old soldiers and others are going to march to the canal bridge to show these traitors what we think of them’. The leaflets called on the local population to ‘remember the last air raid and roll up’. Part of the job of mobilising the mob was taken on by Horatio Bottomley, then MP for South Hackney, who ran a sort of mini-Tammany Hall locally which had a ‘stable’ of roughs on call.

Long before the meeting was due to start the mobs had begun to gather. It was estimated that they eventually totalled 8,000, many of them in uniform. The leaders of the military contingent seem to have been a Canadian soldier and two Royal Naval Air Service men. Also present were our old friends the Anti-German League. There was also a strong force of police in attendance.

By 3 pm the Church was completely surrounded. At 3.15 a sledge-hammer mysteriously materialised and the front door of the Church was smashed in and the fight started. The delegates who had already arrived were trapped in the small hall at the back. Meanwhile the crowd systematically smashed up the main hall; windows and fanlights were broken and frames ripped out, the furniture was almost completely destroyed, water pipes were pulled out of the walls and the hall was partially flooded.

Bertrand Russell – who was there – described what happened to the trapped delegates:

‘A few people, among them Francis Meynell attempted resistance, and I remember him returning from the door with his face streaming with blood.

The mob burst in led by a few officers; all except the officers were more or less drunk. The fiercest were viragos who used wooden boards full of rusty nails. An attempt was made by the officers to induce the women among us to retire first so they might deal as they thought fit with the pacifist men, whom they supposed to be all cowards. Mrs Snowden behaved on this occasion in a very admirable manner. She refused pointblank to leave the hall unless the men were allowed to leave at the same time. The other women present agreed with her. This rather upset the officers in charge of the roughs, as they did not particularly wish to assault women. But by this time the mob had its blood up, and pandemonium broke loose. Everyone had to escape as best they could while the police looked on calmly. Two of the drunken women began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested they should defend me. The police merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged. ‘But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued. The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an Earl’, she finally cried. At this the police rushed to my assistance. They were, however, too late to be of any service, and I owe my life to a young woman whom I did not know, who interposed herself between me and the viragos long enough for me to make my escape. But quite a number of people, including several women, had their clothes torn off their backs as they left the building.

Another illustration of the violence of the situation and the attitude of the police was what happened to Leonard Howard of the North LHL. With blood streaming down his face he was attacked again and again. He eventually took refuge in a furniture van, and the police finally acted- they grabbed him and threw him back to his attackers…

Needless to say the conference broke up; when John Maclean turned up a bit later all he saw was ‘a howling mob of male and female dervishes’ . Among the consequences of this rather one-sided fighting were numerous injuries, including lacerated heads and serious cuts; one delegate nearly had his eye gouged out by a stick; and a young woman had her throat badly cut when someone in the crowd tried to grab her necklace.

A. M. Barker the 18-year-old son of H. A. Barker – was present at the time and wrote of his experience to me:

But I will tell of an awful scene of a woman being swung around by her hair, the technique of women’s fighting in those days – and which could cause terrible scalp wounds – and a crowd of god knows how many howling ‘do her in’ and horrible language. . . . The next morning I found the Church itself wrecked, a shameful shambles of broken windows, broken down doors, smashed pews, piano, organ, and the floors of the Church almost solid with brickbats. I almost broke down and cried at this terrible shameful sight.

The police arrested only one man – one of the delegates. The excuse given for the police inactivity by the sub-inspector in charge was ‘that to have attempted to arrest anyone would have depleted our force and given them [the rioters] the opportunity of attacking the Church.’ In actuality the role of the police consisted entirely of gently shooing the rioters from the ruined hall after they had worked themselves out – a classic example of low-profile policing?”

The authorities were heavily involved in the attacks on, and harrassment of, the anti-War movement. They were certainly involved – as the entry in Basil Thomson’s diary indicates – in sometimes making sure that potential attackers were informed of the venues of meetings. What happened at the Brotherhood Church was not an isolated event: what happened on a local scale was repeated nationally.

“With the coming of peace the Church continued to function, but it was in severe financial difficulties, having to foot the bill for repairing the damage it had received during the War. It continued to be a centre for a wide range of political activities. For example, the first two conferences of the Young Communist League was held there, and trade union branches, local Labour Parties, the SPGB, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Shoreditch Unemployed all met at the Church. Eventually funds ran out and the Church finally closed its doors on March 18th, 1934. Regular meetings of the congregation continued at the Essex Road Library until the death of F. R. Swan in October 1938; the last meeting was held on January 12th 1939.

After the final closure, surviving members of the Brotherhood Church apparently used to meet in Walthamstow until the early 1960s. But a Brotherhood Church still exists at Stapleton, near Pontefract, Yorkshire. This community is a direct descendant of the Brotherhood community at Purleigh in Essex, which was itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood Church at Croydon.”

On a personal note, your past tense typist, in my wayward youth, met some socialists raised in the Stapleton Brotherhood Community, who were active in my local anti-poll tax group… the spirit lives on… This post is dedicated to John and Bracken x

This post was lifted with some text-slaloming from Ken Weller, Don’t Be a Soldier.

For information on some of the Brotherhood communities see Dennis Hardy, Alternative Communities in nineteenth Century England, 1979.

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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: jingoistic mob break up anti-war meeting, Islington, 1917.

Although in the run-up to the outbreak of World War 1, trade unions and Labour movement figures had produced a lot of hot air about resisting the war, but when the conflict began, the Labour Party, like many socialist parties across Europe, fell in with the nationalist fervour and war fever. Overwhelmingly working class organisations capitulated to the war effort.

But from the start small minorities in all countries opposed the war; on moral grounds, or because they saw it as was – a struggle for power between rival capitalist gangs, that meant nothing to their lives. Brave groups and individuals spoke out against the war, or refused to be forced into the army.

As the war progressed and its true horror in terms of carnage on the battlefield and deprivation at home became apparent, the courageous stand taken by relatively few at its start began to strike a deep chord among the working class. It was this wider movement which in its turn became the basis of the massive wave of industrial and social unrest which shook British society to its foundations in the first years of peace.

And resistance grew as the war dragged on. Soldiers of all armies, all sides, mutinied, deserted, refused to fight, who shirked and dodged and avoided fighting. Strikers defied calls for sacrifice to fight for better wages and conditions (despite mass repression); thousands refused to pay rent, rioted at high food prices, demonstrated against the hardships the war was causing. The war ended in revolution in Russia, in Germany, and elsewhere; in mass strikes and mutinies all over the world…

On the ground, the resistance to the war had from the start been based in localities; in local networks of socialists, or class conscious workers, in some places suffragettes… In many places these groups overlapped and merged with one another, as the war drove on.

In the North London borough of Islington, an overwhelmingly working class area then (don’t laugh), a strong anti-war movement grew up. This was most notably manifested in the North London Herald League, a broad-based socialist grouping… But the NLHL was not the only centre of the anti-War movement in North London. Another was the Brotherhood Church in Southgate Road (Since demolished: the site is now occupied by a Tesco Express. Grim). (We will return to some of this lost centre of Christian socialism on March 18th…) Briefly, it was a seventeenth century chapel converted in 1892 into a christian socialist and pacifist space, influenced by figures as diverse as Tolstoy and William Morris and strongly part of the local socialist scene.

Ken Weller takes up the story:

“In the month that World War 1 broke out the Church had its first anti-War meeting, at which the main speaker was [veteran socialist] Herbert Burrows. From then on the opposition of the Brotherhood Church to the War remained constant, although its attitude was pacifist rather than militant. By and large the importance of the Church during the War was as a place for meetings. Those involved in the anti-War struggle found it very difficult to obtain halls for meetings and the existence of the Brotherhood Church as a friendly reliable venue made it much in demand, so much so that George Lansbury described it as ‘the Mecca, the meeting place of those who wanted peace.

As an illustration of what this meant, we can take the first six months of 1916. On January 16th, a ‘Stop the War’ meeting at the Church was attacked by hooligans who, as well as assaulting individuals, pelted the meeting with thunderflashes and other missiles. On January 30th, the ‘Anti-German League’ held a meeting of about 700 people outside the Church, calling on the authorities to close down peace meetings there. The Chairman of this meeting was Alderman Vorley.

On March 10th, Sylvia Pankhurst spoke at a meeting organised by the WSF. This meeting was attacked and broken up by a mob which included many soldiers in uniform led by an officer; Canadian troops were prominent. An interesting feature of this meeting, and perhaps an omen of things to come, was that quite a few of the soldiers who had come to disrupt found that they were in agreement with the WSF’s case. Finally in June 1916 there was a series of large meetings at the Church called by the No-Conscription Fellowship at which the main speaker was Clifford Allen. There seems to have been no substantial disruption of these meetings.”

Attacks on the Brotherhood Church continued through the war. In July 1917 when, in response to the February Revolution in Russia, the Leeds Convention met to set up Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates. The Convention decided, among other things, to hold a series of regional meetings, one of them to be held in London. The original London hall having failed to materialise due to police pressure, the meeting was moved to the Brotherhood Church. However when it took place it was attacked by a mob, stirred up by stories of ‘pro-Germans’ plotting there, placed in the rightwing press by Basil Thompson, head of Special Branch, under whose remit fell sabotaging and undermining anti-war protestors and the left generally.

The Church was heavily damaged and many of the 250 delegates at the meeting savagely attacked. Another anti-war meeting took place on an anti-war meeting in September 1917.

Much more on the North London anti-war movement can be found in Ken Weller’s excellent Don’t Be A Soldier – probably your writer’s favourite book ever…

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

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