REBEL FOOTPRINTS: A GUIDE TO UNCOVERING LONDON’S RADICAL HISTORY
By David Rosenberg
Pluto Press. 307 pages. £9.50. ISBN 978-0-7453 3409 7
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Many years ago, sometime in the late-1950s or early-1960s, I went down to Whitechapel to find the Freedom Press bookshop. Angel Alley didn’t exactly stand out (it still doesn’t) so I asked a policeman and he laughed and said, “Ah, you’re looking for the anarchists, are you?” and pointed me in the right direction. The anarchists, I’m glad to say, are still in Angel Alley, and their publication, Freedom, is still in existence. It was, according to David Rosenberg, founded in October, 1886, with the Arbeter Fraynd newspaper appearing just a year before it. The latter relates to the prominent Jewish presence in London’s East End at the time, and the strong Jewish element in the anarchist movement.
Not all the policemen mentioned in David Rosenberg’s informative survey of London’s radical history between the 1830s and 1930s were as relaxed and friendly as the one I encountered, and his accounts of demonstrations and other activities are scattered with tales of protestors, both men and women, being beaten up, harassed, and arrested. It’s not the whole story, of course, and Rosenberg doesn’t claim that it is. But it’s enough to make one reflect on why, for example, male policemen seemed more than happy to use violence when dealing with female suffragettes? Perhaps they didn’t think that women ought to be demonstrating? That being at home cooking, cleaning, and looking after the children, were more suitable occupations than waving banners and shouting slogans. They wouldn’t have been alone in harbouring such thoughts, and many of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and other relatives would have been of the same opinion as the policemen. Women often had a harder time, in more ways than one, as the various battles for better working conditions and higher wages, improved social circumstances relating to housing, and the right to vote, took place around the city.
Rosenberg’s plan for taking us on a tour of radical London is to select a series of districts, outline their histories, and add on suggested itineraries for anyone interested in walking around the areas concerned. He starts in Clerkenwell where the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) organised a mass demonstration in 1832 to call for universal male suffrage and other reforms relating to the corrupt and inefficient electoral system. All reports seem to suggest that the marches were peaceful, but nonetheless they were attacked by large numbers of police armed with staves and cutlasses. When three of the organisers of the protest were arrested and put on trial the jury acquitted them, much to the delight of the crowds outside the court. Chartism had substance in Clerkenwell, and among other claims to fame is the fact that the Red Flag was flown for the first time in London at a mass meeting on Clerkenwell Green in 1871. And, a little later, Lenin was known to frequent the nearby Crown Tavern.
In Bow, an area noted for its depths of poverty, hundreds of women employed by Bryant and May went on strike in 1888 in protest against their miserable wages and shocking working conditions. The walk-out was spontaneous, though it took place against a background of the rise of “new unionism,” as workers in industries previously ignored by established craft unions began to organise. New leaders, such as Will Thorne, who was active in the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, later known as the General Municipal and Boiler-Makers Union, and Ben Tillett, who worked on the docks and was instrumental in the formation of the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association, came to the fore. Both had deprived backgrounds and struggled to educate themselves. Neither Thorne nor his wife could read or write when he started to be active in union work. It’s instructive, too, to read about Ben Tillett’s early days which, among other things, involved working in a brickyard at the age of seven, joining the Royal Navy when he was thirteen, and later experiencing the “call-on” system at the docks where crowds of men gathered for just some of them to be chosen to work by a foreman or supervisor. Tillett described how men fought “for the chances of a day’s work.” He was one of the leaders of the Great Dock Strike of 1889. The fact that both Thorne and Tillett turned conservative as they got older shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the heroism of their early days.
Workers in the rag trades in Spitalfields took a leaf out of the dockers’ book and went on strike. Many of them were immigrant Jews who had fled from pogroms in Russia and were, in Rosenberg’s words, “among London’s most exploited workers, slaving 14 to 18 hours per day, six days a week,” in unhealthy conditions. Organising them was not easy, but Lewis Lyons, who had worked as a tailor from the age of eleven, took on the task. His strike committee met at the White Hart pub on Greenfield Street (later renamed Greenfield Road) in Whitechapel. When their funds were almost exhausted, and the strike on the verge of collapse, they contacted the dockers who gave them money that enabled them to hold out until the employers agreed to many of their demands.
It was in this part of London that many Jewish immigrants came together, a fact that didn’t always go down well with local people. Rosenberg refers to Ben Tillett saying that the Jewish clothing workers were “our brothers” and would be helped for that reason, but he wished they had not come to Britain. And an organisation called The British Brothers League, which was supported by some working-class people, but also had backing from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Marie Corelli, campaigned against mass immigration. From a working-class point of view one of the main complaints was that too many foreigners coming in led to employers being able to reduce wage levels. Anarchists like Rudolph Rocker worked to defend immigrants and “to counter anti-Semitic arguments.” There was little doubt that the main targets in the anti-immigration activities were the Jews.
Things were more refined in Bloomsbury where the Peace Pledge Union met in Conway Hall and Marx and Edith Nesbitt could be seen at work in the British Museum Reading Room. Lenin was also there, though using the name Jacob Richter. The atmosphere was decidedly more intellectual, but many of the people who frequented Bloomsbury circles had radical sympathies. Rosenberg mentions Eleanor Marx, “thinker and activist, socialist and feminist,” and co-founder of the Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Rosenberg’s guide to walking around Bloomsbury, which can still be a pleasant experience in itself, mentions numerous writers and intellectuals who lived in the area. I wonder if anyone now reads Margaret Harkness, “author of six novels exposing working conditions in city slums?”
John Burns, one-time member of Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, was active in Battersea, along with Tom Mann. Burns, an engineer, had been introduced to socialism by Victor Delaheye, who was a refugee from France, having participated in the 1871 Paris Commune. Like Mann and Tillett, Burns helped lead the Great Dock Strike, and he also unionised Vauxhall Gas Works and a nearby goods yard and locomotive works. He later stood for Parliament and was elected MP for Battersea and Clapham in 1892. It was Burns who formed a partnership between Labourites, Liberals and Radicals that was known as the Progressive Alliance and “enabled Battersea to become the beacon of municipal socialism in London.” Rosenberg, hinting at Burns’s later conservatism, tells how, on the day he and Keir Hardie entered Parliament, Hardie “wore plain clothes and a cap, whereas Burns wore an exclusive suit paid for by his supporters.” He wasn’t the only politician or union leader who would say that he had to be as well-dressed as the people he was opposing. And Burns also claimed that being in Parliament enabled him to best further the interests of the working-class. A syndicalist like Tom Mann would no doubt have disagreed with him.
The suffragettes figure prominently in Rosenberg’s narrative, and among the most appealing of them was Sylvia Pankhurst who not only took part in campaigning for votes for women, but also immersed herself in the life of the East End. She was “repeatedly imprisoned during 1913-14, undertaking ten separate hunger and thirst strikes in that period.” A skilled artist, she designed banners for the suffragettes. In 1913 she broke with the other Pankhursts when they ordered her not to speak alongside “Sinn Fein supporters and the radical socialist James Connolly, founder of the Irish Citizens’ Army.” Her aims were not simply to obtain votes for women, desirable though that was as an object , but also to improve working and general social conditions for both women and men. When war was declared in 1914 she spoke against it, but later helped form the League of Rights for Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Wives which campaigned for higher allowance and pensions.
As Rosenberg’s account slides further into the Twentieth Century we move to Poplar, a predominantly working-class district, and the imprisonment of George Lansbury and other councillors for refusing to accept a “precept” included in the rates and paid to London County Council for cross-London services, “such as drains, sewage, parks and police.” It was said that the formula used for arriving at the amount to be paid meant that the biggest burden fell on the poorest boroughs. Thirty Poplar councillors were sent to prison, but when other London councils began to follow suit by refusing to pay the LCC precept the authorities backed down and ordered that Lansbury and the others should be released, while at the same time beginning negotiations to arrive at a fairer system for setting the precept.
It’s perhaps appropriate that Rosenberg’s history climaxes with the famous Battle of Cable Street when thousands of Londoners defied the police and stopped Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts (the British Union of Fascists) from parading through the East End, with its strong Jewish population. BUF branches had been established in Bow, Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, and Limehouse, and the Daily Mail had flaunted a headline proclaiming “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” But as far as most of the people of the East End were concerned the slogan, “No Pasaran,” taken from what was said in Spain about the advance of Franco’s forces, represented their attitude towards Mosley’s intentions. There were injuries and arrests on the day, but the BUF eventually had to retreat.
I don’t suppose most of the people who were involved in the Battle of Cable Street have a name in the history books. And the same is no doubt true of many of those who took part in the spontaneous strikes, the suffragette demonstrations, the running of co-operative bakeries and other similar organisations. The rank-and-file inevitably made their contributions and then went back to their ordinary routines. David Rosenberg does manage to mention a fair number of the activists by name, and if we do know already know about George Lansbury, Ben Tillett, and others like them, there are still more than a few who arouse curiosity in finding out about their identities.
Rebel Footprints is a fascinating book. Rosenberg tells his tales in an engaging manner, and his suggested walks around the areas he covers can be usefully followed with interest. I’m not sure how many of the pubs he mentions are still in existence, but those that are might be worth a visit. He mentions one, the Lord Morpeth on Old Ford Road in Poplar and says that it’s on the site of the East London Federation of Suffragettes Women’s Hall where Sylvia Pankhurst, among others, lived. And he adds that until 2014 the pub’s sign “featured a suffragette and photos of ELFS activities were displayed inside the pub.” What brought about their no longer being there? Personally, I’ll be heading for Whitechapel and the anarchists in Angel Alley.