In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be blog posts throughout May on this site.

T is for Tillett and Thorne,

U is for Union of Women Matchmakers

In his book The Anarchists, set in London in 1887, the Scottish-German writer John Henry Mackay described London’s East End as “the hell of poverty” and the “Empire of Hunger”. This district bordered the City of London where enough wealth was made to build an Empire, then more fortunes were amassed from that empire. But they did not trickle down. How was it possible for grinding poverty and immense wealth to rub against each other without eventually sparking rebellion?

But Karl Marx’s comrade and sponsor, Friedrich Engels, thought the prospects of revolt were slim. In early 1888, He wrote to the writer/social commentator Margaret Harkness: “Nowhere else in the civilized world are the people less actively resistant, more passively submitting to their fate than in the East End of London.”

Suddenly, it all kicked off, first in a match factory in Bow, among the most exploited and disadvantaged sections of the labour force: girls and women, many of them also of Irish heritage – a community struggling to be treated as equals.

Their example was taken up by male workers in the Gas Works and Docks. In the struggles of 1888 and ’89, a “New Unionism” was born – one of its early products was the Union of Women Matchmakers established during a successful two-week strike at the Bryant and May factory that employed 1,400 women. After the spark was lit, a key role was then played by two trade union leaders, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett, whose personal experience of workplace exploitation began at the ages of 6 and 7 respectively.

The strike by women at Bryant and May’s  factory was precipitated by the management’s zealous matchwomenmarchingover-reaction after exploitative and unhealthy conditions there had been exposed in a small circulation left-wing newspaper. The author, Annie Besant, struck a nerve because Bryant and May were Quakers who cast themselves as slave abolitionists and enlightened employers. Besant told of long shifts, paltry wages, and petty fines frequently imposed on the flimsiest basis.

Foremen asked the workers to sign notes confirming they were happy their conditions. They met mass refusal. A gaggle of alleged “ringleaders” were sacked. Despite the absence of a union, as word got round the plant, women walked out spontaneously on strike. They picketed to stop any scab labour, held open-air meetings on free speech pitches; marched to parliament, forced the media to notice them, and rallied material and political support for their cause.

Managers threatened to import unemployed girls from Glasgow to replace them, or relocate to Scandinavia. The workers knew this was bluster. They formed a Union of Women Matchmakers and demanded that the sacked “ringleaders” were reinstated; that the whole system of fines was binned; and that management commit to building a separate eating area, as their food was getting contaminated on their long shifts by unhealthy work materials, and women were going down with “phossy jaw”.

They fought – and they won.

The match factory closed in 1979, and its 275 remaining workers made redundant. In 1988 its building started to be converted into a gated community of luxury flats. On the outer wall a plaque celebrates Annie Besant implying that she led the strike. She didn’t. That was led by the workers themselves such as Mary Driscoll, Alice France, Eliza Martin, Kate Slater and Jane Wakeling, who apparently had been involved in earlier unsuccessful strikes.


Will Thorne

Further east from Bow were London’s largest gas works at Beckton. Employees there were unionised by Will Thorne, a worker and agitator in his early 20s who had to overcome a major personal barrier. Neither he nor his wife could sign the marriage register on their wedding, as they were illiterate. He was working a 12-hour day at 6-years-old at a rope-makers in Birmingham. But he had great organisational and oratory skills, honed in open-air speeches for the Social Democratic Federation. He learned to read in his mid-to-late 20s with help from a union colleague, one Eleanor Marx!

At Beckton Gas Works there were two 12-hour shifts generating power round the clock. When management introduced a technological advance, instead of it easing the work burden, workers had to meet new targets and, on a rota basis, they were working occasional 18-hour shifts as well.

While low wages made life hard, Thorne believed that workers’ time was ultimately more valuable to them than money. His union committee him convinced them to fight collectively for an 8-hour day. He welcomed colleagues to a a huge workers’ meeting on 31 March 1889 as “Fellow Wage–Slaves”. Thorne promised them that if they “stand firm and don’t waver, within six months we will claim and win the 8-hour day, a 6-day week and the abolition of the present slave-driving methods in vogue not only at the Beckton Gas Works, but all over the country.”

This unionisation drive came at an apposite moment. The electricity industry was growing and beginning to challenge gas. When Thorne knew they had thousands of workers unionised his committee petitioned their employers saying that they had the strength to go on strike but they would rather negotiate a new deal for workers. Ultimately their employers, fearful of a strike, agreed. Negotiations took several weeks as productivity matters were ironed out. In the resulting deal, two 12 –hour shifts became three 8-hour shifts as more workers were taken on, and shorter hours were gained at no loss of pay.

Despite Thorne’s struggles with literacy, he later became the Labour MP for West Ham and went on to write his autobiography, My Life’s Battles. 

Meanwhile, a former navy junior, then shoemaker, called Ben Tillett,was making a


Ben Tillett

name for himself locally as a trade unionist. In contrast to Thorne, Tillett’s working life began later – at 7-years-old – in a Bristol brickyard. His home life was abysmal. His birth mother died young, replaced with stepmothers who served the demands of Tillett’s alcoholic father, while neglecting or mistreating him. On his third attempt, he successfully ran away from home, joined a travelling circus and learned acrobatics. One of his five sisters tracked him down and took him to stay with relatives where he gained two years’ education before resuming his working life.

While Thorne was organising Gasworkers, Tillett, who had moved to Bethnal Green in east London where one sister lived, was attempting to unionise dockers in a largely casualised working environment, where workers endured the humiliating daily call–on. If they got work that day they were only guaranteed 2-hours. Tillett graphically described the atmosphere in the shed where the call-on happened in a pamphlet – The Dock Labourers Bitter Cry. He kept a diary. His last entry in 1888 read: “Cold worse than ever. Went to chapel. Old year out. Like to live next year a more useful life than last”.

He did. In mid-August 1889, the growing Tea Operatives and General Labourer’s Association made links with the Amalgamated Stevedore’s Union and, in response to a set of disputes that had begun with their employers, announced that the dockers were on strike. Tillett was the key figure among a collective strike leadership. In the first week, 10,000 workers were on strike. That grew massively as other dockers and workers in factories and warehouses, especially in dock related areas came out.

By the beginning of September, the local newspapers described (in disapproving terms) the East End as infected with “strike fever”. Workers across the board “found some grievance real and imaginary” to come out on strike. The dockers listed their demands: the dockers tanner (six old pence) an hour and 8d for overtime; a minimum 4-hour call-on, and the right to organise a union throughout the dock. Organising strike pay for such large numbers was logistically impossible so they distributed meal tickets redeemable at supportive shops and cafes. The Salvation Army supplied thousands of loaves a bread each day and dockers’ wives organised rent-strikes to minimise outgoings.

dockstrike_marchThey held huge marches, and spectacular community parades to Hyde Park, appealing for support form the West End. According to Thorne, Tillett possessed “a spark of genius”, as he organised a picket system of the whole London docks.

Four weeks in, the main dock employers, who had tried to starve the workers back to the docks, offered some enticing deals to small groups of employees, but at this critical moment with the strike becoming shakier,  help suddenlyarrived from far away. Many of the dockers were Irish Catholics (neighbours and families of matchwomen), as were many of the dockers in Australia. On hearing of the strike they collected for their brothers and began cabling over huge amounts of money to keep that strike going.

The employers were forced to negotiate. In negotiations mediated by Cardinal Manning a widely respected churchman, the dockers won their demands. Their union, renamed itself the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union and emerged from the strike with 18,000 paid up members.


Meeting to form a matchwomen’s union

In each of these cases – the matchworkers, the gasworkers, the dockers all created or developed thier unions, but instead of the old “craft unions” of highly skilled  workers, these were general unions, cheap to join, meeting the needs of the unskilled and low-skilled. This was the New Unionism.

Tillett and his close colleague Tom Mann wrote a pamphlet describing this phenomenon. In their new conception the work of trade unions went beyond just sorting out their own workplace “It is the work of the trade unions to stamp out poverty from the land.“ They would “work unceasingly for the emancipation of workers. Our ideal is the Cooperative Commonwealth.”



In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be blog posts throughout May on this site.

S is for Shaw and South Place Ethical Society

“The millionaire class, a small but growing one, into which any of us may be flung tomorrow by the accidents of commerce, is perhaps the most neglected in the community… In the advertisements of the manufactures of the country… everything is produced for the million and nothing for the millionaire…the unfortunate millionaire has the responsibility of prodigious wealth without the possibility of enjoying himself more than an ordinary rich man… can he attend more than one theatre in one evening, or wear more than one suit at a time, or digest more meals than his butler?”

This sardonic contemplation of the wealth gap was published in 1896 in the Contemporary Review. In 1901, the Fabian Society published it as a pamphlet, under the title Socialism for Millionaires

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George Bernard Shaw

Its author, who wrote five failed novels before he became a successful drama critic and an even more successful playwright, was George Bernard Shaw.  Shaw had arrived in London from his Dublin birthplace as a 20 year old in 1876. His mother and two sisters were already here, having left George with his alcoholic father, a struggling corn merchant, a year earlier.

Shaw was 15 when he found his first had paid work – as an estate agent‘s clerk – or, as he later described it “sitting a stuffy little den counting other people’s money”. When he was sitting in more interesting surroundings, in the British Museum’s reading room, writing his novels, he came into contact with Bloomsbury’s left wing intelligentsia. He then spent much of the 1880s and 1890s writing lectures, pamphlets, and manifestos for several socialist groups and campaigns, especially the Fabian Society. He spoke in grand halls, drawing rooms, street corners, and on demonstration platforms against capitalism, censorship, poverty, vivisection and war. He spoke for a minimum wage, universal healthcare, women’s right to vote, the abolition of hereditary privilege, and for socialism.

In 1895, Frank Harris employed Shaw as a theatre critic on the Fortnightly Review. He described Shaw: “…thin as a rail, with a long, bony, bearded face. His untrimmed beard was reddish, though his hair was fairer… his abrupt movements – as jerky as the ever-changing mind – his perfect unconstraint, his devilish look, all showed a man very conscious of his ability”.

The socialist novelist Edith Nesbitt’s description was less flattering: “very plain like a


Edith Nesbitt

long corpse with a dead white face – sandy sleek hair, and a loathsome small straggly beard”. He may have been “a clever writer and speaker” and “fascinating” but she thought he was also, “the grossest flatterer I ever met, is horribly untrustworthy… (and) does not always stick to the truth”.

Shaw’s most famous play, Pygmalion, made typically sharp observations on language and class. He was writing his 61st play when he died in 1950.

His particular talent as a radical writer and commentator was in his use of “one-liners” to puncture the orthodoxies of Victorian and Edwardian times, that saw inequality as natural, thought national conflicts were best settled through war, believed that women could not be equal, that education was a privilege not a right, and that the Church should have a privileged role as arbiter of morality.

On that last aspect Shaw said that “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” On religious faith, specifically, he commented: “I’m an atheist and I thank God for it.” he insisted that, “it is not disbelief that is dangerous for society, it is belief”. If he proselytized for anything, it was vegetarianism: “Animals are my friends,” he said, “and I don’t eat my friends.”

He cut to the chase on social and economic questions: “What is the matter with the poor is Poverty; what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.” Capitalism, he argued, “has destroyed our belief in any effective power but that of self-interest backed by force.”

He disdained militarism and war, as destructive outgrowths of excessive patriotism, mocking patriotism as “your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.”

A very profound comment of Shaw’s, that has stood the test of time, in a period where, for example, tens of thousands of refugees drown in the Mediterranean struggling to reach safety in Europe, with little comment, was: “The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.”

Towards the end of his life, Shaw requested that “the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice” should be omitted from all memorials to him.

Screen Shot 2020-05-21 at 10.20.01One place, though where his image lives on and crucifixes are decidedly absent, is in the form of a plaster plaque, made by Lawrence Holofcener, displayed in the treasure trove of freethought materials that is in the Humanist Library, on the first floor at Conway Hall, home of the South Place Ethical Society.

Conway Hall opened in 1929, and to this day runs affordable Sunday evening concerts, and hosts lectures and meetings, many on radical and transgressive themes. Its roots are in a non-conformist, unitarian congregation that rejected the Christian doctrine of “eternal hell”, that began meeting around the time of the French Revolution, on the eastern edge of the City of London. In the early 1820s it found new premises in South Place, Finsbury, where it stayed for more than a century.

Gradually it shed more and more aspects of religiosity, giving increasing emphasis to its humanistic spirit. When Moncure Conway, an American unitarian-cum–freethinker, and avid campaigner against slavery, became leader of the congregation, he oversaw its full transition to secularism and ultimately humanism/atheism.

Conway led the South Place Ethical Society for more than 30 years, with a gap of a few years when he returned to America to write a major biography of Tom Paine.

In the foyer of Conway Hall, a display board lists the Ethical Society’s successive leaders. Those preceding Moncure Conway share the appellation “Revd”. Conway had “Dr” instead, as have all those who came after him, symbolising the Society’s decisive move away from any religious trappings.

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Bertrand Russell

As a freethinker, Shaw lectured several times at Conway Hall, which sits in a corner of Red Lion Square near Holborn. Another plaque on display in the library there celebrates the utopian thinker and activist, William Morris, who lived there in the late 1850s and had a workshop nearby. At either end of the square’s serene green space, are a statue of Fenner Brockway and a bust of Bertrand Russell, both of them proud atheists and pacifists, a cause on which both shared platforms with Shaw, especially around the time of the First Word War.

They had met earlier. In 1895 the Sheffield Independent reported a bicycle crash involving

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Fenner Brockway

Russell and Shaw when they were cycling to Tintern Abbey with the Fabian, Sidney Webb. Brockway describes being particularly impressed by a Fabian Society lecture he attended where Shaw spoke on “How to achieve the Superman”, presumably one who survives bicycle crashes.

George Bernard Shaw died at the age of 94, Bertrand Russell at 97 and Fenner Brockway at 99. I once asked an adult education class why they thought that atheists lived such long lives, and one student offered: “Because they have nowhere to go?”


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be  blog posts throughout May on this site.

P is for Pankhurst, Q is for Quelch, R is for Rocker

How likely is it that the man appointed editor of the leading radical Yiddish newspaper in London’s East End in 1898, read by thousands of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire, would have been born a Catholic in Mainz, Germany and raised there in a Catholic orphanage? Well, that’s what happened.

Rudolf Rocker.CP, Fonds Chambelland

Rudolf Rocker

Rudolf Rocker arrived in London as a political exile in 1895. When he left the orphanage he trained as a bookbinder and involved himself in socialist politics, but the elders of the German Social Democratic Party found the ideas of the youth section, Die Jungen, too hot too handle. Several of them were expelled, including Rocker who then shifted from socialism towards anarchism.

As his close comrades were increasingly being arrested for their activism, he went into exile and emerged in Paris, where he shared a flat and bookbinding tools with a fellow worker, a Russian Jew, who later became a famous Yiddish poet and playwright. Shloyme Rappaport, was best known for writing a Yiddish play (later a film) called The Dybbuk (a wandering evil spirit) under the pseudonym Sh. Anski.

It was a foggy day when Rocker reached London. He describe seeing, “a world of ghosts” and “a thick clammy yellow mist over everything”. He stayed at first in Soho – the cosmopolitan home of exiled revolutionaries. One of his contacts there, Otto Schreiber, told Rocker that he must see the “real” London. Schreiber showed him areas where Rocker found “an abyss of human suffering… And in these cesspools of poverty, children were born”. One of these was the East End, where overcrowded immigrants eked out a living working long hours in sweatshops and small factories.


Milly Witkop

One sweatshop worker was Milly Witkop, who had arrived aged 17 from Ukraine. Rocker and Witkop fell in love, and they lived together in the East End after a short period in Liverpool. Rocker remained in the East End until 1914 when German males were interned as “enemy aliens” as world war broke out. The authorities didn’t ask him which side he supported. He would have told them neither. He was a pacifist. After internment he was deported, but Rocker, Witkop and their son Firmin, were reunited in Germany after the war. When Hitler came to power in 1933 they moved to America, where they lived in an anarchist commune in upper New York state.

Rocker dedicated himself to the liberation of the sweatshop workers and learned to read, write and speak their language. (Yiddish is written in Hebrew text.) He helped them form unions and played a key role in successful strikes, especially the 1912 Tailor’s strike. Together with Yiddish speaking anarchists – he established the Jubilee Club in 1906, a cooperatively run international Workers Education club, where workers of many origins, socialised, agitated, and benefited from adult education classes based on Francisco Ferrer’s progressive pedagogy.

Rocker’s most crucial and longstanding contribution, though, was through editing the arbayterfrayndArbayter Fraynd (Workers’ friend) newspaper, which acted as a mirror for the workers who could see the bitterness of their lives, but also their hopes for radical change, reflected in its pages. The paper inspired them to struggle collectively for their future.

Before the Jubilee Club was established, Rocker frequently lectured on Friday nights in a back room at the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, off Brick lane. One Jewish anarchist, Milly Sabel, said Rocker’s lectures “opened up… the vision of a new society – no persecution, no hunger, only warmth and generosity.”

By its nature, the Arbayter Fraynd had a large but niche audience – the Yiddish speaking immigrant workers. From 1892 to 1908, Harry Quelch, living over the river in Bermondsey, but working in Clerkenwell Green, edited a socialist newspaper with more general appeal. This was Justice, the weekly organ of the marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

Born in 1858 in Hungerford, Berkshire, to a blacksmith’s family, Quelch left school at 10 to find work, at first in an upholsterer’s shop and then for a dairyman/cattle dealer. At 14 he moved to London and worked in factories and warehouses, including Peak Frean’s biscuits in Bermondsey. When he subsequently worked as a porter/packer in a warehouse, one of his fellow workers introduced him to the SDF’s politics. In his leisure time he taught himself French and also wrote short stories.


Harry Quelch

Unlike Rocker, Quelch was not a great speaker. His speeches were initially described by “comrades” as “heavy and gloomy and without humour“, but he worked at improving and he was later seen as one of the SDF’s best speakers. His first article for Justice was called “Labour and Luxury”.

In the 1890s, the designer and furniture making libertarian-socialist, William Morris, put money into establishing a publishing operation for pamphlets and books through the offices of the SDF. He wanted to give the publishing arm a very dynamic and forward looking name so they agreed to call it “Twentieth Century Press”. The vast majority of socialist pamphlets circulating in Britain in the early 1900s were published by the Twentieth Century Press in the same building in Clerkenwell Green, that was later purchased (in 1933) as the Marx Memorial Library. Quelch was the business manager of the Press. He also temporarily helped a revolutionary, who would become world-famous, with his newspaper publishing.

In the late 1898 the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) – the Russian revolutionary party – was created under conditions of dictatorship in the country that made it very hard for revolutionaries to operate openly. In order to reach the masses they needed a party newspaper. They made plans to publish Iskra – the spark. Their plan was to print it clandestinely, and in the middle of the night leave it in bundles at places where workers would pass through. Think of your local free newspaper – in London we have The Metro – and then infuse it with revolutionary content!

But before the first issue could be completed the editorial group were raided, then

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imprisoned in Siberia for 18 months. When they were freed the Iskra group went into exile and arranged for copies to be made and smuggled in from abroad to clandestine printers to make many more copies for distribution. Between 1900 to 1902 it was produced in Munich. From late 1903 it was written in Geneva but in that year in between, Lenin edited it at 37a Clerkenwell Green and worked with Harry Quelch to get some copies printed which could be smuggled into Russia. In that way Quelch helped the Russian Revolution!

Another radical in London who played a significant role especially in the first decades of the 20th century through her activism which included publishing was the socialist and suffragette and artist, Sylvia Pankhurst, the middle one of the three Pankhurst sisters and the most consistently left wing.

In an earlier post in this series, Alphabet No. 5, I wrote about the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). A key role that Sylvia played there was as co-founder and editor of Woman’s Dreadnought, the ELFS own independent weekly newspaper. She wrote features for it, and editorials, but also helped to nurture writers from the predominantly working-class ELFS who had not had the educational opportunities that were available to her. The paper gave education, inspiration and a platform to its readers and writers.


Sylvia Pankhurst

It was Sylvia Pankhurst’s political influence that later resulted in the name change of the paper to the Workers’ Dreadnought, as the organisation changed its name too, to the Workers Socialist Federation and included men.

The Workers Dreadnought acquired some office space on Fleet Street, and was responsible for hiring one of the first Black journalists on fleet Street, Claude Mackay, a Jamaican revolutionary poet and writer.

Above the Dreadnought’s office there was another room where Sylvia embarked on a simultaneous publishing project assisted by May O’Callaghan, a sub-editor on the Workers Dreadnought and Nellie Rathbone (Cohen), Sylvia Pankhurst’s secretary.

It was in the wake of the Russian Revolution – an event celebrated by workers in many countries and, not surprisingly, strongly denounced and reviled by mainstream bourgeois press in Britain, who were worried that revolution might prove infectious. In the face of incessant propaganda form those sources against the Russian Revolution, Pankhurst established the People’s Russian Information Bureau which aimed at telling the story of the dramatic changes in Russia from a pro-revolution perspective.

Rocker, Quelch and Pankhurst – three writers, editors, publishers –  and activists – whose radical contributions enriched and empowered ordinary people fighting for change in their lives and communities.



In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be a series of blog posts through May on this site.

N is for Naoroji, O is for O’Brien

The role of migrants and people of migrant heritage in London’s radical movements has been huge. Today’s blog focuses on two individuals, both of them migrants, who through their writing, public speaking, networking and activism made a powerful impact.

James “Bronterre” O’Brien grew up in County Longford Ireland, his birth date recorded variously as 1804 or 1805. He studied at Trinity College Dublin before moving to London in 1829 as a freethinker, with a plan to become a lawyer.

pmg-standardIn London though, he fell in with radical circles, became a campaigning journalist and then an activist in the Chartist movement. He wrote first for Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian in 1831, becoming its editor the following year. The Poor Man’s Guardian (PMG) was published as a “penny paper” in defiance of Government laws that imposed a stamp duty on the press as part of their war on a cheap radical press. The paper’s motto was Bacon’s 1597 formulation, “Knowledge is Power”, and O’Brien argued through PMG that the government was taxing knowledge.

Early on in his journalistic work he signed his articles “Bronterre” which he later incorporated as a middle name. He studied the writings of French revolutionary writers and was especially attracted to Babeuf’s rebellious egalitarian essays

In 1835, O’Brien wrote this powerful passage:

“The history of mankind shows that from the beginning of the world, the rich of all countries have been in a permanent state of conspiracy to keep down the poor of all countries, and for this plain reason – because the poverty of the poor man is essential to the riches of the rich man. No matter by what means they may disguise their operations, the rich are everlastingly plundering, debasing and brutalising the poor… The desire of one man to live on the fruits of another’s labour is the original sin of the world…It is the parent injustice from which all injustice springs.”

In 1837 he established the National Reformer which castigated the industrial and political system of that time. He claimed that labourers without property, and without the vote, were the producers of all of society’s wealth, but that wealth was appropriated by government, the church, unproductive middlemen and aristocrats.

He wrote impressive articles for the Northern Star, the main Chartist paper, which bronterre_obriensupported the more militant “Physical Force” wing of Chartism. He collaborated closely with George Harney, in the militant East London Democratic Association, and toured the country in 1839 agitating to win popular support for the People’s Charter. Following the failed armed uprising by Chartists in Newport there was a wave of Chartist arrests. In 1840 O’Brien was imprisoned for 18 months, charged with “seditious libel”, for speeches he made in Lancashire.

Prison gave him time for reflection. He emerged from it just as committed to his class analysis of society that linked agitation for political democracy with the struggle for economic demands by the working class. But his emphasis shifted more towards the Moral Force Chartists after his stretch, prioritising education as a key means of making progress. He was nicknamed, “The Chartist Schoolmaster”.

In 1847, he began to publish another newspaper called The Power of the Pence, intended, he said, for those who knew the look of a penny better than a pound!

His health declined seriously in the 1850s. He spent his last years before his death in 1864, bed-ridden, at his home in Hermes Street, a tiny street off Donegal Road in Islington. A plaque to commemorate him was mounted in Donegal Road in 1984 on the outer wall of EGA Secondary School, but during the school’s rebuilding project, that wall disappeared and the plaque was moved to a more obscure position off the road. He is buried in Abney Park cemetery in Hackney.

It was in the mid-1850s that Dadabhai Naoroji, first came to Britain. he moved between Britain and India from then until 1907 before spending the last 10 years of his life in his homeland


Dadabhai Naoroji

Naoroji was born into a relatively poor Parsi (Zoroastrean) family in Gujerat’s Navsari district. But through his mother’s efforts (he was just four  when his father died), he got a good education. After studying maths and philosophy he taught philosophy at Elphinstone college in Bombay. He was very committed to women and girls’ education and set up Bombay’s first girls’ school. He also established a newspaper, the Voice of India.

Under British rule Indians became poorer as British colonists became richer. He applied his mathematical training to calculate how much wealth the British rulers extracted from the Indian economy, or rather, from the Indian people. Indian people’s taxes paid the wages and expenses of viceroys and governors and their lavish accommodation. Raw materials extracted from the low-wage labour of Indians supplied manufacturers in Britain who then sold goods made form them back to Indians at considerable profits. O’Brien’s words about the rich “everlastingly plundering” the poor, “no matter by what means they may disguise their operations”, were laid bare in India’s case by Naoroji’s “Drain Theory”, shared through discussion circles and eventually documented in his book, Poverty and Un-British Rule in india.

He estimated that the wealth drain from India in the years following the Indian Uprising (or “Indian Mutiny”, as it was conveyed to me in history lessons at secondary school) ran at approximately £30 million per year

The discussion circles he helped establish laid the basis for founding the the Indian National Congress, which moved gradually from demands for reform of the Raj, to demands for full self-government and independence.

In Britain, where he worked at first in a cotton company and then became a professor of Gujerati at University College London, he helped to establish an East India Association to communicate truths about plunder to opinion formers and the wider public, and to agitate for change.

Moving between both countries he knew his efforts to speak truth to power in India about the need to reform the Empire were coming to little. Returning to Britain, he sought to join their “club”, and stood to be an MP, unsuccessfully in Holborn in the mid-1880s, but then successfully in the 1892 election. He won the Finsbury Central seat for the Liberals… by three votes. Not surprisingly his defeated opponent demanded a recount. The recount showed that Britain’s first non-white MP actually had a more comfortable victory – by five votes. His earned the nickname Dadabhai Narrow Majority, but lost to a Conservative at the next election in 1895.

Lord Salisbury described his candidacy at Holborn as an “odd choice in an English

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Lord Salisbury

election”, adding “I doubt whether we have yet got to that point of view where a British constituency will take a black man to represent them.” The press seized upon Salisbury’s statement and piled in with their own racist comments.

The Times published a letter by Sir Lepel Griffin, a former colonial administrator in Punjab, who said that Naoroji was “an alien in race, in custom, in religion, destitute of local sympathy or local knowledge, no more unsuitable representative could be imagined or suggested.” Griffin gratuitously added that he regarded the Parsees as “the Jews of India”. It was not intended as a compliment.

Although Naoroji stood for the Liberals, who defended him strongly from Salisbury’s racism, his close political friendships included several radicals and socialists. In parliament he spoke up for free education, public social housing and Home Rule for Ireland. He supported women’s suffrage demands and campaigned for “justice for India”, saying: “It is futile to tell me that we must wait till all the people are ready… Self-government is the only and chief remedy. In self-government is our hope, strength and greatness.”

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Bhikaji Cama

In the early 1900s he helped to nurture a new younger generation of India radicals and campaigners for independence. He spoke, alongside the India revolutionary and feminist, Bhikaji Cama (who worked for a period as Naoroji’s private secretary), the socialist and suffragette Charlotte Despard, and the Marxist Henry Hyndman at the opening ceremony of India House, a hostel for 25 students, founded by Shyamaji Krishnavarma at Cromwell Avenue, Highgate.

From 1905-1907 Naoroji returned to India House several times for discussions there. India House found itself under surveillance from the British State. Valentine Choril, a regular writer for The Times described it as “the most dangerous organization outside India.”  It was closed down in 1909 after assassination of Sir William Curzon Wylie, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Indian Army who later held several administrative and diplomatic posts, by Madan Lal Dhingra, a regular visitor to India House.


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be a series of blog posts through May on this site

M is for Macarthur

“While women are badly paid because of their unorganised condition, they remain unorganised mainly because they are badly paid.”

The words of Mary MacArthur, born into a Conservative-voting family in Glasgow in 1880, who spent her tragically shortened life fighting to break this cycle of exploitation and marginalisation

She became a trade unionist and socialist in 1901, in Ayr, where her family had movedmary-macarthur-speaking when she was young, after attending a meeting that turned her view of life upside down. She moved to London two years later to work for the women’s trade union League. In 1906 later Mary founded the National Federation of Women Workers, which saw strikes and militancy as the key to organising women. Her remarkable talents for empowering women in struggles for their dignity, rights and better conditions were especially evident in Bermondsey during a great wave of militancy that started spontaneously in summer, 1911.

This trajectory would have been hard to predict from her first political forays in her late teens. She was active then in the Tory Party’s Primrose League founded in 1880. iThe League’s aims were: “… the maintenance of religion, of the estates of the realm, and of the imperial ascendancy of the British Empire.” Their recruitment targets were “respectable” working class men and women in cities.

Mary worked as a bookkeeper in her parent’s business, but had aspirations to be a journalist. Her curiosity took her to a local meeting of shop assistants addressed by trade union and socialist activists. She was very moved by personal accounts of super-exploitation, and saw the determination among those present to fight for change. Just a few months later she was Secretary of the Shop Assistant’s Union in Ayr.

women-trade+union+league-1903In London she worked first as secretary of Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), and then, in 1906, founded the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), who adopted the slogan: “To fight, to struggle, to right the wrong. While the WTUL had campaigned for women to join unions, the NFWW was a union in itself and fought hard to organise especially in mixed workplaces where men were preventing women from joining their union. In1907 she helped establish their own monthly journal – The Woman Worker.

She rose to national prominence through a 10 week strike she led in 1910 at Cradley The_Woman_Worker-_a_journal,_1907Heath in the Midlands, which battled employers to win minimum rates for women workers in a set of industries there. Mary used mass meetings and the media very effectively, and attracted substantial donations to support the workers on strike. But here in London it was her activism and leadership in Bermondsey in August 1911 that stood out.

Many women there were employed on starvation wages in the food-processing industries that had grown up close to the docks. She was a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) as well as leader of the NFWW. The ILP locally was a growing presence and had rented a large building they later purchased on Fort Road, as a Labour Institute. It was the hub of ILP activity. Within a couple months after opening it became the hub of the Bermondsey Uprising, a set of strikes involving 14,000 women in 21 local factories. It had started spontaneously with a walkout for better conditions at a confectionary factory. The workers marched to other nearby factories and called workers out there too.


Strikers at Pink’s Jam Factory in Bermondsey, 1911

Mary came down on the second day of the strike and began calling pubic meetings, marches and rallies, organising strike pay at the Labour Institute, and putting out requests for donations of food and material support. Her intervention gave massive confidence of the workers who were determined to stay out until they got a better deal.

Over the next two weeks, the women, with Mary playing a key role as mobiliser and negotiator, won better pay or shorter hours or both in 18 of the 21 factories. In three factories where employers were stubbornly refusing workers’ demands the women went back to work worried they may not have a job to return to. Mary was convinced that if they stayed out just a little longer their employers would have made concessions too.

She had an ambivalent relationship with the suffragette movement, demanding universal suffrage as a basis for representation of working class women and men to play a full part in the political process. She was concerned that the demand for partial suffrage that the middle-class leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union promoted, would, if achieved, then act to prevent further political advance for the working class, but she was very pleased that leading left wing suffragettes such as Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard came to Bermondsey to support the strikers.

Over that two weeks in August 1911, more than 7,000 of the women strikers joined the NFWW. The director of Peak Frean’s one the biggest local employers described the strikes, spreading from workplace to workplace, as “a reign of terror”. The local papers were up in arms that bar-maids had come out on strike too. While the women workers themselves no doubt cherished their material gains, for Mary MacArthur the most significant achievement was “a new sense of self-reliance, solidarity and comradeship… making it certain that, whatever the difficulties and dangers of the future, they will never again be without hope.”

macarthur plaque GG

Trade unionists and family members at the plaque unveiling

That year she got married to another rising socialist figure William Anderson, who became the Labour MP for Attercliffe in Sheffield in 1914. They had a daughter who was still-born in 1913, but one who was born healthy in 1915 and survived through wartime. Tragically her husband died from the post-war flu epidemic, and Mary herself died two years later from cancer.

Her funeral in Golders Green close to where she lived was attended by confectionary workers from Bermondsey, munitions workers from Edmonton and chain-makers from Cradley Heath, as well as several prominent Labour politicians and union organisers.

On the eve of International Women’s Day in 2017 I was privileged to be present when an English Heritage plaque was unveiled on the house where she and her daughter Anne had lived after her husband’s death.


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be a series of blog posts through May on this site.

L is for Lansbury

“All reforms come from those who are ready to break bad laws.”

“If we have to choose between contempt of the poor and contempt of court, it will be


contempt of court.”

“The question is not whether what we are doing is legal or illegal but whether it is right or wrong.”

Labour councillor George Lansbury, made these statements in 1921 when he was leading the Poplar Rates Rebellion in one of the most deprived areas of the country.

Voting reforms in 1918 had added far more working class men and women to the electoral register. Labour swept the vote in several east London boroughs for the first time at the delayed local elections held in 1919.

Their strongest result was in Poplar, where Labour won 39 out of 42 councillors, though no doubt if Laura Kuenssberg existed then, she’d have called it “a disappointing result”.

Labour in Poplar was represented mostly by ordinary working-class councillors. The council added 4 aldermen to their ranks including George Lansbury’s activist daughter-in-law Minnie Lansbury, born Minnie Glassman to an immigrant Jewish bootmaker’s   family in Whitechapel. Minnie married Edgar, one of the Lansburys’ 11 children.


George and Bessie Lansbury

The newly elected council had a mandate to embark on a radical programme to improve the lives of working people locally. They held conferences with trade unionists and public meetings to develop that programme. When George Lansbury became Poplar’s Mayor in 1919 – at the age of 60 – he refused to adopt the trappings of the office and said: “We are clear class-conscious socialists working together.”

They turned their ambitious programme into reality by employing more council staff, but with shorter hours, and brought in a minimum wage for council employees, with equal pay for equal work by women and men council employees. Some women saw their wages rise by 75%. They attracted London County Council (LCC) funds to boost their slum clearance and council house-building programme, and also provided electrification in many homes for the first time. They provided free milk to expectant and nursing mothers and appointed more health visitors (infant mortality reduced in Poplar by 25% by the mid-1920s). They provided many services free to unemployed people and established labour exchanges. They expanded the library service, planted thousands of trees, and improved recreation facilities, and more.

They set a fair rate to fund this programme. But by March 1921 bills were stacking up for Poplar’s contribution to cross-borough services. They owed the LCC £30,000, the Metroploitan Police £25,000, and Water Board £40,000. They should have charged an additional rate known as the “precept” to pass on to these bodies. But when they looked at the precept formula ,they saw how much it discriminated against poorer boroughs with larger populations to support and many unemployed. They refused, and set themselves on a collision course with the LCC and the law.

In court the Council stood its ground. Lansbury’s colleague John Scurr said: “The government is on the horns of a dilemma. If they send us to prison they will not get their money; and if they don’t send us to prison they will bring the law into contempt. Poplar does not care on which horn they choose to impale themselves.”

Minnie Lansbury added: ‘Poplar will pay its share of London’s rates when Westminster, Kensington, and the City do the same.’

They held protest marches and rallies attended by thousands of local residents. In court


Nellie Cressall

one of their legal representatives was WC Thompson who had been jailed three times in World War 1 as a conscientious objector. Despite their moving speeches, 30 councillors were imprisoned indefinitely – 25 male councillors were sent to Brixton prison, and five female councillors were incarcerated in Holloway, including Minnie Lansbury and heavily pregnant Cllr Nellie Cressall, a laundry worker who with Minnie and the others in Holloway had all been active in the East London Federation of Suffragettes. [LINK]

Before I reveal what happened next, I will say more about George Lansbury. Born in Suffolk in 1859, his family moved to the East End when he was a child. He revealed his political ambitions when he was young by scribbling his name inside a book at church: “George Lansbury MP”.

At first he joined the Liberal Party and  was Political Agent for Jane Cobden one of only two women elected to London County Council at its first election in 1889. That was the year though, that he increasingly worked with socialists and trade unionists around the Great Dock Strike and the 8-hours movement. By 1892 he helped found a local branch of the marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which he called “the cockpit of socialism in East London… we were convinced [that] our mission was to revolutionise the world … Our branch meetings were like revivalist meetings. We opened with a song and closed with one… Every Saturday we ran dances, telling our critics we were going to dance into socialism.”

Describing himself as a “Christian Socialist” he moved from the SDF into the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which defend itself more by “ethical socialism” than Marxism. As an ILP member he won the Bromley and Bow parliamentary seat for Labour in 1910.  constituents were excited that he would take their voice into Westminster but many were dismayed when in 1912 he stood down on a key issue of principle, to fight the election over again, effectively as a referendum on the principle of votes for women.

His suffragette wife Bessie, who shared George’s socialist and internationalist principles told the local press, “Both of us believe, that men and women, united as… comrades can… can save this country from the horrors of destitution, prostitution and misery.” George’s elder brother James warned him though that parliament “is no place for a man of conscience”. The liberals and Tories  united behind one candidate – a Tory. Lansbury lost by a few hundred votes to a Tory named Blair.

5153M4dyRrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_It took him 10 years to win the seat back but he used the intervening period to support local campaigns of the exploited and oppressed, help to found the left wing Daily Herald newspaper, run on a shoestring and idealism. He started a 6-months prison sentence in 1913 for expressing strong support on a public platform for the Suffragettes’ campaign of civil disobedience, but was out in a few days having borrowed their tactic of going on hunger strike. When World War broke out in 1914, he used the short space before Britain joined it to lead a mass anti-war protest in Trafalgar Square, under the auspices of the Herald League. He was a lifelong pacifist.

To return to the Poplar Rates revolt: imprisoning class conscious, campaigning councillors was a risky business. Lansbury wrote: “We all refused to be bathed and wore our own clothes, not prison uniforms. All of us… refused to do any work… drink the tea or eat the food. In a few days the food was changed… we all went on strike against being locked in our cells all day, and as a result we had them opened after breakfast until after supper… We were entertained after 8 o clock by public meetings and singing outside our windows. My colleagues and I joined in singing and… made speeches from our cell windows.”

They demanded the right to hold Council meetings in prison. The first one was convened on 11 September. From 27 September until they were released in mid-October the five councillors in Holloway were taken out of their cells and bussed to Brixton for the meetings

From their cells councillors wrote letters to friends, family and Poplar school children. One letter urged them to join a union when they left school and added: “We want you to grow up strong, active, loving men and women. We want you never to be contented while there is one single man or woman starving”.

The Government and LCC thought by sending councillors to prison would deter any other boroughs following this course of action. But Bethnal Green council voted to follow the same course of action as Poplar, and later Stepney did too. With the rebellion spreading the government ordered their release, and a conference was convened that very week on ensuring greater proportionality in the rates.

Lansbury said: “We leave prison as free men and women, pledged only to attend a conference with all parties concerned in the [rates] dispute”.

Their victory, though, came at a price. Minnie Lansbury became ill in prison. Two

minnie Lansbury on her way to arrest 1921

Minnie (centre), before being taken to prison September 1921

months after her release she was suffering with flu and then pneumonia. She died at the age of 32 on January 1st 1922. Minnie, a teacher, gave up her school work  to be an assistant Secretary to Sylvia Pankhurst in the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and stayed politically close to Sylvia as the ELFS publication Women’s Dreadnought became the more explicitly socialist Workers’ Dreadnought. Minnie and Husband Edgar were also early members of the Communist Party

Thousands took to the streets to pay respects as her coffin was borne on the shoulders of four Poplar councillors, amid a procession led by hundreds of unemployed workers. At Bow Bridge the coffin was transferred to a hearse for a service at Ilford crematorium, where the service concluded with William Morris’s poem, Hear a Word:

Mourn not, therefore, nor lament it,

That the world outlives their life

Voice and vision yet they give us

Making strong our hands for strife.

minnie_clock_restoredHer ashes were later interred in East Ham Jewish Cemetery. Bessie Lansbury died in 1933; Minnie’s husband Edgar in 1935, and  George Lansbury in 1940. On electric House, the council flats erected by Poplar’s Labour Council in the 1920s, that stand opposite Wellington Way, where Edgar and Minnie lived, there is a memorial clock for Minnie.


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be a series of blog posts through May on this site.

I is for Inge; J is for Justice; K is for Kitz

The first demand of the People’s Charter drawn up by the London Working Men’s Association in 1837 was: “A vote for every man 21 years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.” The author, William Lovett, acknowledged later that he had strongly considered including women in this demand, but had held back fearing that it would be seen as too radical and outlandish for the times and could put potential supporters off from backing their other just demands.

In 1840 the Chartist John Cleave, a radical printer/publisher based in Clerknewell, wrote a pamphlet supporting votes for women. He argued: “If a woman is qualified to be a queen over a great nation… [she] ought not to be excluded from her share in the executive and legislative power of the country”. If a woman is punished for breaking laws, he said, “she ought to have a voice in making the laws”. Women, “contribute to the wealth and resources of the kingdom…. They [should] have as much right as a man.”


Susannah Inge

It was this kind of encouragement that brought numbers of women into Chartist activism. Susannah Inge, who grew up in Folkestone the daughter of a plumber and glazier, and had hardly any education (she couldn’t write her name at the age of 16), moved to London and became a prominent Chartist in the early 1840s. She spoke at public meetings in London and around the country, and wrote for the leading Chartist newspaper of the day, the Northern Star, established in Leeds.

Other prominent women Chartists, pilloried as “she-chartists” in The Times and the subject of vicious cartoons in the journals of “polite” society, were Mary Ann Walker and Emma Matilda Miles. All three were leading lights of the City of London Female Charter Association

In July 1842 Inge wrote an “Address to the Women of England”, which described how menFemale-Chartists-800x445 had been aroused by the Chartist movement to their “sense of misery and degradation, and were emerging from “ignorance “ and “superstition” to demand their political rights. She said it was time for women to “rouse yourself to a sense of your merits”, and told them that if they assist men “in gaining their rights… yours will be gained also.” In speeches she urged those women who attended to not “leave such things to your husbands, fathers and brothers”, explaining that women have “a deeper interest… if the country is misgoverned, and bad laws instituted, and good laws perverted, it is on you those laws fall heaviest.”

She was sharp at replying to objectors. When a male audience member at a Chartist meeting said women were not ‘physically intended by nature to take part in politics” She replied that it took little exertion of physical force to vote.

She clashed with the editor of the Northern Star, Feargus O’Connor, who was more northernstar-standardbackward on women’s rights, but clashed too with Mary Ann Walker, where differences seemed more to do with personal rivalry than political principle. Inge was very much in demand though as a Chartist speaker, especially in the years from 1842-44.

She gave birth to a son in 1847 (out of wedlock it seems) and was still living in Clerkenwell in the 1851 census, working as a furrier finisher. In 1857 she emigrated to New York, to do similar work there in the fur trade. She died in Brooklyn in 1902.

The period of the 1840s were years of great political agitation and upheaval but it was another four decades before a new wave of sustained agitation would return. In the 1880s that several explicitly socialist and anarchist organisations emerged in London, and developed their own writtten propaganda outlets, some more formal some more based on DIY principles.

JjusticeThe letter “J” is for Justice – with a capital letter, the weekly newspaper of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Britain’s first Marxist organisation created by Henry Hyndman. The SDF began to produce its newspaper after it changed its name from the Democratic Federation. One spurs to that development was the affiliation of a libertarian socialist group in 1884, the Labour Emancipation League (LEL).

K is for Kitz. A leading figure in the LEL and an active DIY propagandist was Frank Kitz, born into an impoverished family in Kentish Town, as Francis Platt. He later moved to the East End, in Boundary Street on the northern edge of the Old Nichol, one of London’s most notorious slums.

Kitz rewrote his personal biography, claiming that his father was a German refugee from the revolutions of 1848, although it seems that his biological father was a watchmaker called John Lewis. While Hyndman was a very dogmatic Marxist, Kitz, and several other LEL members were more influenced by anarchism. In Boundary Street Kitz teamed up with the libertarian agitator, Charles Mowbray, who had settled there from the North East and established a basic print-shop there run as a collective.

Kitz described their operation. “The furnishing of our printery was a model of economy and simplicity. Our seating Kitz posteraccommodation was made of packing cases. A paving stone was our marking up stone and ink slab combined. Candles stuck in the composing cases was (sic) our lighting installation, and a roller handpress our machinery.”

Kitz and Mowbray and raised money for printing materials through concerts and lotteries. Additional materials, Kitz admitted, “were supplied by involuntary contributions from printing firms where some of our members were employed …  a well known firm of government printers furnished us with some excellent ink, paper and other requisites for printing our revolutionary manifestos and addresses.”

Kitz recalled how the collective “‘sallied out on nocturnal bill-sticking expeditions … despite the destruction by the police of some of our handiwork, we managed to placard the East End with incendiary manifestos.”

Political and personal tensions within the SDF came to a head within a year. Hyndman was accused by other members of abrasiveness, pervasive dishonesty, arrogance, and, as editor of Justice, increasing censorship of views contrary to his own. Some of Justice’s best writers in its early period, such as William Morris and Eleanor Marx, splintered off from the SDF to form the Socialist League.

Kitz, who once worked professionally for Morris as a dyer, joined them and produced a leas dogmatic newspaper called Commonweal. A few years later, though, the League itself split along Marxist/anarchist lines. In the early 1890s there was a rapprochement of elements for the Socialist League and the SDF and contributed once more to Justice

To return to Susanna Inge’s pre-occupations in the 1840s, though, the SDF as an organisation, and Justice as its organ, were dominated by men, some of whom, such as E. Belfort Bax were especially harsh critics of feminists and other advocates of women’s rights, and had, at best, an ambivalent attitude to women’s equality

Although the SDF programme was formally committed by to “social, political and economic equality of the sexes”, one editorial in Justice  stated plainly: “We do not for a moment admit the absurd theory that women are in every way equal to men… it would surely be a very dangerous principle to set up that social and political equality is to depend on absolute physical and mental equality… equality does not mean that everyone shall do precisely the same thing…. But that each shall do what he or she can best do for the common good”.


Dora Montefiore

And yet Justice carried articles by outstanding proponents of these rights such as Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx, and Charlotte Despard, in the 1880s and 1890s, and, especially in the early 1900s, those of Dora Montefiore, who ran a regular page in Justice called “A Woman’s point of view”, later renamed “The Women’s’ Circle”.

Montefiore summed up her perspective there succinctly when she wrote that: “…nothing but a social and economic revolution, in which, women themselves take a conscious and active part, can make for them complete emancipation. For this reason, we militant women strongly protest against the idea that Socialism can be given us by men… It is in working for our own emancipation that we shall gain that inner freedom, that sense of striking off our own chains, that really frees the individual.”

I suspect that Susannah Inge and the early female Chartist pioneers in London would have been inclined to agree with her.


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be a series of blog posts through May on this site.

G is for Goodman and Groser;

H is for Headlam and Housing

In October 1932 a conference was organised in London’s East End about unemployment. This was a national problem. In 1929 it reached 1.5 million, and unprecedented level at that time. By 1931 it peaked at 3 million – 20% of Britain’s workforce. London, with a very diversified economy was hit less severely than the North of England, but still its effects were considerable, especially in London’s East End, where it remained high and caused great hardship.


Father Groser

The letter inviting people to that conference was signed by an Australian-born local churchman Father John Groser, who first came to the East end in 1922 to work at St Michael’s church in Poplar. In 1929 he moved to Christ Church in Stepney, on the corner of Watney Market and Commercial Road. He remained there until the church was destroyed in the blitz of 1940.

The letter acknowledged that unemployment caused “physical depression, ill health… the frustration of personality, the loss of proper self-respect”. It was creating “an embittered and hopeless section of the community”.

These were the people he wanted to bring together and support them in finding both individual and collective ways forward. He wasn’t the only one targeting them. That same month, a new political party/street movement was born that would exploit these personal tragedies while promising to restore people’s hope and pride. This was Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). Especially from 1934-1937, they put an extraordinary amount of resources into campaigns in this area.

The iconic clash of the 1930s between fascism and anti-fascism in Britain was played out on the streets of East London at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. Mosley and Groser were, of course, on different sides of the barricades. Also on the anti-fascist side were two other “G”s – Charlie Goodman and Joyce Goodman (at that time Joyce Rosenthal). I will return to them later.

Father Groser was in a tradition of radical church leaders that the East End was blessed with in the last 150 years. In post-WW2 times was represented by Bishop Trevor Huddleston, a key figure in early Anti-Apartheid struggles in South Africa who returned to Britain in the mid-1950s, and became Bishop of Stepney; and the Anglo-Catholic Ken Leech, who as vicar of St Matthews Bethnal Green, was embroiled in the fraught anti-racist struggles of the 1970s, then worked later, in the 1990s, as Community Theologian at St Botolph’s at Aldgate, supporting marginalised younger people locally.

St Matthews Church in Bethnal Green was where the Christian socialist Stewart Headlam was based in the 1870s, before taking a post at St Michael’s in Shoreditch in the early 1880s. Headlam was an early member of the Fabian Society, at a time when it was more radical. He also put up half of the bail money that Oscar Wilde needed during his first trial for “gross indecency”, saying he was motivated to do so by “concern for the arts and freedom”. Headlam was committed to working against poverty and in the early 1900s focused his writings especially on land, housing and the evils of “landlordism.

Groser saw housing as a key arena through which to tackle poverty and give people

© Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporation

Rent Strike 1939, Langdale Street Mansions

some power over their lives. He became a key figure in the Stepney Tenants Defence League, a powerful social movement which grew out of the East End’s anti-fascist struggles. It was formally independent, though the Communist Party played a key organising role as did Labour party activists such as Groser. Indeed, Groser was the organisation’s president in 1938-39, during which the collective action of tenants through rent strikes wiped out many rent arrears, forced landlords to commit to repairs and improvements, and also brought together the communities – especially the Jewish and the Irish catholic that Mosley’s fascists had tried to divide against each other – in joint struggles.

Father Groser had left Australia as a young man to study theology at Leeds University and then Mirfields College in Yorkshire. His first post, in a slum parish of Newcastle, challenged what he admitted were Conservative and pro-imperialist views he had held previously. During World War 1 he worked as an army chaplain and became very critical of the war, which he saw as caused by capitalism.

Before coming to Poplar in 1922, Groser lived and worked in Cornwall, and studied the left wing theology of Conrad Noel, founder of the Catholic Crusade for Social Justice. Rather than painting heaven as the reward for a good life, Noel’s vision was about creating “heaven on Earth”. But when Groser took up his post at Christ Church, Watney Street, the economic depression rendered life hell on Earth for the poorest eastenders. Groser helped his congregants with daily problems and encouraged them to fight for their rights.

He held outdoor public meetings at which three artefacts were usually present: a


One of Groser’s outdoor meetings

crucifix, a flag of St George (which he saw as an anti-imperialist flag in comparison with the Union Jack), and the Red Flag – the symbol of left wing movements. One of Groser’s close associates, Jack Boggis, who made the rare journey from Communist Party activist to churchman, said of Groser:

“The heart of Father John’s religion… is that nothing is more important than a person. He tended to avoid such phrases as ‘living souls’, because it is easy to forget that ‘living souls’ have bodies which need to be fed, clothed and housed. So he fought for these things for them. The gospel was not confined to the church but carried into the streets.”

Groser’s concerns extended well London. He took part in protests for Indian freedom and activities in support of Spanish Republicans suffering from Franco’s war on them.

Both Groser and local, secular, Communist Party activists of Stepney (many of who were Jewish by birth, but not believers), understood the need to speak face to face with people about the problems they faced and urge them to organise themselves, as tenants, workers, and unemployed, who could fight for their rights and dignity. They were committed to building communities of resistance and solidarity.

Charlie Goodman was one of these secular, working class, Jewish communist activists and anti-fascist resisters, born to Polish Jewish immigrants, who joined the Party in the mid-1930s, having originally supported the Labour League of Youth.

His family lived in Camden Town, and he went back to Poland for a year as a child, before they settled in the East End. Charlie played a very full part in the Battle of Cable Street on 4th October 1936, when around 4,000 uniformed fascists, protected by 7,000 police were prevented from invading the Jewish streets of the East End by a mass blockade at Gardiner’s Corner and barricades in Cable Street.

A 12-year-old girl, called Joyce Rosenthal, was with another girl aged 12 at Gardiners


Charlie and Joyce on their wedding day

Corner, Aldgate, as part of the blockade. She later recalled: “We never saw a fascist that day. We never fought with the fascists. you were fighting the police. They were just hitting everyone. There were women going down under the horses’ hooves.” A few years down the line she married Charlie and became Joyce Goodman. Their first conversation was about where they were and what they were doing on that 4th October.

Charlie’s day had ended in Leman Street police station, carried in horizontally by six policemen who used his head as a battering ram for the Charge Room door. He spent three months in prison, before coming out itching to continue the fight against fascism. He did that through the International Brigades, one of around 200 eastenders to go to Spain; 36 of them were buried in Spanish soil. When I first got to know Charlie Goodman in the early 1980s he was continuing to work within the vital struggles that are a common thread among several individuals I have recalleded here – for better housing conditions – through the Federation of Tenants’ Associations in east London.


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be a series of blog posts through May on this site.

F is for Feigenbaum and the Federation

The organisers of London’s first May Day march in 1890 claimed that half a million had taken part. The Police halved that number, and press estimates were predictably closer to theirs than to the protesters. Some 130 years later we still see claims and counter-claims about figures on mass actions today. It is possible that in our enthusiasm to play up our prospects of revolt, we might sometimes count feet rather than heads, but the three-year period leading up to that first May Day march were extraordinary times when the disenfranchised, exploited and oppressed, the unrepresented began to feel their collective strength.

During two large and angry demonstrations in central London in November 1887, collectively known as “Bloody Sunday”, that Charles Warren, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had tried to ban, a 41 year old legal clerk, Alfred Linnell, an observer more than activist, was trampled to death by a police horse. Some 100,000 people were lining the streets and marching in procession from Aldwych to Bow Cemetery for his funeral. An open hearse with four horses was used. On top was a shield painted black with large white letters: “Killed in Trafalgar Square”. Behind it were three flags, green, yellow, and red, for the Irish, radicals and socialists.


Eleanor Marx

The Commonweal, a radical newspaper edited by wallpaper and furniture designer, poet, writer, and libertarian communist, William Morris, with frequent contributions form Eleanor Marx and other Socialist League activists, captured the spirit and momentum of the movement in an editorial in January 1888:

“If rebellion is … our future, then we must look back at the past year with hope … no one who witnessed the sympathetic demeanour of the huge crowds that accompanied  …  Linnell’s funeral procession could … deny that the masses of London are on our side … men’s minds have been familiarised thereby with resistance to authority; the precariousness of livelihood under the capitalist has been brought home … the class war is becoming obvious to all.”

Those three years, 1887-1890, coincided with the period that an immigrant from Belgium, who had been born into an ultra-orthodox Yiddish-speaking Jewish family in Warsaw, joined that rebellion here . He did his utmost to magnify and intensify it, especially within the struggling but vibrant East European Jewish quarter of London’s East End, where workers slaved 14-18 hour days in sweatshops, that Linnell’s funeral procession would have passed through. That immigrant’s name was Benjamin Feigenbaum (Simkhe-Bunem at birth).

By his early 20s, despite, or perhaps because of, his fundamentalist religious upbringing,

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Workers Friend 1888

he declared himself an atheist, exiled himself from his background, and headed to Belgium, looking for work and revolutionary action. He joined the Belgian Socialist Party and began writing for its Flemish organ De Werker, while also contributing to a radical Russian Yiddish paper, Yidishe Folksblat. He was expressing his desire to develop a Yiddish socialist paper in Belgium, when he heard that there was one already – in London – called Arbayter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend). He corresponded with the editor Philip Krantz, who invited him to England to join the paper.

Feigenbaum had been following radical political developments here. When his first son was born, on Christmas Day, 1886, he and his wife Matilda named him William Morris Feigenbaum. In articles for Arbayter Fraynd from 1887 until he left for America in 1891 he specialised in satirising and winding up religious leaders. He knew his way round the bible thoroughly. Many readers recognised the religious idioms he referenced in political invective. He turned these idioms on their heads to encourage revolt in general, but also specifically against overbearing, conservative-minded religious authorities. Workers enduring super-exploitation in sweatshops did not need rabbis telling them how they should live their lives.

In 1888 he published a booklet Di Sotsialistishe Hagode shel Pesakh. The Passover hagode traditionally told the story of Jewish slaves’ oppression and rebellion in ancient Egypt. His version combined a parody of religion and ritual with serious commentary about contemporary struggles (In his version the slaves were in the sweatshops of the 1880s), and a call to arms.

He applied biting critiques to other holy-days too. The official Yom Kippur liturgy said: “Repentance, prayer and charity will avert the evil decree”. He offered a more insurrectionary take: “Brutality, rebellion and force will avert the evil decree”. He took out: “The Lord reigns for ever and ever” and replaced it with a truth and a hope: “Mammon reigns – but not for ever!”

In his three years in London and Manchester, before he took his revolutionary ideas with him to New York, his most (in)famous piece of activism was a lecture he gave at 22 Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane on Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy-days, in 1890. It was in Christchurch Hall – named after another Jewish boy who strayed from the orthodoxy he was born into. The lecture was entitled: “Is there a God?”

He didn’t hold back, but went the whole hog, so to speak. Thomas Eyges, an eye-witness to this extraordinary event, described Feigenbaum, as “of medium height with broad shoulders” who “gesticulated as he spoke.” According to Eyges, Feigenbaum parsed the philosophical questions for an hour with statements such as, “What is god? … an abstract word coined to designate the hidden forces of nature, while the belief in God is but a mechanical habit of childhood, a prejudice handed down from father to children”.

And then he cut to the chase: “… he shouted: ‘If there is a God and if he is Almighty as the clergy claims he is, I give him just two minutes’ time to kill me on the spot, so that he may prove his existence!’ Two minutes passed, Feigenbaum exclaimed: ‘See! There is no God!’ The band struck up a revolutionary song. Then he announced a Yom Kippur ball – where pork was to be eaten.”

Sadly, for the radicals, freethinkers, anarchists and socialists of the East End, Feigenbaum left for America in 1891, but continued to be active with their counterparts there. The tradition of Yom Kippur balls continued, though, on both sides of the Atlantic. And Feigenbaum continue to have several of his writings published in London by Barnet Ruderman, a radical Yiddish bookseller with a shop on the same street as that where Feigenbaum challenged God to reveal himself in 1890.

Benjamin_Feigenbaum_cartoonFeigenbaum’s sharp antagonism to religion was celebrated by some and attacked by others. That tradition followed him to America too. In 1912 a Jewish illustrator there, called Saul Raskin, depicted Feigenbaum in a cartoon as bowing to a gravestone of Karl Marx. The stone caption says “B. Feigenbaum, the most observant Marxist.” The Yiddish caption below says “Dedicated to the fanatic atheist B. Feigenbaum, who rejects all gods except his own, Karl Marx.”

But in his London years, he did not focus solely on religion. He agitated across ethnic divides to promote workers interests, best illustrated when he joined a prestigious platform of workers’ leaders at the Great Assembly Hall in Mile End, on December 28th 1889. It was an event designed to build on the extraordinary solidarity that Jewish and non-Jewish workers locally had demonstrated in the wave of strikes and militancy that swept that East End by inaugurating the Federation of East London Unions – a union of unions.

According to the Eastern Post “2,800 were present… speeches were made in different languages and translated”. The chair, Charles Adams from the Alliance Cabinet Makers Association, tasked with a special role to unionise and organise Jewish immigrants in that industry, told the meeting “…if ever labour is to rise successfully … it must rise as a whole … This new organisation must be composed of people of all creeds and of all nations”, and never let employers “exploit one against the other”.

In June 1888 the matchwomen had won a 2-week strike to defend and enhance their massmeetingworking conditions. In the spring of 1889, gasworkers became the first workers in London to win the 8-hour day, and from August the dockworkers were out fighting for the “dockers’ tanner” in a strike that spread like wildfire. Among more than 100,000–plus workers on strike in and around the East End, were more than 7,000 Yiddish-speaking immigrant shnayders (clothing workers). They won their strike with generous help from the dockers who were mostly Irish-Catholic heritage. That epitomised the workers unity and spirit of revolt that Feigenbaum was fighting for.


In honour of the 130th anniversary of London’s first May Day march in 1890, there will be a series of blog posts through May on this site.

E is for ELDA, ELFS and Emerson

The letters “EL” in both sets of cryptic initials above stand for “East London”, the cradle of many of London’s most radical struggles from the 1830s onwards. This was no accident. East London’s was the capital’s first and most expansive industrial area.

Londinium, as it was formed by the Roman invaders and settlers 2,000 years ago, grew up on the north side of the Thames within the area that today comprises the Square Mile of the City of London, and houses its financial citadels. The major legal and political edifices were built west of the City. To the east, workshops, factories, warehouses, and the docks were created.

In times when people, from necessity, lived close their workplaces, a huge proletariat grew. They were the Londoners most exposed to the ravages of super-exploitation, precarious and often hazardous work, and grinding poverty. And this was where many of the first movements began the fight for social, economic and political change. In time it was replicated in other parts of London on a smaller scale but many radical movements were born here.  Or, in the case of the ELDA and ELFS, formed their more radical versions in East London.

The Chartist movement, described earlier in this series  , which campaigned for greater political democracy, grew out of the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA), a body that often met in Central London.  But a rival and more radical body within the Chartist movement formed in east London. This was ELDA, the East London Democratic Association


George Julian Harney

ELDA’s most prominent member was George Julian Harney, and he worked closely with Charles Neesom, William Cardo and James Bronterre O’Brien. Harney’s introduction to radical politics came through his work for Henry Hetherington, publisher and editor of the Poor Man’s Guardian published as a “penny newspaper” to keep it affordable for workers, but in defiance of the Government’s stamp duty which would have forced a higher cover price. Harney was imprisoned three times for selling an unstamped newspaper.

He was involved with the LWMA, who drew up the charter, but was impatient with their lack of progress and militancy. He founded the ELDA in 1837 on Thomas Paine’s birthday (29 January). Paine was not merely  a radical democrat who wanted all adults to vote and participate in government but was also antagonistic to organised religion too, which he elaborated in The Age of Reason. Harney shared these views and was a strong republican too. The ELDA met regularly at the Trades Hall in Bethnal Green and at pubs in the area. A group of women chartists calling themselves the East London Female Patriotic Association, shared organising premises with ELDA in Swan Street, Aldgate.

The ELDA used the language of class conflict when discussing the “proletarian classes”. They explicitly connected “economic emancipation” with campaigns for political democracy, and looked towards strike action to precipitate political crisis.

The ELDA supported “by all available means, every rational opposition made by working men against the combination and tyranny of capitalists”, when they sought to “reduce the wages of labour, extend the hours of toil”, or institute “vexatious and oppressive” proceedings against workers. They campaigned for the “total abolition of infant labour altogether”, and demanded that “no adult person should be required to work more than eight hours per day, especially while so many thousands are without employment at all.”

Their detractors among more “moderate” or “moral force” Chartists depicted the ELDA as a “violent and reckless body, extreme advocates of insurrection, the most militant of the radical associations”. Harney and friends might have seen that as a compliment. The ELDA expanded its branches into the City and Southwark and renamed itself the London Democratic Association

Harney later moved to Scotland and then Sheffield where he was editor of the main Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star. He persuaded a couple of figures rising to prominence, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, to write for the Star! Harney died in 1897.

Zelie Emerson was born Michigan in 1883 and was active in labour movement struggles


Zelie Emerson

in Chicago, especially during the garment workers’ strike that began in September 1910, involved 41,000 workers at its peak, and carried on until February 1911. It was a strike led by women workers to improve wages and conditions.

In that period that her path crossed with Sylvia Pankhurst, the middle and most consistently left-wing of the three Pankhurst sisters. Sylvia was on a speaking tour of America talking about suffragette struggles in Britain. She and Zelie admired each other’s determination and drive to change the world, Sylvia describing her as a woman of “furious energy and resource”.

When Sylvia returned to England and settled in the East End to strengthen the branches of the Women’s Social and Political Union (Suffragette) movement there, Zelie Emerson followed, and also settled in the East End. Her stay in London was relatively short. By the summer of 1914 she was back in the states but during her time she played a very active role in a section of the movement that was struggling not just for women’s political rights, but on everyday class issues. This included challenging the domination of the movement by its more blinkered and privileged West End leaders.

When Kipling wrote in 1889, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet” he could have been prefiguring relations within the suffragette movement more than 20 years later! Zelie’s stay in London coincided  with the lowest point in relations between East End and West End suffragettes, which resulted in Sylvia Pankhurst being instructed to sever relations between the East End branches and the political centre in the West End.

And yet, some of the first Suffragettes branches in London were formed in the East End. In 1906, when the WSPU first used Caxton hall Westminster for a meeting, a sizeable proportion of the audience were East End suffragettes who had walked several miles to be there. Just before formal proceedings started they stood and sang the Red Flag – exhibiting  their more general political views. For these suffragettes, campaigning for votes for Women was part of the struggle to enfranchise the working class to challenge exploitation.

Zelie and Sylvia brought much more coherence to the five disparate East End branches, typically made up of factory and laundry workers, sewing machinists, and cleaners. They promoted many joint initiatives, and on Zelie’s suggestion, after the expulsion, they started their own weekly newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought. More than 10,000 copies were printed and sold each week, many from a stall in Roman Road, Bethnal Green outside their HQ there – a shopfront at 321 Roman Road.


The 2015 film, Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan as an East End laundry worker cast her as an isolated figure in her community, with a husband who didn’t understand her, and through increasing involvement with suffragettes, engaged in a dangerous act of arson. It was erroneous in many ways. Every week the Women’s Dreadnought published notices for meetings in the top left corner of page 1. Usually there were between 15-20 local meetings and events advertised there. Isolated, she would not have been!

While the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) initially struggled to get a hearing among men, over time they built strong, mutually supportive relations with male trade unionists, especially dockers and gasworkers. They marched together on May Day, and campaigned to support strikes and advance working class struggles in the area. As for arson, a member of the ELFS was the least likely activity for them to engage in. It was too big a risk. West End suffragettes who were generally as wealthy as they were courageous, undertook dangerous individual acts of sabotage, knowing that if they were imprisoned there would still be a family income coming in and nannies to look after their children. These certainties didn’t exist for working class East End suffragettes, some of whom were the sole breadwinners for their families.

When they did get arrested and imprisoned it took place in spontaneous physical confrontations with the police who were repressing their activities. In October 1913, Zelie Emerson was heavily beaten by the police who were attempting to arrest Sylvia Pankhurst, and Zelie suffered a fractured skull. In its report, the San Francisco Call noted that “Miss Emerson” had only recently recovered “from injuries sustained in a struggle with the police last month”.

Sylvia Pankhurst and Zelie Emerson both served time for throwing stones at Bow police station. On another occasion Zelie and two others assaulted a doctor who had force-fed her in prison when she was on hunger strike. She said he was unfit to practice medicine and that he “should be force-fed himself.”

She returned to America in May 1914 after a suicide attempt seven weeks into a prison sentence where she had been put in solitary confinement. Her widowed mother came to London temporarily to advocate for her release and an American senator, Charles Townsend, campaigned too. The Home Office were investigating possibilities of expelling her from the country under the Aliens Act when she decided to return.

As war broke out in the late summer of 1914, the divisions within the suffragette movement became even starker. The “mainstream” West End based suffragettes closed down most of their activities, and campaigned for women to fight too. The government released suffragette prisoners. The WSPU recruited women for work in munitions factories. and shamed those men who refused to be conscripted in 1916.

In East London though, the ELFS stepped up their activities marching against rising food

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Seigfried Sassoon

prices, sending deputations to Westminster, arguing for equal pay for women who temporarily took over jobs previously reserved for men, for which women were initially given a third or half the wage. Many of their leading activists were anti-war, but advanced that view cautiously as the husbands and brothers of many of their members were fighting. But as the war dragged on they exhibited their anti-war politics more confidently in their newspaper, which was the first to publish Siegfried Sassoon’s famous letter “A Soldier’s Declaration”, from the front, denouncing the deceit of the War.