Turbulent Londoners: Beatrice Webb, 1858-1943

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Beatrice Webb, an economist, sociologist, labour historian, Socialist and social reformer.


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Beatrice Webb in 1943 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Nowadays, we take it for granted that the causes and impacts of poverty are things that can be researched, quantified, and understood using academic research. It has not always been this way, however, and up until the early twentieth century everything that was known about poverty, as well as how to counter its effects, were based on assumptions and guesswork, frequently coloured by class-based prejudice. Beatrice Webb was one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. As well as fighting poverty, Beatrice began the process of properly understanding it.

Beatrice Potter was born on the 22nd of January 1858 to a wealthy family in Standish, Gloucestshire. She was well-educated by governesses, and later cited the co-operative movement and the philosopher Herbert Spencer, a family friend, as early influences. In 1890 she met Sidney Webb, and they married two years later. It was a long, happy, and intellectually productive marriage; the pair frequently wrote together. In 1892 Beatrice’s father died. Theresulting inheritance set her up for life, leaving her free to concentrate on her research and campaigning.

Like a lot of well-off women at the time, Beatrice came into contact with poverty through her volunteer work. In 1883 she started working with the Charity Organisation Society in Soho. She also volunteered as a rent collector in model dwellings in Wapping. Model dwellings were houses built by private companies that sought to improve living conditions for the working classes as well as making a profit. It was this experience of charity work in London that made Beatrice realise how few social workers actually understood poverty. She decided to use scientific research methods to help improve the situation. She is credited with the foundation of empirical investigation in political science and sociology.

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Beatrice and Sidney Webb in about 1895 (Source: LSE)

The Webbs were active members of the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation that believes in democratic reform rather than revolutionary overthrow. The society supported the Webbs in writing books and pamphlets on socialism and the co-operative movement. Beatrice made important contributions to the political and economic theory of the co-operative movement, even coining the phrase ‘collective bargaining.’ In 1895 the Fabians, including the Webbs, founded the London School of Economics and Political Science with the noble goal of bettering society. Now, LSE is one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Beatrice was an early advocate of the welfare state. She understood the structural nature of poverty and believed, despite her own volunteering efforts, that private philanthropy was an ineffective way of dealing with long-term poverty. She believed in a national minimum; a standard of living which all citizens were entitled to and should not be allowed to fall below. She worked on the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress in 1905-9, although her recommendations were largely ignored. The National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution was set up to campaign for the changes she proposed to the Poor Laws.

Like the rest of the Fabian society, the Webbs were gradualists. They didn’t believe in revolution, although they did believe the socialism was inevitable. Beatrice was so convinced of this that after WW1 she started to write more prolifically, believing that her income would be confiscated by an imminent socialist government. Despite this conviction, the Webbs were criticised by other socialists as being too cautious and bourgeois. Initially suspicious of party politics, the Webbs joined the Labour party in 1914, and in 1922 Beatrice was part of Sidney’s successful election campaign.

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Beatrice and Sidney Webb on their trip to the USSR in 1932 (Source: LSE Library).

At first, the Webbs were wary of Russian Communism, but their frustration with UK politics after the collapse of the Labour government in 1931 made them reevaluate. Beatrice liked the principle of collective altruism (self-sacrifice for the greater good) promoted by the USSR. In 1932, the Webbs spent 2 months in the USSR, and they later co-authored a book called Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? which was criticised for being too supportive, particularly after the full horrors of Soviet rule began to come out.

Beatrice’s relationship with the women’s right’s movement was more complex than most. In 1889, she signed a petition against women’s suffrage, believing that economic emancipation was more important than the right to vote. She later changed her mind, and in the early 1900s was a strong supporter of the campaign for the vote. During WW1, she chaired a War Cabinet Committee on pay which called for equal pay. In 1932, she was the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the British Academy, which demonstrates her contribution to opening up academia for women.

Beatrice Webb died on the 30th of April 1943. Her remains were later moved to Westminster Abbey, a gesture of recognition for the contribution she made to society. If she was alive today, she might be called an activist academic – someone who combines their research with activism. Not only did she help to found the modern discipline of sociology, and fight for what she believed in, she helped begin the process of normalising the presence of women in academia. Beatrice Webb was a remarkable woman.

Sources and Further Reading

Davis, John. “Webb [nee Potter], (Martha) Beatrice.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2008, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36799 [subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Beatrice Webb.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUwebbB.htm

Wikipedia. “Beatrice Webb.” Last modified 13th September 2019, accessed 2nd October 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Webb

Protest Stickers: Melbourne

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Melbourne is famous for its street art (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This summer, I spent 3 weeks travelling around Australia and New Zealand. I have already written blog posts about Sydney’s Protest Stickers, and the Lennon Wall for Hong Kong in Melbourne. Melbourne has a reputation for being Australia’s most cosmopolitan city. It is also known for its culture, particularly the restaurants, bars, boutique shops, and street art in the city’s Laneways. As it turns out, it’s also pretty good for protest stickers. Like most large cities, Melbourne’s protest stickers address issues on a range of scales, from the local, through the national, to the global. I found some stickers that I have seen elsewhere in the world, and some that are uniquely Melburnian.

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There has been a lot of debate recently about free speech and ‘no platforming’. The producer of this sticker is quite confident about the best way to counter fascist beliefs (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is alluding to Australia’s colonial history. There is no one Aboriginal name for Australia, because there was a large number of Aboriginal communities and societies when Europeans arrived. Aboriginal peoples have suffered extensive hardship, prejudice and discrimination at the hands of Europeans, and although their treatment has improved, there is still a long way to go (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Fin Free Melbourne is a group that campaigns for the banning of all shark-fin based products in Melbourne, with the ultimate goal of protecting shark species all over the world (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Climate change is an increasingly popular topic of protest stickers around the world, and Melbourne is no exception (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The School Strike for Climate is a global movement kickstarted by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. School Strike 4 Climate is an Australian organisation that coordinates strikes around the country (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

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Extinction Rebellion is another global climate movement. It started in the UK in late 2018, but now has a strong Australian branch (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Be Fair Be Vegan is a US-based campaign group that funds advertising campaigns to promote veganism. Melbourne is just one of the cities in which they have paid for advertising (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The colours on this sticker have faded, but at one point it would have been the Trans flag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Unfortunately, I sometimes find stickers that promote racist and far-right politics. It seems that I am not the only one who took offence at the message of this sticker however, as someone has tried to erase and obscure it (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker has also provoked some debate–words and letters have been removed, covered over and written again to alter its message. Police forces around the world can be controversial, with some appreciating the safety and protection they offer, whilst others think they abuse their power and discriminate against minority groups (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is also criticising the police, alongside prisons and more broadly capitalism. Some of it has been removed, but I can still tell from the colour scheme and blood splatter that it is playing on Kill Bill, the popular 2003 Quentin Tarantino film (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is also criticising capitalism, arguing that workers deserve to keep everything (including wealth) that they generate. I don’t recognise the character in the middle of the sticker

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I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more comprehensive protest sticker! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

Book Review: The Autonomous City- A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan

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The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan.

Alexander Vasudevan. The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting. London: Verso, 2017. RRP £16.99 paperback.

Squatting has been a feature of Western urban protest since the mid-twentieth century, although it has enjoyed varying levels of popularity. Alexander Vasudevan is an Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford who has written extensively on the geographies of squatting in academic publications. The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting brings Vasudevan’s research to a popular audience. The book details the history of squatting in an impressive number of Western cities: New York, London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Vancouver are all covered, as well as some Italian cities.

The Autonomous City is detailed and well-researched. The broad geographical range of the book is made even more impressive when you think about how many languages the research required a working knowledge of. Anglophone geographers are beginning to acknowledge the importance of researching other places, and acknowledging research from other cultures, but many of us lack the linguistic skills to put this into practice. As such, The Autonomous City‘s international outlook is a refreshing change.

Vasudevan convincingly argues that the history of squatting is about more than standing up to excessive rents and poor quality housing. It is also about creating an alternative city. Squatters imagine a way of life drastically different from how we live now, and bring it in to being by actually living it. In this way, they demonstrate that the way things are is not the only way that they can be, that an alternative way of life is possible.

Squatting is “a form of direct action that remained first and foremost a struggle over the right to be in the city and against the commodification of land and housing.”

Vasudevan, 2017: p.232

The Autonomous City is structured by city, which makes the narrative clear and easy to follow, but can get repetitive. In each case, Vasudevan traces the history of squatting in that city, highlighting key moments and individual squats. He dedicates two chapters to New York City, the first and the last, which brings a pleasing circularity to the book’s structure. There are clear links, similarities, and points of difference between the various cities that Vasudevan discusses, but he doesn’t make those links or draw comparisons, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Another omission that I find odd is the lack of images–there are no pictures. I understand that this may have been the publisher’s decision rather than the author’s, but they are noticeable by their absence, particularly in a book that is aimed at a more popular audience.

The Autonomous City is a well-researched, well-written book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in squatting, urban resistance, or radicalism. It will also appeal to those with an interest in urban history more generally, as it looks at one way in which urban form is negotiated and contested.

Turbulent London: Mary Damer Dawson, 1873-1920

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Margaret Damer Dawson, animal rights campaigner and founder of the first female police force in Britain.


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Margaret Damer Dawson in her Women’s Police Service uniform (Source: BBC).

It might be tempting to think that the recent increase in vegetarianism and concern for animal rights is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, the campaign for animal rights can be traced back a long time. Margaret Damer Dawson’s involvement in animal rights activism would be enough to make her worthy of attention, but she also went on to be the founder of the first female police force in Britain, making her doubly fascinating.

Margaret Damer Dawson was born on the 12th of June 1873 in Hove, East Sussex. Her father was a surgeon, and she had a comfortable upbringing, and an independent income that allowed her to pursue her campaigning interests as an adult. She was probably educated at home, but studied at the London Academy of Music when she was older.

Dawson was a committed campaigner, devoting her life to the causes she believed in. She first got involved in campaigns against the cruel treatment of animals; in 1906 she became the Organising Secretary of the International Animal Protection Societies, and in 1908 she was made the Honorary Secretary of the International Anti-Vivisection Council. She was also an active member of the Animal Defence and Anti-vivisection society, which campaigned against the use of circus animals and the killing of animals for meat, amongst other issues. Vivisection is a particularly unsavoury practice, where operations are performed on live animals for scientific research or education. In 1906 Dawson organised the International Anti-Vivisection and Animal Protection Congress in London.

Although not actively involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, Dawson was interested in feminist issues, such as the trafficking of women and children. After the beginning of the first world war, she championed the formation of the first women’s police force in Britain. Campaigners for women’s rights knew that male police officers often handled cases involving women poorly, and it was thought that female police officers would help protect women. The government had previously been opposed to female police officers, but with so many male officers joining the army they relented. Along with Nina Boyle, a campaigner for women’s rights and member of the Women’s Freedom League, Dawson was permitted to set up the Women Police Volunteers (WPV). At first the WPV consisted of 50 women, all of independent means. They initially concentrated their efforts on London, and their responsibilities included looking after refugees arriving in London after fleeing the war.

In November 1914, Dawson and Boyle had a disagreement that caused Boyle to leave their joint venture. The Army had set up a training camp for new recruits at Grantham, and the WPV were asked to protect the trainee soldiers by controlling women of ‘bad character’ in the area, effectively imposing a curfew on women. Boyle wanted to refuse, viewing the request as an attack on women’s rights. Dawson argued that they should accept any orders they were given to prove that they could accept police discipline. Dawson had the support of the WPV members and won the argument; she inspired loyalty and affection in the women who served under her. After Boyle left, the WPV was renamed the Women’s Police Service (WPS), and Mary Allen became Dawson’s second in command. Allen was a former member of the WSPU, and formed a close relationship with Dawson; the two women would live together until Dawson’s death.

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This plaque, at 10 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, marked where Margaret Damer Dawson lived with Mary Allen (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

In 1916 the Ministry of Munitions asked the WPS to supervise the female employees working in munitions factories. Dawson recruited and trained 140 women for this task, with no financial input from the government, on the understanding that the scheme would be funded if it proved successful. The WPS training, which took place in East London, received lots of attention from the press, which did not please the Home Office and the leadership of London’s Metropolitan Police.

By the end of the war the WPS had more than 350 members around the country, although many weren’t sworn in as police officers and could not make arrests. After the Armistice, many of the women who had worked during the war were expected to give up their jobs to make way for the returning soldiers. The Baird Committee on the Employment of Women on Police Duties approved the employment of female police officers, although the Home Office was reluctant. 47 members of the WPS were hired by Chief Constables around the country, although the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was especially hostile. He seemed to have a personal grudge, and refused to hire any members of the WPS, although he did recruit women who weren’t loyal to Dawson.

Dawson had to step down from the WPS in 1919 due to poor health, Mary Allen took over as Commandant of the WPS. Margaret Damer Dawson died of a heart attack on the 18th of May 1920. Allen believed that Dawson’s constant struggle with the male police establishment had contributed to her early death.

Margaret Damer Dawson was a fierce and determined campaigner. During both phases of her activist career she fought hard for what she believed in, and as Commandant of the WPS she began the process of normalising women in the police force, disproving many of the prejudices of the male policing establishment. In 2019, women make up 30% of the UK’s police officers. As with many areas of employment, the battle for gender equality is not yet won, but we owe a debt to women like Margaret Damer Dawson, who fired the first shot.

References and Further Reading

Doughan, David. “Dawson, Margaret Mary Damer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 3rd January 2008, accessed 22nd October 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/45544 [Requires a subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Margaret Damar Dawson.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2015, accessed 22nd September 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wdawson.htm

Wikipedia. “Margaret Damer Dawson.” Last modified 7th October 2019, accessed 22nd October 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Damer_Dawson

Protest Sydney: Stickers

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A World Wildlife Fund sticker in front of the Sydney Opera House (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In the summer of 2019, I was lucky enough to spend 3 weeks travelling around Australia and New Zealand with my sister. As usual, wherever I went I kept an eye out for protest stickers, and the Antipodes did not disappoint. The first city we visited was Sydney. Founded in 1788 by the British as a penal colony, it is now Australia’s largest city.

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I thought this sticker might have something to do with immigration policy, but it turns out that Keep Sydney Open was founded to campaign for an evidence-based approach towards policy on the nighttime economy. They felt that they weren’t being listened to as a campaign group, however, so in 2018 became a political party and broadened the range of issues they are concerned with. I found this sticker in Bondi Beach, one of Sydney’s most famous suburbs (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Another political party who have left their traces in Bondi Beach is The Greens, a left wing party with four main principles: ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice and peace and non-violence. Sydney is one of the most expensive cities in the world, so it is not surprising that housing is an important political issue (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Alongside local politics, the protest stickers in Hong Kong also reflected global issues. Here, a post-it note has been drafted into service as a protest sticker supporting the recent protests in Hong Kong. Since June, protesters have been clashing with police in Hong Kong over China’s increasingly repressive rule. At the time of writing this post in early October, there is no sign of either the protesters or the Chinese government backing down. Solidarity protests have taken place around the world, including Sydney, Taiwan, and Melbourne (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Another global movement that only seems to be increasing in momentum is Extinction Rebellion. Founded in the UK in late 2018, this leaderless, nonviolent movement has spread around the world, including several global days of action. The Australian Extinction Rebellion seems just as determined as any other group to get their demands met (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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It is clear that not everyone supports the aims of Extinction Rebellion, as someone has tried to obscure the message of this sticker. There is something written over the image too, but I cannot make it out. The Australian government is currently led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who does not seem to view climate change as too much of a priority (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker, produced by the Greens, is also suggesting that significant political reform is needed in order to effectively counter climate change (Photo: Hannah Awcock). 

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This sticker was also produced by the Greens, and it highlights the negative impacts of climate change that go beyond climate change (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Save Poppy is an organisation that aims to persuade people to give up meat by sharing information about the “cruelty, environmental destruction and the health impact of animal agriculture.” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is another sticker promoting SavePoppy.com. Protest stickers promoting veganism have become increasingly common over the last few years. Many of them take a similar approach to this one, arguing that it is hypocritical to love animals and eat meat (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is very poetic for a protest sticker. The A in a circle is a common anarchist symbol, and many anarchists believe that prisons should be abolished (Photo: Hannah Awcock). 

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Same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia in 2017, so this sticker is a bit of an antique by protest sticker standards! (Photo: Hannah Awcock). 

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What protest sticker blog post is complete without an anti-fascist sticker? Anti-fascist Action was originally founded in the UK in 1965, but there are now branches all over the world (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

 

Book Review: The Village in Revolt- The Story of the Longest Strike in History

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The Village in Revolt by Shaun Jeffery.

Shaun Jeffery. The Village in Revolt: The Story of the Longest Strike in History. Higdon Press, 2018. RRP £14.99 paperback.

I recently went to Tolpuddle in Dorset, to find out more about the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs. In the gift shop of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, there were a number of books about the martyrs, but also about other examples of rural strikes and trade unionism. The Village In Revolt: The Story of the Longest Strike in History appealed to me largely because I had never heard of the Burston School Strike before. My research is focused on urban protest, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about an example of rural dissent.

The Village in Revolt tells the story of the Burston School Strike. Tom and Annie Higdon were well-loved teachers in the rural village of Burston in Norfolk. On 1st April 1914, the Higdons were fired based on a series of exaggerated and unfounded accusations. The Higdons were socialists, and since they had arrived in Burston in 1911, they had been in an escalating conflict with the village elites, particularly the rector, the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland. The Higdons were good teachers, and the school children and their families decided to support them. 66 out of 72 children went on strike, refusing to attend the village school unless the Higdons were reinstated. An alternative school was established on the village green, which would last until 1939. The strikers received support from around the country, and by 1917 had raised enough to build a Strike School, which still stands to this day.

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The Burston Strike School still stands to this day, and is now a museum (Photo: Out_of_Station).

Shaun Jeffery tells the story of the Burston School Strike with creativity and sympathy. Whilst obviously admiring of the Higdons and the strikers, Jeffery doesn’t shy away from their flaws, admitting that Tom Higdon could be quite a difficult man to get along with. The Village in Revolt is obviously the result of significant historical research; as well as the strike itself, the book also provides detailed discussion of the Higdons’ and Reverend Eland’s origins, and the history of rural trade unionism. The connection between a school strike and the unions of agricultural workers may not be immediately obvious, but Tom Higdon was a dedicated trade unionist, and the atmosphere that union activities created helped to give the striking students and their families the confidence to stand up to local elites.

My main criticism of The Village in Revolt is that the balance between context and the discussion of the strike itself feels off. Jeffery spends so much time discussing the background to the strike and the biographies of the people involved, that the section about the strike feels short by comparison. I understand that context is important, but it not more important than the story itself. As a result of this imbalance, the ending of the book feels quite abrupt.

If you are interested in the history of Norfolk, British education, or rural protest, then I think you will find something of interest in The Village in Revolt. It certainly is an inspiring story, and Burston is now on my list of places to visit!

Turbulent Londoners: Mala Sen, 1947-2011

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today it is the turn of Mala Sen, writer and human rights activist.


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Mala Sen, 1947-2011 (Source: The Guardian)

Racism, and prejudice are still  very real issues in modern Britain. Often, discrimination can compound other issues such as employment and housing. Indian activist and writer Mala Sen saw the intersection of these problems when she moved to Britain in the late 1960s, and fought to make them better. She is part of the reason that Brick Lane in East London is home to a thriving Bangladeshi community to this day.

Mala Sen was born on the 3rd of June 1947 in Uttarakhand in northern India. Her parents divorced when she was 6, after which she was raised by her father. She moved to Mumbai to study Home Sciences, where she met and fell in love with Farrukh Dhondy. In 1965, aged 17, Mala moved to the UK to be with Dhondy. They married in 1968, and although they divorced in 1976 they remained close.

In the UK, Mala worked as a seamstress. She quickly became aware the severe racial inequality and prejudice in the UK, and started to get involved in race relations. In one of her first experiences of activism, she fought for the rights of Indian factory workers in Leicester. Mala was an early member of the Race Today Collective, a leading voice in Black politics in Britain. She wrote for their magazine, Race Today, about the condition of Bangladeshi sweatshop workers in the East End of London. They lived in crowded dormitories where beds were shared around the clock by workers on different shifts. Many of the workers had left their families behind in Bangladesh, so were not entitled to housing benefit.

Spurred on by these dreadful living conditions, Mala was a founding member of the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG). In the early 1970s, the Bengali community in East London was growing rapidly but faced racism and discrimination. BHAG sourced council houses and squatted empty buildings for the Bengali community to live in. BHAG’s activities eventually led to the establishment of Brick Lane as a safe living area for the Bangladeshi community.

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A mural in brick Lane depicting Mala Sen by artist Jasmin Kaur Sehra, part of a series commissioned by the Tate Collective to celebrate the contributions of ‘unknown’ women in 2018 (Source: Kevin Lake).

Mala was also an active member of the British Black Panthers (BBP), which was based in Brixton. Less militant than the American Blank Panthers, the BBP believed in educating black people about their history and giving them a voice. This chimed with Mala’s own philosophy; she argued that supporting people to empower themselves was the best form of activism. Later on, Mala became a researcher for television documentaries. This led to her researching and writing about women in rural India, many of whom were treated very poorly. Her best known book, India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, took 8 years to research.

In her later years, Mala became disillusioned with British and Indian politics, the feminist movement and the East End Bangladeshi community. She died in Mumbai on the 27th of May 2011, aged 63. Although she lost faith in the causes she fought for, that does not diminish her contribution to them, nor make her any less worthy of remembrance.

Sources and Further Reading

Bayley, Bruno. “The Amazing Lost Legacy of the British Black Panthers.” Vice. Last modified 10th August 2013, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.vice.com/sv/article/9bz5ee/neil-kenlocks-photos-give-the-british-black-panthers-the-legacy-they-deserve

Jackson, Sarah. “Mala Sen: Writer and Race Equality Activist.” East End Women’s Museum. Last modified 18th July 2016, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/mala-sen-writer-and-race-equality-activist?rq=mala%20sen

Kotak, Ash. “Mala Sen Obituary.” The Guardian. Last modified 13th June 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/13/mala-sen-obituary

The Telegraph. ” Mala Sen.” Last modified 30th May 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/8546445/Mala-Sen.html

On This Day: The Old Price Riots, 18th September 1809

In my On This Day posts, I have covered protests about a wide range of issues, from the right to vote, through police brutality, to anti-fascism. I have never written a post about a riot over the cost of theatre tickets…until now. On the surface, the Old Price Riots might be the most superficial protest in London’s history. However, when you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that the rioters were defending a lot more than a cheap night out.

In late Georgian Britain, theatre was incredibly popular. It appealed to people across the class spectrum; from the very richest to the very poorest, everyone went to the theatre. In London, there were only two theatres licensed by central government to perform spoken drama; Covent Garden and Drury Lane (otherwise known as the major theatres). Other theatres (known as minor theatres) were licensed locally and relied on singing, mime, and visual spectacle to attract audiences. Within the space of a few months in 1808, both Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres burnt down. When the new Covent Garden Theatre opened a year later, it was perceived as pandering to elites and not protecting the accessibility of British theatre in the way that the major theatres should. The result was three months of protest that ended in almost total victory for the rioters.

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The new Covent Garden Theatre in 1810 (Source: Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, New Covent Garden Theatre (1810), Plate 100 of Rudolph Ackermann, The Microcosm of London; or, London in Miniature (1808-10, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, U of Toronto), 1: 262-63).

In the early hours of the morning on 20th September 1808, the Covent Garden Theatre caught fire. The flames were fierce, and in just 3 hours the entire theatre, as well as valuable costumes, sets, scripts, and sheet music, was destroyed. The cost of the rebuild was huge, despite donations from wealthy supporters, and when the new theatre opened on 18th September 1809, several changes had been made to try and attract a more wealthy audience and recoup the cost of reconstruction. Prices were raised, a public gallery was converted into private (very expensive) boxes, and the top gallery (where the very poorest theatre-goers sat) had been converted into ‘pigeon holes’, from which only the legs of the performers could be seen. In addition, the celebrated soprano singer Angelica Catalani had been hired at great expense. To theatre-goers, these changes were seen as undermining the accessibility of British theatre, pandering to elites, and disenfranchising the middle and working classes.

On opening night at the new theatre, the performance was supposed to be MacBeth, with Shakespeare’s tragic hero played by John Philip Kemble, who was also the manager and part-owner of the theatre. However, the performance was drowned out by the audience who shouted, cheered, sang, and generally made a nuisance of themselves throughout. Kemble called the local magistrates to try and disperse the crowd, but it was not successful. The magistrates did not intervene again; there was debate over whether or not it was legal to kick out theatre-goers who had paid for their ticket.

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A cartoon by George and Isaac Cruikshank showing the first night of the riots. The magistrates are on stage appealing for calm, and Kemble stands behind them (Source: The British Museum).

The riots continued for the next 67 nights. The protesters, who quickly began to call themselves OPs (Old Pricers) embraced theatricality by adopting tactics such as banners and placards, singing, dancing, racing, mock fights (all of which went on during the performances), and the production of fake money and OP medals. As riots go, they were quite civil; violence and property damage was minimal. They were very effective, however, in disrupting the normal running of the theatre and demonstrating just how important audiences were for the success of British theatre. Kemble and the other owners simply could not defeat them; every tactic they tried (such as hiring boxers to throw rioters out of the theatre) resulted in failure and humiliation. Eventually, they backed down, returning the prices to pre-fire levels, reducing the number of boxes and firing Catalani. On the night of 15th December Kemble publicly apologised to the theatre audience; a placard was unveiled in the pits that read “we are satisfied”.

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A cartoop by Isaac Cruikshank depicting ‘The OP dance’. The rioters’ tactics were theatrical and non-violent (Source: Isaac Cruikshank, The OP Dance. Plate 5. Well-heeled Ops. Frontispiece, The O.P. Songster for 1810 (© The British Library Board, 11798.a.23.[7.])

The riots were not completely positive, however. There were strong elements of xenophobia and nativism. The rioters used anti-Semitic rhetoric, and made much of Kemble’s Catholicism in their criticism of him. There was also a sense that British theatre was inherently superior to foreign theatre, which tied into the criticisms of Catalani, who was Italian. The OPs believed it was the responsibility of Covent Garden, as a major theatre, to protect traditional British drama from the ‘foreign’ types of drama that were proving so popular in the minor theatres, such as opera, melodrama and pantomime. As such, the OP riots helped to reinforce dichotomies such as high/low art, spoken word/spectacular drama, and native/foreign drama.

At first, the Old Price Riots can look like Londoners being cheapskates. However, when looked at more closely, they highlight issues of class and xenophobia in a period when the city was changing dramatically. That being said, I dread to think what the OPs would make of the price of a West End theatre ticket today!

Sources and Further Reading

Mulhallen, Jacqueline. “The Old Price Riots of 1809: Theatre, Class, and Popular Protest.” Counterfire. Last modified 12th November 2012, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.counterfire.org/history/16136-the-old-price-riots-of-1809-theatre-class-and-popular-protest

Robinson, Terry F. “National Theatre in Transition: The London Patent Theatre Fires of 1808-1809 and the Old Price Riots.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. No date, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=terry-f-robinson-national-theatre-in-transition-the-london-patent-theatre-fires-of-1808-1809-and-the-old-price-riots

Wikipedia. “Old Price Riots.” Last modified 12th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Price_Riots

London’s Protest Stickers: Gentrification

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This sign in Elephant and Castle looked so official that I didn’t realise it had a political message at first (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Walworth Road, 05/05/15).

Gentrification is a process that has occurred in many Western cities over the last few decades. Poor, run-down, often post-industrial inner city neighbourhoods become cool, leading to an influx of the middle and upper classes which pushes up house prices and drives out the original community. London is no exception, and there are many areas around the city where there are tensions between existing residents and newcomers. This is reflected in the city’s protest stickers, some of which object to gentrification. Gentrification in London is impossible to separate from the city’s housing issues; it is one of the contributing factors to the ridiculously high rents and lack of suitable housing in the capital.

Most of the stickers featured here are produced by Class War, a political group known for their aggressive and confrontational stance. You can see where I found each of these stickers, and all of the others featured on Turbulent London, on the Turbulent London Map.

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Critics of gentrification often use ‘cleansing’ to describe what happens to the original residents of gentrifying areas. They are forced out  by increasing house prices, or because the neighbourhood changes so much that they no longer feel comfortable there (Photo: Hector Gwynne, 28/06/18).

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There is a clear class dynamic to gentrification. Incomers tend to be middle or upper class, whilst those forced out are frequently working class (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gordon Street, 13/04/16).

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Class War is not a group known for its tact. Yuppies and Hipsters are two groups frequently associated with gentrification, hipsters especially in London (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Quaker Street, 13/02/16).

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The design of this sticker is adapting the cover of Metallica’s 1983 debut album Kill ‘Em All. (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Regent’s Canal Towpath, 20/05/15).

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Whilst this sticker doesn’t explicitly mention gentrification, Squatters and Homeless Autonomy is a group that tries to combat gentrification and establish autonomous anti-capitalist spaces in London (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Little Venice, 01/05/16).

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Housing estates are quite strongly associated with the working class. In London however, a lot of ex-council housing on estates have become unaffordable for the city’s working classes (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Cable Street, 09/10/16).

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Estate agents are often targeted for their role in the gentrification process. This sticker is promoting a protest outside of the Islington branch of Foxton’s, a large national chain (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Whitechapel High Street, 09/10/16).

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Again this sticker doesn’t explicitly mention gentrification, but it is a criticism of the high cost of living often associated with gentrification. The text is in French, and it translates to “Rent or Eat,” which is a stark choice faced by many Londoners (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 13/02/16).

Lennon Wall for Hong Kong: Solidarity in Melbourne

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“Free HK”, part of the Hong Kong solidarity wall in Melbourne, Australia (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the time of writing this blog post in early September 2019, there appears to be no end in sight to the protests which started in Hong Kong in June. The spark which lit the tinder was a proposed extradition bill which would make it easier to transport people from Hong Kong to mainland China for questioning and trial. People in Hong Kong do not trust China’s justice system to be fair and impartial. Under pressure from protests whose intensity seemed to take everyone by surprise, the Hong Kong government shelved the extradition bill. This did not end the protests however, as the bill had tapped into a deeply held fear among the people of Hong Kong. Since being returned to China by Britain in 1997, residents of Hong Kong have enjoyed a lot more freedom than citizens of mainland China do, and they protect this freedom fiercely. For the protesters, the extradition bill was just one part of a much broader attempt to strip Hong Kong of its cherished freedom, and they are not willing to give their special status up without a fight. Over the last few months, protesters have clashed with police around the city.

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Hosier Lane in Melbourne is famous for it’s street art, and has become a significant tourist attraction (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the start of August 2019, I visited Melbourne in Australia, and I was quite surprised to find a wall full of messages expressing solidarity with, and seeking support for, the protesters in Hong Kong. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been: Australia has strong connections with China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and in 2017 there were 500,000 Chinese-born migrants living in Australia. Melbourne is known for its cosmopolitanism, and the city’s Laneways (alleys) are famous for edgy street art, shops, bars, and restaurants. The most famous for street art is Hosier Lane; it has become a popular tourist attraction. The solidarity wall is at the bottom of Hosier Lane, near the junction with Flinders Street.

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The Hong Kong solidarity wall in Hosier Lane, Melbourne (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

The wall is made up of posters calling for support and explaining what is happening in Hong Kong, and post-it notes with messages of solidarity. It feels spontaneous, but it is actually the result of a piece by Chinese artist Badiucao. He created a piece of street art featuring Chinese leader Xi Xingping and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam, then invited people to add their own messages of solidarity. A box of post-it notes and marker pens has been left so that visitors can add their own messages. This practice has become known as ‘Lennon Walls,’ which have appeared all over Hong Kong during the protests. They are now springing up elsewhere, including Toronto and Tokyo. The original artwork of Lennon Wall for Hong Kong can just about still be seen in the above image: it is the black text on the white background peeking out above the post-it notes.

I spent a little while watching other visitors interact with the wall. Many had little interest, others seemed to be interested in finding out what all the fuss was about, and some, particularly those who appeared to be of Asian origin, seemed quite moved by the outpouring of solidarity. I would be curious to know if this message of solidarity reaches protesters in Hong Kong however: do they know how much support they have in Melbourne?

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A box of stationary attached to the wall so that people can add their own messages of support (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A message left by a member of an airline crew, explaining how much the wall meant to them (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A visitor to the wall adds their own message (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

It is very important to the protesters in Hong Kong that people around the world know about their struggles and understand them, which is one of the reasons they have targeted Hong Kong International Airport over the summer; a controversial tactic which risks alienating travelers instead of convincing them that the cause is just. The Lennon Wall suggests that the message is getting through, however. It gives a strong sense of solidarity and obviously means a lot to people from Hong Kong. It also highlights the obvious overlaps between street art and resistance; a subversive medium to begin with, street art is an obvious companion to protest.

Sources and Further Reading

BBC News. “Hong Kong Anti-Government Protests.” Last modified 3rd September 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c95yz8vxvy8t/hong-kong-anti-government-protests

Clark, Helen. “Should Australia Fear an Influx of Chinese?” This Week in Asia. Last modified 30th July 2017, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2100798/should-australia-fear-influx-chinese

Dalziel, Alexander. “Post-it Protest in Support of Hong Kong Backlash over Extradition Plan.” The Age. Last modified 20th August 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/post-it-protest-in-support-of-hong-kong-backlash-over-extradition-plan-20190720-p5293c.html

Sydney Morning Herald. “Chinese Political Artist Badiucao supports Hong Kong Protesters with Hosier Lane ‘Lennon Wall.'” Last modified 20th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.smh.com.au/world/chinese-political-artist-badiucao-supports-hong-kong-protesters-with-hosier-lane-lennon-wall-20190720-h1ge99.html