Book Review: ‘Striking a Light- The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History’ by Louise Raw

Striking a Light Front Cover

Striking a Light by Louise Raw.

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

I recently finished reading Striking a Light, Louise Raw’s wonderful book about the Bryant and May matchwomen’s strike in East London in 1888. My friends and family would be able to tell you how much of an impression it made on me, as I have spent a lot of time telling them how much I enjoyed it and recommending that they should read it themselves. The matchwomen’s (known to most as the matchgirls) strike is one of the most well-known examples of protest in London’s history, but as Raw expertly explains, much of what we think we know is inaccurate, and doesn’t give the strikers the credit they deserve. The thorough and innovative methodology used in the research also deserves recognition.

Raw conducted thorough analysis of the primary sources to re-evaluate the established narrative of the strike. She argues that the matchwomen were not as helpless and innocent as they were frequently portrayed to be, both at the time and in subsequent historical accounts. Annie Besant, a well-known campaigner at the time, is generally credited with leading the strike, helping the women to achieve what they could not alone. Raw easily demonstrates that although Besant did help the strikers, she did not have an organisational role, it was the women themselves that decided to strike, and organised the following campaign. Raw also uses census data and other sources to dispute the assertion that the women were too disconnected from the dockworkers in East London to have had an influence on the Great Dock Strike in 1889. Striking a Light recognises the bravery and strength of the matchwomen, acknowledging their achievements in a way that has not been done before.

The other element of the book which I particularly admire is the methodology. Raw is clear and explicit about how she conducted her research, including the difficulties she faced, which is something I personally would like to see more of in historical geography. In addition, Raw tracked down the grandchildren of some of the women involved in the strike, in order to find out more about them as women. Although this is a time-consuming method, with some obvious concerns about accuracy, the stories and insights uncovered brought the women to life. Finding sources from the perspective of those who actually took part in historical protests has been a major difficulty for me, as well as more established historians (for example Rudé (2005). Raw’s approach brought home the fact that the strikers were human beings, each with their own unique lives, aspirations, and motivations, something which is easy to forget in the midst of conventional archival research. This is a methodology that I hope I can use in my own research.

Sources

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Rudé, George. The Crowd in History. London: Serif, 2005 [1964].

Reading the Riot Act: Protest in Everyday Language

2017-06-13 19.51.13.jpg

A Riot Act tea towel (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

How often were you ‘read the riot act’ as a child? When I started researching historical protest in London two years ago, I learnt the origins of this phrase. The Riot Act was passed in 1714, and gave local authorities the power to declare a gathering of twelve or more people illegal, which meant the group would either have to disperse or face arrest. The Act was read to the offending group, after which they had one hour to disperse peacefully. Although the act was often interpreted incorrectly and, as a result, complicated the  policing of public order rather than simplifying it, it was only repealed relatively recently, in 1967. So that is why you are ‘read the riot act’ when you are causing trouble, it basically means stop or face the consequences.

I recently discovered that the Riot Act is not the only element of the history of protest that has made it into everyday language. When recently reading a book about the numerous revolts and revolutions in Europe during the tumultuous year of 1848 (Rapport, 2008), I learnt that the Italians have a phrase which basically means ‘a right royal mess’: ‘un vero quarantotto’, or, in English, ‘a real 48.’ The events of that year stuck in the minds of Italians to the extent that it became synonymous with any situation where chaos reigned.

These two examples demonstrate just how important protest is to society and culture. Protests and contentious politics can be huge events, standing out in the collective memory as a time of dramatic upheaval, great achievements, or perhaps abject fear for the future. It shouldn’t really be surprising that they can work their way into everyday language in this manner.

Delighted with my discovery of ‘a real 48’, I have been racking my brains for any similar phrases in everyday language that come from a protest of contentious politics. I have yet to think of any, but perhaps the collective wisdom of my readership could help me out? Please comment on this post if you know any, in English or otherwise!

References

Rapport, Mike. 1848: Year of Revolution. London: Abacus, 2008.

Turbulent Londoners: Lord George Gordon, 1751-1793

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s radical and contentious past. 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. First up is Lord George Gordon, a charismatic individual who played a big role in the Gordon Riots. 


Lord George Gordon had a severe, puritanical apprearance (Source: Wikipedia, n.d.).

Lord George Gordon had a severe, puritanical apprearance (Source: Wikipedia, n.d.).

Lord George Gordon was an eccentric, irresponsible, but charismatic aristocrat who probably would have faded into obscurity if it wasn’t for the Gordon Riots, to which he gave his name. The Riots, which took place in June 1870, were a week-long series of anti-Catholic disturbances which have been called “the most serious disturbances ever seen in London.” (German and Rees, 2012; 87). Sparked by Parliament’s refusal to consider a petition to repeal the 1778 Catholic Relief Act, the riots took on a distinct anti-establishment flavour in their later days, which terrified those in authority.

Although charged with high treason after the riots, it seems that George Gordon did not intend to spark such dramatic events, which involved the largest number of people killed or executed in an episode of civil disorder either before or since (Archer, 2000). Becoming an MP with a reputation for rambling, boring speeches in 1774, Gordon was elected president of the London Protestant Association in November 1779. The Association was an organisation with the goal of repealing the Catholic Relief Act, which had relaxed some of the restrictions on Catholics in Britain.

Gordon and the Protestant Association organised a petition containing up to 100,000 signatures demanding the act be repealed. Against the advice of the rest of the Association’s leadership, Gordon called for a rally on the 2nd of June, followed by a march to Parliament where he would present the petition. An estimated 60,000 people attended, an unprecedented amount for a political meeting at this time (Bloom, 2010). The same evening that the petition was presented, two Catholic chapels were burnt down by an anti-Catholic ‘mob’. Over the following nights, the houses of many wealthy Catholics were destroyed, as well as the Langdale distillery and most of the capital’s prisons, including the infamous Newgate. Calm was not restored until the 10th of June, a week later.

A contemporary image of the destruction of Newgate, published in 1781 (Source: Guildhall Library, 941 JAC, The Gordon Riots- A Collection of Contemporary Documents Compiled by Judith Kazantis; Photo: author’s own).

A contemporary image of the destruction of Newgate, published in 1781 (Source: Guildhall Library, 941 JAC, The Gordon Riots- A Collection of Contemporary Documents Compiled by Judith Kazantis; Photo: author’s own).

At first suspected of deliberately engineering the riots, Gordon’s failed attempts to calm the situation proved he had no control over the rioters. He was acquitted of high treason, but continued to loudly voice his controversial and provocative opinions. He converted to Judaism in 1787, and was eventually imprisoned for libel following publications criticising transportation to Botany Bay as a method of punishment, and insulting Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. He died of gaol fever in Newgate on the 1st of November 1793.

Lord George Gordon was admired by some, and considered insane by others. Whilst he was progressive in some of his views, for example his strong opposition to the death penalty, his hatred of Catholics complicates an interpretation of him as a radical reformer. However he is viewed, Gordon was a fascinating individual, who contributed to the history of disturbance in the capital, making London that bit more turbulent.

Sources

Archer J (2000) Social Unrest and Popular Protest in England 1780-1840, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bloom C (2010) Violent London- 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

German L and Rees J (2012) A People’s History of London, London: Verso.

Haydon C (2004) ‘Gordon, Lord George (1751-1793)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxfordddnb.com/view/article/11040 (Accessed on 15.04.13).

Haywood I and Seed J (ed.) (2012) The Gordon Riots- Politics, Culture and Insurrection in Late-Eighteenth Century Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Playful Protest: Popular Culture and Humour in Hong Kong and London

As I’m sure many of you have, I’ve been following the events of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong very closely. The protests, known to some as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ because of protesters using umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas, have been going on for some weeks now. The protesters accuse the Chinese government of reneging on multiple promises to allow Hong Kong a free and fair democracy by placing restrictions on who is allowed to run for the position of Chief Executive, effectively Hong Kong’s leader, in 2017 (for more information about the Hong Kong demonstrations, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29413349). An end appeared to be in sight as talks between the government and the protesters were scheduled for this Friday (the 9th of October), but they were called off the day before they were due to take place. One of the things that struck me as I have watched events unfold is the many similarities between the protests in Hong Kong, and many recent demonstrations in London. One example is the playful, light-hearted approach some protesters take, evidenced in placards and banners made and carried by the demonstrators.

This design was mass produced on placards and posters during the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in 2010.

This design was mass produced on placards and posters during the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in 2010 (Source: Author’s own).

Placards, banners, and signs are an integral part of a demonstration or protest. Along with the shouting of chants and slogans, they convey the message of the demonstrators to observers. Many, such as the poster in the image above, are mass produced by large groups and organisations involved in the demonstration. But many others are home made, painted or drawn onto pieces of cardboard and old bedsheets. These allow individual protesters to express themselves, publicly declaring their own opinions and perspectives. For many the placard is a temporary object, the streets after a demonstration are often scattered with them, and they are sometimes used as fuel for impromptu fires. However in 2011 the Save our Placards project (see http://saveourplacards.blogspot.co.uk/), run by Goldsmiths and the Museum of London sought to change that, collecting placards after the Anti-Austerity March for the Alternative on the 26th of March. They collected over 300 objects, 10 of which are now in the Museum’s collections. The project demonstrated the vast amounts of creativity and variety that can be involved in placards and has shown that they are worthy of attention by those studying protest.

One thing that placards make clear is the playful attitude of many protesters to issues they are trying to draw attention to. In both the recent Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and student demonstrations against austerity and raised tuition fees in London in 2010 and 2011, protesters have taken an irreverent approach through the use of humour and references to popular culture.

In the top right of this image a banner references  Les Miserables (Source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03056/sing_3056506k.jpg)

In the top left of this image a banner references Les Miserables (Source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03056/sing_3056506k.jpg)

A placard at an anti-austerity student protest in London in 2011 (Source: author's own).

A placard at an anti-austerity student protest in London in 2011 (Source: author’s own).

The above two images, one from Hong Kong and one from London, contain references to popular culture. The first, a photo from Hong Kong, is a banner which says ‘Do u hear the people sing’, a line from one of the most famous songs from the musical Les Miserables, which culminates in the 1832 June Revolution in Paris. The second, taken in London, asks ‘What would Dumbledore do?’, probably a reference to the phrase ‘What would Jesus do?’ sometimes used as a way of making decisions. Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the fictitious school of magic in the Harry Potter book and film franchise. The people who made both of these signs are using their knowledge of popular culture to articulate their own opinions and demands, one a demand to be heard, the other a call to the British Authorities to consider their actions.

A humorous placard in the recent Hong Kong demonstrations (Source: http://scontent-b.cdninstagram.com/hphotos-xpa1/t51.2885-15/927173_309133819274872_1878847170_a.jpg).

A humorous placard in the recent Hong Kong demonstrations (Source: http://scontent-b.cdninstagram.com/hphotos-xpa1/t51.2885-15/927173_309133819274872_1878847170_a.jpg).

A humourous topical placard at a demonstration opposing a threefold increase in tuition fees in London in 2010 (Source: Author's own).

A humorous and topical placard at a demonstration opposing a threefold increase in tuition fees in London in 2010 (Source: Author’s own).

The above two photos show placards which take a more humorous approach to protest. The second, taken in London, is particularly topical as it was part of a demonstration against the UK coalition government’s plans to raise the cap on tuition fees from just over £3000 to £9000 a year in 2010. Humour is a common way of dealing with upsetting or traumatic situations, and I think humour in protests is no exception, making the difficult and strenuous task that is activism easier to cope with.

I am often struck by the similarities between different protests around the world. You don’t have to look very hard to find multiple connections and links. A playful approach to protest is one of these similarities, and I’m sure it can be found around the world, not just in Hong Kong and London.

Thoughts on ‘Pride’: What’s Left Out and Why Does it Matter?

This post was written by Diarmaid Kelliher, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. His research is on solidarity in the miner’s strike in 1984-5, including Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who the recent film Pride is about. Follow him on Twitter at @Diarmaid84, or go to  http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/pgresearch/diarmaidkelliher/


One of Pride's promotional posters.

One of Pride‘s promotional posters.

The story of London Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 strike has circulated amongst lefties for a while but more broadly has been relatively unknown. This year, however, LGSM has featured in a play, a documentary, and the film Pride which is based entirely on the group. Pride has, rightly I think, received almost universally enthusiastic reviews. One exception is Brendan O’Neill’s ridiculous blog for the Telegraph which concludes that if the miners had been more ‘blokey and rough’ (the opposite of gay apparently) they might have won. Still, with the many positives covered so widely I want to focus on what’s missing.

The film, I think, gives an overly narrow portrayal of LGSM which, while perhaps understandable in narrative terms, somewhat cuts them off from broader political relationships, including with the larger solidarity movement for the miners. In the film, the group never grows beyond the handful of members drawn in early on. In fact, London LGSM at its peak attracted up to fifty people to its weekly meetings. There was eleven or so LGSM groups established outside London. This matters because it suggests that the politics of the group appealed to other lesbian and gay activists – and part of the point of LGSM was to engage and challenge lesbian and gay politics. As one member said at the time, they sought both to bring sexual politics into trade unionism, and to bring ‘socialism onto the agenda of sexual politics in the London lesbian and gay community’.

In the film, LGSM never grows much beyond the original members.

In the film, LGSM never grows much beyond the original members.

One effect of making the group so small is seen in the treatment of Lesbians Against Pit Closures – a group that separated from London LGSM. The split is largely played for laughs along classic leftist splintering lines. The extent to which women were outnumbered – even at the largest meetings of fifty there were never more than a few women – is not evident in the film’s small group. The idea that having a separate lesbian group was a bit silly is not easily distinguishable from the idea that LGSM itself was unnecessary – why not just work in the broader support campaigns? But how much fragmentation is too much, who decides and how?

One aspect of LGSM pushed a bit to the background in Pride is the political ideology. There is a glimpse of a hammer and sickle on the wall of founder Mark Ashton’s flat and someone calls him a commie – but you might not realise that he was a member of the Communist Party. Other activists in the group included members of left organisations such as the Labour Party and the Socialist Workers Party. The language of socialism so prominent at the time is largely absent from the film. This matters for the way in which we understand the construction of alliances: lesbian and gay support for the miners made sense not just because they were two groups of people under attack by the government, the police and the media. This was significant and possibly enough for some. But  it also relied on a broader left-wing politics which understood the different struggles in something like a totality.

Sheila Rowbotham’s recent reflections on the book Beyond the Fragments (1979) is, I think,  relevant here: ‘At the time, we had a credible word for what we wanted: “socialism” […] I still identity with the word “socialism”, but I realise that many others on the left no longer do so. To avoid unnecessary hair-splitting, I will say, then, that a vital component in “how” is imagining and articulating what else might be possible – what is beyond the beyond?’ Perhaps Pride avoids the language of socialism not as an attempt to appeal to an American market but as a reflection of the fact that ‘socialism’ doesn’t play this role any more. But part of the lesson in LGSM, for me, is the need for this alternative vision of ‘the beyond’ in building such alliances – and if that vision is not socialism, then what is it?

Diarmaid Kelliher, University of Glasgow.

On This Day: The Battle of Cable Street, 4th October 1936

The Police attempt to dismantle barricades in Cable Street. Source: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/75th-anniversary-of-battle-of-cable-street-83081

The Police attempt to dismantle barricades in Cable Street (Source: The Mirror).

The Battle of Cable Street was a clash between police and protesters who were trying to prevent the British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching through Stepney, the most concentrated area of Jewish population in the country. The 1930s saw fascism spreading across Europe. Both Germany and Italy were under fascist regimes, and the Spanish civil war was being fought between fascists and republicans. In 1932 the BUF was founded by Sir Oswald Mosley, who hoped to replicate the success of similar organisations across Europe.

Over the summer of 1936, tension in the East End increased as marches and meetings were organised in response to the BUF’s anti-Semitic propaganda and frequently violent activities. When the planned march was announced on the 29th of September it was seen as deliberate provocation. One petition against the march gained 10,000 signatures, but the Home Secretary refused to ban the march on the grounds that to do so would be undemocratic. Whilst there was widespread opposition to the march, opinion on how to respond was divided. Moderates feared the inevitable violence that would result from attempting to stop the BUF, so called for people to just ignore the march. However, it was eventually decided that an attempt would be made to stop the march.

It was well known that Mosley planned for the BUF to gather in Royal Mint Street, then split into several columns to march through East London before reassembling for a rally in Bethnal Green. However the specific details of the planned route were not known, so the anti-fascists met at 4 different points, attempting to block all possible routes into the East End. It was the responsibility of the police to clear a route for the BUF to march. Although there were minor scuffles between fascists and anti-fascists, the main clashes were with the 6000 police officers who attempted to clear a route for Mosley and the BUF ‘Blackshirts’. The police made numerous baton charges at Gardiner’s Corner in Aldgate, but the way was blocked by a tram which had been stopped by its anti-fascist driver. The only other alternative this left was Cable Street.

A Protestor is arrested. Source:http://stevesilver.org.uk/blog/battle-of-cable-street-events/

A Protestor is arrested (Source:Steve Silver)

Several barricades had already been built, including one constructed from an overturned lorry. The slogan “No Parasan- They Shall Not Pass,” which came from the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, had been painted on banners, barricades and the streets. The police were bombarded with projectiles from upper windows as they repeatedly charged, dismantling barricades and obstacles only to find more behind. As injuries and arrests mounted, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner ordered Mosley to abandon his planned route. Furious and humiliated, the BUF marched through London before quietly dispersing at Embankment. In the East End, celebrations continued long into the night.

To me, the Battle of Cable Street was a vocal expression of communal will, as well as a fierce declaration of ownership over the streets and spaces of the East End. A month after the Battle, the Public Order Act was passed, which controlled public processions and banned political uniforms in public. Under the terms of the act marches in East London were prohibited until the BUF was disbanded in 1940. Although it limited their activities too, the ban was a clear victory for anti-fascist campaigners, as it represented a U-turn of the government’s position of supporting the BUF’s right to march at any cost.

The Battle of Cable Street Mural in Cable Street. Source: www.jeecs.org.uk

The Battle of Cable Street Mural in Cable Street (Source: Jeecs).

Sources and Further Reading

Jackson, Sarah and Rosemary Taylor. Voices from History: The East London Suffragettes. Stroud: The History Press, 2014.

Rosenburg, David. ‘The Battle of Cable Street- 75 Years on.’ History Workshop Online, January 8, 2011, accessed September 17, 2014 http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/cable-street75/

The Cable Street Group. Battle of Cable Street 1936. Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2011.