“Those Meddling Kids!”: Student Protest in London in the Twentieth Century

The Scooby Doo gang held villains to account, and London's students have often done the same to the authorities (Source: http://www.psy24.pl/grafika/bajki/1/gang001a.jpg).

The Scooby Doo gang held villains to account, and London’s students have often done the same to the authorities (Source: http://www.psy24.pl/grafika/bajki/1/gang001a.jpg).

When the Scooby Doo gang unmasked the dastardly villain at the end of each episode, they always lamented “I would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids, and their dumb dog!” Apart from the dog, I think the gang have a lot in common with the students and young people of London, who have been holding those in authority to account for decades, despite their tender years.

The student demonstrations over tuition fees and the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in 2010 are still fresh in the minds of many. Students from secondary schools, sixth form colleges and universities made their opinions on the government’s plans to raise tuition fees and scrap EMA known in no uncertain terms. As well as the national marches in central London in November and December, there were countless occupations and smaller demonstrations throughout the capital and across the UK.

Feelings ran high amongst students in 2010 over proposed government cuts (Source: http://static.guim.co.uk/).

Feelings ran high amongst students in 2010 over proposed government cuts (Source: http://static.guim.co.uk/).

But student protest in the capital did not begin with the debate over tuition fees and EMA. The very first student occupation took place at the London School of Economics in 1967, in protest at the appointment of a director who had previously been director of the University College in racist Rhodesia. LSE was occupied again the following year to provide accommodation for a huge Vietnam march. Also in 1968, the Revolutionary Socialist Students’ Federation was formed after a conference at LSE, which had obviously become a focus of radical left-wing politics amongst university students.

Some students did not wait until they got to university to make their voices heard. in 1889 and 1911 there were waves of national school strikes, as children struggled with the authorities over compulsory schooling. Usually sparked by a student being punished too severely, the strikes focussed on issues such as the school day, corporal punishment, holidays, the school leaving age, and unpleasant teachers. Schoolchildren would use pickets, marches and demonstrations to get their point across. Such strikes continued in London until 1939. They were mostly met with amusement by the authorities, but some considered them a serious threat, attributing the strikes to class divisions as well as generational ones.

School children caused both amusement and fear when they went on strike around the turn of the twentieth century (Source: http://cdn.historyextra.com/sites/default/files/10219381%20v2_0.jpg).

School children caused both amusement and fear when they went on strike around the turn of the twentieth century (Source: http://cdn.historyextra.com/sites/default/files/10219381%20v2_0.jpg).

Whether because of the confidence or idealism of youth, or for the more practical reasons of having more free time and fewer responsibilities or dependents than adults, London’s youth does seem to be particularly riotous. For a section of society that are frequently accused of being apathetic and disengaged, they  have proved themselves to be quite the opposite, time and again. Many of them were too young to vote when they took part in their protests, but that did not stop them engaging with the political process in any way that they could.

Sources and further reading

Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

German, Lindsey, and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.

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