Contesting the Capital: Exploring London’s History of Protest at the International Conference of Historical Geographers

The International Conference of Historical Geography 2015 took place at the RGS-IBG in Kensington, London.

The International Conference of Historical Geography 2015 took place at the RGS-IBG in Kensington, London.

Between the 5th and 10th of July, the International Conference of Historical Geographers (ICHG) took place at the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers in South Kensington, London. The conference takes place every 3 years in a different city; in 2012 it was in Prague, in 2018 it will be in Warsaw. This year the conference was 40 years old, and over 700 delegates, 60% of which came from beyond Britain, gathered to talk all things historical geography.

Along with Diarmaid Kelliher, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, I convened a session called Contesting the Capital: Historical Geographies of Protest in London, exploring the relationship between protest and London. As regular readers of this blog are probably aware, London has a long and vibrant history of protest. This is often attributed to Londoners themselves; “Londoners have for many centuries been considered far too ‘bolshie’ to do what they are ordered for long” (Bloom, 2010; p.xxxviii). Whether this is the reason or not, London is a particularly contentious city. For example, on the 30th of May this year (2015), there was a demonstration in Trafalgar Square to support striking workers at the National Gallery; a protest outside the offices of the Daily Mail about the paper’s treatment of Pilipino nurses; and a march organised by UKUncut in Westminster, in which a huge anti-austerity banner was hung from Westminster Bridge. Three major protests, all in one day. London’s rebellious streak makes it fantastic to study, and Contesting the Capital aimed to celebrate and explore this rich history.

This anti-austerity demonstration was just one of several large protests taking place in London on the 30th May 2015 (Source: Evening Standard).

This anti-austerity demonstration was just one of several large protests taking place in London on the 30th May 2015 (Source: Evening Standard).

Contesting the Capital included 4 papers; by myself, Gavin Brown, Claire Nally and Diarmaid Kelliher. My paper was about the characteristics of urban areas in general, and London specifically, that encourages protest. Gavin Brown discussed the geographies of the 24-hour picket outside the South African embassy between 1986 and 1990. Claire Nally talked about the Crossbones graveyard in Southwark, the ways it has been represented and ways it fits into networks of memorialisation and feminism. Finally, Diarmaid Kelliher presented a paper about solidarity and London support groups for the 1984-5 miner’s strike.

Claire Nally presenting about the Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark (apologies for the poor-quality camera phone!)

Claire Nally presenting about the Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark (apologies for the poor-quality camera phone!)

For me, the session highlighted some of the key issues involved in studying protest in London, one of which is networks. Walter Nicholls (2009) has demonstrated that networks are a useful tool for thinking about the processes and activities of social movements. Fran Tonkiss (2005) has argued that cities tend to have good information and mobilisation networks, which allow the easy circulation of ideas and people. She also points out that cities bring together extensive social networks that can support protest. Contesting the Capital demonstrated how some of these theories work in practice, placing London in national and international networks of solidarity, communication, and support.  For example, during the 1984-5 miner’s strike multiple support groups were active in London offering financial, physical and emotional support to the strikers in far flung places like Wales and Yorkshire. The Non-stop picket outside the South African embassy in the 1980s was part of an international anti-apartheid movement that aimed to put pressure on the South African government. Neither of these issues are obviously related to the lives and concerns of Londoners, but nevertheless people felt strongly enough to take action.

Protests in London highlight the city's place in local, nation, and international networks (Source: City of London Anti-Apartheid Group).

Protests in London highlight the city’s place in local, nation, and international networks (Source: City of London Anti-Apartheid Group).

Another key issue which Contesting the Capital highlighted for me is that London is constantly changing. As Roy Porter (2000; p.7) says “change is the essence” of cities. Economically, politically, socially, culturally, demographically, physically; London hasn’t sat still since it was founded two thousand years ago. For example, the Crossbones graveyard in Southwark was rediscovered during the construction of the Jubilee Line; London’s future helped to uncover its forgotten past. In terms of protest, solidarity has to be carefully constructed and maintained. The strong networks of solidarity that were evident during the miner’s strike have arguably been lost; the fierce criticism of workers whenever there is a tube strike is evidence of this. Along with the city’s sheer size, these constant processes of change make it very difficult to make any meaningful generalisations about London as a whole.

Contesting the Capital aimed to explore the relationship between London and the historical geographies of protest, and it was pretty successful, if I do say so myself. The history of protest in London is an almost inexhaustible resource for studying dissent, alternative politics and the urban, and there is lots more work to be done, although I think it’s fair to say we’re making a good start.

Sources and Further Reading

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

Nicholls, Walter. “Place, Networks, Space: Theorising the Geographies of Social Movements.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33 (2009); 78–93.

Porter, Roy. London: A Social History. London, Penguin, 2000.

Tonkiss, Fran. Space, the City, and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

On This Day: The Hyde Park Railings Affair, 23rd July 1866

The Hyde Park Railings Affair is a little-known protest that took place 149 years ago today in Hyde Park. When the Home Secretary banned a rally organised by the Reform League from taking place in Hyde Park, the League decided to question the legality of the ban by marching to Hyde Park anyway. Demonstrators managed to break into the park, which led to scuffles with police and several days of rioting. The protest questioned the nature and control of public space in London, and contributed to Hyde Park’s radical legacy.

The Reform League was an organisation formed in 1865 to campaign for universal manhood suffrage in Britain. They had their origins in the Chartist movement, but they were not as radical. After the failure of the 1866 Reform Bill, controversy over which brought down the government in June, the Reform League decided to step up their campaigning by organising mass meetings. Meetings on the 29th of June and 2nd of July in Trafalgar Square were relatively peaceful, but the League’s next meeting was destined to be more controversial.

Edmond Beales, President of the Reform League (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Edmond Beales, President of the Reform League (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

The Conservative Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, banned the planned meeting in Hyde Park. Edmond Beales, the president of the Reform League, argued that the Home Secretary had no right to ban the demonstration, as the park either belonged to the people or the monarchy. Spencer Walpole was neither, therefore he had to right to dictate what was allowed to happen in the park. The protest became about more than electoral reform; it was now also about who had the right to use, control, and police public space. The Reform League decided to challenge the legality of the ban by marching to Hyde Park anyway.

On the afternoon of the 23rd of July, the League and their supporters set out from their headquarters in Adelphi Place towards Hyde Park. When they got to Marble Arch, they found the gates locked and guarded by the police. Edmond Beales requested to be allowed entry, but he was not prepared to start a violent confrontation, so he withdrew when he was refused permission to enter. Beales and the Executive Committee of the Reform League led the march to Trafalgar Square, where they had a peaceful meeting.

A contemporary illustration of the Hyde Park Railings Affair (Source: Illustrated London News).

A contemporary illustration of the Hyde Park Railings Affair (Source: Illustrated London News).

Not everyone followed Beales and the Reform League however. A group of protesters stayed behind, and soon discovered that if the railings surrounding Hyde Park were rocked back and forth, they could be pulled from their foundations and toppled over. This happened at several locations around the park, leading to clashes with police as demonstrators poured into Hyde Park. There were injuries on both sides, but no deaths, and 40-70 people were arrested. The Police used Marble Arch as a temporary holding cell.

Rioting continued in the park for several days, which resulted in a lot of damage to the park. The stump of one oak tree which the protesters burnt down became known as the Reformers’ Tree. It became a focus point for radical activity in the park, and is commemorated by a mosaic. In 1872 the right of assembly and free speech was officially recognised in the northeastern corner of Hyde Park by the Royal Parks and Gardens Act. Speaker’s Corner is now a world famous site of public speech and debate.

The memorial to the Reformer's Tree, near the site where the tree was thought to be located (Source: Royal Parks).

The memorial to the Reformer’s Tree, near the site where the tree was thought to be located (Source: Royal Parks).

The Hyde Park Railings Affair is one of several protests in London that escalated because of government attempts to suppress protest, and Londoner’s determination to assert their rights; Bloody Sunday is another. Access to public space and the right to assembly is something many of us take for granted, but it is not a given. It has been fought for by generations of Londoners, and still needs to be defended.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon., “History and Architecture,” Royal Parks. No date, accessed 28th September 2014 https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/about-hyde-park/history-and-architecture.

Tames, Richard. Political London: A Capital History. London: Historical, 2007.

Experiences of an Inexperienced Blogger

To celebrate one year of the Turbulent London blog, I thought I would put together some of my top tips for blog-writing. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but over the past year I have learnt a few things about blogging. I have found it a really enjoyable and beneficial experience, and I want to encourage as many people as possible to have a go for themselves. So with that in mind, here are my top 5 tips for writing a blog:

  1. People ARE interested in what you have to say. One of the biggest problems I had when I started blogging was that I didn’t believe that anyone would actually want to read my writing. But the longer I’ve been blogging, and the more compliments I’ve had, the more confident I’ve become. Which is also great for my PhD, and my life in general. So if you’re hesitating about starting a blog due to a lack of confidence, don’t!

    Turns out people find protest quite interesting actually. This photo was taken at London Pride, on the 27th of June 2015.

    Turns out people find protest quite interesting actually. This photo was taken at London Pride, on the 27th of June 2015.

  2. Keep it short, stupid! Blog posts are not generally something people are willing to commit a lot of time to reading. I try to keep my posts to between 500 and 700 words. That way, they take less than 5 minutes to read, and you don’t get people not reading your posts because they’re TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read).
  3. Play to your strengths. I take a lot of pictures, and read a lot of books, so I use a lot of photos and review a lot of books in my blog. It just makes sense to do this kind of thing, because it saves me time, and I enjoy it! Think about whether there are any elements of your life that you could incorporate into your blog. If you’re doing a blog based on your PhD, there should be a lot of overlap anyway.

    IMG_8221

    I am a keen amateur photographer, and I use that as much as possible in my blog posts!

  4. Think about when to publish. I generally publish a blog post every week on a Thursday morning. I have a list of ideas for potential posts so I rarely get stuck on what to write, and I try to have a ‘back-up’ post ready in case I have a busy week and don’t get a chance to write anything. This way I can post regularly, which I think is more important than posting frequently. I try to publish my posts at about 8 in the morning, so that people will see the post when they are checking social media on the way to work/university, and read it whilst they are travelling. I know of at least one person who reads my blog on their morning commute, so it’s worth considering.
  5. Publicise! A blogger’s job is not over once a post has been written, it’s important to promote your blog if you want lots of people to see it (and trust me you will, the WordPress stats page is addictive!) I publicise every post I write on Facebook and Twitter, and I put links to specific posts on other websites depending on their contents. Think about who might be interested in reading your work, and how you can make them aware of your blog.
Turbulent London's daily viewing stats for June. Trying to improve your viewing stats can become addictive!

Turbulent London’s daily viewing stats for June. Trying to improve your viewing stats can become addictive!

So there you have it, the top 5 lessons I have learnt during my year of writing Turbulent London. Perhaps I’ll have another 5 tips for you in a year’s time!

London’s Protest Stickers: Housing

The fencing around Chiltern House on the Aylesbury Estate, which was occupied after the March for Homes on 31/01/15.

The fencing around Chiltern House on the Aylesbury Estate, which was occupied after the March for Homes on 31/01/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Recently, housing has become one of the most contentious issues in London. The city is growing faster than its housing stock, which is putting real pressure on Londoners. Many, particularly those with low incomes, are struggling with high prices, soaring rents and a chronic shortage of council housing. A numbers of campaign groups, such as FocusE15 and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, have started to combat the problem by raising awareness, protesting and intervening in evictions.The recent March for Homes is just one of the examples of the actions taking place. This focus is reflected in London’s protest stickers, and housing is one of the most common specific issues that stickers refer to. Most of the following pictures come from the area around the Aylesbury estate, an section of which was occupied after the March for Homes in protest of the estate gradually being sold off by Southwark Council for private redevelopment.

This sticker refers directly to the occupation at Aylesbury, and was photographed on 13/04/15 at Elephant and Castle.

This sticker refers directly to the occupation at Aylesbury, and was photographed on 13/04/15 at Elephant and Castle (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Many of London's poorest inhabitants are being pushed out by rising prices and redevelopments, leading to accusations of social cleansing (Aylesbury Estate, 02/04/15).

Many of London’s poorest inhabitants are being pushed out by rising prices and redevelopments, leading to accusations of social cleansing (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Aylesbury Estate, 02/04/15).

Many homes are bought by investors, kept empty and then sold off for profit a year or two later once the price has risen (08/03/15, Elephant and Castle).

Many homes are bought by investors, kept empty and then sold off for profit a year or two later once the price has risen (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Elephant and Castle, 08/03/15).

This sticker was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, along with several others featured in this post (Flint Street, SE1, 05/05/15).

This sticker was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, along with several others featured in this post (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Flint Street, SE1, 05/05/15).

Over the past few months, it has come to light that some property developers build separate entrances for the social housing in their developments.  This sticker is calling for an end to these 'poor doors'.

Over the past few months, it has come to light that some property developers build separate entrances for the social housing in their developments. This sticker is calling for an end to these ‘poor doors’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Elephant and Castle, 03/03/15).

Some of the detail on this sticker is hard to make out because of the weathering, but I think it is calling for the Bedroom Tax to be replaced with a 50% Mansion Tax (Cable Street, 25/02/15).

Some of the detail on this sticker is hard to make out because of the weathering, but I think it is calling for the Bedroom Tax to be replaced with a 50% Mansion Tax (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Cable Street, 25/02/15).

This sticker was obviously made by the same people as the previous one,  but it is slightly different. Also, 'Vote for Class War' has been changed to 'Fight for Class War' (Borough High Street, 18/02/15).

This sticker was obviously made by the same people as the previous one, but it is slightly different. Also, ‘Vote for Class War’ has been changed to ‘Fight for Class War’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 18/02/15).

This design was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth. The picture was taken in East Street, which has recently got attention because of resistance to raids by the UK Border Agency (East Street, Southwark, 04/06/15).

This design was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth. The picture was taken in East Street, which has recently got attention because of resistance to raids by the UK Border Agency (Photo: Hannah Awcock, East Street, Southwark, 04/06/15).

This design was also produced by HASL, and also refers to social cleansing (East Street, 04/06/15).

This design was also produced by HASL, and also refers to social cleansing (Photo: Hannah Awcock, East Street, 04/06/15).

Turbulent Londoners: William Cuffay, 1788-1870

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s 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. The next Turbulent Londoner is William Cuffay, a prominent Chartist leader and activist, despite significant disadvantages.


The prominent London Chartist leader William Cuffay.

The prominent London Chartist leader William Cuffay (Source: Wikipedia).

William Cuffay was the son of an ex-slave from St. Kitts and a woman from Kent. Born in 1788 in Medway Towns (now Gillingham), he trained as a tailor and moved to London in about 1819. He married 3 times, and had 1 daughter. Despite being mixed race, less than 5 feet tall and disabled (he had a deformed spine and shinbones), Cuffay became a well-known, daring, respected and committed activist and Chartist leader, to the extent that The Times described the London Chartists as “the black man and his party.”

Cuffay came to activism relatively late in life. In 1834, when he was 36, he was fired and blacklisted after taking part in a tailors’ strike for shorter hours and better pay. This experience convinced him that workers needed representation in Parliament, so got involved in the Chartist movement.

He rose quickly through the ranks of local and national Chartism. He helped form the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association in 1839, was elected to the Chartist Metropolitan Delegate Council in 1841, and the following year he was elected President of the London Chartists, and to the Chartist national executive.

The Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common, which is largely credited as being the death knell of the movement.

The Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common, which is largely credited as being the death knell of the movement (Source: Wikipedia).

Cuffay was a Physical Force Chartist. They advocated the use of violence for their cause, whilst the Moral Force Chartists believed they could achieve their goals with only the weight of their arguments. Cuffay helped to organise the fateful Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common on the 10th of April 1848, and was dismayed by what he saw as the cowardly behaviour of his fellow Chartist leaders. The Kennington demonstration was supposed to be the crowning glory of the Chartist movement, but instead the leaders decided to back down because of the huge numbers of police.

Now utterly convinced that peaceful protest would not get the People’s Charter into law, Cuffay became involved in plans for a violent uprising. He was betrayed by a government spy and convicted of preparing acts of arson- the fires were to meant to signal the start of the rebellion. The affair became known as The Orange Tree Plot, after the pub in Red Lion Square where the leaders of the uprising would meet to plan.

A copy of 'The Poetical Works of Lord Byron' given to Cuffay by his friends in the Westminster Chartist Association when he was transported to Tasmania. He still had the book when he died, 20 years later (Source: William Cuffay, 1778-1870).

A copy of ‘The Poetical Works of Lord Byron’ given to Cuffay by his friends in the Westminster Chartist Association when he was transported to Tasmania. He still had the book when he died, 20 years later (Source: William Cuffay, 1778-1870).

Cuffay was convicted and sentenced to 21 years penal transportation. He arrived in Tasmania in November 1849, after what must have been a truly awful sea journey for a 61-year-old with Cuffay’s health problems. He was pardoned after 3 years, but chose to stay in Tasmania. His wife saved enough money to join him in 1853, and he carried on pretty much as he left off in London, working as a tailor and playing a prominent role in local radical politics. He sadly died in poverty in July 1870, aged 82.

William Cuffay was a man who would not be defined by his colour or physical attributes. Despite being only 4 ft 11, he was known as a charismatic and engaging public speaker, and he quickly became one of the best-known Chartist leaders. He was admired by his fellow Chartists, and fought with conviction for what he believed was right. As far as I know, there are no memorials for Cuffay, in London or Tasmania, but I think he was a man we could all learn a few lessons from.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Chartism,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 24 April, 2015, accessed 10 May 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartism

Anon. ‘Chartists,’ National Archives. No date, accessed 10 May 2015.http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/chartists.htm 

Anon. ‘William Cuffay,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 1 May 2015, accessed 10 May 2015.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cuffay

Anon. ‘William Cuffay (1788-1870),’ BBC History. No date, accessed 10 May 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/cuffay_william.shtml

Gregory, Mark. ‘ Cuffay’s book circumnavigates the World: 1849-2013,’ William Cuffay, 1788-1870. No date, accessed 10 May 2015. http://cuffay.blogspot.co.uk/

Rosenberg, David. Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History. London: Pluto Press, 2014.

Simkin, John. ‘William Cuffay,’ Spartacus Educational. Last modified April 2014, accessed 10 May 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/CHcuffay.htm