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.

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

  1. Pingback: Tracing Turbulent London in North East England 1: Morpeth | Turbulent London

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