The East End’s Radical Murals

Cities are too often bleak places to live in and a mural is one way of making them more attractive and human.

The East End can boast a large number and variety—in sharp contrast to the lack of art galleries in the area.

(East End News, 1986)

I have recently been doing some research on the Cable Street Mural in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive (which is, by the way, a lovely place to work- the staff are very helpful). The Mural is located on the west wall of St. George’s Town Hall in Cable Street, and was completed in 1983. It is over 3,500 square feet, and it commemorates the Battle of Cable Street, which took place in the area on the 4th October 1936. Demonstrators clashed with police as they tried to clear a route through the East End for the British Union of Fascists to march. The march was called off, and ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ the demonstrators’ slogan, has become a catchphrase of anti-fascist movements of all kinds.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George's Town Hall.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George’s Town Hall.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

When doing archival research, it is not uncommon to get distracted by not strictly relevant, but still very interesting, material. I discovered that the East End does indeed seem to have a strong tradition of street murals, and the Cable Street Mural is not the only one with radical subject matter. London is perhaps not the first city that springs to mind when you think of politically motivated murals- Belfast or Dublin might seem more obvious. London does not like to be outdone however, and political murals do exist here if you are willing to look for them.

Sadly, there are not as many protest-themed murals in East London as there used to be. The Peasants Revolt mural, previously located in Bow Common Lane, was unveiled in 1981 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt. The peasants had camped in Mile End on their way to London to demand reduced taxation, an end to serfdom and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts. Richard II did not meet their demands, but it remains a well-known period in English history. The mural was designed by Ray Walker, who was one of the three artists who took over from David Binnington when he resigned from the Cable Street Mural project in 1982. I have not been able to find out exactly when or why this mural was removed, and why it wasn’t afforded the same protection and investment that the Cable Street Mural has. The Cable Street Mural has been repaired every time it has been vandalised, and was restored in 2011 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle.

The Peasant's Revolt Mural (Source: Unite the Union).

The Peasant’s Revolt Mural in Bow Common Lane. Unfortunately it no longer exists (Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

One radical East End mural which can still be seen today is that commemorating the Poplar Rates Rebellion. Located in Hale Road in Poplar, the mural was completed by Mark Francis in 1990, and restored in 2007 by David Bratby and Maureen Delenian with help from local children. In 1921 30 local councillors were sent to prison after refusing to collect the rates from residents because they were unfair. The mural tells the story of the Rebellion in 4 panels, mainly using words. It does include an image of the well-known political radical George Lansbury, and local residents holding placards that declare ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.”

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural in Hale Road (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

Poplar Rates Mural Detail

A close up of George Lansbury and Poplar residents (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

The East End has a strong tradition of radicalism and protest, but a lot of it is not well known. Murals and other forms of public art are a good way of ensuring that historical protests are not forgotten. The Cable Street Mural in particular still draws visitors, and its striking colours and imagery are well worth going to see for yourself. If you have a few spare hours, why not go and check out these memorials to the East End’s turbulent history?

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Mural by George.” East London Advertiser. 31st August 1990.

Anon. “Murals in the East End.” East End News. May 1986.

Anon. “Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural.” London Mural Preservation Society. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.londonmuralpreservationsociety.com/murals/poplar-rates-rebellion-mural/

Anon. “Trade Union and Labour Movement Heroes Commemorated.” Unite. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

Rolston, Bill. “Politics, Painting and Popular Culture: The Political Wall Murals of Northern Ireland.” Media, Culture, and Society. 9, no.1 (1987): 5–28.

On Blackheath Festival: A Turbulent Setting

The On Blackheath festival took place on the 12th-13th September 2015, on Blackheath in south east London.

The On Blackheath festival took place on the 12th-13th September 2015, on Blackheath in south east London.

Last weekend, I went with my Mum and sister to the On Blackheath festival which is, funnily enough, on Blackheath in south east London. Shared between the boroughs of Lewisham and Greenwich, it is one of the largest areas of common land in London today. It is a fantastic setting for a family-oriented festival; when it gets dark you can see the lights of the towers in Canary Wharf glinting from across the river. But Blackheath is ancient, going back at least as far as the Doomsday Book, and it has hosted countless other gatherings of a more turbulent nature.

The festival has a laid back, family friendly atmosphere, but not every gathering on Blackheath has been so pleasant.

The festival has a laid back, family friendly atmosphere, but not every gathering on Blackheath has been so pleasant.

The common land of London has always played a role in the life of turbulent London, hosting many a protest and political meeting. Before the Gordon Riots in 1780 the Protestant Association held a mass meeting in St. George’s Fields, the area of modern day Waterloo and Lambeth. In 1848 the Chartists held a rally on Kennington Common (all that remains of which is the Oval cricket ground) which did not go their way and effectively ended the Chartist movement. The similarity between St. George’s Fields and Kennington Common is that they no longer exist. Blackheath does, and when you go there you can imagine standing in the footsteps of famous radicals.

The Manic Street Preachers performing at the On Blackheath festival 2015.

The Manic Street Preachers performing at the On Blackheath festival 2015.

So when I was standing on Blackheath on Saturday night, listening to the Manic Street Preachers performing “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” which is inspired by the 1936 Spanish Civil War, I got thinking about Blackheath’s radical history. The Manic Street Preachers are not afraid to be political in their performances, and they may not have realised it but they were continuing a strong Blackheath tradition by doing so at On Blackheath. During the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, and the 1450 Kentish Rebellion both used Blackheath as a rallying point. Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, is commemorated by Wat Tyler Road, which runs across the heath. After camping on Blackheath, Cornish rebels angry at a war tax imposed by Henry VII were defeated at the Battle of Deptford Bridge (otherwise known as the Battle of Blackheath) in June 1497.

In the middle of Blackheath is a mound of earth called Whitefield’s Mount (or Whitfield’s Mount/Mound), which at one point was known as Wat Tyler’s mound because it was used for making speeches during the Peasant’s Revolt. One of the speakers was John Ball, who uttered that well-known statement of equality:

 When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

He didn’t necessarily make this speech on Whitefield’s Mount, but wouldn’t it be great if he did? It has been speculated that the Mount is the final resting place of some of the 200-2000 Cornishmen killed during the Battle of Deptford Bridge. True or not, Whitefield’s Mount is clearly intimately linked with London’s turbulent past.

Street performers at the On Blackheath festival. The Cornish Rebellion in 1497 was started when King Henry VII raised taxes to fight a war with the Scots.

Street performers at the On Blackheath festival. The Cornish Rebellion in 1497 was started when King Henry VII raised taxes to fight a war with the Scots.

By the 1830s and 40s, radicals were addressing a new set of issues, and the Chartists had began using Blackheath as a location for meetings as part of their campaign for universal male suffrage. Almost a hundred years later, it would also be used for meetings calling for female suffrage. More recently, Blackheath was used in 2009 for a week-long climate camp, complete with compost toilets, and a pedal-powered radio station and TV channel. In 2013, there was a protest against Zippo’s Circus who were set up on Blackheath, one of the few UK circuses that still use animals in their performances. Even the On Blackheath festival itself has been the subject of protest, with anarchist Ian Bone objecting to common land being fenced off for a ‘foodie fest’ that was not accessible to the poor communities in surrounding areas. 

London’s open spaces play a vital role in the city’s life by hosting gatherings of all kinds. From festivals to protests, they are a key part of the social, political and cultural life of the city. London’s 2000+ year history means that almost anywhere you go in London will have been the site of past protest of some sort, but areas of common land have been particularly contentious, and Blackheath is no exception. By performing songs such as “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” the Manic Street Preachers were both drawing from and continuing a tradition of dissent on Blackheath that stretches back hundreds of years.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Blackheath, London.” Wikipedia. Last modified 12th September 2015, accessed 13th September 2015. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackheath,_London 

Anon. “Cornish Rebellion of 1497.” Wikipedia. Last modified 13th September 2015, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornish_Rebellion_of_1497

Anon. “Zippos Circus Protest in Blackheath!” The London Animal Rights Meetup Group. No date, accessed 15th September 2015. Available at  http://www.meetup.com/animalrights-202/events/112127872/

Chandler, Mark. “BLACKHEATH: Climate Camp Protest Criticised by Councillors and Police.” News Shopper. Last modified 27th August 2009, accessed 15th September 2009. Available at  http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/4568764.BLACKHEATH__Climate_Camp_protest_criticised_by_councillors_and_police/?ref=rl 

Read, Carly. “I predict a riot! Hell-raising anarchist Ian Bone set to boycott posh On Blackheath music and food festival – and urges The Levellers not to perform.” News Shopper. Last modified 29th July 2014, accessed 15th September 2015. Available at http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/11372522.Hell_raising_anarchist_set_to_boycott_On_Blackheath_festival/

Runner500. “In Search of the Battle of Deptford Bridge.” Running Past. Last modified 2nd January 2014, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at https://runner500.wordpress.com/tag/deptford-bridge/ 

Runner500. “Whitefield’s Mount- A Rallying Point for Protest and Preaching.” Running Past. Last modified 29th October 2014, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at  https://runner500.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/whitefields-mount-a-rallying-point-for-protest-and-preaching/

Materialities of Protest: Tarpaulins and Tents at Occupy Wall St.

Laura Shipp is a Second Year Geography undergraduate at Royal Holloway. She is particularly interested in Political Geography and is currently undertaking dissertation research surrounding emotional geographies and perceptions of security in everyday circumstances. Following on from research carried out on an undergraduate fieldtrip to New York, she considers the ways that protest camps can entangle objects, change their associations and recreate their meanings.


My own photo of Zuccotti Park along the Occupy Wall Street Tour in late March.

My own photo of Zuccotti Park along the Occupy Wall Street Tour in late March.

In September 2011, Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan became overtaken as the home of Occupy Wall Street. A unique ephemeral environment was established which can only be described as a protest camp. From this picture, the park now has no physical marks of the camp’s existence and yet it had contained a temporary city with its own newspaper, food supply chain and Wi-Fi (Chappell, 2011).

Feigenbaum, (2014, pp.35) defines protest camps “as place-based sites of on-going protest and daily social acts of ‘re-creation’ largely describing both the situated-ness of such camps to their location but also the significance of seemingly banal process within them”. They are spaces where people coalesce and imagine a different social world, often in contention with the state (Frenzel et al., 2013). In make-shift bedrooms, kitchens and meeting places, objects have significance and become bound in new narratives. The meaning and use of objects evolve to fit exceptional environments which alters the legacy of the objects.

With an aim to put focus on some of the seemingly banal objects that became entangled with Occupy Wall Street I used two slightly abnormal methods for the study. The first was a tour of the main sites of Occupy Wall Street and an oral history from Occupy tour guide Michael Pellagatti. The second method was the Interference Archive which stores ephemera and news articles to create an animated story of social history (Interference Archive, 2015)

From what I found, the tarpaulin and the tent seemed to have an importance. Fundamentally, protest camps must negotiate the task of providing basic necessities to its occupants whilst getting across its message; this is partly done by occupying the space through thick and thin. Tarpaulins provided shelter required from the first week of the camp, as shown in the picture below.

Michael’s photograph of Occupy Wall Street encampment in its first week occupying Zuccotti Park (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

Michael’s photograph of Occupy Wall Street encampment in its first week occupying Zuccotti Park (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

The tarpaulin’s crowning moment, however, was Day 6 of the camp when a storm was forecast to hit Manhattan. After much deliberation, a human-tarp shield was erected around the equipment and the camp physically weathered the storm from under it. Michael stresses the prominence of this instance, claiming it as the “genesis of the movement”. It transformed the camp’s population from strangers with similar frustrations to a group dedicated to its cause. From this process, they were able to create both strong ties in that place as well as maintaining the resources they needed to survive as a protest (Nicholls, 2009).

My Photograph of archived Wall Street Journal article showing Occupiers of Zuccotti Park surviving the winter weather.

My Photograph of archived Wall Street Journal article showing Occupiers of Zuccotti Park surviving the winter weather.

The tarp has another significance, physically representing the struggles faced by the homeless population of New York. Often they are used to create makeshift bivouac shelters, retaining heat on city streets (Newman, 2014). They are the difference between life and death. Using those same items, the Occupiers were a visceral reminder of difficulties and people who may otherwise be ignored. What Ehrenreich (2011) argues is that not only are the two related, but Occupy Wall Street took up the cause of homelessness as its own, as a problem that is not dissociated with the greed of the 1%. As time passed tents became more prolific at the camp. The picture below shows the camp the week before its eviction.

Michael’s photograph of the Zuccotti Park encampment in Mid-November, the week before the eviction (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

Michael’s photograph of the Zuccotti Park encampment in Mid-November, the week before the eviction (Source: Michael P. Pellagatti).

From the outside they may have seemed like a sensible shelter for the protesters. From Michael’s perspective, however, they broke down the unity that came from living in each other’s company. The name of the park became sullied with incidents of sexual harassment and drug use (Moynihan, 2015). Without ensuring the security of its occupants a protest camp cannot provide well-being to them. These things are needed in order to create a ‘home’ and therefore sustain the camp (Frenzel et al., 2013).

Overall, the materiality of protests has many entanglements which can reconfigure their meanings. The role of the tent in dividing the camp shows how objects can become entangled within a protest camp in ways that can undermine them but also produces opportunities for objects to be unintentionally constructive, like the tarpaulin. What is so different about protest camps is their ability to politicise “the embodied practices involved in sustaining the protest camp as a home space” (Frenzel et al., 2013, pp.464). Through this process they connect the domestic to the political and give them the ability to influence each other.

Laura Shipp, Royal Holloway, University of London

Sources and Further Reading

Chappell, B. (2011) ‘Occupy Wall Street: From a blog post to a movement’, NPR, 20 October [Online]. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2011/10/20/141530025/occupy-wall-street-from-a-blog-post-to-a-movement Accessed: 19 May 2015

Ehrenreich, B. (2011) ‘Throw them out with the trash’, Tom Dispatch, 23 October. [Online] (Available at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175457/tomgram%3A_barbara_ehrenreich,_homeless_in_america/) Accessed 17 May 2015

Feigenbaum, A. (2014) ‘The disobedient objects of protest camps’, in in Flood, C. and Grindon. G. (eds.), Disobedient Objects, London: V&A Publishing pp. 34 – 44.

Frenzel, F. Feigenbaum, A. and McCurdy, P. (2013) ‘Protest camps: an emerging field of sociological movement research’, The Sociological Review, 62, pp. 457- 474.

Interference Archive (2015) ‘Our Mission’, About, (Available at http://interferencearchive.org/our-mission/) Accessed 2 March 2015

Moynihan, C. (2015) ‘Occupy Wall Street, the tour’, The New York Times, 2 April. [Online] (Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/nyregion/occupy-wall-street-the-tour.html) Accessed 2 April 2015

Newman, S. M. (2014) ‘Policy and plastic tarps: Surviving winter while homeless’, Next City, 21 November [Online] (Available at: http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/homeless-winter-survival-chicago-mayors-policy) Accessed 25 May 2015

Nicholls, W. (2009) ‘Place, networks, space: theorising the geographies of social movements’, Transactions of the Institiute of British Geographers, 34(1), pp. 78-93.

Protest Stickers: New York City

Like in London, stickers of various kinds are ubiquitous in New York.

Like in London, stickers of various kinds are ubiquitous in New York (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A few months ago, I visited New York on an undergraduate field trip. As I explored the city, I took pictures of protest stickers as I do in London. This post is about some of the stickers that I saw. At first I thought that explicitly political stickers were less common in New York than London, as it took me quite a while to find any. However I discovered that in some areas, such as the East Village in Manhattan, protest stickers are just as common as in London.

I spotted this sticker in several locations around the city. It is advertising a demonstration that was due to take place several weeks after I was in New York. The treatment of the city's citizens, especially black citizens, by police has resurfaced as a contentious issue in recent months.

I spotted this sticker in several locations around the city. It is advertising a demonstration that was due to take place several weeks after I was in New York. The treatment of the city’s citizens, especially black citizens, by police has resurfaced as a contentious issue in recent months (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Some issues that are common subjects of protest stickers in London also occur in New York, like this one advocating a boycott of Israel.

Some issues that are common subjects of protest stickers in London also occur in New York, like this one advocating a boycott of Israeli produced goods (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Other issues are unique to the US, such as this sticker declaring that 9/11 was the result of a conspiracy. It looks as if it has been scratched with a key or something similar in an attempt to obscure the image, suggesting the controversy of this kind of opinion.

Other issues are unique to the US, such as this sticker declaring that 9/11 was the result of a conspiracy. It looks as if it has been scratched with a key or something similar in an attempt to obscure the image, suggesting the controversy of this kind of opinion (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This sticker plays on the iconic posters from Obama's campaign during the last election, but replaces the image of Obama with that of a protester in a V for Vendetta mask.

This Occupy sticker plays on the iconic posters from Obama’s campaign during the last election, but replaces the image of Obama with that of a protester in a V for Vendetta mask (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This sticker also refers to Obama. I saw sever different issues of 'The Shadow' whilst in New York.

This sticker also refers to Obama. I saw sever different issues of ‘The Shadow’ whilst in New York (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Anti-fascism was not such a common topic of protest stickers in New York as London.

Anti-fascism was not such a common topic of protest stickers in New York as London, but it is there (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

IMG_7465

This sticker was produced by an organisation called Truth Move, which also produced the anti-fascist sticker above. Anti-fascism and environmental issues are not usually tackled by the same social movement groups; Truth Move is an organisation that argues that equality and democracy come from equal access to knowledge and facts (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

IMG_7470

This sticker is handmade, it looks as if a postage label has been painted over (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I know I am cheating a little bit with this one, it is in the collection in the Interference Archive. But I liked it too much to leave out!

I know I am cheating a little bit with this one, it is in the collection in the Interference Archive rather than on the streets. But I liked it too much to leave out! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

I like the design of this sticker, and it's topic, mental health is also unusual.

I like the design of this sticker, and it’s topic, mental health, is also unusual (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This sticker, advertising a climate march, could also be found in Spanish, a language with is widely spoken in America and New York.

This sticker, advertising a climate march, could also be found in Spanish, a language with is widely spoken in America and New York (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I love the politeness of this anti-racist sticker in the East Village.

I love the politeness of this anti-racist sticker in the East Village (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Although I do not agree with the sentiment of this sticker, I can't help but admire it's wit.

Although I do not agree with the sentiment of this sticker, I can’t help but admire it’s wit (Photo: Hannah Awcock).