Breaking the Peace: A Century of London Protest on Film

This Monday, I went to a talk at the Birkbeck Cinema called Breaking the Peace: A Century of London Protest on Film given by  Professor Ian Christie, part of a series of events exploring London on film in association with the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Over the course of an hour and a half, Professor Christie showed us footage of the Suffragettes (1910-13), the 1926 General Strike, a 1932 Hunger March, the Battle of Cable Street (1936), Anti-Vietnam War protests (1968), the disruption of the 1970 Miss World competition at the Royal Albert Hall, the 2003 Anti-Iraq War demonstration, and Occupy London (2011). I had a great afternoon watching the footage, looking out for all the things that have (and haven’t) changed about protest in London over the last one hundred years.

NUWSS Rally Trafalgar Square Pathe Newsreel

A National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) rally in Trafalgar Square. This is a still from newsreel footage owned by British Pathe, and is available on YouTube (Source: British Pathe).

Apart from fashion, one of the biggest changes that stood out was the development, and democratisation, of film technology. The afternoon began with grainy, silent, black-and-white newsreel footage,  and finished with colour and sound, probably filmed by amateurs with handheld cameras. As film technology has developed, it has also got cheaper, allowing wider excess. In the 1960s the new TV production company Granada started making World in Action,  a hard-hitting news programme that presented London protesters in a more balanced light than older, more established sources of news. By the 2010s, the Occupy movement were making and editing their own films, presenting themselves exactly the way they wanted. Organisers of protests want their message to reach further than the people who witnessed the protest directly, and the more control they have over the communication media that spreads that message,  the more successful they are likely to be in getting that message out.

World in Action Anti-Vietnam Demo

A still from World in Action‘s coverage of the 1968 Anti-Vietnam War demonstration in London. The distinctive shape of the fountains makes it obvious that this is also Trafalgar Square. This video is also available on YouTube (Source: World in Action).

One thing which has not changed much is the language used by outsiders to describe protest. In almost every example there was the perception that a largely peaceful protest had been subverted by a small minority of ‘criminals’, ‘anarchists’, or ‘hawks’ (I particularly liked the Cold War terminology creeping in here). Protesters were also frequently described as ‘converging on London’, giving the impression of disgruntled Britons descending on the capital from all corners of the country. London is the political and economic centre of the country,  it is no surprise that it is chosen as the site of many national demonstrations.

Miss World 1970 disruption BBC News

A still from the BBC’s Witness series about the disruption of the 1970 Miss World Competition in the Royal Albert Hall (Source: BBC News)

The tactics of the demonstrators themselves has also remained largely the same. The content and methods of production may have changed, but banners and placards are still an integral part of protest marches, as is costume. The protest march itself has also changed little since the women of the suffrage movement proved it could be done with dignity and respectability. Scholars sometimes talk about ‘repertoires of resistance’- the specific set of tactics available to demonstrators to make their point. These repertoires are often shared between and within communities, including on a national scale. This means that many protests utilise similar strategies. There is also a tendency to take inspiration from what came before; the anti-Vietnam demonstrators may have mimicked the successful strategies of the Suffragettes, for example.

Anti-Iraq War demo 2003

A still from a YouTube video about the demonstration against the Iraq war in 2003 (Source: Kino Kast).

Another constant throughout the films was London itself. Both Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square are described in the newsreels as ‘the home of free speech’, and landmarks such as Nelson’s Column act as a familiar backdrop to events. London is no stranger to protest. Due to its role as the political and economic centre of Britain, the city is full of buildings which can act as symbolic stand-ins for intangible power structures (the Houses of Parliament, the Bank of England, and foreign embassies are some examples). The fact that places like Hyde Park have become known as the home of free speech also attracts more protest groups, reinforcing the city’s reputation for protest.

Occupy London Still

A still from a film made by Occupy London about the protests outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in 2011 (Source: Conscious Collective).

The purpose of this series of events organised by the Raphael Samuel History Centre and Professor Ian Christie was to think about how film can be used for research. There is a vast amount of film of London protest available, much of it more accessible than ever thanks to resources such as YouTube. Whilst it is important to be wary of possible biases (the early newsreels are almost entirely concerned with the preservation of law and order), film is a perfectly viable source to use for investigating historical research. It’s just a shame half of my case studies occurred before the invention of film!

Protest: What’s the Point?

When I posted a link to Reddit about the End Austerity Now demonstration in June I said it was a ‘big success’. Several comments reacted to this rather sarcastically with one asking if austerity is now over. Whilst I didn’t appreciate the tone of the comments, I realised that ‘what makes a successful protest?’ is a perfectly valid question. It is true that protests rarely bring about large scale change, but they serve other purposes too, such as raising awareness, recruitment, demonstrating solidarity and boosting morale.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a 'big success'.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a ‘big success’.

It can be difficult to find examples where protest has directly led to wide-scale change, although the 1990 Poll Tax Riots is one case where protest significantly contributed to change. It is much easier to find examples of protests that have led directly to small-scale, local change. For example, housing protest groups like FocusE15 and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) have managed to prevent an increasing number of evictions and long-distance relocations by London councils over the past few years. Looking further back, the female workers at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, East London won themselves better working conditions and helped to kick start New Unionism when they went on strike back in 1888. These examples demonstrate that protest is not always as ‘unsuccessful’ as it is perceived to be.

Even protests that do not lead to direct change can be ‘successful’. For example, a protest can raise awareness of an issue amongst those who witness it and the wider public via media coverage. Fathers4Justice are a group that know how to garner publicity, as their tactic of scaling landmarks dressed as various superheroes demonstrates. As well as dramatic or comic stunts, violence can also increase press coverage, as happened in the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in late 2010. It’s a risk though, as violence can often alienate would-be supporters. On the 13th December 1867 the Irish Republican Brotherhood attempted a prison breakout in Clerkenwell by blowing up the prison wall. They used too much gunpowder however, and the explosion killed 12 people. The event became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, and support for the Fenians in London, which had been quite strong up to this point, evaporated. Nevertheless, regardless of exactly how you go about it, protest can be an effective way of raising the profile of an issue you care about.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Linked to raising awareness, protests can also help with recruitment. Put simply, you can’t attract new recruits if nobody knows who you are. Protests get people talking, and provide the opportunity to win people over. After the publicity resulting from the fourth anniversary demonstration of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1936, which has since become know as the Battle of Cable Street, BUF membership spiked. Membership in London almost doubled, jumping from under 3000 to around 5000 (Tilles, 2011). Whilst this is not a positive example, it does show just how effective protest can be at attracting new activists to a cause.

Solidarity is a crucial concept amongst protest groups and social movements. Holding a protest, or attending someone else’s, is a good way of providing both practical and emotional support. The work of Lesbians and Gay Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 miner’s strike, popularised by the 2014 film Pride, is a good example of this. The actions of LGSM not only raised money for the miners, but let them know that they were not alone. In return a delegation of miners led the 1985 London Pride parade, and voted for gay rights motions at Labour and TUC conferences (Kelliher, 2015). Protest can help build and maintain ties between diverse groups.

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains his definition of solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

The final purpose that protest serves isn’t easy to pin down, but I think is best described as morale boosting. Being active in a social movement can be difficult and draining. It often feels as though you are putting in a lot of time and effort for very little return. Protests can provide a sense of accomplishment, of getting something done. They can also be fun; protests often have a carnivalesque atmosphere which provides the chance to relax and let go. Chanting a slogan at the top of your voice surrounded by tens, hundreds, or thousands of others who share your frustration and anger can be a wonderful feeling. It can be hugely helpful to be reminded that you are not the only one who feels the way you do, and this is rarely more obvious than at a protest.

There are several ways in which protest can be successful. It may well be that protests frequently fail to cause change, but this does not mean that they fail as a tactic for dissent. Protests also serve to raise awareness, recruit new activists, show solidarity and boost morale, and at these tasks they are very successful. Austerity may still be in place after the End Austerity Now demo, but I stand by my statement that it was a big success.

Sources and Further Reading

Kellier, Diarmaid. ‘The 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the Spirit of Solidarity.’ Soundings 60 (2015): 118-129.

Tilles, Daniel. “The Myth of Cable Street.” History Today 61, no. 10 (2001): 41-47.

London’s Protest Stickers: Immigration and Race

This design normally reads 'Refugees Welcome.' The bottom section of this poster in Elephant and Castle has been torn off, suggesting someone objected to the original message.

This design normally reads ‘Refugees Welcome.’ The bottom section of this poster in Elephant and Castle has been torn off, suggesting someone objected to the original message (Photo taken 13/09/15).

Thanks to recent events, immigration has been a hot topic across the country over the past few months, not just in London. However London has a particularly special relationship with the issues of migration and race. As the historian Roy Porter explains, London is no stranger to migration; “Founded by immigrants, London has had a ceaseless history of immigration.” For most of the city’s history, the death rate has been higher than the birth rate, so London wouldn’t be here today without millions of migrants from across the UK and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, memory can be selective, and many argue against welcoming more migrants and refugees into the UK.

Sadly, London is also no stranger to racism. From the murder of prominent Jews at the coronation of Richard the Lionheart in September 1189, through to the Battle of Cable Street and the fight against fascism in the East End in the 1930s and 40s, anti-Semitism has been a persistent problem for London and Londoners. More recently, immigration from former British colonies starting in the 1950s has led to tension and discrimination against Asian and Black Londoners. In the worst cases this has resulting in racially-motivated murder, such as those of Altab Ali in 1978 and Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

The stickers below all relate to migration, or the interconnected issue of racism.

Anti-racist stickers have been a relatively common sight in London since at least before I started looking for them (Elephant and Castle, 25/06/15).

Anti-racist stickers have been a relatively common sight in London since at least before I started looking for them (Elephant and Castle, 25/06/15).

Specifically pro-immigration stickers are a more recent occurrence, they began appearing around the same time that the refugee 'crisis' began (Waterloo Bridge, 17/06/15).

Specifically pro-immigration stickers are a more recent occurrence, they began appearing around the same time that the refugee ‘crisis’ began (Waterloo Bridge, 17/06/15).

The design from the poster above has become a common sight on stickers, posters and banners. This picture was taken in Borough High Street on 29/05/15.

The design from the poster above has become a common sight on stickers, posters and banners. This picture was taken in Borough High Street on 29/05/15.

This version of the sticker was photographed in Gower Street, Bloomsbury on 12//05/15. The same or similar stickers can often been seen in various locations around London.

This version of the sticker was photographed in Gower Street, Bloomsbury on 12//05/15. The same or similar stickers can often been seen in various locations around London.

This sticker, which attempts to complicate the definition of illegal immigration, is another sticker which I have seen all over the city. This particular example, outside the Inner London Crown Court in Southwark, has had a cross scratched through it, perhaps because someone disagreed with the message (18/06/15).

This sticker, which attempts to complicate the definition of illegal immigration, is another sticker which I have seen all over the city. This particular example, outside the Inner London Crown Court in Southwark, has had a cross scratched through it, perhaps because someone disagreed with the message (18/06/15).

This sticker, photographed on a bus stop in Upper Street in Islington refers to racism in sport. Kick It Out works to promote equality and inclusion in football (14/04/15).

This sticker, photographed on a bus stop in Upper Street in Islington refers to racism in sport. Kick It Out works to promote equality and inclusion in football (14/04/15).

I'm sure that cute pandas actually have no opinion on racism, but I like this sticker none the less! (Union Street, Southwark, 08/09/15).

I’m sure that cute pandas actually have no opinion on racism, but I like this sticker anyway! (Union Street, Southwark, 08/09/15).

Some stickers get weathered or torn, so that their message is obscured. This sticker, made by Worker's Liberty says

Some stickers get weathered or torn, so that their message is obscured. This sticker, made by Worker’s Liberty says “Open the Borders: The Enemy is the…” I can’t make out who the enemy is, perhaps the ‘Right’? (03/09/15 Euston Road).

This sticker refers to raids carried out by the Metropolitan Police trying to catch illegal immigrants (Elephant and Castle, 05/08/15).

This sticker refers to raids carried out by the UK Border Agency trying to catch illegal immigrants. It was produced by the Anti-Raids Network, a loose network of organisations and individuals trying to combat raids (Elephant and Castle, 05/08/15).

Unfortunately, not all stickers are anti-racism or pro-immigration/ The Creativity Alliance are white supremacists who believe in race as a religion (Euston Road, 10/08/15).

Unfortunately, not all stickers are anti-racism or pro-immigration. The Creativity Alliance are white supremacists who believe in race as a religion (Euston Road, 10/08/15).

This sticker in Brick Lane questions who only white nations (allegedly) have to live up to standards of diversity. Someone else has used a marker pen to make their opinion on that perspective very clear (17/04/15).

This sticker in Brick Lane questions who only white nations (allegedly) have to live up to standards of diversity. Someone else has used a marker pen to make their opinion on that perspective very clear (17/04/15).

Sources and Further Reading

Beckman, Morris. The 43 Group. London: Centerprise (1993[1992]).

Hindley, Geoffrey. Magna Carta: The Origins of Liberty, from Runnymede to Washington. London: Robinson (2015 [2008]).

Porter, Ray. London- A Social History. London: Penguin (2000 [1994]).

Practising Historical Geography

Last Wednesday (the 28th of October), the 21st Practising Historical Geography conference took place at the University of Sussex in Brighton. The conference is organised by the Historical Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (or HGRH and RGS-IBG for short!), and is aimed at undergraduates and postgraduates. This was my forth year attending the conference (previously held at the University of Bristol (2014), University of Central Lancashire in Preston (2013) and the University of Hull (2012). I first attended as a Masters student (all those studying the MA Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway are encouraged to attend), and even now, in the third year of my PhD, I still found it to be a beneficial and enjoyable experience.

The Royal Holloway contingent at the 21st Practising Historical Geography conference at the University of Sussex (Photo: Innes Keighren).

The Royal Holloway contingent at the 21st Practising Historical Geography conference at the University of Sussex (Photo: Innes Keighren).

The conference combines keynote speakers, workshops, and chances to network. The first keynote was given by Dr. Simon Rycroft (University of Sussex) and was entitled ‘Mid-century Representation: John Latham’s Cosmos.’ Using the work of artist John Latham, Dr. Rycroft argued that it is important to be alert to the changing practices of representation. Representations reflect the ways we think about materials, which changes over time. Academics need to take such things into account when analysing representations.

Dr. Simon Rycroft talking about the work of artist John Latham (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Dr. Simon Rycroft talking about the work of artist John Latham (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

After the first keynote is a section called Postgraduate Voices, where someone who has recently completed their PhD gives advice based on their experiences. This year, Dr. Jake Hodder talked about the 3 major crises he faced during his PhD, which roughly align with the 3(ish) years that a PhD takes:

  1. Imposter syndrome:  The fear that someone will realise you are not good enough to be here, and tell you to go home, in a very public and humiliating way.
  2. Project isn’t coming together: At some points it can feel like you will never be able to make a coherent whole out of all the work you have done.
  3. Uncertainty: Particularly in the third and fourth years, financial insecurity and a sense of ‘what the hell am I going to do next?!’ can take its toll.

I found myself agreeing with everything Jake said. It is always reassuring to know that others are facing the same difficulties as you, and knowing that Jake overcame them to become Dr. Hodder is a welcome confidence boost!

Every year, the Historical Geography Research Group runs a competition for undergraduate dissertations in the field of historical geography. This year, the prize was won by Victoria Bellamy (University of Cambridge), who told us about her research on Victoria Park in East London in the second half of the nineteenth century. Parks are ideologically contested spaces; there is constant debate about their purpose and how they can be used. Victoria’s research explores how some of these debates played out in Victoria Park, surrounded by some of the most deprived areas of Victorian London. She did a fantastic job of presenting her work.

2015-10-28 11.20.29

Victoria Bellamy summarised her prize-winning undergraduate dissertation in just 10 minutes (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The middle section of the day is taken up by 2 workshops, which focus on what it’s like to actually do historical research. Previous workshops have involved all kinds of things, from taxidermy to the Preston bus station, but this year they focused on extreme weather events in Britain (run by Dr. Lucy Veale, University of Nottingham) and the spatial politics of British households in the nineteenth-century, particularly the relationships between domestic servants and employers (run by  Dr. Fae Dussart, University of Sussex). Chances to discuss the practice of researching the past with other researchers are rare, so I always look forward to this part of the day. It is an opportunity to talk about the difficulties of historical research, as well as explore some methodologies that may be unfamiliar.

Lucy Veale running a workshop about researching extreme weather events in the archive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Lucy Veale running a workshop about researching extreme weather events in the archive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The day was rounded off by the second keynote speaker, Dr. James Kneale (University College London), who spoke on the subject of ‘Looking for Drink in the Archive.’ Dr. Kneale has been researching alternative approaches to Victorian understandings of alcohol. There is plenty of evidence of the moral debates surrounding alcohol in the archives, but the Victorians didn’t just talk about alcohol, they experienced it in a whole range of other ways. Dr. Kneale has been using the archive to investigate practice, which is no simple task.

2015-10-28 15.46.58

James Kneale discussing looking for evidence of alcohol in the archives (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

If all goes according to plan, I will probably be too busy putting the finishing touches to my thesis to attend the 22nd Practising Historical Geography conference next year. This is a shame, as it is a great event. I would thoroughly recommend it for any Masters or PhD students whose work even remotely relates to historical geography, especially if you are relatively new to academia. The atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, and it would be an ideal first conference. I have learnt a lot over the past four years, and met people who have become both colleagues and friends. Thank you to the Historical Geography Research Group (particularly Lucy Veale, who has organised the last 3 conferences) for putting on such wonderful events.

The 2012-3 MA Cultural Geography cohort in a pub in Hull the night before the 18th Practising Historical Geography conference (Photo: Innes Keighren).

The 2012-3 MA Cultural Geography cohort in a pub in Hull the night before the 18th Practising Historical Geography conference (Photo: Innes Keighren).

The Royal Holloway contingent in a pub in Preston the night before the 19th Practising Historical Geography conference in 2013 (Photo: Innes Keighren).

The Royal Holloway contingent in a pub in Preston the night before the 19th Practising Historical Geography conference in 2013 (Photo: Innes Keighren).

The Royal Holloway contingent at the 20th Practising Historical Geography conference in Bristol- we don't spend all our time in pubs! (Photo: Innes Keighren).

The Royal Holloway contingent at the 20th Practising Historical Geography conference in Bristol- we don’t spend all our time in pubs! (Photo: Innes Keighren).