Book Review: Triumph of Order- Democracy and Public Space in New York and London

Triumph of Order Front Cover

Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London by Lisa Keller

Lisa Keller. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. RRP £24.00 paperback.

Cities are incredibly complex systems, made up of hundreds of interconnecting networks. Sanitation, transportation, power, housing, local government, and public order, amongst others, all have to function successfully in order for a city to thrive. The larger the city, the more complicated and chaotic it gets, and by the end of the nineteenth century London and New York were the two largest cities in the world. The governments of these two cities, and their residents, had to strike a balance between order and liberty. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London traces the struggle to find a balance between these two, frequently conflicting, concepts in the nineteenth century.

Liberal democracies such as the US and the UK place a strong emphasis on liberty and individual freedom. However, the fact is that we are all willing to give up some of that liberty so that the government can maintain order and protect us and our property. Exactly how much of our individual freedoms we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe is a matter of constant debate. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller argues that in London and New York during the nineteenth century the balance between liberty and order tipped towards order. Using a combination of examples, archival sources, and analysis, Keller makes a convincing argument that liberty, particularly freedom of speech, was curtailed in favour of minimising the risk of disorder and violence on the streets of two of the world’s greatest cities.

The legacy of the nineteenth century was a new structure for public order, in which liberty was expendable. Great Britain and America retained a framework for free speech and assembly, but democracy as an ideal became tempered by realities of city life. The principles and practices established in the nineteenth century yielded long-lasting societal parameters affecting public space, free speech, and assembly.

Keller, 2009: p.223

Although I read academic books as part of my research and teaching, most of the books I review on Turbulent London are aimed at a more general audience. Triumph of Order is written for an academic audience, and is therefore less accessible than most ‘popular’ history books. This is not a criticism, however, just an observation; Triumph of Order is a good book, but if you are looking for something to take on holiday with you, I wouldn’t suggest this. A small criticism that I do have is that Keller is often careless with chronology. The book is structured chronologically, with the first half looking at London and the second focused on New York, but within individual chapters there is a tendency to jump back and forward between different events and time periods that can be confusing.

As someone who studies London and has visited New York, I have always been curious about how the history of the two compares. Triumph of Order highlights the parallels and differences between the two cities. Some of them are relatively obvious: London, for example, was the first major city in the world to have a professional civilian police force (1829), which had clear implications for the way free speech and protest was controlled (New York City followed suit in 1845). Other insights Keller provided are less familiar to me as a British reader, such as the idea that Americans have always been more tolerant of bodily violence and loss of life than British people. Many people have died during riots in London, but it is mostly due to accidents and the violent tactics of authorities; in New York, rioters themselves are more likely to kill people. In Triumph of Order, Keller does a good job of comparing the two cities in a way that also provides insight into them as individual metropolises.

The balance between liberty and order is a difficult issue. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller has produced a book that illuminates the historical structures that underpin that balance in two of the most significant cities in Western liberal democracies. That’s no mean feat.

Turbulent Londoners: Dorothy Thurtle, 1890-1973

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. 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. This post is about Dorothy Thurtle, a trade unionist and women’s reproductive rights campaigner.


Dorothy Thurtle and George Lansbury

Dorothy Thurtle with her father, George Lansbury in 1936. It was very difficult to find a photo of Dorothy, this one was published in a Canadian newspaper (Photo: Newspapers.com, with thanks to Jessamyn West for finding it for me!)

Dorothy Lansbury was born on the 15th of November 1890 in Bow, East London. She was the sixth of twelve children, although two of her siblings sadly died in infancy. Her mother was Elizabeth Brine, and her father was George Lansbury, the popular working class Labour politician. Dorothy went to an elementary school in East London, and grew up surrounded by radical politics. When she left school she worked as a clerk and accountant. She joined the Independent Labour Party when she was 16, and the National Union of Clerks (NUC) when she started work.

Like many female activists in the early 1900s, Dorothy got involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She was a member of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and the Women’s Labour League. The WFL split from the WSPU because of their autocratic structure, and Dorothy disapproved of the WSPU’s violent methods. This caused some tension in the Lansbury family; Dorothy’s brother William was imprisoned for breaking windows on behalf of the WSPU.

Dorothy met her husband Ernest through her union work; he was chairman of the London district of the NUC. They married on the 13th of August 1912, and had 2 children. Dorothy and Ernest collaborated on their political projects, in 1913 they co-authored Comradeship for Clerks. Ernest was elected Labour MP for Shoreditch in 1923, and Dorothy pursued a career in local politics. She was the General Secretary of the Shoreditch Trades Council and Labour Party, and in 1925 she was elected to Shoreditch Borough Council. In 1936 she was elected mayor of Shoreditch, becoming one of the first female mayors in London (others were Ada Salter, elected in 1922, and Daisy Parsons, also elected in 1936).

Perhaps inspired by her mother’s twelve pregnancies, Dorothy became interested in women’s reproductive rights 1920s. In 1924, she and Ernest were founding members of the Worker’s Birth Control Group (WBCG), which campaigned to get the Labour Party to commit to the extension of working class access to birth control information. Dorothy also promoted the cause amongst the Labour Party’s women’s sections. In 1926, Ernest put forward a parliamentary bill on this topic, but it failed. Dorothy was frustrated by the Labour Party’s lack of response to the campaign; she argued that it didn’t care about women’s rights, and was only paying lip service to gender equality.

In the 1930s, Dorothy took up the cause of legalising abortion alongside other veterans of the WBCG. She was an early member of  the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), serving as the group’s Vice President until her retirement in 1962. She was also involved in the National Birth Control Council, which still exists today as the Family Planning Association. Between 1937 and 1939 she sat on the interdepartmental committee on abortion, the only member who was in favour of radical reform to the abortion law. When the committee’s report recommended no change to the law, Dorothy published a minority report, arguing that abortion should be legal on social grounds in some circumstances, especially for women with high fertility rates. She was particularly sensitive to the conditions of working class women with lots of children. For Dorothy, it was as much about social justice as it was reproductive rights; it was much easier to access an abortion if you were upper class.

Dorothy remained a strong advocated for women’s rights; in 1945, she described women as an oppressed class, and compared their position to slavery. In 1967, after 3 decades of campaigning, the Abortion Act was passed, which legalised abortion in Britain under some circumstances. In around 1970, a memorial garden honouring Dorothy was laid out in Shoreditch Park. She died on the 28th of February 1973.

When I was writing this blog post, it was very difficult to find a picture of Dorothy. It is more difficult to research women’s history than men’s, for a number of reasons, not least because they just weren’t considered as important for much of history, and there tends to be fewer surviving records about women. If we are not careful, then the contributions of women like Dorothy might disappear from history entirely. I write these blog posts because their bravery and resilience deserves to be remembered.

Sources and Further Reading

Brooke, Stephen. “Thurtle [nee Lansbury], Dorothy.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 3rd January 2008, accessed 24th June 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69843 [subscription required to access].

London Parks and Garden Trust. “Shoreditch Park.” Last modified 2nd April 2018, accessed 24th June 2019. Available at http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk/gardens-online-record.php?ID=HAC052

Protest Stickers: Berlin Part 2-Climate Change and the Environment

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A Fridays for Future demonstration in the German Bundestag in Berlin in March 2019 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I recently visited Berlin at a time when climate change and environmental protection were at the forefront of protest cultures around the world thanks to the efforts of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement, and Extinction Rebellion. Whilst touring the German Bundestag (Parliament) with my students, I witnessed a Fridays for Future protest which involved activists handcuffing themselves to the handrails seen in the image above. In last week’s post, I wrote about Berlin’s protest stickers, but there were so many protest stickers in the city relating to climate change and the environment that it warranted its own post. Again, I must thank my colleague Julia Affolderbach for translating a lot of these stickers for me.

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Extinction Rebellion is a direct action group that was formed in the UK in the second half of 2018. Since then, branches have been set up around the world. The group use nonviolent civil disobedience to promote their ambitious demands, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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System Change not Climate Change is one of the most common slogans used by Extinction Rebellion (XR for short). The group’s symbol, an hourglass in a circle, has been around for a few years and is called the Extinction Symbol. The circle represents the earth, and the hourglass is a warning that time is running out for many species (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Fridays for Future is the name given to the weekly strikes by school children and students, demanding that adults, particularly those in power, take the threat of climate change seriously. The movement was kick started by Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old who sat in front of the Swedish Parliament every school day for 3 weeks in August 2018 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker shows the Fridays for Future logo, and includes a quote from Greta Thunberg. Many people have criticised the strikers for missing out on their education. In this quote, Greta is defending that decision. The text in pink below the logo translates as “Education strike for the climate. Every Friday. Also in your city!” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker includes a photo of a climate strike, possibly in Berlin. The slogan translates as “We are not skivving, we’re fighting!” “Klimastreik,” shown on the banner in the photo, means Climate-strike. This sticker is also responding to the criticism that students shouldn’t be playing truant in order to protest (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is playing on Trump’s slogan of “Make American Great Again,” again referring to Greta Thunberg. The quiet Swedish teenager has become an overnight celebrity in activist circles, and travels all over Europe (by train, she doesn’t fly) speaking at rallies and meeting politicians (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Although Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future have been very prominent in recent months, they are not the only groups that campaign around climate change. This sticker was produced by Revolution Germany. It doesn’t have a website, but does have a social media presence and describes itself as an international communist youth organisation. The text on the strip at the bottom translates as “No profit from our earth. Expropriate climate-killers!” In effect, it is calling for the wealth and property of those responsible for the destruction of the environment to be confiscated (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is also calling for an end to climate change, with a particular focus on coal, which is a particularly ‘dirty’ way of producing electricity (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Ende Gelände is a coalition of activists, campaign groups, and social movements calling for an end to the mining and burning of coal for electricity because of its contribution to climate change. Their actions are mostly focused around a region of open coal mines in the Rhineland, which the group claim is Europe’s biggest source of CO2. The Hambacher Forest is an area of ancient woodland near Cologne that energy company RWE AG wants to cut down in order to expand an open-pit coal mine. Activists have fought hard against this, and a final decision from the courts is expected in 2020 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker also refers to Hambacher Forest, although only as a web address which would provide the reader with more information if they wanted it (the English version of the website can be reached here). It translates as “Climate change won’t wait for you to finish your Bachelor’s [undergraduate degree]. Turn your theory into practice.” Many activists believe we have run out of time to discuss and debate climate change, and that action must be taken now in order to prevent disaster (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The German text on this sticker translates as “Expropriate energy companies! To save the environment: overcome capitalism.” It was produced by Left Youth Solid (Linksjugend [‘solid]), a socialist youth organisation. The penguins look suspiciously like those from the 2005 children’s film Madagascar, who proved so popular that they got their own spin-off film in 2014. It is not uncommon for characters from popular culture to appear in protest stickers (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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If there is one environmental issue that has captured the public imagination more than climate change over the past year or so, it’s plastic. Both governments and businesses are facing increasingly pressure to reduce the prevalence of single-use plastics, particularly because so much of it ends up in the oceans. The image on this sticker is difficult to make out because it has faded, but it shows a sea bird that has died, possibly because of the significant amount of plastic it had ingested (Photo: Hannah Awcock).