Turbulent Londoners: Mala Sen, 1947-2011

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. Today it is the turn of Mala Sen, writer and human rights activist.


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Mala Sen, 1947-2011 (Source: The Guardian)

Racism, and prejudice are still  very real issues in modern Britain. Often, discrimination can compound other issues such as employment and housing. Indian activist and writer Mala Sen saw the intersection of these problems when she moved to Britain in the late 1960s, and fought to make them better. She is part of the reason that Brick Lane in East London is home to a thriving Bangladeshi community to this day.

Mala Sen was born on the 3rd of June 1947 in Uttarakhand in northern India. Her parents divorced when she was 6, after which she was raised by her father. She moved to Mumbai to study Home Sciences, where she met and fell in love with Farrukh Dhondy. In 1965, aged 17, Mala moved to the UK to be with Dhondy. They married in 1968, and although they divorced in 1976 they remained close.

In the UK, Mala worked as a seamstress. She quickly became aware the severe racial inequality and prejudice in the UK, and started to get involved in race relations. In one of her first experiences of activism, she fought for the rights of Indian factory workers in Leicester. Mala was an early member of the Race Today Collective, a leading voice in Black politics in Britain. She wrote for their magazine, Race Today, about the condition of Bangladeshi sweatshop workers in the East End of London. They lived in crowded dormitories where beds were shared around the clock by workers on different shifts. Many of the workers had left their families behind in Bangladesh, so were not entitled to housing benefit.

Spurred on by these dreadful living conditions, Mala was a founding member of the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG). In the early 1970s, the Bengali community in East London was growing rapidly but faced racism and discrimination. BHAG sourced council houses and squatted empty buildings for the Bengali community to live in. BHAG’s activities eventually led to the establishment of Brick Lane as a safe living area for the Bangladeshi community.

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A mural in brick Lane depicting Mala Sen by artist Jasmin Kaur Sehra, part of a series commissioned by the Tate Collective to celebrate the contributions of ‘unknown’ women in 2018 (Source: Kevin Lake).

Mala was also an active member of the British Black Panthers (BBP), which was based in Brixton. Less militant than the American Blank Panthers, the BBP believed in educating black people about their history and giving them a voice. This chimed with Mala’s own philosophy; she argued that supporting people to empower themselves was the best form of activism. Later on, Mala became a researcher for television documentaries. This led to her researching and writing about women in rural India, many of whom were treated very poorly. Her best known book, India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, took 8 years to research.

In her later years, Mala became disillusioned with British and Indian politics, the feminist movement and the East End Bangladeshi community. She died in Mumbai on the 27th of May 2011, aged 63. Although she lost faith in the causes she fought for, that does not diminish her contribution to them, nor make her any less worthy of remembrance.

Sources and Further Reading

Bayley, Bruno. “The Amazing Lost Legacy of the British Black Panthers.” Vice. Last modified 10th August 2013, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.vice.com/sv/article/9bz5ee/neil-kenlocks-photos-give-the-british-black-panthers-the-legacy-they-deserve

Jackson, Sarah. “Mala Sen: Writer and Race Equality Activist.” East End Women’s Museum. Last modified 18th July 2016, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/mala-sen-writer-and-race-equality-activist?rq=mala%20sen

Kotak, Ash. “Mala Sen Obituary.” The Guardian. Last modified 13th June 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/13/mala-sen-obituary

The Telegraph. ” Mala Sen.” Last modified 30th May 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/8546445/Mala-Sen.html

On This Day: The Old Price Riots, 18th September 1809

In my On This Day posts, I have covered protests about a wide range of issues, from the right to vote, through police brutality, to anti-fascism. I have never written a post about a riot over the cost of theatre tickets…until now. On the surface, the Old Price Riots might be the most superficial protest in London’s history. However, when you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that the rioters were defending a lot more than a cheap night out.

In late Georgian Britain, theatre was incredibly popular. It appealed to people across the class spectrum; from the very richest to the very poorest, everyone went to the theatre. In London, there were only two theatres licensed by central government to perform spoken drama; Covent Garden and Drury Lane (otherwise known as the major theatres). Other theatres (known as minor theatres) were licensed locally and relied on singing, mime, and visual spectacle to attract audiences. Within the space of a few months in 1808, both Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres burnt down. When the new Covent Garden Theatre opened a year later, it was perceived as pandering to elites and not protecting the accessibility of British theatre in the way that the major theatres should. The result was three months of protest that ended in almost total victory for the rioters.

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The new Covent Garden Theatre in 1810 (Source: Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, New Covent Garden Theatre (1810), Plate 100 of Rudolph Ackermann, The Microcosm of London; or, London in Miniature (1808-10, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, U of Toronto), 1: 262-63).

In the early hours of the morning on 20th September 1808, the Covent Garden Theatre caught fire. The flames were fierce, and in just 3 hours the entire theatre, as well as valuable costumes, sets, scripts, and sheet music, was destroyed. The cost of the rebuild was huge, despite donations from wealthy supporters, and when the new theatre opened on 18th September 1809, several changes had been made to try and attract a more wealthy audience and recoup the cost of reconstruction. Prices were raised, a public gallery was converted into private (very expensive) boxes, and the top gallery (where the very poorest theatre-goers sat) had been converted into ‘pigeon holes’, from which only the legs of the performers could be seen. In addition, the celebrated soprano singer Angelica Catalani had been hired at great expense. To theatre-goers, these changes were seen as undermining the accessibility of British theatre, pandering to elites, and disenfranchising the middle and working classes.

On opening night at the new theatre, the performance was supposed to be MacBeth, with Shakespeare’s tragic hero played by John Philip Kemble, who was also the manager and part-owner of the theatre. However, the performance was drowned out by the audience who shouted, cheered, sang, and generally made a nuisance of themselves throughout. Kemble called the local magistrates to try and disperse the crowd, but it was not successful. The magistrates did not intervene again; there was debate over whether or not it was legal to kick out theatre-goers who had paid for their ticket.

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A cartoon by George and Isaac Cruikshank showing the first night of the riots. The magistrates are on stage appealing for calm, and Kemble stands behind them (Source: The British Museum).

The riots continued for the next 67 nights. The protesters, who quickly began to call themselves OPs (Old Pricers) embraced theatricality by adopting tactics such as banners and placards, singing, dancing, racing, mock fights (all of which went on during the performances), and the production of fake money and OP medals. As riots go, they were quite civil; violence and property damage was minimal. They were very effective, however, in disrupting the normal running of the theatre and demonstrating just how important audiences were for the success of British theatre. Kemble and the other owners simply could not defeat them; every tactic they tried (such as hiring boxers to throw rioters out of the theatre) resulted in failure and humiliation. Eventually, they backed down, returning the prices to pre-fire levels, reducing the number of boxes and firing Catalani. On the night of 15th December Kemble publicly apologised to the theatre audience; a placard was unveiled in the pits that read “we are satisfied”.

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A cartoop by Isaac Cruikshank depicting ‘The OP dance’. The rioters’ tactics were theatrical and non-violent (Source: Isaac Cruikshank, The OP Dance. Plate 5. Well-heeled Ops. Frontispiece, The O.P. Songster for 1810 (© The British Library Board, 11798.a.23.[7.])

The riots were not completely positive, however. There were strong elements of xenophobia and nativism. The rioters used anti-Semitic rhetoric, and made much of Kemble’s Catholicism in their criticism of him. There was also a sense that British theatre was inherently superior to foreign theatre, which tied into the criticisms of Catalani, who was Italian. The OPs believed it was the responsibility of Covent Garden, as a major theatre, to protect traditional British drama from the ‘foreign’ types of drama that were proving so popular in the minor theatres, such as opera, melodrama and pantomime. As such, the OP riots helped to reinforce dichotomies such as high/low art, spoken word/spectacular drama, and native/foreign drama.

At first, the Old Price Riots can look like Londoners being cheapskates. However, when looked at more closely, they highlight issues of class and xenophobia in a period when the city was changing dramatically. That being said, I dread to think what the OPs would make of the price of a West End theatre ticket today!

Sources and Further Reading

Mulhallen, Jacqueline. “The Old Price Riots of 1809: Theatre, Class, and Popular Protest.” Counterfire. Last modified 12th November 2012, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.counterfire.org/history/16136-the-old-price-riots-of-1809-theatre-class-and-popular-protest

Robinson, Terry F. “National Theatre in Transition: The London Patent Theatre Fires of 1808-1809 and the Old Price Riots.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. No date, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=terry-f-robinson-national-theatre-in-transition-the-london-patent-theatre-fires-of-1808-1809-and-the-old-price-riots

Wikipedia. “Old Price Riots.” Last modified 12th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Price_Riots

London’s Protest Stickers: Gentrification

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This sign in Elephant and Castle looked so official that I didn’t realise it had a political message at first (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Walworth Road, 05/05/15).

Gentrification is a process that has occurred in many Western cities over the last few decades. Poor, run-down, often post-industrial inner city neighbourhoods become cool, leading to an influx of the middle and upper classes which pushes up house prices and drives out the original community. London is no exception, and there are many areas around the city where there are tensions between existing residents and newcomers. This is reflected in the city’s protest stickers, some of which object to gentrification. Gentrification in London is impossible to separate from the city’s housing issues; it is one of the contributing factors to the ridiculously high rents and lack of suitable housing in the capital.

Most of the stickers featured here are produced by Class War, a political group known for their aggressive and confrontational stance. You can see where I found each of these stickers, and all of the others featured on Turbulent London, on the Turbulent London Map.

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Critics of gentrification often use ‘cleansing’ to describe what happens to the original residents of gentrifying areas. They are forced out  by increasing house prices, or because the neighbourhood changes so much that they no longer feel comfortable there (Photo: Hector Gwynne, 28/06/18).

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There is a clear class dynamic to gentrification. Incomers tend to be middle or upper class, whilst those forced out are frequently working class (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gordon Street, 13/04/16).

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Class War is not a group known for its tact. Yuppies and Hipsters are two groups frequently associated with gentrification, hipsters especially in London (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Quaker Street, 13/02/16).

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The design of this sticker is adapting the cover of Metallica’s 1983 debut album Kill ‘Em All. (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Regent’s Canal Towpath, 20/05/15).

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Whilst this sticker doesn’t explicitly mention gentrification, Squatters and Homeless Autonomy is a group that tries to combat gentrification and establish autonomous anti-capitalist spaces in London (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Little Venice, 01/05/16).

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Housing estates are quite strongly associated with the working class. In London however, a lot of ex-council housing on estates have become unaffordable for the city’s working classes (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Cable Street, 09/10/16).

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Estate agents are often targeted for their role in the gentrification process. This sticker is promoting a protest outside of the Islington branch of Foxton’s, a large national chain (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Whitechapel High Street, 09/10/16).

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Again this sticker doesn’t explicitly mention gentrification, but it is a criticism of the high cost of living often associated with gentrification. The text is in French, and it translates to “Rent or Eat,” which is a stark choice faced by many Londoners (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 13/02/16).

Lennon Wall for Hong Kong: Solidarity in Melbourne

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“Free HK”, part of the Hong Kong solidarity wall in Melbourne, Australia (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the time of writing this blog post in early September 2019, there appears to be no end in sight to the protests which started in Hong Kong in June. The spark which lit the tinder was a proposed extradition bill which would make it easier to transport people from Hong Kong to mainland China for questioning and trial. People in Hong Kong do not trust China’s justice system to be fair and impartial. Under pressure from protests whose intensity seemed to take everyone by surprise, the Hong Kong government shelved the extradition bill. This did not end the protests however, as the bill had tapped into a deeply held fear among the people of Hong Kong. Since being returned to China by Britain in 1997, residents of Hong Kong have enjoyed a lot more freedom than citizens of mainland China do, and they protect this freedom fiercely. For the protesters, the extradition bill was just one part of a much broader attempt to strip Hong Kong of its cherished freedom, and they are not willing to give their special status up without a fight. Over the last few months, protesters have clashed with police around the city.

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Hosier Lane in Melbourne is famous for it’s street art, and has become a significant tourist attraction (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the start of August 2019, I visited Melbourne in Australia, and I was quite surprised to find a wall full of messages expressing solidarity with, and seeking support for, the protesters in Hong Kong. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been: Australia has strong connections with China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and in 2017 there were 500,000 Chinese-born migrants living in Australia. Melbourne is known for its cosmopolitanism, and the city’s Laneways (alleys) are famous for edgy street art, shops, bars, and restaurants. The most famous for street art is Hosier Lane; it has become a popular tourist attraction. The solidarity wall is at the bottom of Hosier Lane, near the junction with Flinders Street.

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The Hong Kong solidarity wall in Hosier Lane, Melbourne (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

The wall is made up of posters calling for support and explaining what is happening in Hong Kong, and post-it notes with messages of solidarity. It feels spontaneous, but it is actually the result of a piece by Chinese artist Badiucao. He created a piece of street art featuring Chinese leader Xi Xingping and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam, then invited people to add their own messages of solidarity. A box of post-it notes and marker pens has been left so that visitors can add their own messages. This practice has become known as ‘Lennon Walls,’ which have appeared all over Hong Kong during the protests. They are now springing up elsewhere, including Toronto and Tokyo. The original artwork of Lennon Wall for Hong Kong can just about still be seen in the above image: it is the black text on the white background peeking out above the post-it notes.

I spent a little while watching other visitors interact with the wall. Many had little interest, others seemed to be interested in finding out what all the fuss was about, and some, particularly those who appeared to be of Asian origin, seemed quite moved by the outpouring of solidarity. I would be curious to know if this message of solidarity reaches protesters in Hong Kong however: do they know how much support they have in Melbourne?

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A box of stationary attached to the wall so that people can add their own messages of support (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A message left by a member of an airline crew, explaining how much the wall meant to them (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A visitor to the wall adds their own message (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

It is very important to the protesters in Hong Kong that people around the world know about their struggles and understand them, which is one of the reasons they have targeted Hong Kong International Airport over the summer; a controversial tactic which risks alienating travelers instead of convincing them that the cause is just. The Lennon Wall suggests that the message is getting through, however. It gives a strong sense of solidarity and obviously means a lot to people from Hong Kong. It also highlights the obvious overlaps between street art and resistance; a subversive medium to begin with, street art is an obvious companion to protest.

Sources and Further Reading

BBC News. “Hong Kong Anti-Government Protests.” Last modified 3rd September 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c95yz8vxvy8t/hong-kong-anti-government-protests

Clark, Helen. “Should Australia Fear an Influx of Chinese?” This Week in Asia. Last modified 30th July 2017, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2100798/should-australia-fear-influx-chinese

Dalziel, Alexander. “Post-it Protest in Support of Hong Kong Backlash over Extradition Plan.” The Age. Last modified 20th August 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/post-it-protest-in-support-of-hong-kong-backlash-over-extradition-plan-20190720-p5293c.html

Sydney Morning Herald. “Chinese Political Artist Badiucao supports Hong Kong Protesters with Hosier Lane ‘Lennon Wall.'” Last modified 20th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.smh.com.au/world/chinese-political-artist-badiucao-supports-hong-kong-protesters-with-hosier-lane-lennon-wall-20190720-h1ge99.html