Turbulent Londoners: Susan Lawrence, 1871-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been 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. Next up is Susan Lawrence, an upper class politician who started her career as a Conservative Councillor, but converted to socialism.


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Susan Lawrence in 1930 (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

Susan Lawrence was born into a life of wealth and privilege. Well educated, she embarked upon a career as a Conservative politician. It didn’t take her long before the realities of life in London helped in her conversion to non-revolutionary socialism. She became a devoted member of the Labour Party, and went on to be an effective politician.

Arabella Susan Lawrence was born in London to a prosperous family on 12th of August 1871. She was well education, studying at University College London and Newnham College, Cambridge. In her early life, Susan was politically and socially conservative, strongly believing in the British Empire, the Church of England, and charity. In March 1910 she was elected to the London County Council (LCC) as a Conservative. As she immersed herself in London politics however, her beliefs began to diverge from the policies of the Conservative Party.

Over the next two years, Susan underwent a political and personal transformation. Previously a devout member of the Church of England, she became much more secular in her beliefs. She also realised that social change could not be brought about by voluntary work alone, it required action by the state. Susan joined the Fabian Society, a group of non-revolutionary socialists (they wanted to bring about a socialist society by gradual means), and became good friends with Sidney and Beatrice Webb, a power couple of British socialism. Susan served  on the executive of the Fabian Society from 1913 until 1945. As a member of the LCC, Susan became aware of how little the women who cleaned London’s schools were paid. As a result, she became involved in women’s trade unionism. She met and befriended Mary Macarthur, the secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). For the next decade, Susan worked to organise working class women, earning the nickname ‘Our Susan’. In 1912, she resigned from the LCC because of this dramatic change in her beliefs.

Susan still believed in making a difference, and the following year she was re-elected to the LCC as a Labour Councillor for Poplar in East London. After her mother’s death, Susan moved to the East End, living just off the East India Dock Road. It was not unusual at this time for middle- and upper-class women to try to help East London’s poor, but Susan displayed an uncommon level of dedication by actually moving there.

During the First World War, Susan was a Fabian representative on the War Emergency Worker’s National Committee, a coalition of Labour and socialist groups who worked to improve conditions for the working classes. She also served on government committees, trying to ensure the interests of workers,  and particularly female workers, were taken into account. Like many other Labour politicians, Susan was optimistic that post-war reconstruction could be used to benefit the working classes. In 1918, she was elected to the new women’s section of the Labour Party’s National Executive. In just 6 years, Susan had become one of  Labour’s most important women.

In 1919, Susan was elected to Poplar borough council. Two years later, she was one of 30 Poplar Councillors imprisoned because of the Poplar Rates Strike. The Councillors took a stand over the unfair way in which unemployment benefits were paid for in London, which meant that the poorest boroughs had the highest burdens. The government sentenced them to prison indefinitely, but the government backed down and Susan and the other Councillors were released after 6 weeks. Despite their success, the Poplar Councillor’s illegal strategy was unpopular with the rest of the Labour Party.

1924 Women MPs

Women were allowed to stand as MPs for the first time in 1918. By 1924, there were 8 female MPs in Parliament. Susan Lawrence is the second from the left (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Susan was loyal to the Labour Party however, and in the 1920s she turned her attention to Parliamentary politics. After failing to win seats in the 1920 and 1922 elections, Susan was elected as the MP for East Ham North in 1924, becoming one of Labour’s first 3 female MPs. Although she was never a Minister, Susan held several positions in Labour governments became quite successful. She was the first woman to chair the Labour Party Conference in October 1930. Despite being a trailblazer for women in politics, women’s rights was never a priority for Susan. She had been indifferent at best to women’s suffrage, and she didn’t want women’s issues to divide the Labour Party; for Susan, no other identity was more important than class. Unlike other female politicians at the time, such as Ellen Wilkinson, she seemed impervious to the pressure to appear ‘feminine’; she never took much interest in her clothes or appearance.

In the 1931 general election Susan lost her seat, and this marked the end of her Parliamentary career. She tried to get re-elected in 1935, but was unsuccessful. A new and younger group was increasingly leading the Labour Party, and Susan was increasingly alienated. She remained on the Party’s executive until 1941, however. Susan dedicated her retirement to translating books into braille. She moved to Berkshire after her house was bombed during the Blitz, but returned to London after the war, moving to South Kensington. She died at home on 24th of October 1947.

Susan Lawrence was a dedicated and effective politician. She was not a suffragette, but she shared with them a willingness to go to prison for what she believed in. I think it must have taken a huge amount of bravery and resolve to shift her political allegiance as she did, and I admire her for that. Contemporary politicians seem incapable of admitting that they were wrong, and I think they could learn something from Susan.

Sources and Further Reading

English Heritage. “Lawrence, Susan (1871-1947).” No date, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/susan-lawrence/

Howell. David. “Lawrence, (Arabella) Susan.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 28th May 2015, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34434 [Subscription required to access].

Perera, Kathryn. “Susan Lawrence: The Monocled Maverick.” Labour List. Last modified 20th December 2010, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://labourlist.org/2010/12/susan-lawrence-the-monocled-maverick/

Simkin, John. “Susan Lawrence.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUlawrence.htm

 

 

Book Review: Alone in Berlin

Alone in Berlin front cover

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada.

Hans Fallada. Alone in Berlin. Translated by Michael Hoffman. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. RRP £9.99 paperback.

I got Alone in Berlin as a Christmas present. My parents saw the 2016 film adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, and thought I would like the book. I did, and not just because it is about resistance. First published in 1947 under the title Every Man Dies Alone, the novel tells the story of the Quangels and their doomed attempt to resist the Nazi regime.

Otto and Anna Quangel are a middle-aged, working-class couple in Berlin during World War 2 who are just trying to keep their heads down and survive Nazi rule. Until they receive news that their only son has been killed fighting, and they can no longer accept the injustice and hypocrisy of the Nazi regime. They begin to carefully transcribe postcards with anti-Nazi slogans and distribute them in buildings around Berlin. Unable to tolerate even this limited resistance, the SS give Gestapo Inspector Escherich the job of hunting down the Quangels. For several years, the Quangels managed to evade capture, but it is clear to all involved that they would be caught eventually. The other residents in the Quangel’s block of flats also feature in the story, including the elderly Jewish woman on the top floor, the ardent party members on the floor below the Quangels, the mysterious retired Judge on the ground floor, and the opportunistic criminal in the basement.

Hans Fallada was an interesting character in himself, who struggled with addiction and mental illness throughout his life. A popular author in Germany before the Nazis came to power, he was no fan of Hitler’s, but decided to remain in Germany during Nazi rule. During this period he toed the line, doing just enough to satisfy the Nazis without giving in to to full scale fascism and xenophobia. After the war he was recruited by the Soviets to write an anti-fascist novel, and he apparently wrote Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. He died soon after.

The novel is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel; this edition of the book contains photocopies of some of their postcards and other historical documents related to their case. Fallada himself found their story quite uninspiring, but he managed to turn the source material into a touching and thought-provoking narrative. The reader is encouraged to feel sympathy for some characters, and disdain, if not repulsion, for others, but they are all well-rounded characters, most of whom are just trying to survive in a violent and volatile society. In Britain, we are used to viewing World War 2 from particular angles, such as the fighting on the Western Front, the horror of the Holocaust, or the hardship and determination of the Home Front. Alone in Berlin looks at Nazi Germany and the War from a less common perspective, the German civilian. I found this alternative angle refreshing.

If you like your novels to have a happy ending, then Alone in Berlin is not a book for you. There is a small sliver of hope at the end, but from the very beginning there is a sense that the story is not going to end well, and that atmosphere of inevitable tragedy hangs over the novel like a guillotine. It’s clear Fallada was a skilled writer, who did an excellent job of exploring the actions of people who have been pushed to the very edge of their humanity.

Protest Stickers: Edinburgh 2

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This is one of the oldest buildings on the Royal Mile (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the end of 2019 I went on a last-minute trip to Edinburgh. It was great to explore the city, and it also meant I got to add to my protest sticker collection! There are a range of topics on protest stickers that often crop up in in big cities, including: gender, working relations, vegetarianism, housing conditions, elections, and Brexit. There are also specific local issues, which you don’t tend to find anywhere else. In Edinburgh, examples of these are: working conditions at the Fringe Festival, the use of public land for events which profit private companies, and Scottish independence.

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Fair Fringe is a campaign to improve the wages and working conditions of people working for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They are asking Fringe Employers to sign a charter guaranteeing they will give their employees certain working conditions (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Edinburgh is famous for several public events, including the Edinburgh Festival, the Fringe Festival, a Christmas Market, and Hogmanay. As these events have expanded, tensions have increased between organisers and local people, who often have to put up with significant inconvenience and restrictions on their movements around central Edinburgh. Some feel that the city doesn’t get enough benefits from these events. I think this sticker is referencing those ongoing debates (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Like most big cities, the cost of housing in Edinburgh is high, and increasing all the time. Living Rent is a tenant’s union which campaigns for tenant’s rights across Scotland, including calling for a nationwide rent cap (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The campaign for a second referendum on Scottish Independence has been boosted by Brexit, and it was the topic of quite a few protest stickers in Edinburgh. This sticker is responding to the argument that Scotland wouldn’t be able to make it as an independent country (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Just in case the Yes campaign wasn’t patriotic enough, this sticker takes it one step further! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The image on this sticker has faded so it’s quite difficult to make out, but the text is very clear (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker incorporates anti-fascist symbolism and design style with the transgender flag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker, on the other had, is rather sarcastically criticising the transgenderism. This debate has split the feminist movement in recent years (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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In December 2019, university staff around the country went on strike over working conditions and changes to pensions. The Autonomous Design Group designed these stickers in solidarity with those on strike in Edinburgh (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I found this sticker outside one of the University of Edinburgh’s buildings. It is also probably left over from the strike. Tuition fees were first introduced in the UK in 1998, but there are still some who oppose them. VCs, or Vice Chancellors, are the most senior people in the university hierarchy, so they often become the focus of opposition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

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I’m guessing that this sticker is from before the General Election on the 12th of December. It is comparing Boris Johnson to Pinocchio, who’s lies famously got him into trouble (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker looks quite old, but it could just be that paper stickers don’t tend to last as well as other materials. Boris Johnson only agreed his Brexit deal with the EU in October 2019, so the sticker can’t be more than a few months old (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Sometimes, you have to take a sticker’s location into account in order to appreciate it fully  (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is really interesting because I have seen quite a few stickers in various places calling for solidarity with Hong Kong since the latest round of protests started there in mid-2019. I have only seen this anti-solidarity stance in Edinburgh however. The graffiti is referring to the fact that the Extradition Bill which kick started the protests was in response to a woman from Hong Kong being murdered by her partner in Taiwan. Most people don’t know this however, and the Extradition Bill was almost universally criticised as an attempt by China to gain more power over Hong Kong (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is advertising vegankit.com, a website that offers advice and guides on eating and living vegan. It isn’t clear who is behind the website though. (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

On This Day: The Anti-Iraq War Demonstration, 15th February 2003

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Hundreds of thousand of protesters gathered in Hyde Park on the 15th of February 2003 to take part in a global weekend of action opposing the invasion of Iraq (Photo: IWM).

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, global geopolitics shifted dramatically. The US adopted an aggressive ‘with us or against us’ stance, and Muslims replaced Communists as the biggest threat to Western civilization. The US government identified several countries to bear the brunt of this aggression, whether they deserved it or not; they were described as the ‘Axis of Evil.’ Iran, Iraq and North Korea were the most common targets, although other countries were also identified. The US accused Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, of possessing weapons of mass destruction and having links to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind 9/11. At the beginning in 2003, despite opposition from the UN and countries such as Canada, France, Germany, and Russia, the US and its allies were preparing to invade Iraq. Millions of ordinary people also opposed the invasion, and the weekend of the 15th and 16th of March 2003 saw what was probably the biggest protest event in global history.

It is very difficult to estimate the number of people who take part in protest marches, but between 6 and 10 million people took to the streets in more that 600 cities in 60 countries around the world. The march in Rome made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest anti-war rally in history, with around 3 million people taking part. The London march was jointly organised by the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain, with support from another 450 demonstrations.

The plan was that 2 marches (known as feeder marches) would set off from different parts of London. Londoners and people from the south of England would gather on the Embankment, and people from the Midlands and the North would meet at Gower Street. The two marches would meet at Piccadilly Circus then march as one to Hyde Park for a rally. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport tried to ban the rally; blaming health and safety concerns and the need to protect the grass in Hyde Park. No one bought this argument however, and Jowell was forced to back down.

 

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It is estimated that more than a million people attended the march in London (Photo: Daily Mail).

The weather in London on 15th March 2003 was cold and grey, but the number of people who turned up to take part exceeded all expectations. The feeder marches started earlier than scheduled because of the sheer number of people there, but many people were still delayed for a long time before they were able to set off. The speakers at the rally in Hyde Park included Harold Pinter, George Galloway and Tony Benn, but lots of people didn’t arrive until after the rally had finished, and many didn’t make it as far as Hyde Park at all.

Despite the significant delays, the atmosphere was good and the day was peaceful. Many of those who took part were not hardened activists, they were ‘normal’ people who were moved to protest by what they saw as a gross injustice. For thousands, it was their first protest march. This made the sense of betrayal and disillusionment even worse when it changed nothing, and the Labour government led by Tony Blair sent British troops into Iraq. Others argued that one protest march was never going to change anything, and that marches have to be used in conjunction with other tactics of resistance to achieve concrete change.

Troops from the US, UK, Australia and Poland invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003. Although Saddam Hussein was overthrown relatively quickly it was a long, drawn-out conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions lost their homes. The US didn’t withdraw the last of its troops until 2011, and Iraq is still dealing with the legacies of the conflict. To make matters worse, it was later revealed that Iraq never had weapons of mass destruction, and many people feel that the war was illegal and politicians such as George Bush and Tony Blair should be charged with war crimes.

The global protests on 15th and 16th of March 2003 may not have had the desired effect of preventing the invasion of Iraq, but they certainly demonstrated the strength of global opposition to the war and the increasing ability of social movements to coordinate internationally. The London protest was probably the biggest political demonstration the UK has ever seen, and it was a clear statement that not everyone accepted the black-and-white geopolitics of the War on Terror.

Sources and Further Reading

IWM. “5 Photographs from the Day the World said No to War.” Last modified 15 June 2018, accessed 31 January 2020. Available at https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/5-photographs-from-the-day-the-world-said-no-to-war

Jeffery, S. “UK’s ‘Biggest Peace Rally.'” The Guardian. Last modified 15th February 2003, accessed 31st January 2020. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/feb/15/politics.politicalnews

Murray, A. and Lindsey German. Stop the War: The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement. London: Bookmarks, 2005.

We are Many. Film directed by Amir Amirani (2014).

Wikipedia. “15 February 2003 Anti-way Protests. Last modified 30th January 2020, accessed 31st January 2020. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/15_February_2003_anti-war_protests

Futile but not Meaningless: Resistance in ‘The Nightingale’

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The Nightingale was written, directed and co-produced by Jennifer Kent (Source: Cinematerial).

Thanks to Hull Independent Cinema I recently got to see The Nightingale, the controversial Australian film written, directed, and co-produced by Jennifer Kent. Whilst it is definitely not right to say I enjoyed the experience, it is a very well-made and thought-provoking film that has led me to reflect on the nature of resistance against a much more powerful force. Against something as dominant at the British Empire, acts of resistance can often seem futile, but The Nightingale explores how these acts are still meaningful.

Set in 1825 in the British penal colony of van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the film is driven by the story of Clare Carroll, played by Aisling Franciosi, an Irish convict who sets out for revenge after suffering horrific physical and sexual violence at the hands of British Army Lieutenant Hawkins (played by Sam Claflin) and his men. She recruits an Aboriginal man named “Billy” Mangana (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track the British soldiers as they travel through the bush. At first Clare is suspicious of Mangana and is aggressive and racist towards him, but as the story progresses they come to realise that they have both suffered at the hands of the British, both in terms of themselves as individuals and the societies and cultures which they come from. A mutual respect and affection develops from this shared trauma.

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Baykali Ganambarr plays “Billy” Mangana, an Aboriginal man who has suffered at the hands of the British but makes a living acting as a guide for settlers and soldiers who do not know how to survive or navigate in the bush (Source: The Nightingale, 2018).

The Nightingale has been criticised for its graphic depictions of physical and sexual violence. The defense for this is it is an accurate depiction of how indigenous Australians and convicts were treated, and the film was made in collaboration with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders. The violence is shocking, and very difficult to watch, but I have no doubt that this kind of thing went on and I think it is important that the full horrors of British colonial rule in Australia and around the world are acknowledged. The acts of violence which the film depicts powerfully conveys a sense of how cheap indigenous and convict life was to the British army and most white settlers. Clare and Mangana do receive one or two acts of kindness, but even this is difficult for Mangana as he is forced to accept charity from settlers on land that by rights belongs to his people.

In the film, language is a form of resistance. Clare is known to the British soldiers as the Nightingale because of her beautiful singing voice, and on their journey both Clare and Mangana sing in their respective native languages, gaelic and palawa kani. The Irish and Aborigines both suffered systematic brutality that could arguably be classified as genocide at the hands of the English; both cultures and societies have been pushed to the very edge of existence. In these circumstances celebrating native culture becomes a powerful act of defiance. Even today, it is quite unusual to see native languages like this included in films, so it can arguably be classed as an act of resistance by the filmmakers as well as the characters.

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Clare and Mangana have had traumatic lives, and they also go through some awful things during the course of the film, but they seem to find some comfort in their respective native languages (Photo: The Nightingale, 2018).

The thing that struck me most about Clare and Mangana’s acts of resistance during The Nightingale is their futility. I left the theatre feeling desperately sad that there was no way either character would be able to achieve happiness, or even have a ‘normal’ life after the events of the film. Both characters had put up with a significant amount of injustice and abuse because to do anything about it would only make their lives worse. As the film progressed, both were subjected to experiences that made them abandon that attempt at self preservation. Another aboriginal man known as Charlie, the guide employed by Hawkins and his men, also reaches a similar breaking point and stands up to his oppressors. On one level, these acts of resistance are futile as well as self-destructive; they mean little in the face of the British imperial system. On another level, however, their actions are incredibly meaningful; Clare and Mangana both seem to find some kind of peace by the very end of the film. Clare, Mangana, and Charlie’s resistance may have been futile in the grand scheme of things, but it was absolutely necessary to them. They were under no illusions that their actions would overthrow British rule, and they did not seem to expect to survive their revenge mission, but they did it anyway. Resistance is about rejecting the way things are, but it isn’t always about trying to change them; it is often futile, but it is never meaningless.

The Nightingale is not a pleasant watch, and I wouldn’t recommend you sit down to watch it with a bowl of popcorn on a Saturday night. But it is a well-made and powerful story that I think needed to be told, and you should see it if you get the chance.

 

Book Review: Queer City-Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

Queer City Front Cover

Queer City by Peter Ackroyd.

Peter Ackroyd. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day. London: Vintage, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback. 

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific writer of books about London, both fiction and non-fiction. I have read, and enjoyed, his books before (My review of London: The Biography (2001) can be found here), so when I saw Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, I was fairly sure it would be worth a read. It did not disappoint; like Ackroyd’s other non-fiction books, Queer City is well-written and engaging.

The book pretty much does what it says on the tin; it is a chronological history of queerness in London. It is difficult to research any section of society that has been traditionally overlooked, particularly one that was by necessity so secretive for large parts of history. A lot of the sources Queer City draws on were written about London’s queer population, rather than by them, and Ackroyd himself acknowledges that it can be impossible to tell whether these accounts are accurate, exaggerated, or even entirely fictional. Nevertheless, the book recounts an impressive number of examples, and just because researching an element history is difficult, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.

Ackroyd, 2017; p. 232.

Queer City is descriptive rather than reflective or analytical. Ackroyd briefly engages with the question of whether or not London is particularly conducive to queer culture, but I would have liked to see more of this kind of discussion. At times the book can get a bit list-y, with example after and example, and limited analysis. But that is the kind of feedback I would give when marking an undergraduate essay, so maybe I’m being unreasonable.

Most history books that cover significant periods of history tend to get more detailed the closer the narrative gets to the present. This is understandable, because of the relative availability of historical sources, but it can be frustrating. Queer City bucks this trend, with far-flung historical periods getting significantly more coverage than the recent past. This is a refreshing change, but I actually would have liked more detail about the last 50 or so years, when there has been so much dramatic change for LGBT+ people. Significant events like the Wolfenden Report, the legalisation of gay sex, Section 28, the Civil Partnership Act, and the Gender Recognition Act are all covered only briefly.

In-depth, critical historical research is important because it can challenge our perceptions of continuity and normality in society. By helping to publicise London’s queer history, Ackroyd is helping to deconstruct the argument that being queer is abnormal. As well as being a good book, Queer City is an important one.

Turbulent Londoners: Elizabeth Fry, 1780-1845

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 I’m focusing on Elizabeth Fry, who you may recognise as the face of the English £5 note between 2002 and 2017, but how much do you actually know about what she achieved?


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Elizabeth Fry in 1843. Portrait by George Richmond (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Elizabeth Fry was a penal reformer and philanthropist whose portrait graced the English £5 note between 2002 and 2017, only the second woman to appear on English currency (the first was Florence Nightingale). She was a strict Quaker, and her religious beliefs drove her philanthropy and campaigning. Elizabeth Gurney was born on the 21st of May 1780 in Norwich, the 4th of 12 children. The 7 girls in the family received a thorough education, but Elizabeth missed a lot, and didn’t learn to spell until much later. Both her parents came from respectable Quaker families, but after her mother died in 1792 the rest of her family didn’t take religion too seriously. Elizabeth did, however, and in 1799 she adopted the dress and speech of a strict Quaker.

On the 19th of August 1800, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, who came from a wealthy orthodox Quaker family. Between 1801 and 1822 the couple had 11 children. At first the family lived in central London, but in 1809 the family moved to East Ham, which at this point was a small village outside London. Despite a busy family life, Elizabeth did a lot of work for the local community, distributing clothing, food, and medicine in what was known as the ‘Irish colony.’ Despite her own slow start, education was a high priority for Elizabeth; she started a Sunday school in Earlham, and co-founded a school for girls in East Ham. She was an advocate of vaccination, and helped almost completely eliminate smallpox from the villages around East Ham. In 1811 she was acknowledged as a Quaker minister, and began a long career of preaching and writing and distributing religious tracts. Despite her husband’s support, Elizabeth always felt a tension between her religious ambitions and her marital duties.

In 1813 Elizabeth first visited the women’s side of Newgate prison, notorious for it’s poor conditions. She was appalled by what she saw, as well as the severity of criminal law at the time. An interest in prisoners is part of Quaker tradition, and Elizabeth was not the only reformer who took an interest. She was unusual because of her gender however, and she was also the first to take a specific interest in female prisoners. Elizabeth believed that prisoners should be treated humanely, and that the primary purpose of prisons should be reform rather than punishment. She advocated for women-only prisons, with female staff. Elizabeth didn’t return to Newgate until December 1816, but when she did she met with the prison authorities and prisoners and instituted a series of reforms. These included religious and elementary education for the prisoners and their children (children were often imprisoned with their mother at the time); a classification system for prisons; prison dress; constant supervision by matrons and monitors; and paid employment. Fry or one of her supporters also visited daily to talk with the women or read to them.

The conduct of the female prisoners in Newgate improved dramatically as a result of Fry’s reforms, and her success in the infamous prison won her a lot of her supporters. In April 1817 the Ladies’ Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate was set up. In 1821, it was expanded to become the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reform of Female Prisons, the first nationwide women’s organisation in Britain. From 1818 onwards, Elizabeth toured the country, combining her responsibilities as a Quaker minister with her prison reform efforts. She would visit prisons and suggest improvements, as well as establish local ladies’ committees to visit prisoners. In 1827, she published a handbook detailing her reforms: Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners. Elizabeth also advocated reforms to capital punishment and the treatment of female prisoners on convict ships bound for Australia; she was responsible for considerable improvements in conditions on the ships.

In 1828, Elizabeth’s husband went bankrupt. This was a very humiliating time for the family, and must have been very difficult for Elizabeth as her husband was disowned by the Quakers. She was able to keep up her campaigning though, as she was supported financially by her brothers. During the 1830s, Elizabeth began to face serious opposition to her prison reform ideas; as a religiously motivated woman, her ideas were dismissed as old-fashioned and unprofessional. Her opposition to the increasingly popular system of solitary confinement meant that her ideas were increasingly accused of being out of date. Despite this, between 1838 and 1845 Elizabeth made 5 trips to Europe, where she lobbied for better treatment of prisoners and lunatics, the abolition of slavery, and religious toleration.

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Elizabeth Fry was on the English £5 from 2002 until 2017. The image on the left of the note is an idealised depiction of Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate (Source: Open University).

Elizabeth’s health declined over several years, and she died of a stroke on the 13th of October 1845. Her legacy was significant; she had contributed to prison and legal reform around the world. Her example also helped to start the organised women’s movement; she strongly believed that women should become active on behalf of other women. Her achievements were acknowledged in 2002, when she became the second woman to appear on a Bank of England note. The recognition was well deserved.

Sources and Further Reading

Crone, Rosalind. “The People on the Notes: Elizabeth Fry.” The Open University. Last modified 21st February 2017, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/the-people-on-the-notes-elizabeth-fry

de Haan, Francisca. “Fry [nee Gurney], Elizabeth.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 1st September 2017, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/10208 [Subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Elizabeth Fry.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/REfry.htm

London’s Protest Stickers: Hong Kong Protests

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On a recent trip to London I found multiple protest stickers relating to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19)

At the time of writing this post in December 2019, protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than 6 months. What started as resistance against a specific law became a movement against Chinese rule that took everyone by surprise in its ferocity and determination. The protests have been outward looking, with demonstrators calling on the international community to intervene on their behalf. To an extent, the rest of the world has responded, with many world leaders (including most recently Donald Trump) calling for the rights of the protesters to be respected. There has also been significant demonstrations of international solidarity. A few months ago, I wrote about a Lennon Wall for Hong Kong that I came across in Melbourne this summer, and on a recent trip to London I found a large number of protest stickers relating to the city. It is interesting to reflect on whether this solidarity reflects patterns of emigration from Hong Kong, is simply support from the international activist community, or is a mixture of the two.

To see where these stickers were found, check out the Turbulent London Map.

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A simple demand for freedom in London’s China Town. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s situation is anything but simple. Handed back from Britain to China in 1997, the city has lived under a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement that sees Hong Kongers enjoy much more freedom than Chinese people on the mainland do. The protesters argue that this freedom is being eroded however, and they are willing to fight for it despite the overwhelming power and might of the Chinese state (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gerrard Street, 19/11/19).

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The Hong Kong protesters have embraced technology, including social media and the internet. This hashtag is used on social media to critique China from multiple angles, not just it’s handling of the Hong Kong protests (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gerrard Street, 19/11/19).

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This sticker was located on the characteristic gates that mark the entrance to London’s Chinatown (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gerrard Street, 19/11/19)

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It is perhaps not surprising to find protest stickers relating to Hong Kong in China Town, but such stickers can actually be found all over London. It may seem hyperbolic to call the protests ‘The Revolution of our Times’, but it certainly does feel like they are significant. I would be very surprised if Hong Kongers were able to win freedom from Chinese rule, but I never expected the demonstrations to last this long, and the hopelessness of the cause makes the protesters all the more admirable (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 21/11/19).

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Using post-it notes as protest stickers is a tactic that I have come to associate particularly with expressions of solidarity with Hong Kong – I have seen it in Sydney, Melbourne, and now London. Amazingly, only one person has died during the protests so far, although there have been several suicides associated with the campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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This collection of post-it note protest stickers I found under the railway bridge across Borough High Street shared characteristics with a Lennon Wall, where people are encouraged to put up their own messages. These two stickers seem to have been written by different people, one of whom is particularly pessimistic about the outcome of the protests (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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The protesters have 5 demands. One of which, the withdrawal of the hated extradition bill, has already been achieved. Another demand is the formal retraction of the government’s classification of some of the first protests on the 12th of June as a riot. The protesters argue that this was a political move, and that there wasn’t any rioting. It is hard to deny that there has been rioting since then, however (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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I assume this is referring to the Extradition Bill. The Bill would have made it easier for suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, where the justice system can be biased and political, and torture is sometimes used. The Bill was clearly just the final straw, however, as many more grievances have been voiced over the last few months (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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The writer of this sticker, declaring that Hong Kong is dead in French, clearly has no doubts about how the protests will end (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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This sticker shows Joshua Wong, who was imprisoned for his role as a leader the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. There are many similarities between the protests in 2014 and those in 2019, and Joshua Wong has emerged as a spokesperson of the 2019 movement, although there don’t appear to be any clear leaders (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 21/11/19).

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This sticker doesn’t have much English text, but the protester is holding a placard which lists some of the demonstrators’ key demands. If anyone would be willing to translate the rest of the sticker for me, I would be very grateful! (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 21/11/19).

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Again, I can’t tell what the top sticker is saying, but I think the image depicts a protester and a Hong Kong policeman. The bottom sticker depicts a Hong Kong protester, now well known for covering their faces, and says: “Even the darkest night will end. Together we fight and the sun will rise. Guardians of Hong Kong (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 21/11/19).

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This sticker has quite a lot going on. It is accusing the Hong Kong police of working with the triad, Chinese criminal gangs. The photos show police officers being respectful of an alleged gang member, and mistreating a protester. The sticker also argues that the 1997 handover treaty in which China promised to uphold the One Country, Two Systems policy has been violated (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 21/11/19).

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Apparently not everyone in London sympathises with the protesters. It looks like someone has deliberately tried to obscure the message of this sticker by scratching off the words ‘Hong Kong’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 21/11/19).

Book Review: Of the People, For the People- A New History of Democracy

Of the People, for the People

Of the People, By the People by Roger Osborne.

Osborne, Roger (2011) Of the People, For the People: A New History of Democracy. London: The Bodley Head. RRP £14.99 paperback.

With everything that’s been going on around the world over the last few years, you would be forgiven for feeling a little disillusioned with democracy. Trump’s election in the US and Brexit in the UK are just two of the most prominent examples of a world that feels increasingly divided, antagonist, and extreme. But democracy has always been flawed. As Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” So what feels to me like impending disaster might just be the normal state in a flawed system. In this context, I found Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne to be an engaging and illuminating read.

Let’s be clear from the beginning: democracy is humanity’s finest achievement. Championed, idealised, misused, abused, distorted, parodied and ridiculed it may be…but democracy as a way of living and a system of government is the avenue by which modern humans can fulfil their need to construct lives of real meaning.

Osborne, 2011; p.1

Of the People, By the People traces democracy from its origins in Ancient Athens right up to when the book was published in 2011. One of the first points that Roger Osborne makes is that democracy is actually a relatively unusual form of government. Durimg the Roman period it disappeared for hundreds of years, and has only really become of the dominant form of government around the world in the last century or so. With this in mind, Osborne considers historical societies that we wouldn’t consider to be democratic, but which exhibited elements of democracy, in order to try and understand why and how democracy develops. The book considers what the conditions are that are conducive to the development of democracy. By extension, it also asks ‘What is democracy?’ What are its defining characteristics? Where are the boundaries between democracy, and other forms of government? Osborne doesn’t offer clear answers – these are massive questions, and I would be very sceptical of any simple answer anyone put forward, but he encourages the reader to reflect, and come to your own opinions.

Many books that claim to offer a global history have a tendency to actually focus on Western history, with perhaps a cursory glance towards the rest of the world. In Of the People, By the People, Osborne actually takes non-Western democracy seriously, devoting entire chapters to South America in the 1800s, post-Independence India, and post-Independence Africa. This genuinely global focus is refreshing.

Osborne also considers how and why democracy has been lost throughout history. On some occasions, such as in Nazi Germany, democracy was even voluntarily given up by the people’s elected representatives. Combined with the realisation that democracy is actually a very unusual form of government, rather than the permanent factor that I think many in the West believe it to be, Of the People, For the People is a powerful reminder that democracy has to be protected and defended. If we take it for granted, we may well lose it.

Of the People, By the People, is a well-written book and informative book that I genuinely enjoyed reading. If you are feeling slightly dazed and confused by everything that’s going on in modern politics, then it may well put things into context. It probably won’t restore your faith in democracy entirely, but it might help a bit.

Turbulent Londoners: Beatrice Webb, 1858-1943

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. Next up is Beatrice Webb, an economist, sociologist, labour historian, Socialist and social reformer.


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Beatrice Webb in 1943 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Nowadays, we take it for granted that the causes and impacts of poverty are things that can be researched, quantified, and understood using academic research. It has not always been this way, however, and up until the early twentieth century everything that was known about poverty, as well as how to counter its effects, were based on assumptions and guesswork, frequently coloured by class-based prejudice. Beatrice Webb was one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. As well as fighting poverty, Beatrice began the process of properly understanding it.

Beatrice Potter was born on the 22nd of January 1858 to a wealthy family in Standish, Gloucestshire. She was well-educated by governesses, and later cited the co-operative movement and the philosopher Herbert Spencer, a family friend, as early influences. In 1890 she met Sidney Webb, and they married two years later. It was a long, happy, and intellectually productive marriage; the pair frequently wrote together. In 1892 Beatrice’s father died. Theresulting inheritance set her up for life, leaving her free to concentrate on her research and campaigning.

Like a lot of well-off women at the time, Beatrice came into contact with poverty through her volunteer work. In 1883 she started working with the Charity Organisation Society in Soho. She also volunteered as a rent collector in model dwellings in Wapping. Model dwellings were houses built by private companies that sought to improve living conditions for the working classes as well as making a profit. It was this experience of charity work in London that made Beatrice realise how few social workers actually understood poverty. She decided to use scientific research methods to help improve the situation. She is credited with the foundation of empirical investigation in political science and sociology.

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Beatrice and Sidney Webb in about 1895 (Source: LSE)

The Webbs were active members of the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation that believes in democratic reform rather than revolutionary overthrow. The society supported the Webbs in writing books and pamphlets on socialism and the co-operative movement. Beatrice made important contributions to the political and economic theory of the co-operative movement, even coining the phrase ‘collective bargaining.’ In 1895 the Fabians, including the Webbs, founded the London School of Economics and Political Science with the noble goal of bettering society. Now, LSE is one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Beatrice was an early advocate of the welfare state. She understood the structural nature of poverty and believed, despite her own volunteering efforts, that private philanthropy was an ineffective way of dealing with long-term poverty. She believed in a national minimum; a standard of living which all citizens were entitled to and should not be allowed to fall below. She worked on the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress in 1905-9, although her recommendations were largely ignored. The National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution was set up to campaign for the changes she proposed to the Poor Laws.

Like the rest of the Fabian society, the Webbs were gradualists. They didn’t believe in revolution, although they did believe the socialism was inevitable. Beatrice was so convinced of this that after WW1 she started to write more prolifically, believing that her income would be confiscated by an imminent socialist government. Despite this conviction, the Webbs were criticised by other socialists as being too cautious and bourgeois. Initially suspicious of party politics, the Webbs joined the Labour party in 1914, and in 1922 Beatrice was part of Sidney’s successful election campaign.

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Beatrice and Sidney Webb on their trip to the USSR in 1932 (Source: LSE Library).

At first, the Webbs were wary of Russian Communism, but their frustration with UK politics after the collapse of the Labour government in 1931 made them reevaluate. Beatrice liked the principle of collective altruism (self-sacrifice for the greater good) promoted by the USSR. In 1932, the Webbs spent 2 months in the USSR, and they later co-authored a book called Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? which was criticised for being too supportive, particularly after the full horrors of Soviet rule began to come out.

Beatrice’s relationship with the women’s right’s movement was more complex than most. In 1889, she signed a petition against women’s suffrage, believing that economic emancipation was more important than the right to vote. She later changed her mind, and in the early 1900s was a strong supporter of the campaign for the vote. During WW1, she chaired a War Cabinet Committee on pay which called for equal pay. In 1932, she was the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the British Academy, which demonstrates her contribution to opening up academia for women.

Beatrice Webb died on the 30th of April 1943. Her remains were later moved to Westminster Abbey, a gesture of recognition for the contribution she made to society. If she was alive today, she might be called an activist academic – someone who combines their research with activism. Not only did she help to found the modern discipline of sociology, and fight for what she believed in, she helped begin the process of normalising the presence of women in academia. Beatrice Webb was a remarkable woman.

Sources and Further Reading

Davis, John. “Webb [nee Potter], (Martha) Beatrice.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2008, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36799 [subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Beatrice Webb.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUwebbB.htm

Wikipedia. “Beatrice Webb.” Last modified 13th September 2019, accessed 2nd October 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Webb