Book Review: The Italian Boy- Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London

The Italian Boy front cover

The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise.

Sarah Wise. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London. London: Pimlico, 2005. RRP £7.99 paperback

Most people have heard of Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh murderers. Fewer people know that London had its own episode of ‘burking’ in 1831. In the early 19th century, London’s anatomists and medical schools needed many more bodies for dissection than could be provided by legal means. A lucrative trade in corpses developed, and ‘Resurrectionists’ could make a good income by digging up the recently buried and selling them to hospitals and medical schools. In late 1831, two Resurrectionists in Bethnal Green decided to cut out the middle man, and began murdering London’s poor and neglected in order to sell the bodies. They were caught trying to sell the body of a young boy to the anatomy department at King’s College. The ensuing court case, and eventual conviction and execution of two of the men, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, caused a morbid scandal that enthralled London. It led to the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which eventually put an end to the illicit trade in corpses. In The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London, Sarah Wise tells the story of the murderers, their apprehension, trial, and execution in impressive detail. She also uses the story as a springboard, branching out to look at many elements of London in the first half of the nineteenth century, including poverty, housing, healthcare, and even animal welfare. The result is an interesting account of a gruesome story that captures London on the verge of rapid and dramatic transformation.

The case of the Italian boy (it was quickly decided, although never decisively proven, that the final victim was an Italian street performer) captured the public imagination in a way that only an incredibly gory crime can. As such, a significant amount of archival material about the case, largely court records and newspaper articles, has survived. As such, Wise is able to provide an incredible amount of detail about the events surrounding the case. At some points, it was almost a little too much detail; I got distracted trying to keep track of the sheer number of pubs that the men visited in the days before they were arrested at King’s, and the order in which they visited them. Despite all this detail, there are still many elements of the case that are unknown, and will never be known. It will never be possible to confirm exactly how many people were killed, for example, nor to find out what happened to John Bishop’s children after their father was executed. Wise was able to trace the some of the children to Shoreditch workhouse in 1835, but then they disappear without trace.

It is a well-known frustration amongst researchers who use archives that the voices of the poor rarely get preserved. In the Preface of The Italian Boy, Wise argues that she saw this story as an opportunity to find out about the poorest residents of nineteenth century London: “The story appeared to me to be a window on the lives of the poor at a period of great change: a window that is badly damaged – opaque in places, blocked out or shattered in others – but offering a glimpse of those who have left little authentic trace of themselves” (Wise, 2005; p. xvii). It is true that you have to use archives creatively in order to find out about the lives of the poor in the past, but this might be the most creative method I’ve come across. Whilst I’m not sure it is representative of the lives of the vast majority of London’s poor, it does provide an insight into the society in which they struggled to survive.

The Italian Boy strikes a good balance between academic rigour and popular appeal. Wise tells the story of the London burkers well, but also uses it to look at broader themes in a way that is more common in academic journal articles or books. If you are interested in the history of London, crime and the criminal justice system, or indeed the development of modern healthcare, then I recommend you give it a go.

 

 

 

On This Day: The Massacre of St. George’s Fields, 10th May 1768

John Wilkes

John Wilkes was a vocal critic of George III and enjoyed significant popular support (Source: National Picture Gallery)

Most people have probably never heard of John Wilkes, but in the eighteenth century he was one of London’s most popular radicals. On the 10th May 1768, soldiers opened fire on some of his supporters outside the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark where Wilkes was being held. 6 or 7 people were killed, including bystanders, in an event that would become known as the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.

John Wilkes was a radical MP, and in June 1762 he started a newspaper, The North Briton, which was very critical of both the government and the monarchy. He was protected by parliamentary privilege, which means that MPs have legal immunity for things they do or say in the course of their duties. This only protected Wilkes up to a point, however, and he eventually went too far, publishing a poem that the House of Lords deemed to be obscene and blasphemous. They started the process of expelling Wilkes from the House of Commons, which would have removed his parliamentary privilege and left him open to prosecution. Wilkes fled to Paris before this could happen. In his absence he was found guilty of obscene and seditious libel and declared an outlaw on the 19th of January 1764.

Wilkes hoped that a change of government would lead to the charges against him being dropped. He ran out of money before that happened, however, and had to return to England. He wasn’t immediately arrested, as the government feared it would only increase his support base. Wilkes was elected as MP for Middlesex, but in April decided to waive his parliamentary privilege and hand himself over to the court of the King’s Bench. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison and given a £500 fine.

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A map of St. George’s Fields in the late eighteenth century. The King’s Bench Prison is on the right hand side, near the junction of New Road and Blackman Street (Source: Mapco).

Wilkes was taken to the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, on the edge of a large open space called St. George’s Field (an area stretching from Waterloo Station to Borough High Street today). As news of Wilkes’ imprisonment spread, his supporters began to gather on St. George’s Fields. The numbers increased daily, and by the 10th of May there were around 15,000 people there. Fearful of the large crowd, four Justices of the Peace requested military support, and a detachment of Horse Grenadier Guards were sent. This only increased tensions, however, as the crowd taunted the soldiers.

A group of soldiers chased one man who was being particularly offensive into a nearby barn. They opened fire, killing William Allen, an innocent bystander. As news of Allen’s death spread, the situation on St. George’s Fields only got worse. The Riot Act was read and more soldiers were called for, amongst fears that the crowd would attempt to break Wilkes out of prison. The crowd began to throw stones at the soldiers, who opened fire. In total, 6 or 7 people were killed, including another innocent bystander, and about 15 people were injured. Admittedly this isn’t a large number of casualties, but at the time it was quite significant. Understandably afraid for their lives, the crowd on St. George’s Field broke up, but as news of what had happened spread through London, sporadic rioting broke out across the city.

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William Allen, who had nothing to do with the protest, was shot and killed by soldiers (Source: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES).

Two soldiers were charged with the murder of William Allen, but they were not convicted. Allen’s father presented a petition to parliament asking for justice for his son, which led to a debate about whether the government, who had supported the soldiers, was too oppressive. Nothing came of it though. In a letter to some of his supporters in America, Wilkes suggested that the massacre may have been pre-planned by the government, although there is no evidence of this. Wlkes was released from prison in March 1770. He was re-elected as an MP several times, and each time Parliament expelled him. Instead, he was appointed a Sheriff of London, becoming Lord Mayor in 1774. During the 1780 Gordon Riots, Wilkes fought against the rioters, which significantly damaging his reputation with the people and other radicals.

John Wilkes was a champion of anti-government feeling and the right to free speech. His popularity with the people of London terrified the authorities, which may explain why the situation on St. George’s Fields escalated so quickly. Or, it could just be an example of poor policing exacerbating a crowd, which has happened on many other occasions. Either way, it was a dramatic and deadly episode in the constant struggle between the authorities and the people for London’s streets.

Sources and Further Reading

German, Lindsey, and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.

Harris, Sean. “The Massacre of St. George’s Fields and the Petition of William Allen.” UK Parliament. Last modified 31 October 2016, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/petitions-committee/petition-of-the-month/the-massacre-of-st-georges-fields-and-the-petition-of-william-allen-the-elder/

Simkin, John. “St. George’s Fields Riot.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/LONstgeorge.htm

TeachingHistory.org. “Boston’s Bloody Affray.” No date, accessed 7th May 2019. Available at https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/23472

White, Jerry. London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing. London: The Bodley Head, 2012.

Wikipedia. “Massacre of St George’s Fields.” Last modified 15th March 2019, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_St_George%27s_Fields

Turbulent Londoners: Emily Faithfull, 1835-1895

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to 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 Emily Faithfull, a women’s rights activist and publisher


Emily Faithfull

A photo of Emily Faithfull taken in the mid-late 1860s (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

Many discussions about women’s rights in the second half of the nineteenth century focus on the campaign for the right to vote. However, there were other parallel campaigns related to women’s legal and employment rights. Emily Faithfull was a publisher and activist who supported the suffrage campaign, but was more concerned with fighting for gender equality in the world of work.

Emily Faithfull was born on 27 May 1835 in Surrey. She was the youngest of 8 children, and her father was a reverend. Her family were clearly relatively high status, as she was presented at court in 1857, a ceremony associated with turning 18 that was reserved for elites and those with royal connections.

Emily joined the Langham Place Circle, a group of prominent women who advocated for legal, educational, and employment reform for women. Other members included Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Bessie Rayner Parks. The group founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (or SPEW, although not to be confused with Hermione Granger’s Society for the Protect of Elfish Welfare in the Harry Potter series); Emily Faithfull was Secretary.

In 1860, Emily founded an all-female publishers with the goal of expanding employment opportunities for women. The Victoria Press quickly gained a good reputation, and the following year was appointed printer and publisher in ordinary to Queen Victoria. Emily’s actions greatly upset the London Printer’s Union, who argued that women weren’t strong or intelligent enough for typesetting work. Between 1860 and 1866, the Press published the English Woman’s Journal, a feminist monthly periodical discussing women’s employment and other equality issues. From 1863 until 1881, the press published the monthly Victoria Magazine, which also advocated for women’s employment. Emily was a prolific journalist as well as a publisher; she wrote for the Victoria Magazine, the Lady’s Pictorial and the Pall Mall Gazette.

The Victoria Press

The Victoria Press in full swing (Source: Princeton)

In January 1864, Emily published the first annual report of the Ladies London Emancipation Society. The Victoria Press would go on to publish more material for this group. 1864 was a difficult year for Emily, however. She was implicated in the scandalous and very public divorce of Admiral Henry Codrington and Helen Jane Smith Codrington. The exact role Emily played was never revealed, but the gossip was damaging enough. Her reputation suffered, and she was shunned by the Langham Place Circle.

Emily’s social isolation didn’t stop her campaigning, however. In 1868, she published a novel, Change Upon Change, a tragic romance that emphasised the need for women’s education. She was also a successful lecturer, giving talks to further the interests of women. This included two tours of America, in 1872 and 1882. In 1875, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League.

Emily moved to Manchester in her later years, and died on 31st May 1895. Throughout her life, she used speech, print, and her own business to argue that women deserved, and were capable of, a much wider range of employment than was accessible to them at the time. She deserves to be remembered as one of the pioneers of British feminism.

Sources and Further Reading

Simkin, John. “Emily Faithfull.” Last modified January 2015, accessed 3rd April 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wfaithfull.htm

Wikipedia, “Emily Faithfull.” Last modified 7th January 2019, accessed 3rd April 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Faithfull

Protest Stickers: Edinburgh

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This is one of the first things I saw when I arrived in Edinburgh. It’s so stereotypically Scottish, it felt like a perfect welcome to the city (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In the summer of 2018, I visited Edinburgh for the first time. I really liked the city, it has a vibrancy and energy that is something quite special. I was there for the start of the Edinburgh festivals, a month-long celebration of theatre, music, and comedy that is famous around the world. One of the other highlights of my trip was visiting the Scottish Parliament, which is much more open and accessible than the Palace of Westminster. It was great to be able to visit the building where mainstream politics in Scotland plays out. The Parliament is not the only space for politics to play out in the city, however. The streets are an active site of informal, everyday politics, protest, and social movements. One form this takes is protest stickers, fragments of  politics that can tell you an awful lot about a city, if you look closely enough.

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Brexit is the most divisive issue in the UK at the moment. This sticker was produced during the EU referendum campaign in 2016. It is practically an antique by protest sticker standards, it is unusual for one to survive so long ‘in the wild’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker looks more recent, but it could also have been produced in the run-up to the EU referendum. Scotland voted to remain in the referendum, which is now helping to fuel demands for another referendum, this time about Scotland’s independence from the UK (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I assume that this sticker is also pro-EU, combining the flags of Scotland and the European Union. I didn’t see a single pro-Brexit sticker whilst I was in Edinburgh (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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There has already been a referendum on Scottish independence recently. On the 18th of September 2014, 55.3% of Scottish voters voted to stay in the United Kingdom. The main campaign in favour of independence was simply called Yes Scotland. The campaign produced lots of resources with this logo on it, so there’s a chance that this sticker could be even older than the Remain sticker (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As with Brexit, calls for another referendum on Scottish independence began not long after the result of the first vote was announced. This sticker is shorthand for the campaign, calling for a second chance to vote yes on Scottish independence (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, lives in Edinburgh. The cafe where she wrote some of the books has become a site of pilgrimage for tourists and Potter fans, and there are several shops in the city dedicated to the franchise. The author can be quite vocal on social media about her political opinions, so this sticker could be referring to the criticism she receives because of this, or it may be about complaints she gets from fans who disagree with decisions she made about particular characters or storylines (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

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This sticker is weathered and faded, but it is still possible to make out that Harry Potter is being used to recreate the famous Kitchener recruitment poster from World War One. The sticker could be referring to trade unions, but because of the Union flag background I think it is more likely referring to the union of Great Britain. If this is the case, then it is possible that this sticker also dates back to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Gender was another recurring theme amongst the city’s protest stickers. This sticker was produced by the Edinburgh branch of Sisters Uncut, a group which takes direct action to demand better funding for domestic violence services. Since 2010, funding for refuges for survivors of domestic violence has been cut by a quarter (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker refers to another referendum, this time in Ireland. In May 2018, the Irish people voted to repeal the 8th amendment of their constitution, allowing the government to make abortion legal. The vote represented a huge shift in cultural values in Ireland, traditionally a very conservative and Catholic country (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Most of the protest stickers I come across are printed, but some, like this one, are handwritten. They cannot be mass-produced, but they require no equipment or computer skills to produce (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is in French, it translates to: “Neither to take take, nor to sell…women are not objects!” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is in Spanish, the text means: “Death to patriarchy, death to capital.” It is not uncommon to find stickers from other places in a city, but it is uncommon to find stickers from other countries unless you are in major cities like Edinburgh or London (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is truly international. FC. St. Pauli is a German football team based in Hamburg, and Fanclub Catalunya is a fan club dedicated to the team based in Catalonia. They combine their love of sports with campaigning on all kinds of political issues, particularly Catalonian independence. After an unofficial referendum in October 2017, pro-independence parties in the Catalan parliament declared independence from Spain. The Spanish government responded by ending the region’s autonomy. A year and a half on, 2 activists and 7 politicians are still in prison, facing charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds. Others are in exile, and would be arrested if they returned to Spain (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker isn’t quite as exotic as some of the others. It was produced by Glasgow Marxists, which I think is a student group (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is advertising a fundraising concert in Glasgow in August 2018. The proceeds went to the Scottish Refugee Council and United Glasgow (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

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This sticker is advertising a local event, part of a nationwide demonstration against the highly unpopular Universal Credit, which rolls several different benefit payments into one. It hasn’t been rolled out across the country yet, but in places where it has been introduced it has been blamed for severe financial difficulties and hardship (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker was produced by the Anarchist Federation, which makes quite a few different stickers. They often use cartoons and other characters from popular culture  in their stickers. I don’t recognise this character though, if anyone can tell me I would be grateful! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker also makes use of popular culture, playing on Yoda from Star Wars’s unusual style of talking. Veganism and animal rights is one of the most popular topics of protest stickers recently (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A Symbol of Hope: Visiting Greenpeace’s MV Esperanza

Tricia Awcock

Patricia Awcock, long-term Greenpeace supporter (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

The international environmental campaign group Greenpeace has been associated with ships since their very first protest in 1971 when they attempted to interrupt US nuclear testing on Amchitka Island in Alaska. Greenpeace now has 3 ships which it uses to conduct scientific research, raise awareness, and engage in direct action to protect the environment. On the weekend of 13th-14th of April 2019 one of these ships, the MV Esperanza, was docked in London. Greenpeace supporters were given the opportunity to tour the ship. One of those who accepted the invite was Patricia Awcock (a.k.a my Mum!), who has been supporting Greenpeace for 4 decades. Here, she reflects on the experience and what it meant to her.


I have been a proud member of Greenpeace for 40 years. Even then, I understood the dangers facing our planet and I also knew that I am not a natural protester or activist! That is why I have been happy to contribute to Greenpeace; I saw the value of their activism and just knew that someone had to do what Greenpeace was prepared to do. I have followed the campaigns through the years, but always from a distance. I was extremely pleased and excited, therefore, to be given the opportunity to visit MV Esperanza when she was docked in London at the weekend.

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The MV Esperanza in the West India Millwall Docks (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

I was surprisingly moved when I caught my first glimpse of MV Esperanza. She seemed to be completely dwarfed by the high-rise buildings that represent the centre of capitalism, but the Greenpeace colours, rainbow, and painted dove shone so brightly in the sunshine that she seemed to act as a metaphor of optimism and resilience. Esperanza means ‘hope’ in Spanish, and she really did send out a message of hope; the West India Millwall Docks, so close to Canary Wharf, was the perfect setting!

The visit helped me to understand, however, that the Greenpeace ships are not just a symbol of an organisation that is willing to take on large corporations in such a dramatic manner. They are gritty, smelly, basic working ships that undertake vital work, in extremely dangerous conditions. They are not only engaged in direct action campaigns, but are also involved in scientific exploration, helping to provide vital evidence that is needed in the fight to protect the oceans. This mixture of direct action and scientific exploration is what, I believe, makes Greenpeace such an important organisation.

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Patricia Awcock and the MV Esperanza. The green colour scheme, with the rainbow and white dove, ensures that all three of the Greenpeace ships are immediately recognisable (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

I have always had great respect for the volunteers who put their lives on hold, and sometimes in danger, to join campaigns for many months, but seeing the reality of their living conditions and learning about the daily responsibilities and duties made me even more appreciative of what they are prepared to do.

Over the last 40 years, I have frequently become despondent about the increasing negative impact humans are having on the planet. I have often wondered whether I am wasting my money by donating Greenpeace. What are they actually achieving? Visiting MV Esperanza made me realise, however, just how important the work of Greenpeace is, and that the symbolism of the organisation is just as important as their activism and scientific exploration.

Maybe one day I will actually take part in a protest, but in the meantime I am just so grateful that Greenpeace is carrying out such vital and dangerous work in my name.

Book Review: Black and British- A Forgotten History

Black and British front cover

Black and British by David Olusoga.

David Olusoga. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

In the introduction to Black and British, David Olusoga tells a disturbing story from his childhood, where his family were driven out of their home by racist attacks in 1984. After they left, a swastika was painted on the front door, along with the words “NF [National Front] won here.” My response was: “I know racism is still a problem in the UK, but at least it isn’t that bad any more.” A few days later, the story broke about Vaughan Dowd painting racist graffiti on the front door of 10-year-old David Yamba and his father in Salford, Greater Manchester. I was shocked, and perhaps a bit embarrassed by my naivety in believing that this kind of thing doesn’t happen any more. Black and British is an excellent introduction to thousands of years of intertwined history between black people and the British isles, that helps put the racist ideology behind the persecution of the Yamba family into context.

In Black and British, David Olusoga eloquently explores the place of black people in British history, stretching back to the Roman occupation and beyond. He brings the story up to the 1980s, arguing that his personal memories of the period since then limit his ability to be impartial. In between, he covers a huge swathe of historical material, ranging from Britain’s role in both the growth and eventual decline of the Atlantic slave trade, through the influence of black music on British culture, to the impacts of the presence of African-American GIs in the UK during the Second World War.

What I find most innovative about Black and British is Olusoga’s definition of ‘British’. He doesn’t just consider people who live in the British isles, or who hold British citizenship, but everyone who’s lives were shaped by Britain or her people. For example, the book includes a fascinating exploration of the history of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, which was founded as a colony for poor black people ‘repatriated’ from London in the late 1700s. The city thrived as the base for the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, who were responsible for enforcing the ban on the slave trade. Slaves from throughout Western Africa were freed by the Royal Navy’s ships, and made their homes in the city, creating a vibrant and diverse population. Sierra Leone is 5000 km from the Britain, but Olusoga’s writing makes the connections between them impossible to deny.

I also admire the way that Black and British is not just a history of racism in Britain, although it does tell that story very well. It is predominantly about the lives of black people with the British sphere of influence, their triumphs and their tragedies, and their attempts to create a space for themselves within British society. It is easy to focus on racism when we think about black people in the UK, but there is so much more to the story than that. People should be defined by who they are and what they do, not the prejudice they face, and Black and British does that.

There has been (and perhaps, still is), a tendency to overlook the role of black people in British history, an erasure that helps to undermine the ability of black people to assert their right to be part of a society that they have contributed to for hundreds of years. Black and British is just one part of an attempt to rewrite British history in a way that more accurately reflects the contribution of black people, and it does a wonderful job. It has profoundly altered my understanding of the history of Britain, and I think that everyone who lives in Britain or considers themselves British should read it.

Turbulent Londoners: Peggy Duff, 1910-1981

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to 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 Peggy Duff, who worked as a peace campaigner for three decades.


Peggy Duff

Peggy Duff was a prominent peace campaigner and the first General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) (Photo: Ken Garland).

Born to a stereotypical middle class family in suburban Middlesex on 8th April 1910  Margaret Doreen Eames (known as Peggy Duff after her marriage) probably didn’t anticipate that she would grow up to become one of the most prominent peace campaigners of the twentieth century and a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which is still going strong more than 60 years later.

Peggy attended Hastings Secondary School for Girls. The headmistress hinted at her future path by describing her as “very public spirited.” She read English at Bedford College, and worked as a journalist after her graduation in 1932. In 1933, she married Bill Duff, a fellow journalist. The couple had 2 daughters and a son. Peggy started to get involved in peace campaigns in the late 1930s.

Tragically, Bill was killed in November 1944 whilst covering a American air raid on the Burma Railway. In order to support her family, Peggy worked full-time during the Second World War for Common Wealth, a socialist party to the left of Labour. The party performed very poorly in the 1945 General Election, and Peggy went to work for Save Europe Now, an organisation which sent food and clothing to occupied Germany and Austria. They also campaigned for the repatriation of German and Italian prisoners of war. This must have been a very difficult job at a time when they would have been very little sympathy for the soldiers and civilians of countries that lost the war. Peggy worked for Save Europe Now until 1948.

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The plaque on the house where Peggy Duff lived in Albert Street, north West London (Photo: London Remembers).

Between 1929 and 1955, Peggy was the business manager of Tribune, a socialist magazine that would later describe itself as the “official weekly” of the CND. Between 1955 and 1957, she was the Secretary of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (not the catchiest name ever). Capital punishment was not abolished for murder in the UK until 1965. In 1965, Peggy was elected as a Labour member of St. Pancras Borough Council. She fought hard for the rights of council tenants, who were being squeezed by the post-war housing shortage and rising rents (some things in London never change!). Her methods of achieving this were not always popular, however; she supported controversial redevelopments and slum clearances.

At the Labour Party Conference in 1957, Aneurin Bevan (the driving force behind the National Health Service, but at this point he was Shadow Foreign Secretary) shocked his supporters by denouncing calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world was a controversial issue, but Bevan dismissed calls for Britain to disarm with the argument that it would weaken Britain’s negotiating position on the international stage. That November, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, with Peggy as General Secretary. One of the CND’s best-known tactics is the Aldermarston Marches, when activists marched between London and Aldermarston in Berkshire, where nuclear bombs were being produced. Peggy organised the second Aldermarston march in 1959, and all of the others that followed until 1963. She was known amongst fellow activists for her energy and resilience.

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A photo from one of the Aldermarston marches, most of which were organised by Peggy Duff (Photo: CND)

Peggy resigned from the Labour party in May 1963 over Harold Wilson’s support of the Vietnam War and his refusal to condemn the dictatorship in Greece. Peggy’s commitment to peace outweighed her political allegiances. In 1965, Peggy stepped down from her role in the CND and began working for the International Federation for Disarmament and Peace, an alliance of peace groups from around the world, including the CND, who refused to take sides in the emerging Cold War. She published her memoirs, called Left, Left, Left, in 1971.

Peggy died on the 16th April 1981, aged 71. She had dedicated most of her adult life to campaigning for the peace, as well as bringing up 3 children on her own. The CND, which she helped to found, is still going strong and arguably one of the best-known campaign groups in British history. That is a legacy to be proud of.

Sources and Further Reading

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. “60 Faces: Peggy Duff.” No date, accessed 22nd February 2019. Available at https://cnduk.org/60-faces-peggy-duff/

Mathieson, David. Radical London in the 1950s. The Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016.

Oldfield, Sybil. “Duff [née Eames], Margaret Doreen [Peggy].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26th May 2005, accessed 22 February 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/70428 [requires a subscription to access]

Wikipedia. “Peggy Duff.” Last modified 3rd February 2019, accessed 22nd February 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peggy_Duff

The German Resistance Memorial Centre, Berlin

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The German Resistance Memorial Centre (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Most cities have moments in their history that remind us of the extent of humanity’s capacity for cruelty. Arguably, Berlin has witnessed more of it’s fair share of these moments. They are events that it would be easier and more comfortable to forget, but that is exactly why we must remember them. Memorials serve as physical reminders of our past, commemorating people and events that are triumphant and inspiring as well as dark and shameful. There are numerous memorials in Berlin that mark events that should never be allowed to be repeated. On a recent visit to the city, I visited many of these memorials, including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, the Topography of Terror, and the Berlin Wall Memorial. The memorial that most resonated with my research interests, however, is the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which commemorates all those who stood up to the Nazi regime in various ways. It is housed in the Bendler Block, which was used by the military during the Nazi regime and was the centre of an attempted military coup on 20th July 1944.

Like other large memorials in Berlin, there are two key elements to the German Resistance Memorial Centre. The commemorative courtyard is the site where several of the officers involved in the failed uprising were executed on 20th July 1944. There is a statue and two plaques. The second element is a memorial and education centre, on the first and second floors of the building. It is designed to inform people about the motives, aims, and forms of resistance against the Nazi state. The Bendler Block also houses the Silent Heroes Memorial Centre, which commemorates people who helped Jewish people facing persecution during Nazi rule.

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The commemorative courtyard in the Bendler Block. This statue, unveiled in 1953, was designed by Professor Richard Scheibe. The text was written by Professor Edwin Redslop, and translates as: “You did not bear the shame. You fought back. You gave the great, Forever tireless Sign of change, Sacrificing your glowing life For freedom, Justice, and honor.” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The commemorative courtyard is a fairly typical memorial space, calm and reflective, with a sculptor inspired by what happened there. The memorial and education centre feels more like a museum, although it displays very few objects. Instead, it uses text, images, and copies of documents to tell the stories of hundreds of individuals who used a whole range of tactics to resist Nazi rule. The Nazi state used a thorough process of dehumanisation to rationalise and justify their systematic persecution and murder of minority groups. Berlin’s memorials are highly effective at ‘re-humanising’ what happened, highlighting the stories of individuals, and putting faces to tragedies which are often difficult to comprehend because of their sheer scale.

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One of the displays in the German Resistance Memorial Centre (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In Britain, if we hear anything at all about German people living under the National Socialist regime, its that they quietly accepted the cruelty and violence. They were all too scared to speak up, or were perhaps willing to accept the excesses of the Nazi government as long as the economy continued to prosper. The German Resistance Memorial Centre completely turns that narrative on its head. It tells the story of hundreds of people who resisted the Nazi regime for religious, political, or moral reasons, or even just because they wanted to listen to genres of music that the Nazis frowned upon (Swing Kids, for example, liked to listen to jazz music, which the Nazis classified as “cultural degeneracy”). Resistance ranged from listening to foreign radio stations and printing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets to attempts to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the entire government. The Silent Heroes Memorial Centre tells the stories of Germans who hid Jews from Nazi soldiers, classified their Jewish employees as essential workers to prevent their deportation, and forged passports to enable Jewish people to escape Nazi-controlled territory. When even the most basic act of resistance carried the potential for severe punishment, or even death, I am amazed at how many people were willing to take action. I left the exhibition with more faith in the bravery and integrity of humanity than I had when I arrived, which is always a nice feeling.

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The Silent Heroes Memorial Centre (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The German Resistance Memorial Centre is not one of the best-known tourist attractions in Berlin. It is even not one of the city’s best known memorials. However, a visit there is not only educational and moving, but also unexpectedly uplifting. I highly recommend checking it out if you ever visit Berlin.

Turning the Tide: The 1968 Trawler Tragedy and the Wives’ Campaign for Safety

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A mural celebrating the achievements of the Headscarf Revolutionaries off Anlaby Road in central Hull (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As part of the University of Hull’s series of events to mark International Women’s Day in 2019, there was a special performance of Turning the Tide: The 1968 Trawler Tragedy and the Wives’ Campaign for Safety, a multimedia production about some of Hull’s most inspirational women. Since moving to Hull at the end of 2018 I have seen, heard, and read, quite a lot about the Triple Trawler Tragedy and the women who fought for better safety conditions on the trawlers (frequently known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries). It is a story I will never get tired of hearing, and Turning the Tide was a fantastic way of telling it.

Using a combination of storytelling, recorded interviews, film, images, and folk songs, Turning the Tide paints an evocative picture of the close-knit Hessle Road fishing community in the late 1960s, the dangerous conditions in which the fishermen worked, the restrictive gender roles forced upon women, the loss of the three trawlers, and the women’s campaign to improve safety standards and prevent further tragedy. Turning the Tide, devised and directed by Rupert Creed, is the result of the efforts of several groups, including the Hull Truck Theatre and the Centre for Contemporary Storytelling. The storytellers were Joan Venus-Evans, Mike Emberton and Rupert Creed, with songs performed by Hissyfit (a.k.a. Linda Kelly and Hazel Richings). I think that performances such as this are an excellent way of communicating history, they strike an excellent balance of entertaining and informative (I reviewed a similar performance by folk band the Young’uns recently, which you can see here). The performance was followed by a panel discussion featuring Jean Shakesby (a Hessle Roader who lost her father at sea, and who took part in the safety campaign), Lorna Denness (daughter of campaigner Mary Denness), Natalie Taylor (campaigner and member of the Strong Women of Hessle Road group) and Emma Hardy MP.

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The Turning the Tide panel. Left to right: Jean Shakesby, Lorna Denness, Emma Hardy MP, Natalie Taylor and Rupert Creed (Photo: Jason Addison).

The performance and the panel discussion really brought to life several key issues related to International Women’s Day for me. The first is the strikingly sharp gender roles that were an unquestioned feature of the Hessle Road fishing community before 1968. Women were involved in the industry, many of them worked cleaning and processing the fish, and they kept their families going whilst the men were away for three weeks at a time. However, women were completely segregated from the fishing itself, to the extent that it was considered bad luck for a woman to go down to the docks to wave a ship off. Many of the women involved in the safety campaign faced verbal abuse, harassment, death threats, and even physical violence for daring to interfere in the men’s business.

Turning the Tide also highlighted the opportunity that protest campaigns and similar events can be for women to dramatically alter their life path. The women who took part in the safety campaign were not hardened activists, they were housewives and working mothers, many of whom had never spoken in public before. Through the campaign, they developed new skills, and learnt that their lives could be very different. After the campaign, Mary Denness got divorced and became a school nurse, going on to become a matron at Eton College. Christine Jensen [neé Gay and formerly Smallbone] continued to campaign, serving on the committee of the British Fishermen’s Association and founding a fishing heritage organisation called Stand. She was awarded an MBE in 2000. There are multiple examples like this in recent history, where women rejected a situation which they could no longer accept, and gained a new awareness of their potential in the process. Activism can empower women far beyond the initial protest or campaign they took part in.

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The performers of Turning the Tide take a bow (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Moments like International Women’s Day are an opportunity to use to past to reflect on the present. In many ways women’s rights have come a long way since the days of the Headscarf Revolutionaries. For centuries, women have been taking opportunities like the Trawler Safety Campaign to broaden their horizons, develop their skills and demonstrate their abilities. The rigid gender roles of the Hessle Road fishing community in the late 1960s are not nearly as common in the UK as they used to be. But in other ways, there is still a long way to go. Wonderful stories like the the Trawler Safety Campaign have the power to make you feel inspired and confident about the struggles that are still to be won. Events like Turning the Tide celebrate these stories and ensure they don’t get forgotten.

London’s Protest Stickers: Anti-Police 2

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The Metropolitan Police have an uneasy relationship with Londoners, going right back to its foundation in 1829 (Photo: Hannah Awcock, South Bank, 09/10/16).

The relationship between a city and its police force is not often an easy one. London’s Metropolitan Police is the oldest civilian force in the world, and people have been opposed to it since before its foundation in 1829. The Metropolitan Police has been involved in a number of controversies in recent decades, particularly in relation to their treatment of ethnic minorities. In 1999, the Macpherson Report found that the Met was institutionally racist following incidents such as the poor handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. More recently, they have been under scrutiny for the manipulative and unethical behaviour of undercover officers investigating protest movements, some of whom started relationships and even had children with the women they were investigating.

I have written about anti-police protest stickers before, but London’s landscape of protest stickers continues to evolve, and new stickers continue to appear.

As ever, you can see where I found all these stickers on the Turbulent London Map.

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ACAB is a anti-police acronym that is used all over the world. It stands for All Cops Are Bastards. It is possible that this is just an innocent sticker with a picture of a taxi, but I highly doubt it (Photo: Hannah Awcock, King’s Cross Station, 27/02/16).

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This sticker also uses the ACAB acronym. The #CopsoffCampus hashtag refers to the tendency of universities to call in the police to deal with student protests on campus and in university buildings. Some student activists argue that universities should be police-free spaces. I found this sticker on Malet street, which is lined with buildings belonging to the University of London. There is a high concentration of students in the area, so this reference to student politics here is unsurprising (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Malet Street, 11/12/18).

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I took this photo outside Southwark Police Station on Borough High Street. Spaces of authority such as police stations often become spaces of resistance because of their association with power. These protest stickers are a small example of that process (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 15/07/16).

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This sticker has faded, but most of the text is still visible. The faint image in the bottom right corner is a stereotypical police helmet in a red circle with a diagonal line through it (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Malet Street, 03/05/16).

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This sticker, and the one below, was produced by Netpol, the Network for Police Monitoring. Netpol monitors public order, protest, and street policing and challenges policing that is excessive of discriminatory. Police Liason Officers (PLOs) have become a common sight at protests over the last 5-10 years. They are approachable and chatty, and ostensibly concerned with the welfare of protesters. Another goal of theirs is intelligence gathering, and their friendly manner is meant to encourage protesters to tell them things that they wouldn’t tell ordinary police officers. This sticker is informing people about this covert goal, and encouraging them not to engage with PLOs (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Tottenham Court Road, 10/01/17).

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This sticker is also designed to inform people, this time about their rights when stopped and searched or kettled in a protest. You do not have to give any personal information in these circumstances, but most people don’t know this (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Malet Street, 24/01/17).

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Netpol is also involved in the Together Against Prevent campaign, which calls for the end of the Prevent programme. Launched in 2006, Prevent is designed to stop people becoming terrorists, but its critics have accused it of being ineffective at best, and stigmatising and divisive at worst (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Guildford Street, 10/01/17).

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A few years ago, a series of protest stickers and advertising posters for bus stops were produced that mimicked the Metropolitan Police’s own style of publicity materials. At first glace, they looked like adverts for the Met, but if you take a second look, their critical stance becomes clear. This sticker is criticising the amount of money spent by the Metropolitan Police on advertising in 2013. Not only that, but it is arguing that the police force is spending that money covering up some of its most systematic problems (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Elephant and Castle, 13/04/15).

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Operation Tiberius was an internal investigation into police corruption commissioned by the Metropolitan Police in 2001. Its results were leaked to The Independent in 2014. 42 then serving officers and 19 former officers were investigated for alleged corruption, but the small number of convictions has led some to say that the issue has not been properly dealt with (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston Road, 09/02/15).

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I didn’t manage to find a complete version of this sticker, but it is referring to the fact that black people are much more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. In 2017/8, black people were 9.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, an increase from 4 times more likely in 2014/15 (Photos: Hannah Awcock, Elephant and Castle, 15/07/16).