Turbulent Londoners: Dorothy Thurtle, 1890-1973

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. This post is about Dorothy Thurtle, a trade unionist and women’s reproductive rights campaigner.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Protest Stickers: Berlin Part 1

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As with many large cities, Berlin’s street furniture has a lot of stickers, of all kinds (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Earlier this year, I went to Berlin as a member of staff on an undergraduate field trip. I had never been before, and I was really looking forward to the chance to explore a city with such a complex history, as well as a reputation for alternative culture and politics. Berlin did not disappoint; it is a vibrant city, with an admirable approach to coming to terms with the most difficult moments of its past. It has a lively culture of protest stickers too, so much so that I have decided to do two blog posts on the topic. At this point I would like to say thank you to my German-speaking colleague, Dr. Julia Affolderbach, who never once ran out of patience with me for repeatedly asking “What does this sticker say?”

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This sticker translates as “The AFD is no alternative.” The AFD is Alternative fur Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), a far-right political party founded in 2013. After failing to secure any seats in the German parliament in the 2013, in the 2017 federal elections it became the 3rd biggest political party in Germany, and many see its rapid growth as a cause for serious concern. This sticker is encouraging people to not to see the AFD as a viable alternative to the mainstream political parties, with whom many people are feeling frustration and disillusion. What the connection to Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants is I’m not sure, but it is not uncommon to see characters from popular culture on protest stickers (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is another anti-AFD sticker, adapting the well-known logo of the 80s hip-hop band, Run DMC. I have seen quite a lot of protest stickers using this style in my travels (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is the remnants of a sticker produced by the AFD; the white letters in the blue rectangle with the red arrow is their logo. The only remaining text translates as “Germany protests”, but someone obviously took offence at the sticker’s message and removed most of it, so I can’t tell what the AFD is ‘protesting’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Fuck off Google is a campaign group trying to prevent Google from opening a ‘campus’ in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood. Opposition stems not just from what the campus would do to the local area, with rising housing prices and gentrification already a problem, but also Google’s questionable business and surveillance practices. So far, the campaign has been successful, and in October 2016 Google announced it will not be going ahead with its plans for a Kreuzberg campus (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I’ve got to admit, at first I thought this sticker was about the gender pay gap. When I was in Berlin, there was an event to highlight the this that involved women paying reduced fares on public transport. However, this sticker is actually about agricultural subsidies. The text at the bottom translates to: “Agricultural subsidies only for good agriculture and good food.” I assume it is arguing that EU agricultural subsidies should be used to encourage sustainable farming practices (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Women’s rights did crop up quite often in Berlin’s protest stickers however. This distinctive design was produced by BesD (the Professional Association for Erotic and Sexual Service Providers), a group of current and former sex workers who campaign on various issues to improve the sex industry (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker relates to the representation of women in advertising. It was produced by Berlin-Werbefrei, a group which is campaigning for increased regulation of advertising, including: the removal of all commercial advertising in public spaces, the regulation of advertising and sponsoring in schools, universities, and other public organisations, and the introduction of binding rules relating to derogatory and discriminatory advertising (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As with most cities, anti-fascism is one of the most common topics of Berlin’s protest stickers. This sticker is simple, but effective at communicating its message (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker roughly translates as “Against ethno-nationalism (it is actually quite difficult to directly translate ‘volkische,’ but it is strongly associated with fascism and Nazism), sexism, anti-Semitism.” Anti-fascist groups can be quite territorial in the way that that claim space, so it is not unusual to see stickers that declare the vicinity an “Antifa area.” Jugend Widerstand is a group whose name translates as “Youth Resistance,” and it turns out this sticker is a manifestation of a dispute between two left-wing groups who dislike each other’s stances. Thanks go to the many people on Twitter who helped me with the translation and context of this sticker (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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It is also not uncommon to see stickers that encourage the viewer to “Support your local antifa.” This sticker has the added element, however, of telling people not to move to Berlin. My guess is that this is a criticism of the increasingly expensive and overcrowded housing and overstretched public services that many major European cities struggle to deal with as people move there in search of better opportunities and jobs (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Annoyingly, it seems impossible to escape from Donald Trump. This sticker is looking very good for 3 years old! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This anti-American sticker has not aged quite as well. I assume it was produced when Barack Obama was US President, so it was probably made in 2016 at the latest. It can be quite difficult to gauge the age of stickers, as most do not include a date (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Hands Off Venezuela is a group that campaigns for the lifting of sanctions against Venezuela, and against military intervention there. They were founded in 2002, but appear to be experiencing a resurgence due to the recent political upheavals in the country (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Critical Mass is a global cycling protest in which cyclists take to a city’s streets in large numbers to remind people to be mindful and respectful of other road users, and to assert cyclists’ rights to be on the road. This sticker is advertising Critical Mass Koln, which takes place on the last Friday of each month (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is in French rather than German or English, and reads “Everyone hates the Police.” The small boy in the foreground is holding a gun behind his back, hiding it from the police officers in the car who are talking to the other boy. Whilst tensions with police can be high in cities, particularly among ethnic minorities who often feel profiled and discriminated against, this is a disturbing image (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I’m not sure that this technically counts as a protest sticker, but I wanted to finish on a positive note 🙂 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

Violence, Landscape, and Gender in Woman at War

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An English-language poster for Woman at War (2018).

I recently got the chance to see Woman at War, an Icelandic film that’s been receiving excellent reviews. Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and staring Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, it tells the story of Halla, a choirmaster who leads a double life as The Mountain Woman, waging a one-woman war against the expansion of heavy industry threatening the climate and Iceland’s natural environment. She’s very good at it too, until she is offered the chance of fulfilling her life-long dream of becoming a mother, and suddenly has to make some difficult decisions. The film is fantastic, and it draws on some really interesting debates and issues related to the geographies of protest.

Halla’s tactics are the cause of much controversy amongst the Icelandic media and politicians in Woman at War. She only ever commits violence against electricity pylons, never animals or people, but she is criticised for this nonetheless. When deciding on their tactics, activists must walk a fine line between doing something that will get attention and alienating people by going ‘too far’. Most of us consider violence against people and animals unacceptable whatever the cause, but people tend to be more tolerant of violence against objects. Despite this, Halla’s opponents use her tactics to undermine her argument. Her critics also accuse her of bypassing the democratic system and making unilateral decisions about Iceland’s future that she has no right to make, as she is not an elected official. In this way, Woman at War raises interesting questions about whether or not protest is democratic. It is widely understood that dissent and protest is an essential part of a healthy democracy, but how much pressure can we put on elected officials before it becomes unethical? Generally speaking, protest marches, rallies, petitions, and lobbying are considered acceptable, but violence, blackmail, or bribery is not. But does this lines shift if politicians refuse to engage, or if the future of the human race is as stake (as many people believe it is because of climate change)? This is not a debate with an easy answer.

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Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla in Woman at War.

Halla wages her one-woman war by sabotaging electricity pylons that supply an aluminium smelting plant. Sabotaging machinery and equipment is nothing new for the more militant wing of the environmental movement, but Woman at War was released during a surge of non-violent direct action on behalf of the environment by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future (also known as the school strike for climate movement, kick started by Grea Thunberg). Although these groups argue that non-violence is the most effective approach, they share a sense of urgency with Halla about the need to do something quickly. They are not alone; for example, The Guardian has recently announced a change in the language it will use, favouring “climate emergency/crisis/breakdown” over “climate change,” and “global heating” over “global warming.” Woman at War is not preachy, but it does convey a sense that drastic changes are needed very quickly.

Landscape is another prominent theme in Woman at War. Large portions of the film take place in Iceland’s rural highlands, and Halla has a strong connection to the natural world around her. It is her intimate knowledge of the landscape that enables her to evade capture, using crevices and streams to hide from helicopters and throw dogs off her scent. As well as the world as a whole, it is this landscape she is seeking to protect through her activism, and in return it protects her. When the film’s action shifts to Ukraine, the contrast with the Icelandic landscape is stark; the large cooling towers and desolate factories a warning against exactly the kind of economic development that Halla is trying to prevent in Iceland.

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Halla takes refuge in a hot spring in Woman at War.

The final theme that jumped out when I watched Woman at War is gender. When the chance to adopt a little girl from Ukraine is presented to her, Halla realises she must choose between being and activist and a mother. She takes her role as eco-warrior very seriously, but she has dreamed of becoming a mother, and it is obvious that she would devote just as much attention to this new role. Perhaps the choice between her passion and her dream of motherhood is more literal than that which most women face, but I’m sure that many can identify with Halla’s dilemma, and it was painful to watch her agonise over it. However, it is also Halla’s concern for future generations that drives her to her activism, she is trying to protect the world on their behalf. So perhaps without her motherly instincts, she would not have embarked on her one-woman crusade. Activists often sacrifice a great deal in their fight for what they believe in. Woman at War confronts the emotional toll of these sacrifices, as well as examining the forces that drive women to take action.

Woman at War is an excellent film. Despite it’s topical storyline about the future of humanity, it manages to be very funny at times, and retains a note of hope. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a difficult balance to strike. It hasn’t had a big cinematic release in the UK, but if you get the opportunity to see it, then I thoroughly recommend that you do. Who knows, perhaps Halla will inspire you to go out and save the world.

Book Review: Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

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Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Fern Riddell. Death in Ten Minutes. London: Hodder, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Thanks to the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018, there has been a significant amount of books, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the campaign for women’s suffrage over the last two years (see all of my blog posts on the topic here). It is no easy task, therefore, to come up with something that stands out from the crowd. I have been looking forward to reading Death in Ten Minutes since its publication last year, but I have been waiting for the paperback to come out. I am pleased to say that it was worth the wait.

Death in Ten Minutes is a biography of Kitty Marion, a German-born actress and singer who came to live with her aunt in Britain as a young girl to escape an abusive father. During her time in the theatres and music halls she was subjected to sexual assault and mistreatment by men who held power over her career. She became increasingly disillusioned with the way women were treated by society, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) proved to be an ideal outlet for her frustrations. She became one of the group’s most militant suffragettes, responsible for multiple arson and bomb attacks around the country. During the First World War Kitty was forced to leave Britain because she was German, despite living in the UK for most of her life. She took refuge in the US, where she became heavily involved in the birth control advocacy movement. She continued to fight for what she believed in until her death in 1944. In her later years, she wrote an unpublished autobiography, which Fern Riddell draws heavily on in Death in Ten Minutes. The result is an account of Kitty’s life that is vivid, engaging, and feels like it is told from her perspective.

There are lots of things I like about Death in Ten Minutes. One of the main characteristics of the book that surprised me is that Riddell uses Kitty’s story to make a broader argument about the way that women’s history in general, and the suffrage movement in particular, has been sanitised in popular memory and dominant historical narratives in order to (re)produce a particular patriarchal understanding of women. Riddell also critiques the way that the suffragettes are idolised in popular memory, glossing over violent and life-threatening acts of terrorism to present a picture of perfect women. But no one is perfect, and it is just as important to acknowledge that about our admired historical figures as it is about ourselves. In most historical biographies aimed at a popular audience, I do not expect the kind of critical analysis found in Death in Ten Minutes.

The second major strength of Death in Ten Minutes for me is that it doesn’t end in 1918. Many of the women involved in the suffrage campaign went on to use their skills for other causes and social movements, and Kitty was no exception. She worked for the birth control advocacy movement for just as long, if not longer, than she campaigned for the WSPU. Social movements and political campaigns in the twentieth century were empowering experiences for many women, allowing them to develop skills they never anticipated, and the confidence to use those skills (the 1984-5 miner’s strike is another good example). Death in Ten Minutes contextualises the suffrage campaign within Kitty’s life, and shows that there was much more to her than being a suffragette.

Death in Ten Minutes is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that gives Kitty Marion the recognition she deserves as a fierce and passionate, but flawed, campaigner for women’s rights. I highly recommend it.

The Commemoration and Celebration of Dissent in Tolpuddle

The small village of Tolpuddle in Dorset would be just like every other picturesque rural village in Britain if it wasn’t for a clandestine meeting of six men under a sycamore tree more than 150 years ago. George Loveless, James Loveless, James Standfield, Thomas Standfield, James Brine, and James Hammett would become known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and their story is seen by many as the defining moment in the development of British trade unions. Tolpuddle receives thousands of visitors each year, particularly during the annual Tolpuddle Festival every summer. There are several memorials in the village, including a museum, a statue, one of the martyr’s gravestones, and a plaque, many of which date back to the centenary of the martyrs’ conviction. The Tolpuddle App (which you can download onto your phone or tablet) guides visitors through the points of interest in the village and includes videos that explain the martyrs’ story. In May, I dragged my family to visit the museum and explore the village using the app.

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The map and interface of the Tolpuddle App, which visitors can use for a self-guided tour of the village. Each stop has a series of videos associated with it about the story of the martyrs and what life was like for agricultural labourers in the early 1800s (Source: Tolpuddle App).

The six men were agricultural labourers, and they met under a sycamore tree in the village to discuss their poor working conditions, low wages, and how to prevent things getting worse. They decided to form a Friendly Society, hoping that working together would give them more bargaining strength. The local authorities found out about the new trade union, and with support from central government, decided to put a stop to it. Trade unions weren’t illegal, but the political and social elites were afraid of the impact they could have, so an obscure law against taking secret oaths was used to charge the six men. The men were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation. The severity of the sentence caused a public outcry and the martyrs were eventually pardoned, but not before they had spent several years in Australia. They returned home as heroes. The authorities had hoped that the men’s treatment would scare people and stop them joining trade unions, but the martyrs’ story had the opposite effect. Many argue that it kick started the fledgling trade union movement in Britain, which is why Tolpuddle is so important to modern-day trade unions.

 

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The sycamore tree that the martyrs met under is still going strong in the centre of the village. In 2002 it was declared one of 50 Great British Trees by the Tree Council to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. The museum shop sells seedlings from the tree in you want to grow your own piece of trade union history (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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In 1934, the National Trust built this shelter next to the sycamore tree in the village. The text on the back says “In memory of the Dorset labourers who made a courageous stand for liberty in 1934” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyr’s conviction was marked with huge celebrations in the village. A series of events were organised, and commemorative souvenirs were produced to mark the occasion. A number of physical memorials were also built in Tolpuddle. The most substantial is the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Memorial Cottages, a row of 6 cottages that were built by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to house retired agricultural trade unionists. The cottages included a  library, which grew over time to become the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Museum. The museum is small, but it tells the Martyr’s story well, and contains several interesting items, including a tile from the local church that James Hammett scratched his name into, and commemorative items from various anniversaries.

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The Tolpuddle Martyr’s Museum is located in six cottages that were built by the Trades Union Congress in 1934 for retired agricultural trade unionists (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The headstone of James Hammett, the only martyr who stayed in Tolpuddle until his death. He is buried in the graveyard of St. John’s Church in the village. The stone was installed as part of the centenary celebrations in 1934 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Outside the museum is a statue by artist Thomson Dagnall. It was installed in 2002, with funding from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). It depicts George Loveless, who is considered the leader of the martyrs. Visitors are invited to sit beside George on the bench and contemplate what it must have been like for the martyrs to be separated from their families and transported around the world to a life in forced labour.

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This sculpture by Thomson Dagnall (2002) sits outside the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Memorial Cottages (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As you walk through the village, past St. Johns churchyard where James Hammett is buried and the sycamore tree, you will come to the cottage where James Standfield lived. It was here that the men held their union meetings, with up to 40 men crammed into an upstairs room. The cottage is marked with a plaque, installed by the TUC.

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James Standfield’s cottage where the agricultural union met and (inset) the text of the plaque installed on the cottage by the TUC (Photos: Hannah Awcock).

Most of the martyrs were Methodists, and quite heavily involved in the Methodist community in the village; George Loveless was a lay preacher. There are two buildings in Tolpuddle that have been used as Methodist Chapels. The first was built in 1818, but fell into disuse sometime after 1843. Since then it has been used for agriculture and storage, but in 2015 the Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust was set up to purchase the building and renovate it. The Trust are raising funds to open the building up for “activities, exhibitions and community use”, so all being well there may soon be another memorial in the village to the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

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The Old Chapel building in Topuddle, where at least 4 of the 6 martyrs worshiped. Fundraising is currently underway to reopen the building (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

If you continue walking along the main road through the village, you will eventually come to the current Methodist Chapel, which was built in 1862-3. Outside is an arch dedicated to the martyrs, built in 1912. On one side is engraved the following text: “Erected in honour of the faithful and brave men of this village who in 1834 so nobly suffered transportation in the cause of liberty, justice, and righteousness, and as a stimulus to our own and future generations” followed by the names of the 6 men. On the other side is engraved a quote from a speech George Loveless made during the martyrs’ trial: “We have injured no man’s reputation, character, person or property, we were uniting together to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation.”

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Tolpuddle’s current Methodist Church and the memorial arch outside. Visitors are welcome to look around inside when the church is open (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There are numerous memorials in Tolpuddle that commemorate the martyrs and their story. They represent a wide variety of different types of memorial, ranging from the more traditional (plaques, a museum, and a sculpture) to the less conventional (cottages, a tree, and a gravestone). The also range in age: the sycamore tree is hundreds of years old, the memorials constructed during the centenary celebrations are 85 years old, and the sculpture is less than 20 years old. If the Old Chapel is successfully renovated, then that age range will be stretched even further. Looked at together, the memorials represent a fascinating landscape of commemoration that has been added to by successive generations. The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs has remained important to several generations of activists and trade unionists, and the plans for the Old Chapel and the annual Tolpuddle festival demonstrate that that significance has not diminished. I hope that the story will be remembered and celebrated for many more generations to come.

Turbulent Londoners: Catharine Macaulay, 1731-1791

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. This week it is the turn of Catharine Macaulay, who was a radical and a republican, as well as the first female English historian.


Catherine Macaulay

Catharine Macaulay in around 1775, by Robert Edge Pine (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

A lot of the women I feature on Turbulent London probably wouldn’t describe themselves as activists or campaigners; many of them wouldn’t even describe themselves as feminists (the term didn’t exist before the late 1880s). These women advanced women’s rights by simply striving for, and achieving, the things they wanted, even if they were told they couldn’t because they were female. Catharine Macaulay, the first female English historian, falls into this category. Her determination to conduct and publish historical research in a time where there were no other female historians in the world made her remarkable. Her successful career as a historian was her primary goal, and the advancement of women’s rights was just a side effect.

Born Catharine Sawbridge on 23rd of March 1731 to parents who were wealthy landowners, Catharine had a comfortable childhood. She was educated at home by a governess in Kent. We don’t know much about the quality of her education, but by her twenties she was a voracious reader and had a deep love of history. On 20th June 1760, Catharine married a Scottish physician, Dr. George Macaulay. The couple moved to St. James’ place in London, where they had one daughter, Catharine Sophia.

It was during this first marriage that Catharine began to publish The History of England from James I to the Revolution. It was a sprawling, detailed historical account of the seventeenth-century that would eventually run to 8 volumes, the last of which was published in 1783. Not only was it remarkable for a woman to undertake such a task (it was deemed inappropriate for a woman to be a historian), it was very unusual for her husband to support her endeavours. But George did support Catharine, and after the publication of the first volume she became an overnight celebrity.

Catharine believed that English society during the Anglo-Saxon period was characterised by freedom and equality, but that this ideal society was lost after the Norman conquest. She argued that all of English history since 1066 had been about the attempt to win back the rights crushed by the “Norman yoke.” This stance was very popular with Whigs, who saw her work as an alternative to Hume’s ‘Tory’ History of England. However, when Volume 4 was published in 1768, Catharine alienated her Whig supporters by justifying the execution of Charles I. She was a republican, and believed that if Kings become tyrants, as Charles did, then they forfeit the right to rule. She was no fan of Oliver Cromwell’s either though; she blamed him for the downfall of the English republic.

Catharine was also critical of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. She acknowledged that it had limited the power of the monarchy, but argued that it was a missed opportunity to create a second English republic. She was also anti-Catholic, believing that Catholicism was incompatible with a “free constitution.” Catharine was very concerned with the morals of the historical figures she wrote about; she argued that self-interest was the worst fault that a King or politician could possess, and believed that only a virtuous people could create a successful republic.

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The title page of a 1769 reprint of Volume 1 of History of England (Source: Journal of the American Revolution).

After George’s death in 1766, Catharine’s London home became a gathering place for reformers, American sympathisers and visiting Americans, an important node in a transatlantic network of campaigners, radicals, and republicans. In 1774, Catharine moved to Bath, where she was treated by a physician, Dr. James Graham. There were rumours of a relationship, but in November 1778 Catharine married Dr. Graham’s brother, William. The significant age gap (she was 47, he 21) was controversial, and many of Catherine’s friends and supporters abandoned her. However, it seems that her second marriage was as happy as her first.

In July 1784, Catharine became the first English radical to visit a newly independent United States. Her books had been influential on American radical thought, and she was much admired there. Catharine and William stayed with George Washington and his family, and he allowed her to see his personal papers with the goal of writing a history of the War of Independence, although it was eventually written by another of Catharine’s American supporters, Mercy Otis Warren.

After the last volume of History was published in 1783, Catharine continued to write and publish. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Catharine believed that women’s ‘weakness’ was due to their lack of education, and if they had the same opportunities as men they would excel. She also called for the abolition of capital punishment, reform of the penal system, and the abolition of slavery.

Catharine Macaulay died on 22nd June 1791, after suffering from poor health for many years. She was not a campaigner for women’s rights, but she furthered this cause because of the way she lived her life. Catharine acted as if gender equality already existed: she refused to leave the room with other women after dinner, and she once said that “a historian is of no sex.” She was determined to achieve her goals, no matter whether or not society deemed them appropriate. By achieving those goals, she paved the way for other women to follow similar paths.

Sources and Further Reading

Donnelly, Lucy Martin. “The Celebrated Mrs. Macaulay,” William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. VI (1949): pp. 173–205.

Gleason, Emily Gilbert. “Macaulay, Catharine (1731-1791).” Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Last modified 2002, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/macaulay-catharine-1731-1791

Hill, Bridget. The Republican Virago: The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hill, Bridget. “Macaulay [nee Strawbridge; other married name Graham], Catharine.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2012, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/17344 (subscription required to access).

Wikipedia. “Catharine Macaulay.” Last modified 11th April 2019, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharine_Macaulay

London’s Protest Stickers: Brexit

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Brexit has become a popular topic for people who make and distribute protest stickers (Photo: Hannah Awcock, North Bank of the Thames, 12/09/17).

In September 2016, I wrote a London’s Protest Stickers blog post about the EU Referendum. Little did I know that not only would we still be talking it about Brexit two and a half years later, but that we would be no closer to a resolution. The Brexit debate has rumbled on, getting more bitter and divisive as time goes on. As with any significant political issue, Brexit had become a popular topic for London’s protest stickers.

You can see where I found all of these stickers on the Turbulent London Map.

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Most of the protest stickers I come across are anti-Brexit, but I do find the occasional pro-Brexit sticker, like this one. Britannic Union is a right-wing, pro-Brexit Twitter account (Photo: Hannah Awcock, King’s Road, 08/04/17).

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This sticker is faded and torn, but it is still recognisable. It was produced by the Liberal Democrats, who campaigned to Remain in the run-up to the referendum (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Broad Sanctuary, 18/10/16).

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It is quite unusual to find a handmade sticker like this one. It isn’t going to win any art prizes, but I think that it is quite effective in getting the message across (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Guildford Street, 10/01/17).

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This sticker is also handmade, and is a little more artistic. It doesn’t directly refer to Brexit, but the message I take from it is that Britain can’t survive alone, and in the current political climate it’s hard not to link it to the EU. Sometimes, people respond to stickers by writing on or around them. In this case, someone has taken the message of the sticker a little too literally. I love the way that protest stickers sometimes spark debates on city streets (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 09/10/16).

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This sticker is about the cost of student housing, not Brexit. But it was placed on the inside of a toilet cubicle, and became the site of a quite heated Brexit debate. In this case, the tradition of writing on the walls of toilet cubicles has become political (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Senate House Library, 10/01/17)

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This sticker is simple, but effective (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 01/09/17, Exhibition Road).

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This Bollocks to Brexit sticker has become a common sight all over the country over the last few years (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 12/10/17, Swiss Cottage).

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This is another simple design, which resembles the Run DMC logo (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 27/12/18, Southbank).

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The question of whether or not to have a second referendum is a very contentious one. Lots of people are campaigning for a ‘People’s Vote’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 04/06/18, Victoria Station).

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What better way to finish than with a Rick Astley pun? (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 21/09/17, Tottenham Court Road).

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