Book Review: London Fog- The Biography

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London Fog by Christine L. Corton.

Christine L. Corton. London Fog: The Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. RRP £13.95 paperback.

I like books about London, and I like books that take very specific objects or phenomena, such as a particular weather condition, and links them to wider political, social, economic, cultural, and historical contexts (Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum is a really good example of this). So when I found London Fog: The Biography, I was excited to read it.

Although London’s location in the Thames basin means it has always been susceptible to mist and damp, London Fog begins in the 1840s, when the city’s rapid expansion and industrialisation meant London began to suffer from fog in earnest. The book’s narrative ends in the 1960s; the last major period of fog London experienced was in December 1962. For more than a century the city suffered from dense, cloying fog during the winter months that was capable of shutting down the city by reducing visibility to almost zero, and caused breathing difficulties, respiratory illnesses, and even death.

Christine L. Corton uses the fog to tell a social, cultural, and political history of London between those two dates. She explores the way that fog was constructed and interpreted in various narratives, including political debates and identity. Over the course of the century in which fog was a defining characteristic of London life it was the subject of many arguments about what caused the fog, what was so dangerous about it, what could be done to prevent it, and whose responsibility it was. Corton traces these debates with skill and patience.

There is also a lot of literary and art criticism in London Fog; Corton devotes significant attention to how fog in London has been represented in various art forms including paintings, photography, novels, and films. In this way, London Fog reminds me of Nightwalking by Mathew Beaumont, which explores the literary history of London at night. Whereas Nightwalking suffers from a distinct lack of female writers, however, London Fog does discuss female artists.

London Fog is obviously the product of extensive and detailed research. It is full of wonderful images, often in colour. This is a big plus; it is quite unusual for books like this to have so many high-quality images. The narrative is incredibly detailed, which occasionally causes the pacing to suffer; readers with only a mild interest in the topic may struggle.

There are a huge number of books about London’s history, and it takes a lot to write one that stands out from the crowd. London Fog is about a subject that is quintessentially London, but also manages to be original. It is an excellent example about how something small and specific can be used to better understand the large and general.

Turbulent Londoners: Helen Taylor, 1831-1907

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. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Helen Taylor, a feminist and campaigner.


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Helen Taylor with her stepfather, John Stuart Mill (Source: Wikipedia).

Much of the attention during this centenary year of women’s suffrage has been on the groups who were active immediately before some women won the right to vote in 1918. Whilst groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the Women’s Freedom League were very important in the struggle for the right to vote, the campaign actually went back much further than that, to the mid-nineteenth century. One of the first prominent campaigners for women’s rights was Helen Taylor, daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill.

Helen Taylor was born in London on the 27th of July 1831, the only daughter and youngest child of John and Harriet Taylor. Helen had little formal education as a child, but travelled widely in Europe with her mother. Her father died when she was a teenager in 1849, and her mother remarried the philosopher and politician, John Stuart Mill, two years later. Helen wanted to be an actress, and in 1856 went to work for a provincial theatre company in the north-east of England. She left when her mother died in 1858, however, and never returned to the stage.

After her mother’s death, Helen moved in with her stepfather and became his assistant. John valued the intelligence and input of his stepdaughter, as he had with his wife; he claimed that his later work was the result of three minds, not one. The two of them split their time between Blackheath in London, and Avignon, where John had bought a house so he could be close to his wife’s grave.

Helen shared a deep passion for the cause of women’s suffrage with John. They both believed that a woman’s right to vote should not be determined by her marital status. This was an issue that divided suffrage campaigners in the 1860s. Helen played a key role in the 1866 petition calling for right to vote to be extended to all householders, not only men. Helen helped to draft the petition, and was the link between the women who organised it and her stepfather, who presented the petition to parliament on the 7th of June. 1,499 women signed the petition, and although it was dismissed by the parliament, it is often viewed as the start of the organised campaign for the vote.

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The first page of a pamphlet version of the 1866 petition presented to parliament asking that some women be given the right to vote (Source: LSE)

Despite her firm and often loudly voiced opinions, Helen was popular amongst feminists in London. She was a member of the Kensington Group, a female discussion group formed in 1865. After the 1866 petition was rejected, this group formed the basis of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. After John Stuart Mill’s death in 1873, Helen spent time editing and publishing his work.

The Contagious Diseases Acts were a series of controversial laws that regulated prostitution in military areas. They placed most of the responsibility, and punishment, on the women rather than their customers. During the 1870s there was a strong campaign to repeal the Acts. Helen supported this campaign, and saw it as evidence that women needed to be represented in parliament. She worried that the suffrage cause would be damaged by an association with prostitution, however, and tried to keep the two causes separate.

When John Stuart Mill died, Helen was left financially independent and able to devote herself entirely to her own projects. In 1876, she stood for election to the Southwark school board. She won, and was re-elected twice more before she retired in 1884. She was very popular in this role, campaigning for free and universal education, the abolition of corporal punishment, and for free meals and clothing for the poorest children. Helen was also a supporter of Irish Home Rule, particularly land reform. She was the only woman to serve on the executive of the Land Nationalisation League.

Helen had strong views on morality; she was a member of the Moral Reform Union and the National Vigilance Association. In 1885, secretary of the Vigilance Association William Alexander Coote failed to secure the Liberal nomination for the constituency of Camberwell North. Enraged by this, Helen decided to stand for election herself, 34 years before women were actually allowed to stand for election as MPs. The returning officer refused to accept her nomination or election deposit, but her radical campaign platform gained a lot of attention–she advocated universal suffrage, home rule for Ireland, free universal education, graduated direct income tax, and the banning of war unless the people consented to it.

In the late 1880s Helen retired from public life, and spent most of her time in Avignon, where her mother was buried. She returned in England in late 1904 due to poor health, and was cared for by her niece in Torquay. She died on the 29th of January 1907. Helen Taylor was a woman of strong opinions, which she was not afraid to express. This led to strained relationships with other feminist activists, but she was well respected for her intelligence and determination. She helped pave the way for the women whose campaigning in the early 1900s would eventually win women the right to vote.

Sources and Further Reading

Levine, Philippa. “Taylor, Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 8th October 2009, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-36431?rskey=nioAzW&result=1 [requires subscription to access].

LSE. “The 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition.” Last modified 7th June 2106, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsehistory/2016/06/07/the-1866-womens-suffrage-petition/

Simkin, John. “Kensington Society.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified September 1997, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wkensington.htm

Wikipedia. “Helen Taylor (feminist).” Last modified 13th March 2018, accessed 31st August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Taylor_(feminist)

Protest Stickers: New Orleans

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Someone got creative with this road sign in New Orleans (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to go to New Orleans. It’s a city I have always wanted to visit, and it more than lived up to my expectations. It is a vibrant city, full of excellent music, good food, and wonderful people. New Orleans is not without its problems however; the city has become increasingly segregated since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and it has an uneasy relationship with one of its most important industries, tourism (I wrote about the problems with AirBnB in New Orleans here). However, it doesn’t seem to be a city that shies away from it’s problems. The protest stickers I found suggest that New Orleans is a city with a healthy political culture, and I’m certain it’s people will never stop trying to make it a better place.

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Every so often, I find stickers that other people have altered in some way, either by writing on them or scratching parts off. I found quite a few in New Orleans, suggesting that people might take notice of stickers more there than in other cities. The message of this sticker has been altered to mean the complete opposite of what was originally intended. I’m not sure what it’s referring too, but I found the sticker on Bourbon Street, infamous party street and now major tourist trap. There are several strip clubs on Bourbon Street, and strip clubs are an issue that divides feminists, so it could be about that, but it could also be about something completely different (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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With some careful scratching, this sticker has been transformed from anti-fascist to pro-fascist (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The message of this sticker has been almost entirely obscured. However, I found the same sticker in other places, so I know that the missing words are “Putin’s penis” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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It is not clear, but this sticker has been altered to read “Trump is an asset.” As much as I disagree with the altered sticker, I can’t help thinking it’s quite a clever edit. However, it looks as if someone else might have tried to scribble out this altered message too (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The American President Donald Trump was the subject of quite a few of the stickers I found. Unsurprising really, as calling him a controversial figure would be a major understatement (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This one is a little more subtle in its critique (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker makes use of the popular cartoon Rick and Morty to criticise Trump (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I think this sticker is particularly clever. The building behind the crime scene tape is the White House (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Another popular topic of protest stickers in New Orleans was the police. The message of this one is pretty clear (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Throughout history, the policing of nightlife has often caused tension between authorities and citizens, particularly minority groups (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker plays with the concept of Neighbourhood Watch areas, which is where the logo comes from. The real Neighbourhood Watch programme in the US is run by the National Sheriff’s Association though, so I doubt the anti-police message comes from them. This sticker was made by a group called CrimethInc., an anarchist alliance (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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ACAB is a popular anti-police acronym, it stands for All Cops are Bastards. In the case of this sticker, though, it also means something less contentious (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker also hides it’s anti-policing message by giving a different meaning to ACAB. It’s still a relatively subversive message, though; autonomous communities govern themselves, without any outside interference (Photo:Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker adapts the “Refugees Welcome” slogan and symbol that has become popular since the refugee crisis began a few years ago (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is more of a poster than a sticker, but I liked it, so decided to leave it in. Someone tried to remove it, but the message is still clear (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker links capitalism and climate change, and I think it is quite effective (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Equitable Food Initiative claims to work across the food supply chain to get a better deal for farm workers, but it seems someone disapproves. I wasn’t able to find out anything about why that might be (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I mentioned the debate over strip clubs earlier, and this sticker was obviously produced by someone who likes stripping, for whatever reason (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker was produced by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) which works to defend individual rights and liberties in the US (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Book Review: American Uprising- The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

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American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen.

Daniel Rasmussen. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. RRP $15.99 paperback.

Earlier this year, I visited New Orleans. It is a wonderful city, but it’s history of race relations is troubled, to put it mildly. An area called the German Coast sits just a few miles north-west of the city, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the nineteenth century, it was some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in America. The most common crop was sugar, and the owners of the plantations along the river grew incredibly rich from it. But it was a system built on slavery. By 1810, 75% of the local population were slaves. Faced with a daily assault of cruel, dehumanising, and violent treatment, it is no surprise that slaves found subtle ways to resist the system. Occasionally, this resistance took the form of armed rebellion. In January 1811, between 200 and 500 enslaved men undertook an armed uprising on the German Coast. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt tells the story of this revolt, and makes a convincing argument for its significance in the development of the modern United States of America.

This is a story about slave revolutionaries: their lives, their politics, and their fight to the death against the planters and their militia. Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.

Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3

As author Daniel Rasmussen himself argues, the German Coast Uprising has received limited attention from historians over the years. In addition, because the participants were slaves, archival documents relating to the uprising are scarce–accounts from the perspective of the slaves themselves are almost non-existent. Even the names of most of the participants are unknown to us. As a result, Rasmussen has to be creative in the way that he reconstructs the story of the revolt. For example, he uses the accounts of other enslaved people, such as Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup (who’s story of slavery formed the basis for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave), to give the reader an idea of what life would have been like for the slaves who participated in the revolt.

American Uprising does a good job of  telling the story of the revolt in an engaging and accessible way. But Rasmussen also goes beyond this narrative, to explore how the uprising was represented and interpreted, both immediately afterwards, and later by historians. The uprising was quickly depoliticised by those in authority, its participants portrayed as animalistic and violent criminals in a narrative that is still frequently used in relation to riots and other violent protests.

As the map at the beginning of the book demonstrates, the United States of America was still very much a work-in-progress in 1811; Louisiana had only been part of the Union since 1803, and it didn’t obtain statehood until 1812. Rasmussen explains how the uprising played an important role in justifying the necessity of statehood for Louisiana, and helped pave the way for further American expansionism over the next few decades. This is one of the key points in Rasmussen’s argument that the uprising deserves much more attention than it currently gets.

I bought American Uprising whilst I was in Louisiana in order to learn more about the state’s history of dissent. I got much more than that; the book explores the significance of the uprising far beyond the local area, putting it in the context of the development of a nation. American Uprising is well-written and enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of protest, slavery, race relations, or imperial expansionism.

Turbulent Londoners: Flora Drummond, 1879-1949

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 on 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. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Flora Drummond, a WSPU organiser who was nicknamed ‘The General.’


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Flora Drummond as a young woman (Source: Spartacus Educational).

Flora Drummond (nee. Gibson, later Simpson) was a talented organiser and public speaker. She became involved in the suffrage movement after a personal experience of injustice, and went on to become one of the most well-known organisers in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Thanks to her effective organisation skills she became known as ‘the General’ and embraced this nickname, leading suffragette marches dressed in military style uniform and riding a horse.

Flora Gibson was born on 4th August 1878, the daughter of a tailor. Although she was born in Manchester, she grew up on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. When she was 14 she left school and moved to Glasgow to continue her education. She completed the qualification to be a postmistress, but was denied a job because of new regulations that required workers to be at least 5 foot 2 inches tall. Flora was 5 foot 1 inch. She felt this injustice very deeply, believing that the rule discriminated against women because they were shorter on average. Despite this setback, she went on to get further qualifications in short hand and typing.

In 1898, Flora married Joseph Drummond, and the couple moved to Manchester. Both were active in the Fabian Society and International Labour Party. Flora worked in various factories, so she could better understand what life was like for the women who had no choice but to work there. When her husband became unemployed, however, Flora became the sole breadwinner and worked as manager at the Oliver Typewriter Company.

Flora joined the WSPU in Manchester, and moved with it down to London in 1906, when she became a paid full-time organiser, along with Annie Kenney and Minnie Baldock. Her extensive organisational skills were quickly recognised by the WSPU; in 1908 she was put in charge of the group’s headquarters in Clement’s Inn. She was popular and innovative in this role. Flora also had a flair for dramatic protests. That same year, she hired a boat and floated on the Thames outside the Houses of Parliament, addressing the MPs that were sat on the riverside terrace. In October, Flora was a key organiser of a rally in Trafalgar Square. Because of her role, she was arrested for inciting suffragettes to rush the House of Commons, and was sentenced to 3 months in prison, alongside Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. She was released early when it was discovered she was pregnant. Flora would be imprisoned a total of 9 times for the suffrage cause, and went on hunger strike on several of those occasions. It was around this time that Flora acquired the nickname ‘the General,’ for her enthusiastic and effective organisation skills. She embraced the nickname, and began wearing a military style uniform on demonstrations.

'General' Flora Drummond, 1907.

Flora loved her nickname, ‘the General,’ and played into it, wearing a military style uniform on protests (Source: Getty Images).

In October 1909, Flora moved to Glasgow and organised the first militant pro-suffrage march in Edinburgh. She also ran the WSPU’s general election campaign in 1910, before returning to London in 1911. Flora was captain of the WSPU’s Cycling Scouts. Based in London, this group of women would cycle out to the surrounding countryside to give pro-suffrage speeches. By 1914, Flora’s health was suffering from repeated imprisonments and hunger strikes. She returned to the Isle of Arran to recuperate, but came back to London when war broke out. From this point onward, however, she focused on public speaking and administration, avoiding direct action in order to minimise her chances of arrest; her organisational skills meant she was more useful to the cause outside of prison anyway. During the First World War, Flora stayed loyal to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and threw herself behind the war effort. Proving she had abandoned the left-wing politics of her youth, Flora toured the country trying to persuade trade unionists not to strike.

In 1918, Flora helped Christabel in her unsuccessful election campaign standing for the Women’s Party in Smethick. In 1922, she divorced Joseph and later married Alan Simpson. Flora co-founded the Women’s Guild of Empire, a right-wing campaign group opposed to both communism and fascism. The group’s main aim was to increase patriotism amongst working-class women and prevent strikes and lockouts. In 1925, the group had 40,000 members. The following year, Flora led the Great Prosperity March, which demanded an end to the unrest which would soon peak with the General Strike.

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A portrait of Flora by the artist Flora Lion painted in 1936. Flora is wear a medal in the WSPU colours (Source: National Galleries Scotland).

Flora died on the Isle of Arran on 7th January 1949. Well-liked, witty, and innovative, she is well known as one of the most dynamic members of the WSPU. She continued campaigning for what she believed in even after women won right to the vote, and even in her old age she was a good-natured and determined woman. Although I disagree with her later politics, I wouldn’t mind being a bit more ‘Flora.’

Sources and Further Reading

BBC Scotland. “Ballots, Bikes and Broken Windows: How Two Scottish Suffragettes Fought for the Right to Vote. Last modified 6 February 2018, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5cdhGvg5Lcy52KPV7xY7YBS/ballots-bikes-and-broken-windows-how-two-scottish-suffragettes-fought-for-the-right-to-vote

Cowman, Crista. “Drummond [nee Gibson; other married name Simpson], Flora McKinnon.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 6 January 2011, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/39177 [this reference requires a subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Flora Drummond. ” Last modified January 2015, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wdrummond.htm

The Herald Scotland. “Belated Salute to the General.” Last modified 15th May 2001, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12168905.Belated_salute_to_the__apos_General_apos__At_last_a_memorial_is_to_be_erected_to__an_extraordinary_Scots_suffragette___as_Jennifer_Cunningham_discovers/

Wikipedia. “Flora Drummond.” Last modified 11 July 2018, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Drummond

Represent! Exhibition at the People’s History Museum

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The People’s History Museum is devoted to the development of democracy in Britain (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I wrote about my visit to the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. As I noted in that post, there a lot of books, events, documentaries, and exhibitions commemorating the centenary of some women winning the right to vote. I recently visited another exhibition inspired by this anniversary, this time at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. The museum’s collections are all about the development of democracy in Britain, so the centenary of the Representation of the People Act is an event they really couldn’t ignore. The result is Represent! Voices 100 Years On, a thoughtful exhibition that explores how far political representation, in a variety of forms, has come since 1918.

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The Represent! exhibition is on at the People’s History Museum until 3rd February 2019 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Represent! is crowd-sourced and inspired by zines–low-cost, self-published magazines that have been closely associated with radical culture since the 1960s. Acknowledging that voting is only one form of political representation, the exhibition also considers other kinds of representation, such as media, self-representation, and voice (protest). It also asks questions about the ‘legacy’ of 1918, questioning whether you (the visitor) feels sufficiently represented, and what can be done to reduce inequality and increase representation of marginalised groups. The exhibition includes images, placards, banners, art, clothing, and films. Much of the text is in the form of quotes from those who contributed the items (such as activists, historians, and journalists), so it feels as if they are telling their story in their own words. There are also a series of ‘referendums’ dotted around the exhibition (e.g. is it ever justified to break the law during a protest? Should the voting age be lowered 16?), so visitors can add their voice to the exhibition too.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a recently rediscovered banner from the Manchester branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was uncovered last year in a charity shop in Leeds, and was bought by the People’s History Museum, partially thanks to a Crowdfunder campaign. There are links throughout the exhibition between the women’s suffrage campaign and modern social movements: a replica suffragette’s outfit is contrasted with the outfit worn by a member of Sisters Uncut at a recent protest; and connections are drawn between suffragette’s experiences of prison and Safety4Sisters, whose work includes campaigning for the rights to detained migrant women. These connections encourage the visitor to think about how far we have (or haven’t) come in the 100 years since the Representation of the People Act.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition is a WSPU banner, more than a century old, that the museum bought last year after it was discovered in a charity shop (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There is no obvious order in which to move around the exhibition, no single narrative to follow. This is apparently becoming an increasingly common strategy for museums, giving visitors the freedom to choose how they experience exhibitions. Whilst I understand the logic behind it, I still find it a bit disconcerting, like if left to my own devices I might ‘do it wrong.’ This is something that I will probably get used to as I encounter more museums designed in this way; the Museum of Warsaw is another example of this unstructured style that I have visited recently. For now, however, it does make me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Represent! is a thought-provoking exhibition that asks more questions than it answers; I think that is the intention. It is critical and reflective, representing a range of different ideas and voices. I visited on a Saturday and there were very few other people there, which is a real shame, I think it is a fantastic exhibition which as many people should visit as possible. It is open until the 3rd of February 2019, so do go and check it out if you get the chance!

Voice and Vote Exhibition at the Houses of Parliament

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Me at the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall at the UK Parliament (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK. The anniversary has been marked with a whole range of events, books, documentaries and exhibitions (I have collected together all my blog posts on the topics here). One of the exhibitions is Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. It is only a small exhibition, but it does a great job of putting the story of women’s fight for the right to vote in the context of the spaces women have occupied in Parliament both before and after 1918.

The exhibition is divided into 4 areas: the ventilator, the cage, the tomb, and the chamber. Each area includes a reconstruction of a particular space that women have inhabited in parliament over the last few centuries. These spaces include a ventilator shaft in the loft space above the House of Commons chamber which women used to listen to debates before Parliament was destroyed during a fire in 1834; the Ladies Gallery, a small and stuffy viewing space high up in the rebuilt chamber; the broom cupboard in which Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the 1911 census; the Lady Members’ room (known as ‘the tomb’) which became increasingly overcrowded as female MPs were elected in the years after 1918; and the chamber of the House of Commons, in which 208 women now sit.

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The Voice and Votes exhibition in Westminster Hall makes good use of its limited space (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Alongside these recreated spaces are items, documents, images and quotes that illustrate women’s relationship with the UK’s democratic system both before and after they won the right to vote. Parliament has quite substantial archival collections of its own, and many of the items on display came from these collections. Personal highlights for me were a banner used during a protest in which Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to the bars covering the windows of the Ladies Gallery in 1908, and a pair of bolt cutters bought afterwards so that similar protests could be dealt with more easily. They were used in April 1909 to remove members of the WSPU that had chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen’s Hall. Other items are loaned from elsewhere, including papers and objects relating to Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins, which are still owned by her family.

Voice and Vote is a small exhibition, but it makes the most of the space. It contains a lot of items and information, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. The recreated spaces are an effective way of putting the visitor in the shoes of the women who interacted with Parliament over the last few centuries, even when they were not welcome. They are a clear way of structuring the exhibition, and they are something a bit different–a creative and novel way of engaging with history.

I would highly recommend a visit to Voice and Vote. It is well designed, and puts the campaign for women’s suffrage in wider context of women in Parliament. I also think it will appeal to those who have limited background knowledge, and those who already know quite a bit about women’s history in British politics. The capacity of the exhibition is limited, so it is recommended that you book, and it runs until 6th of October 2018.

Commemorating Resistance during World War 2 in Warsaw: Part 2

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Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Industry was a gift from the USSR to Poland. Built in 1955, it is one of the city’s stand-out landmarks (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A few months ago, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. Whenever I visit a new place I try to find out as much as I can about its history of radicalism and dissent, and there’s no doubt that Warsaw has plenty of that. In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May 1943, and the ways that it is remembered in Warsaw’s streets and museums. Part 2 is about the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted for 63 days in 1944. The Uprising has an entire museum dedicated to it, as well as an impressive monument.

Warsaw Uprising

During the summer of 1944, the German Army was retreating across Poland, pursued by the Soviet Army. The Polish Home Army undertook uprisings in several cities in order to help the Soviet Army, and to assert Polish sovereignty–there were fears that the German occupying force would just be replaced with a Russian one. As the Soviet Army advanced towards the Vistula river, the Home Army in Warsaw decided to begin their own uprising on 1st August. It became the largest military effort of any resistance movement during the Second World War.

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A group of Home Army soldiers pose on a pile of rubble in Warsaw (Source: Imperial War Museum).

The uprising was only ever supposed to last a few days, until the Soviet Army reached Warsaw. However, the Soviets halted their advance on the eastern bank of the Vistula, and the resistance forces ended up fighting, almost entirely unsupported, for 63 days. The Home Army, aided by other groups including the National Armed Forces and the communist People’s Army, quickly took control of large sections of Warsaw. These areas were separated from each other however, and communication was difficult. The resistance fighters had received training in guerrilla warfare, but they were inexperienced at prolonged fighting in daylight and severely under equipped.

On the 4th of August, the Germans started to receive reinforcements, and began to counterattack. The following day, they began a systematic massacre of civilians in order to crush the resistance’s resolve. The strategy backfired however, only making the people of Warsaw more determined. Resistance fighters captured the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto (see Part 1), and liberated the Gesiowka concentration camp. At the end of August, the resistance decided to abandon the Old Town; the area was evacuated through the city’s sewers, which also served as a major means of communication for the resistance. The resistance eventually surrendered to the Germans on 2nd October; the expected help from the Soviets never came. The city wasn’t captured until 17th January 1945, giving the Germans plenty of time to systematically destroy the city and transport many of its residents to work and concentration camps.

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A Home Army soldier surrenders his weapon after the uprising ends (Source: Imperial War Museum).

Life in Warsaw was very hard during the uprising, for civilians as well as resistance fighters. There were severe shortages of food; people largely survived on ‘spit soup,’ made from barley captured from the Haberbusch i Schiele brewery. The media flourished in the city however, multiple newspapers were published frequently, and 30,000 metres of film documenting the uprising was produced.

Warsaw Rising Museum

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The Warsaw Rising Museum in Wola district of Warsaw (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Warsaw Rising Museum was opened in 2004, to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising. The Museum contains more than 800 items and 1500 photographs and videos spread over 3000 square metres. It covers all aspects of the uprising, and provides visitors with a huge amount of information. It is arranged chronologically, and I would recommend following the order of the galleries carefully (you go from the ground floor to the top, then work your way back down, which could be more clearly sign posted). I think you need at least 3 hours to see everything, and I would recommend stopping halfway through for a drink and a slice of cake in the cafe, otherwise you will get too tired to take it all in properly. A highlight for me was the Kino Palladium, a small cinema that shows footage of the uprising that was used to make newsreels. I was also particularly moved by the collection of armbands. Soldiers in the uprising didn’t have uniforms, so used red and white armbands to identify themselves. Some people personalised theirs, and it really brought the human element of the uprising home to me.

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Resistance fighters wore armbands instead of uniforms to identify themselves. Some of them have been given to the museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Monuments and Memorials

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This wall in Freedom Park documents the names of more than 10,000 resistance fighters who died during the uprising.

The Uprising Museum is located in Freedom Park, where you can also find several memorials connected to the uprising. The memorial wall documents the name of more than 10,000 resistance fighters who died during the fighting. Set within the wall is a bell dedicated to General Antoni Chrusciel, one of the uprising’s leaders. There is also a memorial to the estimated 150,000 civilians who lost their lives during the uprising, as well as the 550,000 who were deported from the city after the uprising failed.

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The memorial in Freedom Park to civilians killed and displaced during and after the uprising (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Little Insurgent monument is located in Podwale Street on the outskirts of the Old Town (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Set into the city walls surrounding Old Town is the Little Insurgent, a memorial to the children and young people who served as orderlies and runners during the uprising. The statue is based on a small plaster statuette created after the war by sculptor Jerzy Jarnuszjiewicz. It was paid for by former scouts, and unveiled in 1983 by Jerzy Swiderski, a cardiologist who had served as a scout during the uprising. It is a moving reminder of how the uprising consumed every aspect of Warsaw; even children could not escape the brutality.

 

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The Warsaw Uprising Monument in Krasinki Square (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The best-known memorial to the uprising, the Warsaw Uprising Monument, is on a much grander scale. Located on the southern side of Krasinki Square, the momument was unveiled in 1989, and is up to 10 metres tall. The monument has two sections: the larger represents a group of insurgents in combat, running from a collapsing building; the smaller section, in the foreground of the above photo, shows fighters and civilian woman climbing into a manhole. This is an acknowledgment of the significance of the city’s sewer system to the uprising. The monument is impressive, and you’d be hard pushed to walk past without stopping for a closer look. Monuments and statues can often blend into the street around them, which I think defeats one of the key objectives of memorials; drawing attention to the event, person or people it is meant to commemorate. There is no danger of the Warsaw Uprising Monument failing to attract attention.

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The larger section of the Warsaw Uprising Monument, depicting resistance fighters in combat (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Like all cities, Warsaw’s past is inscribed into its streets, buildings and public spaces. Warsaw’s history is more violent than many cities–it has faced more than it’s share of death, destruction, and upheaval, and not just during the Second World War. There a number of different approaches to dealing with such a traumatic history in Warsaw: the city’s museums use different balances of objects and multimedia; and the monuments work on different scales, from the small and personal to the grand and official. Which approaches work best probably depends on personal taste, but the fact that so much effort and thought has gone into all of these commemorative practices  demonstrates an admirable relationship with the past.

Sources and Further Reading

Frederico. “The Warsaw Uprising Museum.” Odd Urban Things. Last modified 13th March 2017, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://www.oddurbanthings.com/warsaw-uprising-museum/

Polish Tourism Organisation. “Monument of the Little Insurgent in Warsaw.” no date, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://poland.travel/en/museum/monument-of-the-little-insurgent-in-warsaw

Simkin, John. “Warsaw Uprising.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/2WWwarsawU.htm

The Warsaw Rising Museum. “The Warsaw Rising Museum.” No date, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://www.1944.pl/en/article/the-warsaw-rising-museum,4516.html

Trueman, C N. “The Warsaw Uprising of 1944.” The History Learning Site. Last modified 18th May 2015, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-two/world-war-two-and-eastern-europe/the-warsaw-uprising-of-1944/

Wikipedia. “Warsaw Uprising.” Last modified 21st August 2018, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising

Wikipedia. “Warsaw Uprising Monument.” Last modified 28th March 2018, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising_Monument

Commemorating Resistance during World War 2 in Warsaw: Part 1

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Warsaw’s Old Town was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War, and was rebuilt in the 1950s. The mermaid is the city’s symbol (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In July, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. The Polish capital is a vibrant city with a fascinating, if traumatic, history. As ever, I paid particular attention to the history of protest and dissent in the city, and Warsaw has plenty of that. Whilst under German occupation during the Second World War, the city experienced two significant uprisings. The first took place in the Jewish ghetto in April and May 1943, and is known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The second is known simply as the Warsaw Uprising, and engulfed the whole city between August and October 1944. In retaliation for these two events, the Nazis destroyed more than 85% of the city. The total death toll from both events is around a quarter of a million people, both combatants and civilians. It is hard to forget such awful events, but they are still actively commemorated in Warsaw, both in the city’s museums, and on the streets through memorials. This post will focus on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whilst Part 2 will look at the Warsaw Uprising.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Captured Jews during Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Jews captured by German soldiers during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April-May 1943. This picture was used during the Nuremberg Trials, and became very well known (Source: National Archives and Records Administration).

Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was established not long after. More than 400,000 people were crammed into an area of little more than one square mile, and many died from disease and starvation. In 1942, the Germans began deporting people from the ghetto to concentration camps (mainly Treblinka) and forced-labour camps. Around 300,000 people were deported or murdered, leaving 55-60,000 fearing they would suffer the same fate. They began to develop resistance organisations; the Jewish Combat Organisation (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) decided to work together to oppose any further deportations. On 18 January 1943, the fighters manage to disrupt a deportation, and drive the Germans out of the ghetto.

Buoyed by this success, the ghetto population began to build underground bunkers in case the Germans tried any more deportations. Unfortunately, the reprieve was only temporary, and German soldiers re-entered the ghetto on 19 April. Most of the ghetto’s residents were hiding in the bunkers or elsewhere. The Germans put down the uprising by destroying the ghetto building by building, forcing people out of hiding. Resistance continued for almost a month, but on 16 May the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street was destroyed to symbolise the German victory. Almost all of the remaining Jews were deported.

German soldiers burn buildings during Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

German soldiers systematically burnt the buildings in the Warsaw ghettos to drive out the people hiding within (Source: National Archives and Records Administration).

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest Jewish uprising, and the first urban uprising, in German-occupied Europe. It inspired uprisings in other ghettos and concentration camps. Although the ghetto was destroyed during the uprising, its memory is inscribed in the urban fabric of Warsaw through various memorials. It is also commemorated in the city’s museums.

Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews

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The Museum of the History of Polish Jews was purpose-built. It is a striking building, and everything about its design is symbolic (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Opened in 2013, Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews won European Museum of the Year in 2016, and it’s clear why. It uses the latest technology to explore 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland, and it is absolutely overflowing with information. The building was constructed in the former ghetto, in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (more on this later). Personally, it was a little lacking in actual objects for my taste, but it’s still a wonderful museum. One of my favourite things about it is that it whilst it does cover the holocaust, it doesn’t dwell on it. Jewish history in Poland is so much more than World War Two, and Polin reflects that. It does, however, cover the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it does it well.

Memorials

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The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes stands opposite the Polin museum, but it has been there for a lot longer, since 1948 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There are many memorials in the area of Warsaw that used to be the Jewish ghetto, but there are two that relate directly to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The first, as I mentioned above, is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, next to Polin. Designed by Natan Rappaport and Leon Marek Suzin, the monument was built in 1948, near to the location of the first skirmish between the Jewish resistance fighters and German soldiers. It is an imposing structure, built from stone that was originally bought to Warsaw by the Nazis; it was intended to be used for monuments to Hitler’s victory. There is a bronze sculpture on the western side of the monument, depicting both resistance fighters and civilians. It represents the resistance’s struggle, and the suffering that civilians experienced. On the eastern side is a relief of women, children and the elderly being led by German soldiers.

During a state visit to Warsaw in 1970, Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany, fell to his knees in front of the Monument in a solemn gesture of apology and regret. It was a fitting location for such a significant political act; the Monument has a very grand, official feel. The second monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that I visited feels much more personal.

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The remains of the bunker at 18 Mila Street, destroyed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising with more than 100 people inside (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A few hundred metres from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, on the corner on Mila and Dubois streets, is a large mound of earth surrounded by trees. It is all that remains on the bunker at 18 Mila Street, one of the largest bunkers built during the Ghetto Uprising. It it thought that more than 100 people died within the bunker, both resistance fighters and civilians. Many of their names are not known, but it is thought that Mordechaj Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the resistance, was killed there. Their bodies remain there, in the words of the monument, “to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.” I personally found this memorial much more moving than the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes; it feels more connected to the extent of the human tragedy experienced by Jewish people during the German occupation of Poland.

Warsaw is a city that is thriving in almost every way, but you don’t have to look far to find signs of its traumatic history. Varsovians don’t try to ignore that history or sweep it under the carpet, but neither do they dwell on it. I think it is a city that has struck a good balance between learning from the past and looking to the future.

Don’t forget to check out Part 2 of this post, about the Warsaw Uprising, here.

Sources and Further Reading

History. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” Last modified 2009, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/warsaw-ghetto-uprising

Polin. “Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (9/11 Zamenhofa Street).” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://sztetl.org.pl/en/towns/w/18-warszawa/116-sites-of-martyrdom/52110-monument-ghetto-heroes-911-zamenhofa-street

Polin. “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Historical Information.” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at http://www.polin.pl/en/news/2017/03/17/the-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-historical-information

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005188

 

 

On This Day: The Battle of Lewisham, 13th August 1977

Most people who know anything about the history of protest in London are familiar with the Battle of Cable Street, which is remembered by many as a victory of anti-fascism over the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists in 1936. Less well-known is the Battle of Lewisham, which took place four decades later in South East London. The two events share many similarities; the Battle of Lewisham was also sparked by attempts to prevent a far-right group from promoting a xenophobic message by marching through the streets of London, and it also ended with clashes between demonstrators and police. It is also seen as the beginning of a decline in the fortunes of the fascist group involved, the National Front, leading to a significant period of unpopularity for far-right ideologies which has only recently come to an end.

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Far-right and left-wing activists clash on the streets of south east London during the Battle of Lewisham (Photo: John Hodder for the Guardian).

The events known as the Battle of Lewisham were spread out over quite a large area, so I put together this map to help make sense of things:

During the mid-1970s, New Cross in south east London was a focus for the organising activities of the National Front, a far-right fascist group. The National Front was quite popular in the area, and in 1976 the All Lewisham Campaign Against Fascism and Racism (ALCARAF) was set up in order to counter this growing popularity. In 1977, tensions increased further due to the arrest and trial of the ‘Lewisham 21,’ 21 young black people whom the police accused of being part of a gang responsible for 90% of the street crime in south east London. The National Front decided to capitalise on this tension, and announced plans for an ‘anti-mugging’ march in the area on the afternoon of 13th August.

Local church leaders, Lewisham Council and the Liberal Party all called for the march to be banned, but David McNee, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, refused. Anti-fascist groups started planning how to disrupt the march itself, but could not agree on the best response. As a result, 3 separate counter demonstrations were planned by different groups:

  1. ALCARAF organised a peaceful demonstration for the morning of the 13th August.
  2. The 13 August Ad Hoc Committee planned to occupy the National Front’s meeting point at Clifton Rise.
  3. The Anti-Racist/Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee (ARAFCC) called for support for the ALCARAF march and for a physical attempt to stop the National Front. To confuse matters further, the ALCARAF was a member of the ARAFCC.

At 11:30 on the 13th of August, the ALCARAF demonstration gathered in Ladywell Fields in Lewisham. Around 5000 people listened to speeches by the Mayor of Lewisham, the Bishop of Southwark and the exiled Bishop of Namibia. After the rally, ALCARAF marched as far as Algernon, where the police turned them back towards Ladywell Fields. After this, however, ARAFCC stewards led people through back streets to New Cross Road, which was part of the National Front’s planned route. As a result, lots of people made it from the ALCARAF demonstration to the afternoon protests.

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Police officers attempt to hold back demonstrators (Photo: John Hodder for the Observer).

The first clashes between police and counter-demonstrators happened at about 12:00 pm, when Socialist Worker Party activists were evicted from a derelict shop on New Cross Road near Clifton Rise. There were further clashes when the police tried to force the demonstrators down Clifton Rise, away from Achilles Street, where the National Front started assembling at about 1:30 pm. At 3:00 pm, the police escorted the National Front out of Achilles Street and onto New Cross Road. The police had cleared a route with some difficulty, but the road was still lined with people, and the National Front were pelted with bricks, smoke bombs, bottles and other objects. Some protesters managed to break through the police lines and separate the back of the march from everyone else. National Front banners were captured and burnt before the police managed to separate the two groups. Mounted police were used to clear a path through crowds who were trying to stop the National Front advancing along New Cross Road. The police used roadblocks to keep people out of the area, and officers surrounded the National Front 3 deep.

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National Front marchers surrounded by police officers (Photo: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy).

Anti-fascist protesters went to Lewisham town centre, where the National Front march was supposed to finish, and blocked the High Street. As a result, the National Front had a short rally in a car park on Cressington Road, then were escorted by the police to trains which were waiting at Lewisham Station to take them out of the area. Most counter-demonstrators were not aware that the National Front had left the area, and clashes continued between them and the police for several more hours. At one point, the police briefly lost control of central Lewisham, a period that was later dubbed ‘the People’s Republic of Lewisham Clock Tower.’ Throughout the day, more than 100 people were injured, about half of them police officers, and around 200 were arrested.

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Anti-fascist protesters gather at the junction of New Cross Road and Lewisham Way (Photo: Chris Schwartz).

The Battle of Lewisham was a humiliation for the National Front. They were vastly outnumbered by counter demonstrators, and what was meant to be a show of strength and legitimacy made them look weak and unpopular. It was also a significant moment in the history of protest policing: it was the first time riot shields were used on the British mainland (many tools used to police protesters were used in northern Ireland first). Baton charges and mounted police were also used to try and disperse protests, a technique which has become familiar to activists in London over the last few decades.

According to the Remembering the Battle of Lewisham project, undertaken by Goldsmiths to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Battle in 2017, very few people know what happened in south east London that day in 1977. On the 40th anniversary of the Battle, a plaque commemorating the protest was installed on 314 New Cross Road. There are also plans for a community memorial to be situated on nearby Batavia Road. Perhaps projects like these will make more people aware of what happened during the Battle of Lewisham. As people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees Mogg continue to gain power and influence, it can only be a good thing for people to know that fascism can be defeated by popular protest.

Sources and Further Reading

Goldsmiths, University of London. “Remembering the Battle of Lewisham 40 Years on.” No date, accessed 8 August 2018. Available at  https://www.gold.ac.uk/history/research/battle-of-lewisham/ (There are a lot of great resources on these webpages).

Townsend, Mark. “How the Battle of Lewisham Helped to Halt the Rise of Britain’s Far Right.” The Guardian. Last modified 13 August 2017, accessed 8 August 2018. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/13/battle-of-lewisham-national-front-1977-far-right-london-police

Whitmore, Greg. “Flares and Fury: The Battle of Lewisham 1977–in Pictures.” The Guardian. Last modified 12 August 2017, accessed 8 August 2018. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/gallery/2017/aug/12/flares-and-fury-the-battle-of-lewisham-1977

Wikipedia. “Battle of Lewisham.” Last modified 5 January 2018, accessed 8 August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lewisham