Book Review: ‘Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s History’

Rosenberg, David. Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History. London: Pluto Press, 2015

“Londoners today are not short of issues to protest about. And as we continue to march through the streets of our capital city, holding placards and banners, singing, blowing whistles, chanting slogans and voicing our demands, we are walking on well-trodden ground. But we are also elevated, as we stand on the shoulders of those rebels who came before us, who refused to accept the status quo, and who set out on paths of protest. This book honours and celebrates those rebels who dreamt of a better life and aims to ensure that their ideals continue to live in the hearts and minds of those who campaign for justice and equality in our metropolis today.”

Billy Bragg “Foreword,” p.6

 

The cover of 'Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London's Radical History.'

The cover of ‘Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History.’

Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History is a sort of hybrid history-guide book. It deals with the radical people and events of London between the 1830s and 1930s, but with a twist. Each chapter is accompanied by a do-it-yourself walking tour, complete with maps, which the reader can use to explore some of London’s most radical areas. Rosenberg points out that London’s physical environments are changing so quickly that the past could be easily forgotten. Radicals such as Charlotte Despard and William Cuffay are not the sort of people who get statues built in their honour, so we need to find others ways to remember them. And what better way than walking in their footsteps, following their footprints through the streets on which they fought for the causes they believed in?

I have always felt that the best way to get to know a city is to walk around it, and Rebel Footprints personifies that belief. The walking tours provide a fresh angle that makes the book stand out from the many, many others about London’s history, and as a geographer I find the way they engage with the spaces of the city especially gratifying. I do wonder how many readers will actually do the walking tours (I haven’t yet, although I am very keen to find the time), but then I also wonder how much that actually matters. Even if the book just makes people think about the spaces of London a bit differently then it has achieved something, and it is still an engaging and well-illustrated read. Rosenberg is actually a tour guide himself, he leads several wonderful tours around radical London, and this experience really shines through the pages, as well as the extensive research that was obviously necessary for the book. As an academic I find the lack of referencing frustrating (I would like to know where Rosenberg got some of his sources from!), but I acknowledge that the book isn’t aimed at an academic audience, so references are not expected.

The map of the Bermondsey walking tour from 'Rebel Footprints' (p. 250).

The map of the Bermondsey walking tour from ‘Rebel Footprints’ (p. 250).

Due to the nature of walking tours, each chapter has a local focus, concentrating on a specific neighbourhood or locale. I think this a really nice approach. If the reader is at all familiar with London then it is likely they will know some of the areas personally, and feel a connection. I have lived in Southwark for almost 2 years now; the University of London has buildings in Bloomsbury, so I spend quite a bit of time there; and before she moved to Crawley after the Second World War my Nan lived in Canning Town- the house where she used to live is still there. So I feel a particular affinity to the chapters focusing on these areas, a sort of pride that the parts of London I am connected to have such a radical history.

Rebel Footprints has special significance in post-General Election 2015. Many people feel a sense of dread at the thought of another five years under a Conservative Government, I am certainly one of them. In some ways the book is depressing, as it shows us all the progress that has been lost since 1940. But in other ways, I found reading Rebel Footprints in the aftermath of the 7th of May quite comforting. The activists, campaigners and radical politicians detailed in the book come from a whole range of backgrounds, and show that anyone can fight for something they feel strongly about. And it is actually possible to win some struggles, as unlikely as that might seem at the moment.

David Rosenberg has written a wonderful book, which greatly benefits from his passion and expertise. I attended a launch event for Rebel Footprints at the Bishopsgate Institute, where Rosenberg said he wanted to write a “history from below,” a book about “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” I think he has done this, and I think he has done it very well.  

Book Review: ‘Striking a Light- The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History’ by Louise Raw

Striking a Light Front Cover

Striking a Light by Louise Raw.

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

I recently finished reading Striking a Light, Louise Raw’s wonderful book about the Bryant and May matchwomen’s strike in East London in 1888. My friends and family would be able to tell you how much of an impression it made on me, as I have spent a lot of time telling them how much I enjoyed it and recommending that they should read it themselves. The matchwomen’s (known to most as the matchgirls) strike is one of the most well-known examples of protest in London’s history, but as Raw expertly explains, much of what we think we know is inaccurate, and doesn’t give the strikers the credit they deserve. The thorough and innovative methodology used in the research also deserves recognition.

Raw conducted thorough analysis of the primary sources to re-evaluate the established narrative of the strike. She argues that the matchwomen were not as helpless and innocent as they were frequently portrayed to be, both at the time and in subsequent historical accounts. Annie Besant, a well-known campaigner at the time, is generally credited with leading the strike, helping the women to achieve what they could not alone. Raw easily demonstrates that although Besant did help the strikers, she did not have an organisational role, it was the women themselves that decided to strike, and organised the following campaign. Raw also uses census data and other sources to dispute the assertion that the women were too disconnected from the dockworkers in East London to have had an influence on the Great Dock Strike in 1889. Striking a Light recognises the bravery and strength of the matchwomen, acknowledging their achievements in a way that has not been done before.

The other element of the book which I particularly admire is the methodology. Raw is clear and explicit about how she conducted her research, including the difficulties she faced, which is something I personally would like to see more of in historical geography. In addition, Raw tracked down the grandchildren of some of the women involved in the strike, in order to find out more about them as women. Although this is a time-consuming method, with some obvious concerns about accuracy, the stories and insights uncovered brought the women to life. Finding sources from the perspective of those who actually took part in historical protests has been a major difficulty for me, as well as more established historians (for example Rudé (2005). Raw’s approach brought home the fact that the strikers were human beings, each with their own unique lives, aspirations, and motivations, something which is easy to forget in the midst of conventional archival research. This is a methodology that I hope I can use in my own research.

Sources

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Rudé, George. The Crowd in History. London: Serif, 2005 [1964].