The Reformers’ Memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery

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The Reformers’ Memorial stands in the non-conformist section of Kensal Green Cemetery in the London borough of Brent (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Reformers’ Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery in Brent in north east London is a lesser-known memorial to 75 British reformers. Some of the better known include: Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer; Charles Bradlaugh, MP and atheist; John Ruskin, writer, artist, and social reformer; William Cobbett, parliamentary reformer; and John Stuart Mill, philosopher and political economist. Erected in 1858, the memorial was update in 1907, restored in 1997, and given Grade II listed status in 2001.

Kensal Green Cemetery was the first of the ‘Magnificent 7′, cemeteries established in the 1830s and 40s in what was then the suburbs of London to reduce overcrowding in inner city burial grounds. Highgate Cemetery, the final resting place of Karl Marx, was the third of the Magnificent 7 to be established, in 1839. Kensal Green Cemetery is well worth a visit in its own right, it has a peaceful, eerie beauty that contrasts sharply with the often manic atmosphere of modern London.

The Reformers’ Memorial is located in the non-conformist section of the cemetery, located close to the main entrance, near the crossroads of Harrow Road and Ladbroke Grove/Killburn Lane (I’m giving detailed directions because I had trouble finding the memorial–I entered the cemetery by a smaller gate, where they weren’t giving out maps).

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The memorial and it’s pair, an obelisk dedicated to the memory of Robert Owen, stand out amongst the graves of Kensal Green Cemetery’s non-conformist section (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The two memorials in around 1900. The Reformer’s Memorial only had 50 names inscribed on it at this point; the rest were added in 1907 by Emma Corfield (Photo: People’s Collection Wales).

 

The memorial is a grey granite obelisk on a sandstone base, signed by J.S. Farley masons. It was erected in 1885 by Joseph William Corfield.  The names of 50 well-reformers, “who have generously given their time and means to improve the conditions and enlarge the happiness of all classes of society,” were inscribed in the stone. Two decades later, in 1907, Joseph’s daughter Emma added a further 25 names. It is a pair to the Robert Owen memorial, a pink and grey granite obelisk erected in 1879, by public subscription organised by Joseph Corfield. Owen was a Welsh social reformer, and one of the founders of the cooperative movement. Both memorials were refurbished in 1997, at the instigation of Stan Newens, an MP and MEP for both the Labour and Co-operative parties. Both memorials were given Grade II listed status in 2001 for their “special architectural or historic interest” (Historic England, n.d.). It is unusual to have non-funerary monuments in a public cemetery, so the two memorials stand out in this regard too.

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The main inscription of the Reformer’s Memorial (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Radicals and activists place a great deal of significance on the past; historical movements, groups, and individuals, are a powerful source of inspiration, encouragement, and identity. Both the Reformer’s Memorial and the Robert Owen Memorial are a reflection of this appreciation of the past. They give us an insight into how late-Victorian non-Conformists perceived their radical history. The reformers listed on the memorial indicate who the Corfield family looked up (or back) to, and what kinds of behaviour and causes they were inspired by. Memorials are as much a reflection of the time in which they were produced as they are of the past they are representing, which is one of the things that makes them so interesting.

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Some of the names on the Reformer’s Memorial are beginning to be obscured by the effects of the weather and time (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

I don’t imagine that the Reformer’s Memorial receives that many visitors. It’s a little obscure; even a stonemason working in the cemetery didn’t know what it was when I asked for directions. It is also starting to look a bit weathered, and some of the names at the top of the obelisk are partially obscured. I for one think this is a shame, so if you ever find yourself with a bit of time to kill in London, why not pay it a visit, and commemorate those who “felt that a happier and more prosperous life is within the reach of all.”

Sources and Further Reading

British Listed Buildings. “The Reformers’ Memorial.” No date, accessed 17th April, 2017. Available at http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101271535-the-reformers-memorial-dalgarno-ward#.WPS-Aojyubg

Historic England. “Memorial to Robert Owen.” No date, accessed 14th August, 2017. Available at https://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1227646

Historic England. “The Reformers’ Memorial.” No date, accessed 13th August, 2017. Available at https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1271535

julia&keld. “Reformers’ Memorial.” Find a Grave. Last modified 20th May 2000, accessed 17th April 2017. Available at https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=9399

People’s Collection Wales, “Robert Owen Memorial Obelisk at Kensal Green Cemetery, London, c.1900.” No date, accessed 13th August 2017. Available at  https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/7192

Wikipedia, “Kensal Green Cemetery. Last modified 16th April 2017, accessed 17th April 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kensal_Green_Cemetery

We Are The Lions Exhibition, Willesden Library

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The ‘We are the Lions’ Exhibition was at the Willesden Library in Brent from the 19th October 2016 until the 26th March 2017 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The 20th of August 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike, a 2-year dispute that was an important turning point in the history of trade unions and solidarity. Workers at the Grunwick photograph processing factory in Willesden, northwest London, walked out after an employee was fired for working too slowly. To celebrate the anniversary, a group called Grunwick 40 organised an exhibition about the strike at Willesden Library in Brent, which ran from the 19th October 2016, to the 26th March 2017. The exhibition was called ‘We are the Lions,’ taken from a quote by Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the strike. I finally managed to visit the exhibition in its last week, and I’m really glad I made the effort.

The exhibition was well balanced; it mentioned that Jayaben Desai was a leader of the strike, but didn’t devote too much attention to her. In fact, it didn’t spend much time on the leaders of the strike at all, which I thought was good; it is very easy to get distracted by charismatic leaders. Instead, the exhibition focuses on trade union politics and solidarity, detailing how the strikers won solidarity from a wide spectrum of workers. The factory owners refused to back down, however, and as the dispute dragged on the strikers were abandoned by union leaders, a sadly familiar story. The strike eventually failed, but it remained significant because it was the first time that migrant workers received widespread solidarity from British workers.

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A banner designed by Jayandi and painted with Vipin Magdani for the Grunwick strikers in 1976 (Photo: People’s History Museum).

The exhibition draws aesthetic inspiration from a distinctive banner produced for the strikers in 1976. It is owned by the People’s History Museum in Manchester, but it took centre stage at this exhibition. It was also part of the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in late 2014 and early 2015, so it might be familiar to some. There weren’t many objects in the exhibition; images of people, events, and texts were relied on heavily to illustrate the narrative. You do tend to expect objects when you visit a museum, but I realised that protests don’t often leave a lot of things behind, and what there is (banners, placards,clothing, flyers etc.) is ephemeral, and not intended to be kept or preserved. This must present a challenge for museums wanting to represent dissent.

The exhibition was firmly grounded in the local community, past, present, and future. There was a case of items putting the strike into the context of other radical events in Willesden’s history. There was a series of events associated with the exhibition, and its location in the local library made it quite accessible, although there are no guarantees that visitors to the library also went to the exhibition. There are also plans to produce a mural commemorating the strike, which will serve as a lasting legacy, long after the exhibition has been deconstructed.

Unfortunately, this post comes too late for me to encourage you to visit the exhibition. What I can do is congratulate the organisers for putting together such a brilliant exhibition. The Grunwick Strike was a key moment in the history of trade unions and solidarity. It often feels to me that solidarity is not something that we do so well anymore in modern society. We are the Lions was an timely reminder of how powerful it can be.

Turbulent Londoners: Jayaben Desai, 1933-2010

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. The 20th Turbulent Londoner is Jayaben Desai, the fierce and inspirational leader of the 1976-8 Grunwick Strike.


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Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the 1976-8 Grunwick Strike (Photo: Labournet).

Throughout it’s history, London has relied on immigration to function. Jayaben Desai was one such immigrant, who refused to accept the long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions that have also been a feature of London for most of it’s history. She was one of the most prominent leaders of the Grunwick Strike, which

Born on 2nd April 1933 in the north-western state of Gujarat in India, Jayaben was defiant and headstrong from an early age. At school, she rejected passive obedience in favour of supporting the Indian independence movement. In 1955 she married Suryakant Desai, a tyre-factory manager from Tanganyika. The couple settled there in 1965, by which point the country had united with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. East African Asians were members of the mercantile and administrative classes, and Jayaben had a comfortable lifestyle. It did not last however, the Desais were expelled along with tens of thousands of others as part of “africanisation” policies. They fled to Britain and settled in the north London borough of Brent. The couples’ socio-economic status dropped considerably; Suryakant got a job as an unskilled labourer and Jayaben worked part time as a sewing machinist whilst bringing up their two children, Shivkumar and Rajiv. In 1974 Desai started work at the Grunwick factory which processed mail order photographic film.

Two years later, on 23rd August 1976, Jayaben walked out of the Grunwick factory. The final straw was being ordered to work overtime; she persuaded 100 of her colleagues to go with her. Jayaben was known for having a way with words; she apparently told her manager: “What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.”

Jayaben is known as being a trade unionist, but I don’t think that really does justice to what her and her colleagues achieved. They were not members of a union when they first walked out, the Trades Union Council advised them to join Apex, a white collar union that is now part of the GMB. The strikers were also mainly Asian and women, two groups who did not have a strong tradition of striking in the past.

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Jayaben was only 4ft 10in,much shorter than most of the police officers she faced. This didn’t phase her though (Source: Facebook.com/Grunwick40).

Another factor which set the Grunwick strike apart was the solidarity that the strikers received from employees in other workplaces and industries. Newly arrived migrants accepted (and still do) long hours and low pay because they had no choice. This has frequently caused resentment amongst British workers. The Grunwick strikers, however, received significant moral and practical support from other workers. For example, postal workers in the local sorting office in Cricklewood refused to handle Grunwick’s post. As the factory processed mail-order photographs, this move almost won the strike for Jayaben and her colleagues. In November a High Court ruling forced the postmen to start handling Grunwick post again, a big blow to the strikers. The strike committee visited more than 1000 workplaces around the country garnering support- many workers came to join the picket lines outside the factory. On 11th July 1977 the TUC organised a 20000 strong march to the factory. The workers at Cricklewood again refused to handle Grunwick’s mail. They were suspended for 3 weeks for their defiant act of solidarity.

The Labour Prime Minister, James Callahan, persuaded the TUC and Apex to allow a court of inquiry under Lord Justice Scarman to resolve the dispute. It was highly unusual for employers to defy the conclusions of inquiry, but Jayaben was convinced that Grunwick’s managing director, George Ward, would. She was right; Scarman recommended that the strikers be given their jobs back and that their union be recognised. Ward refused. With few options left and almost two years of hardship behind them, the strikers conceded defeat on 14th July 1978.

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Jayaben was not the only person involved in the Grunwick strike, but she played a significant leadership role and she is definitely the best remembered participant (Source: Left Foot Forward).

After the strike, Jayaben’s health declined. She got another sewing job, which led to teaching for the Brent Indian Association, and she developed an Asian dressmaking course at Harrow College. She passed her driving test aged 60, and when her husband retired the couple traveled extensively. She passed away on 23rd December 2010.

At just 4ft 10in, Jayaben Desai shocked many with her strength and resolve. She was inspirational, and known for her charm, tact, and diplomacy, even in the face of aggression and threatening behaviour from police and the Grunwick bosses. Although the Grunwick strike failed, it had a big impact on industrial relations for women and ethnic minorities, forcing the union establishment to taken them seriously for the first time. Whilst Jayaben did not do this alone, her bravery and determination should be remembered, celebrated, and learnt from.

2016 was the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike. The Grunwick40 group was set up to commemorate this event. They organised events, a museum exhibition, and a mural. More information can be found about their work here.

Sources and Further Reading

Dromey, Jack. “Jayaben Desai Obituary.” The Guardian. Last updated 23 February 2012, accessed 20 December 2016. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/dec/28/jayaben-desai-obituary

Pattinson, Terry.”Jayaben Desai: Trade Unionist Who Shot to National Prominence during the Bitter Grunwick Dispute of 1976-77.” The Independent. Last updated 21 February, 2011, accessed 24 December 2016. Available at  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/jayaben-desai-trade-unionist-who-shot-to-national-prominence-during-the-bitter-grunwick-dispute-of-2220589.html

Wikipedia, “Jayaben Desai.” Last updated 17 December 2016, accessed 20 December 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayaben_Desai