On This Day: Occupation of the Savoy, 14th September 1940

When we think of London during the Second World War, we think of the Blitz. When we think of the Blitz, we think of the Blitz spirit epitomising the British stiff upper lip. There is a collective imaginary of Londoners banding stoically together, facing down the Nazis with a grim smile, a cup of tea, and maybe a sing song. But London was not always united in the face of the enemy. The occupation of the Savoy Hotel on the night of the 14th September 1940, the 8th night of the Blitz, was a manifestation of some of these divisions.

E and C during air raid

Londoners sheltering in Elephant and Castle Underground station during an air raid. At first, the government were reluctant to let people shelter in the underground (Source: IWM)

In the early days of the Blitz, there was a serious lack of deep shelters in the East End, which was particularly hard hit due to the high levels of industry in the area. Pre-war planning by the government had rejected deep shelters in London, afraid that a ‘shelter mentality’ would develop. They decided instead to issue gas masks and rely on surface level shelters, such as the Anderson shelter. It very quickly became obvious that this provision was insufficient. What shelters there were lacked facilities and were overcrowded.

The Communist Party immediately took up the cause. the London district printed 100,000 leaflets and 5,000 posters calling for better provision of shelters and the requisitioning of empty houses for the homeless. The East End Communists decided to march for better air raid shelters in the East End, and to highlight the fact that not all Londoners suffered the effects of the bombs equally.

The Savoy

The entrance to the world famous Savoy hotel on the Strand (Source: The Daily Mail)

With the help of some sympathetic waiters, between 40 and 70 protesters occupied the Savoy’s luxurious air raid shelter. The shelter was divided into cubicles, with beds and armchairs. Nurses and waiters served the hotel’s guests during raids. When the air raid siren went off, the Savoy’s manager realised he could not chuck the occupiers out; they would have to stay the night. After some negotiation with the catering staff, the occupiers were provided with tea, bread, and butter. All in all, it was a pretty pleasant way of drawing attention to the disparity of deep shelter provision across the capital.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done…One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families.

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006); p. 73. Phil Piratin was a prominent member of the Communist Party, and became one of the party’s first MPs in 1945. He was present during the occupation of the Savoy.

The Blitz was one of the darkest periods in London’s history. By the time it ended 43,000 British civilians had been killed, half of them in London. Protest and dissent was less common during the world wars than in peace time, but Londoners were willing to fight for decent air raid shelter provision. Thanks to actions such as the occupation of the Savoy Hotel, the situation greatly improved, making the lives of Londoners that much more bearable as the bombs fell.

Sources and Further Reading

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

Piratin, Phil. Our Flag Stays Red. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006.

Sweet, Matthew. “When Max Levitas Stormed the Savoy.” Spitalfields Life. Last modified 3 November, 2011. Accessed 23 August, 2017. Available at http://spitalfieldslife.com/2011/11/03/when-max-levitas-stormed-the-savoy/

Turbulent Londoners: Ellen Wilkinson, 1891-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. 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. Today I’m looking at Ellen Wilkinson, a radical politician who became the Minister for Education.


Ellen Wilkinson (Source: Catherine McKinnell MP).

Ellen Wilkinson (Source: Catherine McKinnell MP).

Ellen Cecily Wilkinson was an impressive woman. Rebellious and outspoken from a young age, she was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. As she aged, she either mellowed or suppressed her more radical side, rising through the Labour Party to become the Minister of Education in 1945, only the second woman to ever gain a place in the British cabinet.

Wilkinson was born on the 8th of October 1891 to a working-class family in Manchester. Her father encouraged her to read and learn, and she was academically accomplished. She got involved in politics young, joining the International Labour Party when she was 16. She also campaigned for the suffragist cause, handing out leaflets and putting up posters. She started teacher training college, but her unconventional teaching style was not appreciated and she left, deciding that teaching was not for her.

Teachings’ loss was politics’ gain. In 1910 Wilkinson won a scholarship to Manchester University, where she joined the Fabian Society and Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage. She met many leaders of the radical left during this period, including the indefatigable Charlotte Despard. In her first year at university, she joined the executive committee of the University Socialist Federation, which was formed to unite socialist students across the country.

When she left university in 1913, Ellen got a job working for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  She was also active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and strongly opposed the First World War. The Suffrage movement was divided by the war, so in 1915 Ellen became National Women’s Organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Cooperative Employees (AUCE). She was the first woman they employed as an official. Here she fought for equal pay and rights for unskilled workers, which were often actively opposed by the better-off craft unions. Her time working for unions made her a skilled speaker and organiser.

A big demonstration in support of the International Labour Policy on Spain was held in Trafalgar Square. Ellen Wilkinson, Member of Parliament, addressing the huge meeting in Trafalgar Square in London, on July 11, 1937. (AP Photo)

Ellen Wilkinson addresses a crowd in Trafalgar Square in 1937 (Source: flashbak.com)

As with many of her contemporaries, Ellen was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and in 1920 she was a founding member of the Communist Part of Great Britain. She also remained in the Labour Party, but it 1923 the Labour Party stopped allowing membership of both, and Ellen chose to stay with Labour, criticising the Communist Party’s dictatorial methods. By this point the AUCE had merged with another union to become the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW), who sponsored Ellen to run for Parliament. After several failed attempts, she was elected the Labour MP for Middlesborough East in 1924, under a Conservative government. She was the only female Labour MP in the 1924 Parliament.

In Parliament Ellen fought for women’s rights, opposed imperialism, and was a vocal supporter of the May 1926 General Strike. She was elected to the Labour Party’s National Executive in 1927, which gave her a say in Party policy. She campaigned for the voting age for men and women to be equalised, which was achieved in 1928. As the Great Depression struck Ellen continued to fight for worker’s rights, although she lost her Parliamentary seat in 1932.

She continued to campaign whilst out of office, and in 1935 she was elected as the MP for Jarrow, a small town in Tyneside which is known for the Jarrow March, which took place in 1936. Despite criticism, even from within the Labour Party, Ellen supported the marchers, and joined them for some stretches of the march. On the 4th of November she presented the marchers’ petition to Parliament, which contained 11,000 signatures. Although not immediately successful, it is thought that the march helped shaped future attitudes and policies towards unemployment.

The female marcher in the Spirit of Jarrow carrying a bundle that is probably a baby.

A statue in Jarrow commemorating the Jarrow March. As Wilkinson was the only woman permitted to join the march, I assume this is supposed to be her (Source: Hannah Awcock).

During the 1930s Ellen travelled Europe attempting to combat fascism, and was critical of the government’s policy of non-intervention in the Spanish civil war. She was also strongly opposed to appeasement as a method of dealing with Hitler. She supported the declaration of the Second World War in 1939, but disapproved of the way Chamberlain conducted the war. When Churchill took over the government, Ellen was put in charge of air raid shelters and civil defence. During the war she became less radical, and was accepted by the Labour Party mainstream.

In 1945, Ellen Wilkinson became only the third woman to be made a privy councillor. After Labour’s landslide election victory, Atlee made her the Minister for Education. She focused on implementing the 1944 Education Act, which provided universal free secondary education and raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15. She was criticised as the system of the 11+ exams, and grammar, technical, and modern schools was seen as elitist. She stuck by her guns, arguing that the Education Act was the only realistic way of achieving positive change. As well as this, she also increased the amount of university scholarships and part time adult education, both positive steps forward.

Ellen Wilkinson had to fight hard to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics (Source: Parliament.uk).

Ellen Wilkinson had to fight hard to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics (Source: Parliament.uk).

Ellen Wilkinson died in office on the 6th of February 1947. She had always suffered from bronchial asthma, and this killed her, exacerbated by heavy smoking, overwork and an overdose of medicine. Her death was declared accidental, but some still suspect that she committed suicide. Ellen was well known for her fiery hair and matching temperament, and even when her politics mellowed, her passion and conviction did not. She is particularly interesting in the light of the Labour Party’s shift to the left with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Party Leader, and it will be interesting to see if he too moves towards the centre as his career progresses. Regardless, Ellen was an inspiring woman who carved her own political path in a world dominated by men, often in the face of heavy opposition. She fought hard for what she believed in, and proved that politicians can have principles.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Ellen Wilkinson,” Wikipedia. Last modified 13th September 2015, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Wilkinson

Harrison, Brian. “Wilkinson, Ellen Cicely (1891–1947)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last updated 2004, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36902 (Not free to access)

Simkin, John. “Ellen Wilkinson,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/TUwilkinson.htm 

Stevenson, Graham. “Glossary of People: Ellen, Wilkinson,” marxists.org. No date, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at https://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/w/i.htm#wilkinson-ellen

Turbulent Londoners: Charlotte Despard, 1844-1939

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. 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 second Londoner to be profiled is Charlotte Despard, an inspirational pacifist, feminist and socialist campaigner.


 A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source:http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg)

A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Charlotte Despard was a prominent feminist and social campaigner in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who fought for many causes during her long life. Born into a wealthy French family in Kent in 1844, she married in 1870. She was brought up as a young Victorian lady should be, and frequently railed against her lack of a proper education. After her husband died in 1890, she became a dedicated and inspiring campaigner, although she was well known for her simple black clothing for the rest of her life.

Despard organised and funded a health clinic, a soup kitchen for the unemployed and youth and working men’s clubs in the slum called Nine Elms in Battersea, London. Not content with mere philanthropy, she actually moved into the area, living amongst those she worked so hard to help. In 1894 she became a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth, a job at which she excelled, using her position to care for the most vulnerable ‘paupers’.

Politically, Despard was an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Labour Party, running in the 1918 general election as a pacifist Labour candidate for Battersea. By the time the Women’s Social and Political Union moved to London in 1906, she was a well-known progressive speaker, and an obvious choice for an ally. She became the WSPU’s honorary secretary, and was imprisoned twice in 1907 for her actions as a suffragette, at the age of 63. However, later that year the Suffragette movement split, and Despard became President of the Women’s Freedom League, which unlike the WSPU was democratically organised and advocated a campaign of passive resistance.

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930's, when she was in her nineties (Source:http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg)

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930’s, when she was in her nineties (Source: History Today)

Despard was a pacifist, opposing the Boer War and World War One, despite her brother, Sir John French, being the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France until 1915. The two remained close throughout the First World War, until Charlotte declared her support of Irish home rule and later independence. As the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir John French was tasked with trying to supress the very people she supported, and their previously close relationship suffered badly. In 1921 she moved to Ireland, where she continued to campaign for civil rights and the relief of poverty and distress. Despite her advanced years, she was classed as a dangerous subversive under the Irish Free State’s 1927 Public Safety Act. In 1933 her house in Dublin was attacked by an anti-communist mob.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Despard was also active in promoting a variety of other causes, including Save the Children, the Indian independence movement, theosophy, and the London Vegetarian Society. She died after a fall at the age of 95, but left behind an enduring legacy. Charlotte Despard was a confident, strong-willed, independent woman, who frequently defied convention and suffered hardship to fight for what she believed in. She is an inspiration.

Sources

History Today. http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War. London: Pan Books, 2011.

Mulvihill, Margaret. ‘Despard, Charlotte (1844–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37356, accessed 12 Nov 2014.

Open University, The. ‘Charlotte Despard.’ Making Britain (no date) http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/charlotte-despard (accessed 12/11/14).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (no date) http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).