Book Review: Sylvia Pankhurst-Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire

Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire by Katherine Connelly.

Katherine Connelly. Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire. London: Pluto Press, 2013. RRP £14.99 paperback.

Sylvia is my favourite Pankhurst. Her mother and older sister Emmeline and Christabel are the most famous Pankhursts, but their conservative and authoritarian tendencies are off putting. Adela is fascinating, but it is hard to like her because of her conversion to far-right nationalism in the 1940s. Sylvia, however, remained committed to her socialist principles throughout her life, and campaigned tirelessly to make like better for marginalised groups of all kinds. She has been one of my heroes for some time, so I was excited to read Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire and find out more about this fierce campaigner. The book is part of Pluto Press’ Revolutionary Lives series: short, critical biographies of prominent radical figures ranging from Gerard Winstanley to Leila Khaled.

Sylvia was above all profoundly committed to a radical, far-reaching conception of democracy for women, for workers and for people struggling to overthrow the dominance of Empire…For those in today’s social movements who want to change the world, Sylvia’s ideas, campaigns and the dilemmas she confronted with are more important that we have been led to believe.

Connelly, 2013; p.3.

Katherine Connelly has written an engaging, well-paced, and insightful biography. Sylvia’s life was so varied and eventful that it would be hard to write a boring biography, but Connelly’s style is clear and logical. The text is punctuated with quotes from Sylvia herself and those who knew and encountered her, which introduces a broad range of perspectives. There is no denying that Sylvia was pretty awesome. From her suffrage activity, to her rejection of stereotypical family values, to her defence of Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy in 1935, to her rejection of all colonialism, there is lots about her to admire. It is tempting to put historical figures like Sylvia on a pedestal, portraying them as perfect visionaries who cannot be critiqued. Connelly does not fall into this trap, pointing out the moments when Sylvia could have made better strategic decisions, or when her beliefs held her back from building connections with other activists and groups.

Sylvia was involved in a dazzling array of organisations during her lifetime, and left-wing groups are not particularly known for having catchy, easy to remember names. Even Sylvia’s own organisation in the East End of London changed it’s name multiple times to reflect Sylvia’s evolving beliefs. Starting as the East London Federation of the WSPU, it became the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914, then the Worker’s Suffrage Foundation in 1916, the Worker’s Socialist Federation in 1918, the the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) – not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain – and finally the Communist Worker’s Party before it dissolved itself in 1924. In other books I have read about this period I have got confused by the huge range of radical groups and their different perspectives, but this wasn’t the case as I read Sylvia Pankhurst. Perhaps because the focus is on how Sylvia’s changing political sensibilities were manifested through the organisations she led and worked with rather than the groups themselves, I found it easy to keep everything straight in my head.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a truly fascinating and inspiring woman, and Connelly has done an excellent job of telling her life story. I enjoyed learning more not just about what Sylvia did, but why she did it, how her political beliefs drove and shaped her. If you know Sylvia’s story well then you will still get a lot out of this book, and if you don’t know much about her then you should definitely read it – Sylvia deserves to be better known, and there is much that modern activists could learn from her.

Turbulent Londoners: Mala Sen, 1947-2011

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today it is the turn of Mala Sen, writer and human rights activist.


Mala Sen

Mala Sen, 1947-2011 (Source: The Guardian)

Racism, and prejudice are still  very real issues in modern Britain. Often, discrimination can compound other issues such as employment and housing. Indian activist and writer Mala Sen saw the intersection of these problems when she moved to Britain in the late 1960s, and fought to make them better. She is part of the reason that Brick Lane in East London is home to a thriving Bangladeshi community to this day.

Mala Sen was born on the 3rd of June 1947 in Uttarakhand in northern India. Her parents divorced when she was 6, after which she was raised by her father. She moved to Mumbai to study Home Sciences, where she met and fell in love with Farrukh Dhondy. In 1965, aged 17, Mala moved to the UK to be with Dhondy. They married in 1968, and although they divorced in 1976 they remained close.

In the UK, Mala worked as a seamstress. She quickly became aware the severe racial inequality and prejudice in the UK, and started to get involved in race relations. In one of her first experiences of activism, she fought for the rights of Indian factory workers in Leicester. Mala was an early member of the Race Today Collective, a leading voice in Black politics in Britain. She wrote for their magazine, Race Today, about the condition of Bangladeshi sweatshop workers in the East End of London. They lived in crowded dormitories where beds were shared around the clock by workers on different shifts. Many of the workers had left their families behind in Bangladesh, so were not entitled to housing benefit.

Spurred on by these dreadful living conditions, Mala was a founding member of the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG). In the early 1970s, the Bengali community in East London was growing rapidly but faced racism and discrimination. BHAG sourced council houses and squatted empty buildings for the Bengali community to live in. BHAG’s activities eventually led to the establishment of Brick Lane as a safe living area for the Bangladeshi community.

Mala Sen Mural

A mural in brick Lane depicting Mala Sen by artist Jasmin Kaur Sehra, part of a series commissioned by the Tate Collective to celebrate the contributions of ‘unknown’ women in 2018 (Source: Kevin Lake).

Mala was also an active member of the British Black Panthers (BBP), which was based in Brixton. Less militant than the American Blank Panthers, the BBP believed in educating black people about their history and giving them a voice. This chimed with Mala’s own philosophy; she argued that supporting people to empower themselves was the best form of activism. Later on, Mala became a researcher for television documentaries. This led to her researching and writing about women in rural India, many of whom were treated very poorly. Her best known book, India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, took 8 years to research.

In her later years, Mala became disillusioned with British and Indian politics, the feminist movement and the East End Bangladeshi community. She died in Mumbai on the 27th of May 2011, aged 63. Although she lost faith in the causes she fought for, that does not diminish her contribution to them, nor make her any less worthy of remembrance.

Sources and Further Reading

Bayley, Bruno. “The Amazing Lost Legacy of the British Black Panthers.” Vice. Last modified 10th August 2013, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.vice.com/sv/article/9bz5ee/neil-kenlocks-photos-give-the-british-black-panthers-the-legacy-they-deserve

Jackson, Sarah. “Mala Sen: Writer and Race Equality Activist.” East End Women’s Museum. Last modified 18th July 2016, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/mala-sen-writer-and-race-equality-activist?rq=mala%20sen

Kotak, Ash. “Mala Sen Obituary.” The Guardian. Last modified 13th June 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/13/mala-sen-obituary

The Telegraph. ” Mala Sen.” Last modified 30th May 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/8546445/Mala-Sen.html

Book Review: Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25

Guilty and Proud of it Front Cover

Guilty and Proud of It! by Janine Booth.

Janine Booth. Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25. Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2009. RRP £12.00 paperback. 

In 1921, 30 Labour councillors for Poplar in East London were imprisoned for 6 weeks because of their refusal to participate in a local government system that was unfair. They knew that they were breaking the law, but willingly sacrificed their freedom in order to challenge a law that they firmly believed was unjust. Despite strong opposition, including from within the Labour Party itself, their stand was successful, forcing the national government into an embarrassing climbdown. In Guilty and Proud of It!, Janine Booth tells the story of what has become known as the Poplar Rates Rebellion, as well as the longer conflict between the national government and the socialist Labour councillors that lasted from their election in 1919 until 1925.

Poplar council chose not to concede but to fight. And by fighting, it won. Poplar’s story – of defiance, of protests, of mass participation, of prison – has to be told. It deserves its place in the list of historical struggles that each generation of socialists and labour movement activists learn about, alongside the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the General Strike, Grunwick, the Miner’s Strike, the Poll Tax.

Booth, 2009; p. ix-x.

In the 1920s, Poplar (now part of Tower Hamlets) was one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. At the time, local governments had to pay unemployment and poverty relief benefits out of the local rates (like council tax today). The more poor and unemployed people in a borough, the more money had to be raised from the local residents. It was an unfair system which meant that the richest boroughs, where people could most afford higher taxes, actually had the lowest rates. In Poplar, Labour won 39 out of 42 council seats in November 1919. They set about using this impressive majority to make genuine improvements to the lives of working-class Poplar residents, which upset local elites, including employers and landlords.

For the next 6 years, the council would struggle with these local elites and central government, taking a defiant stance that became known as Poplarism (not to be confused with Popularism!) In 1921 the councillors demonstrated just how far they were willing to go, refusing to back down over their demands for a fairer rates system even when they were sentenced to prison indefinitely. The government backed down and the councillors were released after 6 weeks, winning significant concessions over rates.

Guilty and Proud of It! is a lucid account of a fascinating episode in London’s rebellious history. Janine Booth is a trade unionist and socialist herself, and her admiration for the rebel councillors and the stand that they took is evident. The book is less neutral than an academic book would be able to get away with, but Booth does not allow her politics to cloud her judgement. The concluding chapter of the book contains a thorough and balanced analysis, making convincing arguments about why the Poplar councillors were successful, why other councils were so reluctant to join them in their stand, and how Poplarism is relevant today. A lot of history books aimed at a popular audience do not contain this sort of critical analysis, so it was a pleasant surprise. This chapter also helps the reader link the book to wider contexts. Some may describe a book on such a short period of local history as niche, but Booth demonstrates Poplarism’s relevance to ongoing conflicts between local and national governments.

Guilty and Proud of It! is an accessible, engaging book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in London’s history, protest history, or local government.

A Symbol of Hope: Visiting Greenpeace’s MV Esperanza

Tricia Awcock

Patricia Awcock, long-term Greenpeace supporter (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

The international environmental campaign group Greenpeace has been associated with ships since their very first protest in 1971 when they attempted to interrupt US nuclear testing on Amchitka Island in Alaska. Greenpeace now has 3 ships which it uses to conduct scientific research, raise awareness, and engage in direct action to protect the environment. On the weekend of 13th-14th of April 2019 one of these ships, the MV Esperanza, was docked in London. Greenpeace supporters were given the opportunity to tour the ship. One of those who accepted the invite was Patricia Awcock (a.k.a my Mum!), who has been supporting Greenpeace for 4 decades. Here, she reflects on the experience and what it meant to her.


I have been a proud member of Greenpeace for 40 years. Even then, I understood the dangers facing our planet and I also knew that I am not a natural protester or activist! That is why I have been happy to contribute to Greenpeace; I saw the value of their activism and just knew that someone had to do what Greenpeace was prepared to do. I have followed the campaigns through the years, but always from a distance. I was extremely pleased and excited, therefore, to be given the opportunity to visit MV Esperanza when she was docked in London at the weekend.

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The MV Esperanza in the West India Millwall Docks (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

I was surprisingly moved when I caught my first glimpse of MV Esperanza. She seemed to be completely dwarfed by the high-rise buildings that represent the centre of capitalism, but the Greenpeace colours, rainbow, and painted dove shone so brightly in the sunshine that she seemed to act as a metaphor of optimism and resilience. Esperanza means ‘hope’ in Spanish, and she really did send out a message of hope; the West India Millwall Docks, so close to Canary Wharf, was the perfect setting!

The visit helped me to understand, however, that the Greenpeace ships are not just a symbol of an organisation that is willing to take on large corporations in such a dramatic manner. They are gritty, smelly, basic working ships that undertake vital work, in extremely dangerous conditions. They are not only engaged in direct action campaigns, but are also involved in scientific exploration, helping to provide vital evidence that is needed in the fight to protect the oceans. This mixture of direct action and scientific exploration is what, I believe, makes Greenpeace such an important organisation.

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Patricia Awcock and the MV Esperanza. The green colour scheme, with the rainbow and white dove, ensures that all three of the Greenpeace ships are immediately recognisable (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

I have always had great respect for the volunteers who put their lives on hold, and sometimes in danger, to join campaigns for many months, but seeing the reality of their living conditions and learning about the daily responsibilities and duties made me even more appreciative of what they are prepared to do.

Over the last 40 years, I have frequently become despondent about the increasing negative impact humans are having on the planet. I have often wondered whether I am wasting my money by donating Greenpeace. What are they actually achieving? Visiting MV Esperanza made me realise, however, just how important the work of Greenpeace is, and that the symbolism of the organisation is just as important as their activism and scientific exploration.

Maybe one day I will actually take part in a protest, but in the meantime I am just so grateful that Greenpeace is carrying out such vital and dangerous work in my name.

Turbulent Londoners: Minnie Baldock, c.1864-1954

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. My next Turbulent Londoner Minnie Baldock, an early member of the WSPU who helped establish the organisation in East London


minnie-baldock-1909

A postcard of Minnie Baldock, in about 1909 (Source: Museum of London).

Minnie Baldock was an early member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), who helped the organisation establish a presence in London, particularly amongst the working class women of the East End. Born in the East End in about 1864, she worked in a shirt factory as a young woman, and had two sons after her marriage to Harry Baldock.

Female suffrage was not the cause which brought out Minnie’s radicalism; she was a member of the Independent Labour Party, and in 1903 held a public meeting to complain about women’s low wages with her MP, Keir Hardie. As a member of the WSPU, however, Minnie flourished as an activist.

Minnie joined the WSPU early on, before it moved to London, and was soon involved in many of its activities in the capital. In December 1905 she was ejected from not one but two public meetings for heckling Herbert Asquith and Henry Campbell Bannerman, leader of the Liberal Party. In January 1906, Minnie established the first London branch of the WSPU in Canning Town, in an attempt to recruit working class women. Several other branches soon followed in the East End. Minnie was at the heart of networks of radical women in London; she helped Annie Kenney make connections when she first moved to London, she knew Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard, and was a mentor to Daisy Parsons.

Also in 1906, Minnie became a full-time organiser for the WSPU. For the next few years she toured the country, promoting the cause of female suffrage. In October that year she was arrested at the opening of Parliament. She was arrested again outside Parliament in February 1908, and this time spent a month in Holloway Prison. She was worried about leaving her two sons alone with her husband, which illustrates the tension many female activists feel between their activism and their caring responsibilities.

minnie-baldock-christabel-pankhurst-and-edith-new

Minnie Baldock with Christabel Pankhurst and Edith New in December 1906 (Source: Museum of London).

Minnie worked for the WSPU until 1911, when she became seriously ill with cancer. She did not return to the WSPU after she recovered, although she remained a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, which united all kinds of suffragists who were also religious. This suggests that she had become disillusioned by the WSPU’s methods rather than their main objective; they became increasingly violent, authoritarian, and dismissive of the concerns of working class women in the years before the First World War. Minnie moved to Southampton with her family in 1913, and was living in Poole when she died in 1954.

The WSPU was much more than the Pankhurst family; women like Minnie Baldock were essential to the successful running of the organisation. Minnie helped the WSPU establish a presence in London, and went on to campaign tirelessly for them around the country. Her name may not have survived the lottery of history, but the impact of her actions still resonates.

Sources and Further Reading

Brooker, Janice. “Suffragette.” Lost in London. Last modified 1st May 2007, accessed 11th October 2016. Available at http://www.brooker.talktalk.net/suffragette.htm

Simkin, John. “Minnie Baldock.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2015, accessed 12th October 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/WbaldockM.htm

Walker, John. “Forest Gate’s Proud Suffragette Legacy.”E7 Now and Then. Last modified 6th March 2015, accessed 14th October 2016. Available at http://www.e7-nowandthen.org/2015/03/forest-gates-proud-suffragette-legacy.html

Cable Street 80

The 4th of October 2016 marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, a well-known protest in which around 100,000 people prevented the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching through the East End of London, which had a large Jewish population at the time. Since the late 70s, it has become tradition for the 5- and 10-year anniversaries of the Battle to be celebrated with a march, and a rally in St George’s Gardens near the Cable Street Mural. On  Sunday the 9th of October I went along to the latest commemoration, Cable Street 80.

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A campaigner outside Altab Ali Park, where the march began. The park is named after a Bangladeshi textile worker who was killed in a racist attack in 1978. Anniversary marches of the Battle of Cable Street have started in the park since the 60th anniversary in 1996 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The commemoration was organised by Cable Street 80, a loose coalition of community and campaigning groups. David Rosenberg (pictured here in the blue vest), a local author and historian, played a key role in organising events (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Sadly there are not many people left who were actually present at the Battle, but many people on the march on Sunday had parents or grandparents who were there (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A large number of different groups were represented on the march. This is Sarah Jackson, one of the co-founders of the East End Women’s Museum,  a fantastic project to commemorate the lives and activism of women in the East End (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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GMB is a general union which has its roots in the Gas Workers and General Union, formed in the East End in 1889 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street has become a source of inspiration and pride for many on the political left, so a large range of different groups and causes were represented at the march (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march sets off from Altab Ali Park (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march makes it way along Commercial Road (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As time went on and migration brought new communities into the area, the Battle of Cable Street came to be symbolic for whole new generations of East Londoners. It has come to stand as rejection of xenophobia of all kinds, not just anti-Semitism. The Bangladeshi community in East London faced prejudice and violence in the 1970s and 80s, much like the Jewish community had 50 years earlier (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street is continually connected to new and ongoing struggles. For many who marched on Sunday, it was as much about demonstrating a determination to combat the rise of the far-right in Europe today as it was commemorating an event that happened 80 years ago (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march makes its way down Cable Street, which looks very different now to how it would have done in 1936 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march arrives at the Cable Street mural, on the side of St. George’s Town Hall. The mural itself is nearly 40 years old, and has an interesting history in its own right (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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In 1936, the Irish community in the East End also took part to prevent the BUF marching, when many doubted they would. The Connolly Association campaigns for a united and independent Ireland (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street also has a Spanish connection, which explains the presence of the Spanish Communist Party. The Battle’s slogan ‘No Pasaran’ is Spanish for ‘They Shall Not Pass’, and comes from the Spanish Civil Way, which was underway in 1936. Many participants in the Battle of Cable Street went on to volunteer in the International Brigade to fight for the Spanish Republic (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Unsurprisingly, there was a strong anti-fascist presence on the march. There are large number of anti-fascist groups in the UK, as evidenced by the amount of anti-fascist protest stickers I have found on the streets of London (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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After the march there was a large rally in St. George’s Gardens, near the mural. Speaking here is 101-year old Max Levitas, one of the few remaining veterans of the Battle of Cable Street (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is Michael Rosen, the well-known author and poet. His parents were both at the Battle of Cable Street, and he is a keen supporter of the process of remembrance (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The ‘headliner’ was Jeremy Corbyn, controversial leader of the Labour Party. He is a constant presence at protests and rallies of all kinds (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Turbulent Londoners: Daisy Parsons, 1890-1957

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. My next Turbulent Londoner is Daisy Parsons, a Suffragette and the first female Mayor of West Ham.


 

Daisy Parsons

Daisy Parsons, MBE (Source: Newham Story).

Daisy Parsons was a formidable woman. Despite leaving school at the age of 12 to help support her family she became a force to be reckoned with in East End politics, working closely with Sylvia Pankhurst in the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), then going on to become the first female Mayor of West Ham.

Born Marguerite Lena Millo on the 25th of May 1890, Daisy must have had a difficult childhood. She was born in Poplar in East London, her family moving to nearby Canning Town when Daisy was 8 months old. She had 5 younger brothers, and because her father was an invalid, her mother had to take on washing and charring work. Daisy was given a certificate of exemption in 1902 so that she could leave Beckton Road School early to look after her brothers, a necessity she always regretted. When she was 14 she left home to work as a maid, but later became a cigarette packer at the Carreras Tobacco Company in Aldgate, because the pay was better. Women and girls were paid 3d for every 1000 cigarettes they packed (most managed about 3000 a day).

It was whilst working at the tobacco company that Daisy had her first contact with the trade union movement; male employees at the factory had a fixed lunch hour and a space to eat because their union had fought for them. Female employees had to eat in the toilets! Daisy’s husband Tom was a driver for Stepney Borough Council and an active union member. They married in December 1908 when Daisy was 18.

Daisy obviously had a keen interest in politics in her own right- she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and the International Labour Party, and was one of the founding members and the secretary of the ELFS. She was remembered as being assertive and persuasive. She was clearly not one to shy away from action- at Suffragette demonstrations she carried a ‘Saturday Nights’ (a length of hemp rope tied at one end, a sort of improvised cosh) hidden up her sleeve in case she needed to defend herself.

Daisy Parsons- Suffragette Deputation

Daisy was part of a deputation to the Prime Minister from the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914. She is on the far right of this image (Source: Janice Brooker).

Daisy took part in a deputation of working women to Prime Minister Asquith on the 12th of June 1914, trying to persuade him of the necessity of female suffrage. By this point she had 2 daughters, and was also looking after her niece. Daisy stuck with Sylvia Pankhurst after the split with her mother and sister, and ELFS worked tirelessly during the first world war, setting up a Mother and Child Welfare Centre in West Ham to help women who were struggling whilst their husbands were away, or had been killed.

When women over 30 were given the right to vote in 1918 Daisy still couldn’t vote because she was only 29! This did not deter her from moving into mainstream local politics however, and she was elected as a Labour Councillor for Beckton ward in 1922. She became deputy Mayor of West Ham in 1931, and Mayor in 1936. She also became a Justice of the Peace in 1933, and an Alderman of West Ham in 1935. During World War 2 Daisy organised the evacuation of local children and helped to organise the Women’s Voluntary Service. Her efforts did not spare her from tragedy however; her brother and niece were killed in the Blitz.

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Daisy Parsons at the opening of the Beckton Lido in August 1927 (Source: Newham Photos).

Daisy Parsons was obviously respected and admired. She was awarded the Freedom of West Ham in 1939, the highest honour which the borough can bestow, and was made an MBE in 1951 in recognition of her public service. She had gone from radical Suffragette to respected local official, but I get the impression she retained her determined and caring nature.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Daisy Parsons, MBE.’ The Newham Story. No date, accessed 21st March 2016.  http://newhamstory.com/node/991

Brooker, Janice. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ Lost in London. Last modified 1st May 2007, accessed 21st March 2016. http://www.brooker.talktalk.net/daisy_parsons.htm

McCarthy, Ka. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ The Great British Community. Last modified 8th March 2016, accessed 21st March 2016. http://greatbritishcommunity.org/daisy-parsons/

Turbulent Londoners: Muriel Lester, 1883-1968

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. Next up is Muriel Lester, a social reformer and pacifist.


Social reformer and pacifist Muriel Lester (Source: www.muriellester.uk).

Social reformer and pacifist Muriel Lester (Source: www.muriellester.uk).

Muriel Lester was a social reformer, pacifist, feminist and non-conformist. Like Charlotte Despard, she turned away from her privileged life, dedicating herself to helping the poor and advocating peace. Born in Leytonstone on the 8th of February 1883 to a wealthy Baptist family, by the time of her death aged 83 she had travelled the world, founded a social centre that still exists today, and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Twice.

Muriel moved to Bow in East London with her sister Doris in 1908. At the start of the twentieth century the East End was crowded and very poor. Many middle- and upper-class humanitarians were embarking on charitable projects in the area around this time, such as the lesser-known Pankhurst daughter Sylvia. In 1915, with money from their father, the Lester sisters bought a disused chapel and opened it as a ‘teetotal pub’, so that local people could have a place to meet in the evenings. They named it Kingsley Hall, after their brother who had died the previous year.

Between 1922 and 1926 Muriel was an Alderman on the radical Poplar Borough Council, and she chaired the Maternal and Child Welfare Committee. In 1928 a new purpose-built Kingsley Hall was designed as a community centre and place of worship. Muriel herself took on the role of vicar. Her spirituality was an important part of her campaigning throughout her life. In 1929 Muriel and Doris set up a second Kingsley Hall in Dagenham, where many Bow residents had been relocated after huge slum clearance programmes in the East End. Both Halls are still going strong today.

Modern-day Kingsley Hall in Bow (Source: Peter Thwaite).

Modern-day Kingsley Hall in Bow (Source: Peter Thwaite).

But community work in the East End was not the only way in which Muriel tried to make the world a better place. She was also a dedicated pacifist, and in 1914 was a founding member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), a Christian Pacifist organisation which is also still active today. In 1926 she travelled to India and met Gandhi, with whom she developed a strong friendship. When he travelled to London for a conference in 1931, he stayed at the Kingsley Hall in Bow.

In 1934, Muriel began working as a secretary for the International FoR. She travelled the world spreading the message of non-violence. During a trip to Japan she was dubbed the ‘Mother of World Peace’, and she was detained in Trinidad in 1941 because of the success of her pacifist speeches in the US.

Muriel and Doris Lester

Muriel and Doris Lester (Source: Womb Magazine).

Muriel Lester was a woman who never stopped trying to help people. This mission continued even in death, as her body was donated to science. She used her privilege to benefit others, and demonstrated incredible bravery by taking the unpopular and frequently dangerous position of pacifist during two world wars. I make a point of featuring admirable women in the Turbulent Londoners series, and Muriel Lester would certainly make a good role model for any young woman.

Sources and Further Reading
Anon. “Lester, Muriel.” Bishopsgate Institute. No date, accessed 13th June 2015. http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/Library/Library-and-Archive-Collections/Protest-and-Campaigning/Lester-Muriel
Anon. “Muriel Lester.” Wikipedia. Last modified 15th May 2015, accessed 13th June 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muriel_Lester
Anon. “The East End’s Global Peace Messenger.” BBC. Last modified 10th October 2008, accessed 13th June 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2008/10/08/muriel_lester_feature.shtml

The East End’s Radical Murals

Cities are too often bleak places to live in and a mural is one way of making them more attractive and human.

The East End can boast a large number and variety—in sharp contrast to the lack of art galleries in the area.

(East End News, 1986)

I have recently been doing some research on the Cable Street Mural in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive (which is, by the way, a lovely place to work- the staff are very helpful). The Mural is located on the west wall of St. George’s Town Hall in Cable Street, and was completed in 1983. It is over 3,500 square feet, and it commemorates the Battle of Cable Street, which took place in the area on the 4th October 1936. Demonstrators clashed with police as they tried to clear a route through the East End for the British Union of Fascists to march. The march was called off, and ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ the demonstrators’ slogan, has become a catchphrase of anti-fascist movements of all kinds.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George's Town Hall.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George’s Town Hall.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

When doing archival research, it is not uncommon to get distracted by not strictly relevant, but still very interesting, material. I discovered that the East End does indeed seem to have a strong tradition of street murals, and the Cable Street Mural is not the only one with radical subject matter. London is perhaps not the first city that springs to mind when you think of politically motivated murals- Belfast or Dublin might seem more obvious. London does not like to be outdone however, and political murals do exist here if you are willing to look for them.

Sadly, there are not as many protest-themed murals in East London as there used to be. The Peasants Revolt mural, previously located in Bow Common Lane, was unveiled in 1981 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt. The peasants had camped in Mile End on their way to London to demand reduced taxation, an end to serfdom and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts. Richard II did not meet their demands, but it remains a well-known period in English history. The mural was designed by Ray Walker, who was one of the three artists who took over from David Binnington when he resigned from the Cable Street Mural project in 1982. I have not been able to find out exactly when or why this mural was removed, and why it wasn’t afforded the same protection and investment that the Cable Street Mural has. The Cable Street Mural has been repaired every time it has been vandalised, and was restored in 2011 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle.

The Peasant's Revolt Mural (Source: Unite the Union).

The Peasant’s Revolt Mural in Bow Common Lane. Unfortunately it no longer exists (Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

One radical East End mural which can still be seen today is that commemorating the Poplar Rates Rebellion. Located in Hale Road in Poplar, the mural was completed by Mark Francis in 1990, and restored in 2007 by David Bratby and Maureen Delenian with help from local children. In 1921 30 local councillors were sent to prison after refusing to collect the rates from residents because they were unfair. The mural tells the story of the Rebellion in 4 panels, mainly using words. It does include an image of the well-known political radical George Lansbury, and local residents holding placards that declare ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.”

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural in Hale Road (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

Poplar Rates Mural Detail

A close up of George Lansbury and Poplar residents (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

The East End has a strong tradition of radicalism and protest, but a lot of it is not well known. Murals and other forms of public art are a good way of ensuring that historical protests are not forgotten. The Cable Street Mural in particular still draws visitors, and its striking colours and imagery are well worth going to see for yourself. If you have a few spare hours, why not go and check out these memorials to the East End’s turbulent history?

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Mural by George.” East London Advertiser. 31st August 1990.

Anon. “Murals in the East End.” East End News. May 1986.

Anon. “Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural.” London Mural Preservation Society. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.londonmuralpreservationsociety.com/murals/poplar-rates-rebellion-mural/

Anon. “Trade Union and Labour Movement Heroes Commemorated.” Unite. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

Rolston, Bill. “Politics, Painting and Popular Culture: The Political Wall Murals of Northern Ireland.” Media, Culture, and Society. 9, no.1 (1987): 5–28.

Book Review: ‘Silvertown- The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement’

Silvertown by John Tully

Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement by John Tully

Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement. Tully, John. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2014.

“Silvertown’s workers and their families were not just passive victims of the industrial system. They were flesh-and-blood human beings who sorrowed and hoped, swore and fought, loved and hated, enjoyed themselves when they could at pub knees-ups or their teetotal equivalents, dreamed of a better life for their children, and bore adversity with simple stoicism and very Cockney, Irish-influenced, irreverent and ironic sense of humor.”

(Tully, 2014; p. 83)

The above quote epitomises John Tully’s approach in Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement. Tully tells the story of this once-forgotten strike without losing sight of the human element. Thoroughly researched and well-written, this book about British labour history, written by an Australian for an American audience is a valuable addition to labour movement literature.

Silvertown is an industrial area in the London borough of Newham north of the Thames. It is dominated by the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, but the area was named after Silver’s India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha and Telegraph Works that opened in 1852, when the area was little more than marshland. In September 1888, the workers at the Silver Works went out on strike when they were denied a pay rise. The bitter dispute lasted for 3 months before the workers reluctantly returned to work at their original levels of pay- those that weren’t blacklisted, anyway.

The Silvertown Strike was part of a wave of strikes and organisation in the 1880s that is now known as New Unionism. For the first time, semi-skilled and unskilled workers were unionising, and unlike the more established craft unions, they had socialist leanings and were willing to take militant action. Silvertown was not the only strike that has been left out of the dominant narrative of New Unionism, Louise Raw’s excellent book Striking a Light attempts to give the 1888 Bryant and May Matchwomens’ strike the place it deserves in labour history. Silvertown contributes to the constant process of reassessment that is so important for academic research.

There are any number of reasons why a strike or protest might be left out of the history books, and in the case of Silvertown it is probably because the strikers lost. After 3 months of hunger, picketing, marches and victimisation, the strikers were forced back to work. Tully does an excellent job of analysing why the strike did not succeed. His attention to detail is admirable- he even researched the weather conditions during the strike in order to consider the impacts the weather might have had on the strikers’ resolve. Despite the loss, Tully argues that the strike was a turning point in New Unionism, not least because the merciless tactics used by the owners of Silver’s rubber and electrical plant became a blue print for any employer trying to break a strike.

There are some gaps in the story- for example Tully has few sources that detail what the factory managers were thinking during the strike, so he has to make a few educated guesses. To be fair however, Tully always makes it clear that they are educated guesses, and he cannot use sources that don’t exist. Tully also uses too many sub-headings for my liking, which makes the text feels disjointed and awkward, but this is a minor criticism.

John Tully balances considered analysis with descriptive writing that conveys the more emotive, human aspects of the Silvertown strike. Not only is Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement a fantastic piece of scholarly research, it is also an enjoyable read, two qualities that don’t always go hand in hand.