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].

Book Review: ‘Voices From History- East London Suffragettes’ by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor

'Voices from History: East London Suffragettes' by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor.

‘Voices from History: East London Suffragettes’ by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor.

Jackson, Sarah and Rosemary Taylor. Voices from History: East London Suffragettes. Stroud: The History Press, 2014.

Voices from History: East London Suffragettes marks 100 years since the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), a group led by Sylvia Pankhurst which was asked to leave the Women’s Social and Political Union after they refused to toe the party line. Not content with  campaigning for female suffrage, this inspiring group of women worked to aid and empower the local community. They started a nursery, 3 ‘cost-price’ restaurants and a co-operative toy factory, as well as campaigning for a living wage and better housing. Voices from History is a brilliant account of these achievements and others.

Voices from History is aptly named, telling the story of the ELFS with the aid of numerous first-hand accounts. One of the aims of the book is to celebrate the work of everyone involved in the Federation, even if their names have now been forgotten. The extensive quotes from multiple contemporary sources does this well, highlighting that the achievements of the Federation were down to the efforts of hundreds of individuals, not just well known leaders like Sylvia Pankhurst.

The book is very well contextualised, with female activism in the East End of London both before and after the  ELFS being detailed. I think it is often easy to view groups like the Suffragettes as isolated and unusual incidents, but in fact that is most often not the case, and the structure of the book demonstrates that well. There is a long tradition of radical activism in the East End, and the book situates the ELFS within this history. The final chapter discusses women’s activism in the East End since the suffragettes, right up to the present day. I particularly liked this way of concluding the book, as it shows that the story is not in fact over; there are many more battles to be fought against poverty and inequality in the East End.

Any criticisms that I have are minor really. In the middle of the book there are some wonderful pictures that illustrate the story brilliantly, but I would prefer it if they were interspersed throughout the book, so that you don’t have to keep skipping back and forth to the relevant images. Also, I would have liked more information about the archives and sources used during the research for the book. Even just a few sentences about how and where the research was conducted would have been much appreciated.

Voices from History is a thoroughly enjoyable read about a fascinating period of radicalism in the history of the East End of London. I attended the launch of the book as part of the East London Suffragette Festival in August this year and it was clear that the project was a labour of love for the two authors. Their admiration of the East London Suffragettes, and their determination that the ELFS get the recognition it deserves, shines through the pages of the book. The reader can’t help but feel the same.

East London Suffragettes Festival

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‘The Awakening of Miss Appleby,’ a pro-suffrage play (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Between the 1st and the 10th of August 2014 was the East London Suffragettes Festival (http://eastlondonsuffragettes.tumblr.com), celebrating the centenary of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Over the course of the 10-day period, a series of events were organised across East London, including a film night, talks, a book launch, a walking tour and, on Saturday the 9th, a full day of talks, events, and stalls at Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets. Organised solely by volunteers, I think it is safe to say that the festival was a huge success. I attended the book launch, the day at Toynbee Hall, and the walking tour, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself at all three.

 

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East London Suffragettes Walking Tour, led by David Rosenberg (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The East London Federation of Suffragettes were more radical and broad in their aims than more well-known groups campaigning for women’s suffrage. The group started out as a branch of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), run by Sylvia Pankhurst. As the mainstream suffrage movement focussed on the emancipation of middle and upper class women, Sylvia worked with working class women in the East End of London.The East End women were asked to leave the WSPU when Sylvia disobeyed her mother’s (Emmeline Pankhurst) orders and spoke at a rally in support of Irish Home Rule. It was at this point that the East London Federation of Suffragettes came about. Whilst other suffrage groups suspended their campaigns during the First World War, Sylvia and her fellow activists kept campaigning, becoming increasingly anti-war as time progressed. As well as campaigning, the group set up a cost-price restaurant, a nursery, and a cooperative toy factory to help support the local community. 

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Poetry in Toynbee Hall (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

All of the above information I learnt during the course of the festival, I had no previous knowledge of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. So for me at least, the festival’s goal of revealing the ‘Hidden Histories’ (one of the panel discussions organised by the festival) of the women of the East End was a resounding success. Another of the festival’s goals was to look forward as well as back, connecting the work of the suffragettes with campaigns that are still going on today, in particular the issue of tackling domestic abuse in East London. This is an admirable goal, and it proves that the study of historical protest has a purpose beyond entertainment or commemoration. Activists and campaigners can learn from their past counterparts, and also take heart and inspiration. Sylvia Pankhurst and the women of the East End were brave, strong, and fiercely independent, embodying qualities that many modern women, campaigners or not, aspire to. We should remember them because they deserve to be celebrated, but also because their actions continue to inspire and empower.

Thank you and congratulations to everyone involved in the organising and running of the festival, you did a wonderful job.