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: Katherine Chidley, 1590s-c.1653

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 next Turbulent Londoner is Katherine Chidley, an activist for religious toleration and a leader of Leveller women.


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A drawing of a servant or housewife in 1640. Katherine Chidley might have dressed like this (Source: ECW Living History Resources).

The further back in time you go, the harder it is to find out about individuals who weren’t members of the aristocracy, especially if they were women. There are some women who managed to leave a trace in the archives, often thanks to their radicalism, such as Mary Astell (1666-1731) and Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756). Katherine Chidley lived even earlier, between the 1590s and about 1653. She was a religious dissenter and a key member of the radical networks that preceded the Levellers, as well as the Levellers themselves.

The first time Katherine Chidley appears in the historical record she is already married with seven children. Along with her husband Daniel, she set up an independent church in Shrewsbury  in the 1620s which clashed with the local established church. At this point everyone was required by law to be a member of the Church of England, and there was no toleration for anyone who wanted to worship differently. Radical religious sects had an emphasis on church democracy, which meant that women played more of a role than in other sectors of society, as preachers, prophetesses and petitioners. In 1626 Katherine was charged with refusing to attend church, along with 18 others. She also got in trouble for refusing to attend church for an obligatory cleansing after childbirth.

The Chidley family moved to London in 1629. Katherine’s husband became a member of Haberdashers Company, and their oldest son Samuel started an apprenticeship in 1634 . The family’s views became more radical and separatist after they moved to London. Daniel and Samuel helped to establish a dissenting congregation headed by John Duppa. The congregation claimed the right to choose their own pastor not paid for by Church funds. The congregation itself was illegal, and its members faced harassment, arrest, and imprisonment.

Katherine authored several pamphlets in defence of religious radicalism. Thomas Edwards was a popular puritan preacher at the time, who argued against religious Independents from a conservative Presbyterian perspective. In 1641 he published a pamphlet, addressed to Parliament, arguing against religious tolerance. Katherine was the first to attack Edwards’ arguments in print, in her first pamphlet. It was called The Justification of the Independent Churches of Christ, and it was very unusual for a woman to take such a step. Edwards ignored her response, embarrassed to have been so publicly confronted by a woman.

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The front page of Katherine’s first pamphlet, from 1641 (Source: Online Library of Liberty).

Katherine’s concept of toleration was broad, even extending to Jews and Anabaptists, groups that faced extreme discrimination at the time. She believed that everyone should be able to organise their own churches if they so desired. Katherine did view women as weak and inferior to men, but she defended a wife’s right to make her own decisions about religion. She also frequently discussed examples of God using the weak or socially inferior to defeat the powerful and ungodly. Katherine may not have been a feminist by modern standards, but her views were radical for the time. She published 2 more pamphlets in 1645. The first was another attack on Thomas Edwards, called  A New-Yeares-Gift, or a Brief Exhortation to Mr. Thomas Edwards; that he may breake off his old sins, in the old yeare, and begin the New yeare, with new fruits of Love, first to God, and then to his Brethren. They didn’t really go for snappy titles in the seventeenth century.

When the Leveller network emerged, Katherine became a leader of Leveller women. The Levellers were a radical movement that argued for popular sovereignty, equality before the law, and religious toleration. They gained significant popular support between the First and Second English Civil Wars, but were considered too radical even for Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate. Daniel died in 1649, and it seems as though Katherine took over his business with the help of Samuel. As well as being a religious radical, she was also a successful businesswoman, handling government contracts worth significant amounts. In 1649 Katherine was one of the organisers, and probably the author, of a women’s petition to free four Leveller leaders from the Tower of London. In 1653, when Leveller leader John Lilburne was again imprisoned and charged with treason, Katherine led a group of 12 women to Parliament to present a petition demanding his release signed by 6000 women.

Leveller Women 1647

An image of a meeting of Leveller women in 1647, created by Red Saunders in 2014 as part of the Hidden Project (Source: Red Saunders).

Although much of her activism involved male family members, and she believed that women were inferior to men, Katherine Chidley was a fierce woman who fought for the right to make her own decisions about how she worshipped. There is no trace of her in the historical record after 1653, so the rest of her life is a mystery.

Sources and Further Reading

Rees, John. The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650. London: Verso, 2016.

Wikipedia, “Katherine Chidley.” Last modified 28 May 2017, accessed 15 August 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Chidley

Book Review: The English Rebel- One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties

the-english-rebel-by-david-horspool

The English Rebel by David Horspool.

David Horspool. The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties. London: Penguin, 2010. RRP £12.99 paperback.

I have read several books about the history of protest in London, but I recently realised that I haven’t read much about the national history of protest. The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties is a good place to start for anyone interested in how dissent has shaped the history of England. It is well-written, well-paced, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

David Horspool sets out to disprove the stereotype that the English are peaceful and submissive by demonstrating that “from Cornwall to Norfolk, from Sussex to Northumbria, England is crisscrossed with the ghosts of rebels marching, meeting, and fighting” (p xvi). The book is arranged chronologically, starting with opposition to the Norman invasion in 1066. Contrary to popular belief, the English did not just roll over and submit after the Battle of Hastings. Horspool then traces the history of rebellion in England featuring well known examples, such as the Peasant’s Revolt (1381) and the English Civil Wars (1642-51), as well as more obscure events, such as the Revolt of the Earls in 1075 and an uprising in Norfolk led by Robert Kett in 1549. I don’t pretend to know everything about the history of protest (far from it!), but I have been studying it for more than four years now, and there was quite a bit in there that was new to me.

The English rebel may only rarely be a triumphant or even a particularly likeable character. But he and she are as much a part of the fabric of English history as the monarchs, law-makers and political leaders they defied. They serve as inspiration, as warning, and sometimes simply as example.

Horspool, 2010; p. xxiii

In his Introduction, Horspool is very clear about the parameters of The English Rebel. He defines a rebel as a political opponent who risks their life or their liberty. Their opposition does not have to be aimed at government or the state, nor does it have to be violent or left-wing. The decision to focus only on England was also a deliberate one; Horspool argued that rebellions in a British or imperial context tend to have different objectives from English ones. It can be easy to criticise a project for leaving things out (I see it quite often in academia), and by explaining his decisions about what to include, Horspool fends off such criticism before its even made.

Rebels are drawn towards centres of power so the content of the book is inevitably skewed towards London and the south east, but Horspool does his best to balance it out. My biggest complaint about The English Rebel is a pet hate of mine–putting all the images together in the middle, then not mentioning them in the main text, so they feel rather detached and unnecessary. This is only a minor gripe however.

The English Rebel is an engaging read, which I would highly recommend for those with a general interest in history, as well as those with a more specific interest in protest and dissent. Horspool makes a convincing case that the English are much more rebellious than the stereotypes make out. I’ve always seen myself as British rather than English, but I feel just a bit more proud of my Anglo-Saxon heritage after reading The English Rebel.