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

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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.

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

 

Book Review: The Leveller Revolution- Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650

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The Leveller Revolution by John Rees.

John Rees. The Reveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650. London: Verso, 2016. £25.

John Rees co-authored one of my favourite books, A People’s History of London. As such, I was really looking forward to the publication of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650, and I had high expectations. Whilst it doesn’t quite live up to A People’s History of London, it is a very good book.

The Leveller Revolution is derived from Rees’ doctoral research. As such it is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by the detailed content and and considered analysis. The book is not just a narrative of the rise and fall of the Levellers as a political force, it is also an intervention in the scholarly debate on the nature and significance of the Levellers. Rees argues that whilst other groups used similar organisational and campaigning tactics, no one else used them as consistently and to such effect as the Levellers. He also argues that the Levellers were the only group to focus on popular politics and mobilisation, as opposed to social and political elites.

I have tried to…examine the Levellers as a political movement integrating activists from different constituencies, and creating still broader alliances with other political currents, for the joint pursuance of revolutionary ends.

(Rees, The Leveller Revolution, p. xx)

The Leveller Revolution has multiple strengths. Rees’ arguments are persuasive; he makes a strong case that the Leveller organisation emerged out of pre-existing radical networks consisting of individuals who already had extensive experience of activism. Rees argues that London was significant to the development of the Levellers, but the book is not London-centric; many of the examples Rees uses to demonstrate his arguments come from elsewhere in the country. In addition, whenever there is historical doubt (e.g. over the authorship of a pamphlet, or exactly who was present at a particular event), Rees is open about that uncertainty, then justifies his own opinion. I always appreciate it when authors who are willing to acknowledge these kind of metholodogical subtleties.

Unfortunately, I often struggled to keep track of the book’s narrative, and I think there are 2 reasons for this. The first is that there were a large number of individuals involved in the radical networks around the time of the English Civil Wars, many of whom had quite similar names. As such, I found it difficult to remember who was who. Whilst there is little Rees could have done about the number of individuals involved and their names, a dramatis personae might have been helpful. The second reason for my confusion is, I think, that Rees assumes that the reader has a confident knowledge of the chronology of the Civil Wars. The book refers to events or battles by name only, making it hard to follow the narrative if you do not know when they took place or what happened. I did study the period as part of an A-level in Early Modern History, but that was almost a decade ago, and my knowledge is a bit rusty. If you are not familiar with the period, then I suggest reading The Leveller Revolution in conjunction with another book that details the key events of that time (I would recommend A Brief History of The English Civil Wars: Roundheads, Cavaliers and the Execution of the King by John Miller).

The Leveller Revolution is a thoroughly-researched, well-argued book. Whilst I found it less approachable than A People’s History of London, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has a interest in the English Civil Wars, or the history of protest and dissent.

The People’s History Museum

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The People’s History Museum is housed in an old pump house on the banks of the river Irwell in Manchester (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have been studying the historical geography of protest for the last four years. For most of that time, I have wanted to visit the People’s History Museum. The problem was that I am normally in the south of England, and the museum is in Manchester. Last week, I visited Manchester and finally got to see the museum, and I was not disappointed!

The People’s History Museum started life as a collection of protest-related material belonging to a group of activists in the 1960s. They opened a museum in London in the 1970s, but it struggled financially. In the 1980s, the collection was rescued by Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester authorities, with some help from the TUC. In 1990, the People’s History Museum opened on Princess Street in Manchester, in the same building where the TUC had its first meeting, over one hundred years before. In 1994, the museum opened a second site at its current location—an old pump house on Bridge Street. In 2010, the museum relaunched in a restored and expanded pump house. Now the museum has several permanent galleries, a temporary gallery space, and meeting and conference rooms. It describes itself as “the national museum of democracy,” and receives around 100,000 visitors a year.

The permanent gallery spaces are arranged in a largely chronological order. The zones are colour coded, each colour chosen for its symbolism in radical culture (e.g. red for courage and revolution, blue for loyalty). The galleries are accessible, interactive, child-friendly, and well-paced. There is a nice balance between individuals, groups, and events, and between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics. I think it is important to highlight the connections between these elements, as it is all too easy to focus solely on one. Whilst the galleries begin with the Peterloo massacre, a local event, the rest of the museum covers the whole country. The museum presents itself as a national museum, and I think it lives up to that.

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The ‘Reformers’ section of Main Gallery 1. Each section is colour coded according to the symbolism of radical culture. Fittingly, green means reform (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

For me, there were two threads running through the galleries that connected everything together. The first was a series of videos about 5 generations of one family. With each family member, the videos and accompanying text explained what life was like for the individual, what rights and services they were entitled to, and whether or not they could vote. They demonstrated how the conflicts and struggles described in the displays affected people in very real ways, from working conditions to healthcare.

The second unifying thread running through the galleries was the banners. The People’s History Museum has one of the largest collection of protest banners in the country, and they are the only group that specialises in the restoration and preservation of these kinds of banners. There are banners on display in every area of the galleries, from the oldest surviving trade union banner, to a banner protesting the 2012 Bedroom Tax. Some are highly detailed, others were obviously made very quickly, but all are striking. They illustrate that whilst there have been many changes over the past two and a half centuries, there are also a lot of continuities in radical culture. Banners have provided a sense of identity and belonging for radical groups for decades.

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Some of the magnificent banners on display in the museum. The are spread throughout the gallery spaces, but banners do have their own devoted section in Main Gallery 2 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The museum has an open approach to curation which I like. The plaques describing items often explain how the items came into the museum’s collection. Many items were donated by activists or their descendants, and there can sometimes be a disconnect between the received history of an event and the stories that are attached to particular items and passed down through generations. All museums have to make decisions about the authenticity of the items in their collections, but most cover up this process. The People’s History Museum does not, asking the visitor to reflect on such issues—would you trust the descendants of a protester over historians? I liked this honesty, and appreciated the way it engaged visitors in the ongoing debate about how best to represent history.

The People’s History Museum is well worth a visit, even if protest is not something that particularly interests you. It is a museum of social history as well as radical history, and as I look back on 2016 it is a much-needed reminder that many of the rights and privileges we take for granted today had to be fought for, tooth and nail, by earlier generations. If we are not willing to fight, just as fiercely, to protect them, we will lose them.

 

Turbulent Londoners: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891

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. Today I’m looking at Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, a feminist and campaigner for women’s rights.


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Barbara Leigh Smith Bodicon (Source: University of North Carolina).

Barbara Leigh Smith was born on the 8th of April 1827, the oldest of 5 children. Her mother was Anne Longden, a milliner, and her father was Ben Leigh Smith, a radical Whig politician. Barbara’s parents never married, but lived openly together, so she must have been used to controversy from a young age. Ben Leigh Smith held radical political views, despite being a member of the landed gentry. He treated all five of his children the same; he gave each of them £300 a year when they turned 21. It was highly unusual to for women to be treated this way. Like Elisabeth Jesser Reid, Barbara’s wealth gave her independence, a rare condition for single women at the time.

Barbara used her wealth to start a progressive school in London, researching other schools in London when deciding how to set it up. Later in life she co-founded Girton College in Cambridge, the first residential college for women that offered education to degree level. She gave generously to the college, in terms of both time and money. Her primary concern, however, was women’s rights. She was a member of one of the first organised women’s movements, known as The Ladies of Langham Place. They were a group of women who met regularly during the 1850s at no. 19 Langham Place to discuss women’s rights. They campaigned on many issues, including the property rights of married women. Langham Place served as sort of gentlemen’s club for women; it had a reading room, coffee shop, and meeting room. In 1858 it also became the base of the English Women’s Journal. Barbara set up the monthly periodical  for the discussion of women’s employment and equality, such as expanding employment opportunities and legal rights.

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A portrait of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon by Samuel Laurence (Source: ArtUK).

As well as a campaigner and publisher, Barbara was also an author. In 1854 she published Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women, and in 1858 she wrote Women and Work, in which she argued that women’s dependence on their husbands was degrading. She practiced what she preached too; as a young woman she fell in love with John Chapman, the editor of the Westminster Review. She refused to marry Chapman because of her views on the legal position of married women. Barbara did marry eventually however, to French physician Dr. Eugene Bodichon in 1857. This is also the year that the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed. The Act protected the property rights of divorced women, and allowed divorce through the courts rather than by an act of Parliament, which was a slow and expensive process. Barbara had testified to a House of Commons committee looking into the legal position of married women, which led to the Act.

Married life did not mellow Barbara, however. Although she started spending the winter in Algiers, she continued to take an active role in women’s rights campaigns. In 1866 she founded the first ever group asking for women’s suffrage. The Women’s Suffrage Committee organised a petition, which was presented to the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was a strong character, sympathetic to many causes. Her primary cause, however, was women’s rights, and she used the full range of skills and opportunities available to her to advance this cause. Her efforts had very real effects, particularly in relation to married women.

Sources and Further Reading

Girton College. “Girton’s Past.”No date, accessed 8 December 2016. Available at  https://www.girton.cam.ac.uk/girtons-past

Simkin, John. “Barbara Bodichon.” Spartacus Educational. No date, accessed 8 December 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wbodichon.htm

Wikipedia, “Barbara Bodichon.” Last modified 1 December 2016, accessed 8 December 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Bodichon

Book Review: Attack on London- Disaster, Rebellion, Riot, Terror and War

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Attack on London by Jonathan Oates

Jonathan Oates. Attack on London: Disaster, Rebellion, Riot, Terror and War. Barnsley: Wharncliffe Local History, 2009. £19.99.

Out of all the high street chains of bookstores, I have a particular fondness for The Works. If you’ve never come across one before, it’s a sort of outlet store for books and stationary, and I can rarely resist having a browse when I walk past one. I have found numerous bargains in there over the years, including Attack on London by Jonathan Oates.

Dr. Jonathan Oates is the Ealing Borough Archivist and Local History Librarian, but he has also published numerous books on London’s history, particularly its more criminal elements. In Attack on London Oates, inspired by the 7/7 bombings, traces how Londoners have reacted to tragedy, shock, and trauma. Starting with the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, Oates documents some of the most severe hardships faced by London, including the Great Plague (1665-1666), the Gordon Riots (1780), the Clerkenwell Outrage (1867), Bloody Sunday (1887), aerial bombing during both World Wars, IRA bombings during the 1970s, and the 7/7 bombings in 2005. Oates concludes by arguing that such dramatic events bring out both the best and the worst of Londoners; there has been resilience, bravery, and unity, but also looting and xenophobia.

If you are familiar with London’s history, then there probably isn’t much in Attack on London that will be new to you, although I was surprised to learn about the extent of aerial bombing on the capital during the First World War. However, the way the which Londoners reacted to these well-known events is a new angle, which brings together disparate events such as riot, war, disease, and fire in an interesting way. Oates’ referencing style is not very detailed, so it is difficult to identify the exact sources of his work, but it seems to be a well-researched book.

There are some elements of Attack on London that feel a little ‘amateur’. For example, each chapter ends with a conclusion identified as such with a subheading. This feels a little out of place in a history book aimed at a popular audience. Also, one of the photos reproduced in the book, of a plaque commemorating the deaths of 77 people in an air raid bombing in Southwark in October 1940, is blurry. I know I’m being picky, but little things like these combine to give a general impression of not-quite-finishedness that could have been so easily avoided. In addition, the book commits one of my biggest personal faux pas; putting all of the images on a few glossy pages in the middle of the book, and not referring to them in the main text. I know that lots of books have their images arranged in such a way, I guess it is an effective or cost-efficient way of illustrating books. I can understand that, although I would prefer to have the images close to the relevant text. However, when the author does not refer to the images in the text, then they become almost pointless, as they do not serve to back up or illustrate a particular point. Attack on London is by no means the only book that does this, but it winds me up nonetheless.

Because I found Attack on London in a bargain bookshop, it cost me quite a bit less than the £19.99 recommended retail price, which is a bit steep, in my opinion, for what you get. Nevertheless, it is an easy-to-read, engaging reflection on the best and the worst facets of Londoners.

 

Book Review: Sophia- Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

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Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand.

Anita Anand. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Paperback £9.99.

If you asked the average person to name individual suffragettes, they would probably say Emmeline or Christabel Pankhurst, or perhaps Emily Davison. There were, however, many individual women who contributed to the campaign for female suffrage, including Sylvia Pankhurst, Daisy Parsons, Clementina Black, and Charlotte DespardSophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary tells the story of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, one of these lesser known, but just as fascinating, women who devoted herself to the fight.

Granddaughter of Ranjit Singh, the Maharaj of the Punjab, Princess Sophia and her siblings occupied a unique position in British society. Her father, originally beloved by Queen Victoria, had turned against the British empire which had taken his birthright. Her family relied on the British government for everything, but their status as Indian royalty gave them a degree of protection that meant they could still be troublesome. Sophia did not resent the British government like her father and some of her siblings, but she did care deeply for the people of India, which she visited several times. There was little she could do for the burgeoning independence movement from so far away, however, and women’s suffrage became the cause to which she devoted her energies.

Sophia is a well-written, thoroughly researched, and detailed biography. Anita Anand has included a wealth of rich details that makes you feel like you really know Sophia, that you understand her motivations. Personally, I welcome anything that helps to extend popular awareness of the suffragettes beyond Emmeline Pankhurst and her most famous daughter, and I also appreciate the way Sophia puts the suffragettes in the context of contemporary non-British social movements, particularly the early campaign for Indian independence. They are mostly seen as a stand-alone phenomena, but the campaign for women’s suffrage took place in the context of a whole range of other social justice movements.

Whilst I understand the necessity of context, there are times where it feels like the book goes into too much contextual detail. Sophia isn’t even born until page 44, and the narrative sometimes veers away from Sophia to dwell on other people and events. It feels a little like padding, which seems unnecessary considering how much source material Anand was able to find about Sophia herself.

Sophia is an enjoyable read, and Anita Anand deserves the praise she has received for it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in women’s history, colonialism, or the women’s suffrage movement.

Book Review: Revolutions without Borders- The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World

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Revolutions without Borders by Janet Polansky.

Janet Polansky. Revolution without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World. London: Yale University Press, 2015. 

Back in May, I went to a seminar given by historian Janet Polansky organised by the London Group of Historical Geographers. I enjoyed the seminar so much that I got the book so I could read Polansky’s arguments in more detail. And I wasn’t disappointed; I think Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World is a very good read.

In the late eighteenth century Europe and the Americas went through a period of political turmoil which saw revolutions “From the Americas to Geneva, the Netherlands, Ireland, the Belgian provinces, France, Saint-Domingue, Guadaloupe, Poland, Martinique, Sierra Leone, Italy, Hungary, and Haiti” (Polansky, 2015; p.2 ). The American and French Revolutions are by far the best known, but almost no country surrounding the Atlantic Ocean remained untouched. Ideas, information, and people circulated back and forth across the Atlantic in an age before the Internet, telephones, even a postal service. Revolutions without Borders is about how these radical ideas and individuals traveled, both adapting to and shaping the contexts that they found themselves in.

Two centuries before the Arab Spring, without social media or even an international postal system, revolutionaries shared ideals of liberty and equality across entire continents. Theirs, too, was an international movement connected by ideas that traveled.

(Polansky, 2015; p. 3)

Polanksy structured the book by source material- each chapter is devoted to a different method of circulation such as official decrees, rumours, letters and travelers. Overall, I like this unusual approach because it brings archival research to the fore, which a lot of history books tend to gloss over. Different sources contain different kinds of information, and the structure of Revolutions without Borders highlights this. However, structuring the book in this way does necessitate some jumping back and forwards in terms of time, which did prove a little confusing on occasion. There is a Dramatis Personae and a Chronology, which may alleviate the effects of this confusion for some.

Sometimes when you read a book it resonates with current events. I experienced this whilst reading Revolutions without Borders. Chapter 9 focuses on itinerant revolutionaries, individuals who traveled the world during the revolutionary period, sometimes running from failed revolutions, sometimes running towards budding ones. Many of these people, including Benjamin Franklin, who lived in London for two decades*, had high hopes for the future of cosmopolitanism. They dreamt of universal citizenship, where a traveler would be welcomed as if returning home wherever they went in the world. Unfortunately this dream was not to be, and as the 1790s progressed travelers returning to America from Europe were shunned as dangerous radicals. The dream of universal citizenship struck a chord with me as I was reading this book, in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, and I couldn’t help but think that Benjamin Franklin would be disappointed with the result of the referendum. Universal citizenship seems that much further away now.

Revolutions without Borders is well-written and accessible. Relevant to both historians and geographers, I think it would also be enjoyable for those who read for leisure.

*The house where Franklin lived whilst in London is now a small museum, to which I would definitely recommend a visit.

On This Day: The Broadwater Farm Riots, 6th October 1985

The recent Black Lives Matter campaign could give the impression that institutional racism is a distinctly American problem. Britain has had to deal with its own fair share of problems in this regard however, and like in Ferguson and other American cities, tension between the police and ethnic minorities has occasionally flared into violence. The Broadwater Farm Riots, on the 6th of October 1985, were one such occasion.

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Police officers inspect the damage the day after the 1985 Broadwater Farm Riots in north London (Photo: Daily Mail).

At the beginning of October 1985, tensions between police and the black community in Tottenham, north London, were running high. Longstanding grievances were exacerbated by riots in Brixton the previous week, following the shooting of a black woman, Dorothy Groce, during a police search. At lunchtime on the 5th of October Floyd Jarrett, a young black man who lived about a mile away from the Broadwater Farm estate, was arrested and charged with theft and assault- he was later acquitted of both charges. Later that day, however, the police decided to search the house of Floyd’s mother, Cynthia. During the search, 49-year-old Cynthia Jarrett collapsed and died of a heart attack. Her daughter claimed that Cynthia had been pushed by an officer called DC Randle, and the resulting fall could have contributed to her death. Randle denied it, and no police officer was charged or disciplined for what happened.

The black community in London already believed that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist (they were probably right!), and the treatment of Cynthia Jarrett sparked outrage. Bernie Grant, local council leader at the time, condemned the search of Cynthia’s house and called for local police chiefs to resign. A demonstration gathered outside Tottenham police station in the early hours of the next morning, the 6th of October. Violence between police and some members of the local community escalated throughout the day; centring on the Broadwater Farm estate. The rioters built barricades, set fire to cars, and threw bricks, molotov cocktails and other projectiles at police, making effective use of the raised walkways on the estate.

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A man walks through debris from the riots on one of the raised walkways that caused so much difficulty for the police (Photo: BBC News).

At about 9:30 p.m., the police and fire brigade were called to a fire on the upper level of Tangmere House, a block of flats and shops on the estate. Whilst attending the fire, the officers were attacked by rioters and forced to retreat rapidly. A police officer, Constable Keith Blakelock, tripped and fell in the confusion. He was immediately surrounded by rioters, who beat and repeatedly stabbed him in a vicious attack. PC Blakelock became the first police officer to be killed in a riot in Britain since 1919.

pc-blakelock

PC Keith Blakelock was killed by rioters. Three men were convicted of his murder, but the convictions were overturned on appeal (Photo: Mirror).

The riot tailed off during the night as it started to rain and news of Blakelock’s death spread. The impacts of the riots, however, would last a lot longer than 24 hours. Determined to find Blakelock’s killers, the Metropolitan Police maintained a heavy presence on the Broadwater estate for several months, arresting and questioning over 300 people, many of whom were denied access to a lawyer. The riots led to changes in the police’s tactics and equipment for dealing with riots, and efforts to reengage with the local community.

Six people were eventually charged with the murder of Keith Blakelock; although the investigation and ensuing court cases were severely hampered by officers who were willing to cut corners and ignore the law. Three children had their cases dismissed after a judge ruled that they had been held and questioned inappropriately. Three adults, Winston Silcott, and Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment despite there being no witnesses and no forensic evidence. All three were cleared by the Court of Appeals in November 1991. In July 2013, a man named Nicholas Jacobs was charged with Blakelock’s murder, but was cleared at trial.

Neither Cynthia Jarrett nor Keith Blakelock have received justice for what happened to them. Although from different ‘sides’ of the conflict, both were victims of  an institutionally racist society that was creating tension between those in authority and communities in London and across Britain. We are kidding ourselves if we think these tensions no longer exist, and the Broadwater Farm Riots are a stark reminder of the danger of overlooking such problems.

Don’t forget to check out the location of the Broadwater Farm Riots on the Turbulent London Map!

Sources and Further Reading

BBC News, “What Caused the 1985 Tottenham Broadwater Farm Riot?” Last modified 3rd March 2014, accessed 5th October 2016. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-26362633

Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 [2003].

Wikipedia, “Broadwater Farm Riot.” Last modified 26th September 2016, accessed 5th October 2016. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadwater_Farm_riot

Wikipedia, “Death of Keith Blakelock.” Last modified 4th October 2016, accessed 5th October 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Keith_Blakelock

Book Review: Nightwalking- A Nocturnal History of London

Nightwalking Front Cover

Nightwalking by Matthew Beaumont.

Matthew Beaumont. Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. London: Verso, 2015. £9.99

Nightwalking by Matthew Beaumont is an exploration of London at night through the eyes of the men (and it is all men) who wrote about it. Starting with Chaucer, Beaumont traces evolving societal attitudes to night time and darkness in the city. He ends the book with Dickens (well, sort of- Edgar Allen Poe features heavily in the conclusion), “the great heroic and neurotic nightwalker of the nineteenth century” (Beaumont, 2015; p.6). The writers Beaumont studies walked the line between polite society and the world of the social outcasts; the prostitutes, criminals, orphans, and homeless who inhabited London’s streets after dark. Some writers managed the balance better than others.

Who walks the streets alone at night? The sad, the mad, the bad. The lost, the lonely. The hypomanic, the catatonic. The sleepless, the homeless. All the city’s internal exiles.

Beaumont, 2015; p.3

When I first got Nightwalking, I was a little disappointed to realise that it had a literary focus. I like to read, but I’m not a fan of literary analysis; perhaps there are too many bad memories from GCSE and A-Level English Literature. I thought Nightwalking was a straight social history, and I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the literary angle.

I needn’t have worried. Beaumont uses the cultural history of the London night to explore its social, political and economic history. He strikes a nice balance between detailed textual analysis and wider contextual discussion. The social and legal discourses surrounding those who wander the streets of the city at night have developed over time, but in an uneven manner. For hundreds of years, being caught outside after dark was a criminal offence. As society and technology developed, the night became a space of recreation, initially just for the wealthy; the evolution of cheap and effective street lighting is one factor that contributed to this process. Although the legal restrictions faded, moral restrictions remained, dictating which kinds of activity, and which kinds of people, were acceptable on London’s streets after dark.

London’s writers were drawn to this moral ambiguity, taking to the streets at night in order to better understand the city or themselves, to have a good time, and sometimes because they had no choice. Men such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Johnson, Blake, and Dickens “used the night as a means of creatively thinking the limits of an increasingly enlightened, rationalist culture” (Beaumont, 2015; p.10). Beaumont balances all the contradictory and sometimes vague associations and motivations for nightwalking well, explaining his arguments in a clear and concise manner. It is obvious to me that Beaumont is an academic, and that the book is based on extensive scholarly research, but I don’t think that the book would be unapproachable to non-academics, although another reviewer has said his style can be “cloudily academic.”

Nightwalking is a well-researched, well-reasoned book that manages to tell a complicated story in a way that is easy to follow. I can see this book being useful to students of English Literature and History alike, but I would also recommend it to those who just enjoy reading a good book.