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.


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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.

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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

On This Day: The Old Price Riots, 18th September 1809

In my On This Day posts, I have covered protests about a wide range of issues, from the right to vote, through police brutality, to anti-fascism. I have never written a post about a riot over the cost of theatre tickets…until now. On the surface, the Old Price Riots might be the most superficial protest in London’s history. However, when you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that the rioters were defending a lot more than a cheap night out.

In late Georgian Britain, theatre was incredibly popular. It appealed to people across the class spectrum; from the very richest to the very poorest, everyone went to the theatre. In London, there were only two theatres licensed by central government to perform spoken drama; Covent Garden and Drury Lane (otherwise known as the major theatres). Other theatres (known as minor theatres) were licensed locally and relied on singing, mime, and visual spectacle to attract audiences. Within the space of a few months in 1808, both Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres burnt down. When the new Covent Garden Theatre opened a year later, it was perceived as pandering to elites and not protecting the accessibility of British theatre in the way that the major theatres should. The result was three months of protest that ended in almost total victory for the rioters.

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The new Covent Garden Theatre in 1810 (Source: Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, New Covent Garden Theatre (1810), Plate 100 of Rudolph Ackermann, The Microcosm of London; or, London in Miniature (1808-10, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, U of Toronto), 1: 262-63).

In the early hours of the morning on 20th September 1808, the Covent Garden Theatre caught fire. The flames were fierce, and in just 3 hours the entire theatre, as well as valuable costumes, sets, scripts, and sheet music, was destroyed. The cost of the rebuild was huge, despite donations from wealthy supporters, and when the new theatre opened on 18th September 1809, several changes had been made to try and attract a more wealthy audience and recoup the cost of reconstruction. Prices were raised, a public gallery was converted into private (very expensive) boxes, and the top gallery (where the very poorest theatre-goers sat) had been converted into ‘pigeon holes’, from which only the legs of the performers could be seen. In addition, the celebrated soprano singer Angelica Catalani had been hired at great expense. To theatre-goers, these changes were seen as undermining the accessibility of British theatre, pandering to elites, and disenfranchising the middle and working classes.

On opening night at the new theatre, the performance was supposed to be MacBeth, with Shakespeare’s tragic hero played by John Philip Kemble, who was also the manager and part-owner of the theatre. However, the performance was drowned out by the audience who shouted, cheered, sang, and generally made a nuisance of themselves throughout. Kemble called the local magistrates to try and disperse the crowd, but it was not successful. The magistrates did not intervene again; there was debate over whether or not it was legal to kick out theatre-goers who had paid for their ticket.

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A cartoon by George and Isaac Cruikshank showing the first night of the riots. The magistrates are on stage appealing for calm, and Kemble stands behind them (Source: The British Museum).

The riots continued for the next 67 nights. The protesters, who quickly began to call themselves OPs (Old Pricers) embraced theatricality by adopting tactics such as banners and placards, singing, dancing, racing, mock fights (all of which went on during the performances), and the production of fake money and OP medals. As riots go, they were quite civil; violence and property damage was minimal. They were very effective, however, in disrupting the normal running of the theatre and demonstrating just how important audiences were for the success of British theatre. Kemble and the other owners simply could not defeat them; every tactic they tried (such as hiring boxers to throw rioters out of the theatre) resulted in failure and humiliation. Eventually, they backed down, returning the prices to pre-fire levels, reducing the number of boxes and firing Catalani. On the night of 15th December Kemble publicly apologised to the theatre audience; a placard was unveiled in the pits that read “we are satisfied”.

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A cartoop by Isaac Cruikshank depicting ‘The OP dance’. The rioters’ tactics were theatrical and non-violent (Source: Isaac Cruikshank, The OP Dance. Plate 5. Well-heeled Ops. Frontispiece, The O.P. Songster for 1810 (© The British Library Board, 11798.a.23.[7.])

The riots were not completely positive, however. There were strong elements of xenophobia and nativism. The rioters used anti-Semitic rhetoric, and made much of Kemble’s Catholicism in their criticism of him. There was also a sense that British theatre was inherently superior to foreign theatre, which tied into the criticisms of Catalani, who was Italian. The OPs believed it was the responsibility of Covent Garden, as a major theatre, to protect traditional British drama from the ‘foreign’ types of drama that were proving so popular in the minor theatres, such as opera, melodrama and pantomime. As such, the OP riots helped to reinforce dichotomies such as high/low art, spoken word/spectacular drama, and native/foreign drama.

At first, the Old Price Riots can look like Londoners being cheapskates. However, when looked at more closely, they highlight issues of class and xenophobia in a period when the city was changing dramatically. That being said, I dread to think what the OPs would make of the price of a West End theatre ticket today!

Sources and Further Reading

Mulhallen, Jacqueline. “The Old Price Riots of 1809: Theatre, Class, and Popular Protest.” Counterfire. Last modified 12th November 2012, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.counterfire.org/history/16136-the-old-price-riots-of-1809-theatre-class-and-popular-protest

Robinson, Terry F. “National Theatre in Transition: The London Patent Theatre Fires of 1808-1809 and the Old Price Riots.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. No date, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=terry-f-robinson-national-theatre-in-transition-the-london-patent-theatre-fires-of-1808-1809-and-the-old-price-riots

Wikipedia. “Old Price Riots.” Last modified 12th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Price_Riots

London’s Protest Stickers: Gentrification

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This sign in Elephant and Castle looked so official that I didn’t realise it had a political message at first (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Walworth Road, 05/05/15).

Gentrification is a process that has occurred in many Western cities over the last few decades. Poor, run-down, often post-industrial inner city neighbourhoods become cool, leading to an influx of the middle and upper classes which pushes up house prices and drives out the original community. London is no exception, and there are many areas around the city where there are tensions between existing residents and newcomers. This is reflected in the city’s protest stickers, some of which object to gentrification. Gentrification in London is impossible to separate from the city’s housing issues; it is one of the contributing factors to the ridiculously high rents and lack of suitable housing in the capital.

Most of the stickers featured here are produced by Class War, a political group known for their aggressive and confrontational stance. You can see where I found each of these stickers, and all of the others featured on Turbulent London, on the Turbulent London Map.

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Critics of gentrification often use ‘cleansing’ to describe what happens to the original residents of gentrifying areas. They are forced out  by increasing house prices, or because the neighbourhood changes so much that they no longer feel comfortable there (Photo: Hector Gwynne, 28/06/18).

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There is a clear class dynamic to gentrification. Incomers tend to be middle or upper class, whilst those forced out are frequently working class (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gordon Street, 13/04/16).

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Class War is not a group known for its tact. Yuppies and Hipsters are two groups frequently associated with gentrification, hipsters especially in London (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Quaker Street, 13/02/16).

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The design of this sticker is adapting the cover of Metallica’s 1983 debut album Kill ‘Em All. (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Regent’s Canal Towpath, 20/05/15).

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Whilst this sticker doesn’t explicitly mention gentrification, Squatters and Homeless Autonomy is a group that tries to combat gentrification and establish autonomous anti-capitalist spaces in London (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Little Venice, 01/05/16).

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Housing estates are quite strongly associated with the working class. In London however, a lot of ex-council housing on estates have become unaffordable for the city’s working classes (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Cable Street, 09/10/16).

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Estate agents are often targeted for their role in the gentrification process. This sticker is promoting a protest outside of the Islington branch of Foxton’s, a large national chain (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Whitechapel High Street, 09/10/16).

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Again this sticker doesn’t explicitly mention gentrification, but it is a criticism of the high cost of living often associated with gentrification. The text is in French, and it translates to “Rent or Eat,” which is a stark choice faced by many Londoners (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 13/02/16).

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.

Book Review: Triumph of Order- Democracy and Public Space in New York and London

Triumph of Order Front Cover

Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London by Lisa Keller

Lisa Keller. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. RRP £24.00 paperback.

Cities are incredibly complex systems, made up of hundreds of interconnecting networks. Sanitation, transportation, power, housing, local government, and public order, amongst others, all have to function successfully in order for a city to thrive. The larger the city, the more complicated and chaotic it gets, and by the end of the nineteenth century London and New York were the two largest cities in the world. The governments of these two cities, and their residents, had to strike a balance between order and liberty. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London traces the struggle to find a balance between these two, frequently conflicting, concepts in the nineteenth century.

Liberal democracies such as the US and the UK place a strong emphasis on liberty and individual freedom. However, the fact is that we are all willing to give up some of that liberty so that the government can maintain order and protect us and our property. Exactly how much of our individual freedoms we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe is a matter of constant debate. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller argues that in London and New York during the nineteenth century the balance between liberty and order tipped towards order. Using a combination of examples, archival sources, and analysis, Keller makes a convincing argument that liberty, particularly freedom of speech, was curtailed in favour of minimising the risk of disorder and violence on the streets of two of the world’s greatest cities.

The legacy of the nineteenth century was a new structure for public order, in which liberty was expendable. Great Britain and America retained a framework for free speech and assembly, but democracy as an ideal became tempered by realities of city life. The principles and practices established in the nineteenth century yielded long-lasting societal parameters affecting public space, free speech, and assembly.

Keller, 2009: p.223

Although I read academic books as part of my research and teaching, most of the books I review on Turbulent London are aimed at a more general audience. Triumph of Order is written for an academic audience, and is therefore less accessible than most ‘popular’ history books. This is not a criticism, however, just an observation; Triumph of Order is a good book, but if you are looking for something to take on holiday with you, I wouldn’t suggest this. A small criticism that I do have is that Keller is often careless with chronology. The book is structured chronologically, with the first half looking at London and the second focused on New York, but within individual chapters there is a tendency to jump back and forward between different events and time periods that can be confusing.

As someone who studies London and has visited New York, I have always been curious about how the history of the two compares. Triumph of Order highlights the parallels and differences between the two cities. Some of them are relatively obvious: London, for example, was the first major city in the world to have a professional civilian police force (1829), which had clear implications for the way free speech and protest was controlled (New York City followed suit in 1845). Other insights Keller provided are less familiar to me as a British reader, such as the idea that Americans have always been more tolerant of bodily violence and loss of life than British people. Many people have died during riots in London, but it is mostly due to accidents and the violent tactics of authorities; in New York, rioters themselves are more likely to kill people. In Triumph of Order, Keller does a good job of comparing the two cities in a way that also provides insight into them as individual metropolises.

The balance between liberty and order is a difficult issue. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller has produced a book that illuminates the historical structures that underpin that balance in two of the most significant cities in Western liberal democracies. That’s no mean feat.

Book Review: Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Death in Ten Minutes Front Cover

Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Fern Riddell. Death in Ten Minutes. London: Hodder, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Thanks to the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018, there has been a significant amount of books, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the campaign for women’s suffrage over the last two years (see all of my blog posts on the topic here). It is no easy task, therefore, to come up with something that stands out from the crowd. I have been looking forward to reading Death in Ten Minutes since its publication last year, but I have been waiting for the paperback to come out. I am pleased to say that it was worth the wait.

Death in Ten Minutes is a biography of Kitty Marion, a German-born actress and singer who came to live with her aunt in Britain as a young girl to escape an abusive father. During her time in the theatres and music halls she was subjected to sexual assault and mistreatment by men who held power over her career. She became increasingly disillusioned with the way women were treated by society, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) proved to be an ideal outlet for her frustrations. She became one of the group’s most militant suffragettes, responsible for multiple arson and bomb attacks around the country. During the First World War Kitty was forced to leave Britain because she was German, despite living in the UK for most of her life. She took refuge in the US, where she became heavily involved in the birth control advocacy movement. She continued to fight for what she believed in until her death in 1944. In her later years, she wrote an unpublished autobiography, which Fern Riddell draws heavily on in Death in Ten Minutes. The result is an account of Kitty’s life that is vivid, engaging, and feels like it is told from her perspective.

There are lots of things I like about Death in Ten Minutes. One of the main characteristics of the book that surprised me is that Riddell uses Kitty’s story to make a broader argument about the way that women’s history in general, and the suffrage movement in particular, has been sanitised in popular memory and dominant historical narratives in order to (re)produce a particular patriarchal understanding of women. Riddell also critiques the way that the suffragettes are idolised in popular memory, glossing over violent and life-threatening acts of terrorism to present a picture of perfect women. But no one is perfect, and it is just as important to acknowledge that about our admired historical figures as it is about ourselves. In most historical biographies aimed at a popular audience, I do not expect the kind of critical analysis found in Death in Ten Minutes.

The second major strength of Death in Ten Minutes for me is that it doesn’t end in 1918. Many of the women involved in the suffrage campaign went on to use their skills for other causes and social movements, and Kitty was no exception. She worked for the birth control advocacy movement for just as long, if not longer, than she campaigned for the WSPU. Social movements and political campaigns in the twentieth century were empowering experiences for many women, allowing them to develop skills they never anticipated, and the confidence to use those skills (the 1984-5 miner’s strike is another good example). Death in Ten Minutes contextualises the suffrage campaign within Kitty’s life, and shows that there was much more to her than being a suffragette.

Death in Ten Minutes is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that gives Kitty Marion the recognition she deserves as a fierce and passionate, but flawed, campaigner for women’s rights. I highly recommend it.

Turbulent Londoners: Catharine Macaulay, 1731-1791

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. This week it is the turn of Catharine Macaulay, who was a radical and a republican, as well as the first female English historian.


Catherine Macaulay

Catharine Macaulay in around 1775, by Robert Edge Pine (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

A lot of the women I feature on Turbulent London probably wouldn’t describe themselves as activists or campaigners; many of them wouldn’t even describe themselves as feminists (the term didn’t exist before the late 1880s). These women advanced women’s rights by simply striving for, and achieving, the things they wanted, even if they were told they couldn’t because they were female. Catharine Macaulay, the first female English historian, falls into this category. Her determination to conduct and publish historical research in a time where there were no other female historians in the world made her remarkable. Her successful career as a historian was her primary goal, and the advancement of women’s rights was just a side effect.

Born Catharine Sawbridge on 23rd of March 1731 to parents who were wealthy landowners, Catharine had a comfortable childhood. She was educated at home by a governess in Kent. We don’t know much about the quality of her education, but by her twenties she was a voracious reader and had a deep love of history. On 20th June 1760, Catharine married a Scottish physician, Dr. George Macaulay. The couple moved to St. James’ place in London, where they had one daughter, Catharine Sophia.

It was during this first marriage that Catharine began to publish The History of England from James I to the Revolution. It was a sprawling, detailed historical account of the seventeenth-century that would eventually run to 8 volumes, the last of which was published in 1783. Not only was it remarkable for a woman to undertake such a task (it was deemed inappropriate for a woman to be a historian), it was very unusual for her husband to support her endeavours. But George did support Catharine, and after the publication of the first volume she became an overnight celebrity.

Catharine believed that English society during the Anglo-Saxon period was characterised by freedom and equality, but that this ideal society was lost after the Norman conquest. She argued that all of English history since 1066 had been about the attempt to win back the rights crushed by the “Norman yoke.” This stance was very popular with Whigs, who saw her work as an alternative to Hume’s ‘Tory’ History of England. However, when Volume 4 was published in 1768, Catharine alienated her Whig supporters by justifying the execution of Charles I. She was a republican, and believed that if Kings become tyrants, as Charles did, then they forfeit the right to rule. She was no fan of Oliver Cromwell’s either though; she blamed him for the downfall of the English republic.

Catharine was also critical of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. She acknowledged that it had limited the power of the monarchy, but argued that it was a missed opportunity to create a second English republic. She was also anti-Catholic, believing that Catholicism was incompatible with a “free constitution.” Catharine was very concerned with the morals of the historical figures she wrote about; she argued that self-interest was the worst fault that a King or politician could possess, and believed that only a virtuous people could create a successful republic.

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The title page of a 1769 reprint of Volume 1 of History of England (Source: Journal of the American Revolution).

After George’s death in 1766, Catharine’s London home became a gathering place for reformers, American sympathisers and visiting Americans, an important node in a transatlantic network of campaigners, radicals, and republicans. In 1774, Catharine moved to Bath, where she was treated by a physician, Dr. James Graham. There were rumours of a relationship, but in November 1778 Catharine married Dr. Graham’s brother, William. The significant age gap (she was 47, he 21) was controversial, and many of Catherine’s friends and supporters abandoned her. However, it seems that her second marriage was as happy as her first.

In July 1784, Catharine became the first English radical to visit a newly independent United States. Her books had been influential on American radical thought, and she was much admired there. Catharine and William stayed with George Washington and his family, and he allowed her to see his personal papers with the goal of writing a history of the War of Independence, although it was eventually written by another of Catharine’s American supporters, Mercy Otis Warren.

After the last volume of History was published in 1783, Catharine continued to write and publish. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Catharine believed that women’s ‘weakness’ was due to their lack of education, and if they had the same opportunities as men they would excel. She also called for the abolition of capital punishment, reform of the penal system, and the abolition of slavery.

Catharine Macaulay died on 22nd June 1791, after suffering from poor health for many years. She was not a campaigner for women’s rights, but she furthered this cause because of the way she lived her life. Catharine acted as if gender equality already existed: she refused to leave the room with other women after dinner, and she once said that “a historian is of no sex.” She was determined to achieve her goals, no matter whether or not society deemed them appropriate. By achieving those goals, she paved the way for other women to follow similar paths.

Sources and Further Reading

Donnelly, Lucy Martin. “The Celebrated Mrs. Macaulay,” William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. VI (1949): pp. 173–205.

Gleason, Emily Gilbert. “Macaulay, Catharine (1731-1791).” Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Last modified 2002, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/macaulay-catharine-1731-1791

Hill, Bridget. The Republican Virago: The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hill, Bridget. “Macaulay [nee Strawbridge; other married name Graham], Catharine.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2012, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/17344 (subscription required to access).

Wikipedia. “Catharine Macaulay.” Last modified 11th April 2019, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharine_Macaulay

London’s Protest Stickers: Brexit

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Brexit has become a popular topic for people who make and distribute protest stickers (Photo: Hannah Awcock, North Bank of the Thames, 12/09/17).

In September 2016, I wrote a London’s Protest Stickers blog post about the EU Referendum. Little did I know that not only would we still be talking it about Brexit two and a half years later, but that we would be no closer to a resolution. The Brexit debate has rumbled on, getting more bitter and divisive as time goes on. As with any significant political issue, Brexit had become a popular topic for London’s protest stickers.

You can see where I found all of these stickers on the Turbulent London Map.

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Most of the protest stickers I come across are anti-Brexit, but I do find the occasional pro-Brexit sticker, like this one. Britannic Union is a right-wing, pro-Brexit Twitter account (Photo: Hannah Awcock, King’s Road, 08/04/17).

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This sticker is faded and torn, but it is still recognisable. It was produced by the Liberal Democrats, who campaigned to Remain in the run-up to the referendum (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Broad Sanctuary, 18/10/16).

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It is quite unusual to find a handmade sticker like this one. It isn’t going to win any art prizes, but I think that it is quite effective in getting the message across (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Guildford Street, 10/01/17).

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This sticker is also handmade, and is a little more artistic. It doesn’t directly refer to Brexit, but the message I take from it is that Britain can’t survive alone, and in the current political climate it’s hard not to link it to the EU. Sometimes, people respond to stickers by writing on or around them. In this case, someone has taken the message of the sticker a little too literally. I love the way that protest stickers sometimes spark debates on city streets (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 09/10/16).

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This sticker is about the cost of student housing, not Brexit. But it was placed on the inside of a toilet cubicle, and became the site of a quite heated Brexit debate. In this case, the tradition of writing on the walls of toilet cubicles has become political (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Senate House Library, 10/01/17)

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This sticker is simple, but effective (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 01/09/17, Exhibition Road).

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This Bollocks to Brexit sticker has become a common sight all over the country over the last few years (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 12/10/17, Swiss Cottage).

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This is another simple design, which resembles the Run DMC logo (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 27/12/18, Southbank).

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The question of whether or not to have a second referendum is a very contentious one. Lots of people are campaigning for a ‘People’s Vote’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 04/06/18, Victoria Station).

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What better way to finish than with a Rick Astley pun? (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 21/09/17, Tottenham Court Road).

Book Review: The Italian Boy- Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London

The Italian Boy front cover

The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise.

Sarah Wise. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London. London: Pimlico, 2005. RRP £7.99 paperback

Most people have heard of Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh murderers. Fewer people know that London had its own episode of ‘burking’ in 1831. In the early 19th century, London’s anatomists and medical schools needed many more bodies for dissection than could be provided by legal means. A lucrative trade in corpses developed, and ‘Resurrectionists’ could make a good income by digging up the recently buried and selling them to hospitals and medical schools. In late 1831, two Resurrectionists in Bethnal Green decided to cut out the middle man, and began murdering London’s poor and neglected in order to sell the bodies. They were caught trying to sell the body of a young boy to the anatomy department at King’s College. The ensuing court case, and eventual conviction and execution of two of the men, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, caused a morbid scandal that enthralled London. It led to the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which eventually put an end to the illicit trade in corpses. In The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London, Sarah Wise tells the story of the murderers, their apprehension, trial, and execution in impressive detail. She also uses the story as a springboard, branching out to look at many elements of London in the first half of the nineteenth century, including poverty, housing, healthcare, and even animal welfare. The result is an interesting account of a gruesome story that captures London on the verge of rapid and dramatic transformation.

The case of the Italian boy (it was quickly decided, although never decisively proven, that the final victim was an Italian street performer) captured the public imagination in a way that only an incredibly gory crime can. As such, a significant amount of archival material about the case, largely court records and newspaper articles, has survived. As such, Wise is able to provide an incredible amount of detail about the events surrounding the case. At some points, it was almost a little too much detail; I got distracted trying to keep track of the sheer number of pubs that the men visited in the days before they were arrested at King’s, and the order in which they visited them. Despite all this detail, there are still many elements of the case that are unknown, and will never be known. It will never be possible to confirm exactly how many people were killed, for example, nor to find out what happened to John Bishop’s children after their father was executed. Wise was able to trace the some of the children to Shoreditch workhouse in 1835, but then they disappear without trace.

It is a well-known frustration amongst researchers who use archives that the voices of the poor rarely get preserved. In the Preface of The Italian Boy, Wise argues that she saw this story as an opportunity to find out about the poorest residents of nineteenth century London: “The story appeared to me to be a window on the lives of the poor at a period of great change: a window that is badly damaged – opaque in places, blocked out or shattered in others – but offering a glimpse of those who have left little authentic trace of themselves” (Wise, 2005; p. xvii). It is true that you have to use archives creatively in order to find out about the lives of the poor in the past, but this might be the most creative method I’ve come across. Whilst I’m not sure it is representative of the lives of the vast majority of London’s poor, it does provide an insight into the society in which they struggled to survive.

The Italian Boy strikes a good balance between academic rigour and popular appeal. Wise tells the story of the London burkers well, but also uses it to look at broader themes in a way that is more common in academic journal articles or books. If you are interested in the history of London, crime and the criminal justice system, or indeed the development of modern healthcare, then I recommend you give it a go.

On This Day: The Massacre of St. George’s Fields, 10th May 1768

John Wilkes

John Wilkes was a vocal critic of George III and enjoyed significant popular support (Source: National Picture Gallery)

Most people have probably never heard of John Wilkes, but in the eighteenth century he was one of London’s most popular radicals. On the 10th May 1768, soldiers opened fire on some of his supporters outside the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark where Wilkes was being held. 6 or 7 people were killed, including bystanders, in an event that would become known as the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.

John Wilkes was a radical MP, and in June 1762 he started a newspaper, The North Briton, which was very critical of both the government and the monarchy. He was protected by parliamentary privilege, which means that MPs have legal immunity for things they do or say in the course of their duties. This only protected Wilkes up to a point, however, and he eventually went too far, publishing a poem that the House of Lords deemed to be obscene and blasphemous. They started the process of expelling Wilkes from the House of Commons, which would have removed his parliamentary privilege and left him open to prosecution. Wilkes fled to Paris before this could happen. In his absence he was found guilty of obscene and seditious libel and declared an outlaw on the 19th of January 1764.

Wilkes hoped that a change of government would lead to the charges against him being dropped. He ran out of money before that happened, however, and had to return to England. He wasn’t immediately arrested, as the government feared it would only increase his support base. Wilkes was elected as MP for Middlesex, but in April decided to waive his parliamentary privilege and hand himself over to the court of the King’s Bench. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison and given a £500 fine.

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A map of St. George’s Fields in the late eighteenth century. The King’s Bench Prison is on the right hand side, near the junction of New Road and Blackman Street (Source: Mapco).

Wilkes was taken to the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, on the edge of a large open space called St. George’s Field (an area stretching from Waterloo Station to Borough High Street today). As news of Wilkes’ imprisonment spread, his supporters began to gather on St. George’s Fields. The numbers increased daily, and by the 10th of May there were around 15,000 people there. Fearful of the large crowd, four Justices of the Peace requested military support, and a detachment of Horse Grenadier Guards were sent. This only increased tensions, however, as the crowd taunted the soldiers.

A group of soldiers chased one man who was being particularly offensive into a nearby barn. They opened fire, killing William Allen, an innocent bystander. As news of Allen’s death spread, the situation on St. George’s Fields only got worse. The Riot Act was read and more soldiers were called for, amongst fears that the crowd would attempt to break Wilkes out of prison. The crowd began to throw stones at the soldiers, who opened fire. In total, 6 or 7 people were killed, including another innocent bystander, and about 15 people were injured. Admittedly this isn’t a large number of casualties, but at the time it was quite significant. Understandably afraid for their lives, the crowd on St. George’s Field broke up, but as news of what had happened spread through London, sporadic rioting broke out across the city.

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William Allen, who had nothing to do with the protest, was shot and killed by soldiers (Source: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES).

Two soldiers were charged with the murder of William Allen, but they were not convicted. Allen’s father presented a petition to parliament asking for justice for his son, which led to a debate about whether the government, who had supported the soldiers, was too oppressive. Nothing came of it though. In a letter to some of his supporters in America, Wilkes suggested that the massacre may have been pre-planned by the government, although there is no evidence of this. Wlkes was released from prison in March 1770. He was re-elected as an MP several times, and each time Parliament expelled him. Instead, he was appointed a Sheriff of London, becoming Lord Mayor in 1774. During the 1780 Gordon Riots, Wilkes fought against the rioters, which significantly damaging his reputation with the people and other radicals.

John Wilkes was a champion of anti-government feeling and the right to free speech. His popularity with the people of London terrified the authorities, which may explain why the situation on St. George’s Fields escalated so quickly. Or, it could just be an example of poor policing exacerbating a crowd, which has happened on many other occasions. Either way, it was a dramatic and deadly episode in the constant struggle between the authorities and the people for London’s streets.

Sources and Further Reading

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

Harris, Sean. “The Massacre of St. George’s Fields and the Petition of William Allen.” UK Parliament. Last modified 31 October 2016, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/petitions-committee/petition-of-the-month/the-massacre-of-st-georges-fields-and-the-petition-of-william-allen-the-elder/

Simkin, John. “St. George’s Fields Riot.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/LONstgeorge.htm

TeachingHistory.org. “Boston’s Bloody Affray.” No date, accessed 7th May 2019. Available at https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/23472

White, Jerry. London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing. London: The Bodley Head, 2012.

Wikipedia. “Massacre of St George’s Fields.” Last modified 15th March 2019, accessed 23rd April 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_St_George%27s_Fields