Book Review: Mudlarking- Lost and Found on the river Thames

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem

Lara Maiklem. Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames. London: Bloomsbury, 2019. RRP £9.99 paperback.

I have always been curious about Mudlarks. Once a way of scraping together a living for some of London’s poorest residents, modern Mudlarks are more likely to be hobbyists and amateur archaeologists. They search the Thames foreshore at low tide, searching for historical objects revealed or washed up by the river. So when Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames was published, I was keen to give it a read. I was not disappointed; Mudlarking is a fascinating book, and a joy to read.

For just a few hours each day, the river gives us access to its contents, which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people, and their relationship with a natural force…As I have discovered, it is often the tiniest of objects that tell the greatest stories.

Maiklem, 2019; p. 5.

Mudlarking is not easy to categorise. It’s not a history book, a memoir, or a travel book, but it has elements of all 3. Lara describes the process and experience of mudlarking; explores what mudlarking, and the Thames more generally, means to her; and investigates and speculates on the origins and history of a huge range of objects that she has found over the years, from the mundane to the extraordinary.

The book is structured geographically, beginning at Teddington, where the tidal Thames begins, and finishing in the Estuary. The narrative winds and curves however, much like the river itself. Sometimes it jumps back Lara’s childhood, pauses on a particularly memorable trip to the river, or stops to reflect on a different types of object such as pins, buttons, or clay pipes. Mudlarking always comes back to the river however, and its relationship to London.

Lara Maiklem on the foreshore of the Thames, with Battersea power station in the background (Source: NPR/Lara Maiklem).

London is a city where the past is never far from the surface; simply turning a corner can catapult you back hundreds of years. There is just so much history there, so many lives and stories, most of which are irrevocably lost to us. The objects Lara finds on the Thames foreshore are a way for her to connect with those lost stories, to imagine Londoners long gone and conjure the city as it used to be in her mind. This struck a chord with me; I also find myself daydreaming about past people and places when presented with an archival document or running my hand along the walls of an ancient church.

Not only is Mudlarking well written, it is also well put together. It is full of special touches, from the illustrations on the inside cover, lovingly drawn by one of Lara’s fellow mudlarkers, to the font used for the front cover and chapter epigraphs, the type of which was consigned to the river by its’ creator in the early twentieth century. There are also two lovely maps of the river (there are few books that couldn’t be improved without the inclusion of a map or two, in my opinion!), and images of many of the finds Lara discusses.

Thanks to the Coronavirus lockdown, I haven’t been to London in five months. Reading Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames was a wonderful way for me to reconnect with a city that I miss. There are so many books about London, it isn’t easy to find a fresh angle. In Mudlarking, Lara Maiklem has done this, and then some.

Turbulent Londoners: Olive Morris, 1952-1979

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been 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. Next up is Olive Morris, radical, activist, and organiser.


Olive Morris in 1973 at the squat she helped established at 121 Railton Road in Brixton (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

There has been a conscious effort over the last few years to ensure that black activists throughout history receive the attention they deserve. Olive Morris is one of those who has been the subject of concerted efforts to research and publicise her life and legacy. She was even featured on a Google Doodle on the 26th of June 2020, which would have been her 68th birthday. Olive was an accomplished and dedicated activist, who made significant contributions to the developing Black Power movement in Britain in the 1970s.

The Google Doodle celebrating Olive Morris, from the 26th June 2020 (Source: Google).

Olive Morris was born on the 26th of June 1952 in Jamaica. Her parents moved to London when she was young and in 1961, aged 9, she joined them in Lavender Hill. She left school without any qualifications, although she would later go on to study at the London College of Printing and the University of Manchester. The London that Olive grew up in was not welcoming or supportive of people like her; black and Asian people faced a racist police force, attacks by racist groups such as the National Front, and discrimination in education, employment, and housing. In this context Olive became a fierce and determined activist, campaigning against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Her activism was intersectional; she believed that all forms of discrimination interact and overlap, and in order to fight one you must fight them all.

In 1969, at the age of just 17, Olive intervened in the arrest of a Nigerian diplomat in Brixton. The police did not believe that a black man could own such a nice car, so accused him of stealing it. Olive was physically and verbally abused by the police for standing up to them. She was also arrested, charged with assault on an officer, and fined £10 and given a 3 month suspended sentence.

At this time, Brixton was a hub for black political organisations, so Olive found no shortage of allies. In the early 1970s, she joined the youth section of the British Black Panther Movement. In 1974 she was a founding member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, which was formed to create a space for women who felt marginalised by the broader black freedom movement.

Olive began squatting in 1972, and quickly became very good at it. For her, squatting was a political act; she used it to draw attention to the fact that so many black people were homeless, despite good quality housing being available. In this way, she helped pioneer squatting as a form of activism. In 1973 Olive squatted 121 Railton Road in Brixton, which became an organising centre for community groups such as Black People against State Harassment. It was also home to Sabarr Bookshop, one of the first black community bookshops in Britain. Railton Road remained a squat and community centre.

Olive Morris scaling a building on the front cover of a handbook for squatters published in 1979 (Source: Lambeth Council).

Between 1975 and 1978, Olive studied economics and social studies at the University of Manchester. Whilst there, she was a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Overseas Students. Amongst other things, she helped campaign against raising tuition fees for overseas students. Olive saw this policy as a racist denial of British responsibilities to its former colonies. She was also a member of the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative (later the Abasindi Co-operative) and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group.

During and after her studies, Olive traveled extensively, using what she learnt to inform her activism back home. She also wrote and published on her experiences and politics. In 1978, Olive co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), an umbrella movement which brought together other groups and activists. After graduating, Olive returned to Brixton and worked in the juvenile department of the Brixton Community Law Centre. Here, she campaigned against the controversial ‘sus’ laws, which allowed the police to stop and search people based solely on suspicion.

Olive fell ill whilst on holiday in Spain in 1978. On her return she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Treatment was unsuccessful, and she passed away on 12th July 1979, aged just 27. It was a tragic shock to her friends and family, and also a great loss to London’s activist communities. In 1986 a Lambeth Council building at 18 Brixton Hill was named after her; there is also a community garden and play are in Myatt’s Field dedicated to her. In 2008 the Remembering Olive Collective was set up to publicise and preserve her legacy; the materials they collected are now held at Lambeth Archives. In 2009, she was chosen by public vote to be one of the historical figures featured on the Brixton Pound, a local currency. In 2011, the Olive Morris Memorial Award was launched, which gives bursaries to young black women.

Olive Morris on the one Brixton Pound note. She was chosen by a popular vote to appear on the local currency (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Olive Morris was a dedicated, skilled, and strategic organiser and activist, who fought against discrimination in all its forms. During her short life she worked tirelessly to combat the disadvantages faced by black people in Britain and build networks of solidarity and mutual support. Some of these networks were specifically aimed at women, encouraging many women of colour to engage in politics for the first time. Olive is remembered as a local hero in Brixton, but her legacy goes much further than that. I somehow doubt she would be impressed by being featured in a Google doodle, but is a step towards the recognition she deserves.

Sources and Further Reading

Allotey, Emma. “Morris, Olive Elaine (1952-1979).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2012, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/100963

Barr, Sabrina. “Olive Morris: Google Doodle Honours Activist who Campaigned to Improve the Lives of the Black Community.” Independent. Last modified 26th June 2020, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/olive-morris-google-doodle-who-activist-black-police-london-a9586836.html

Osborne, Angelina. “Black History Month: The Power of Olive Morris.” Fawcett Society. Last modified 2nd October 2018, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/blog/black-history-month-power-olive-morris

Reilly, Felix. “‘Black women who have struggled to make our efforts possible’: Olive Morris and the Legacy of Black Power in Manchester.” History@Manchester. Last modified 13th October 2019, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://uomhistory.com/2019/10/13/black-women-who-have-struggled-to-make-our-efforts-possible-olive-morris-and-the-legacy-of-black-power-in-manchester/

Remember Olive Collective blog. Various dates, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com/news-and-events/

Tsang, Amie. “Overlooked No More: How Olive Morris Fought for Black Women’s Rights in Britain.” The New York Times. Last modified 26th June, 2020, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/obituaries/olive-morris-overlooked.html

Book Review: Bad Girls- The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison

Bad Girls Book Cover

Bad Girls by Caitlin Davies.

Caitlin Davies. Bad Girls: The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison. London: John Murray, 2018. RRP £10.99 paperback. 

For 9 years, I studied at Royal Holloway, a college of the University of London in Egham, Surrey. For 9 years, when I told people I went to Royal Holloway, I had to put up with jokes about Holloway Prison, the infamous women’s penitentiary in London. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about Holloway apart from the fact that a lot of suffragettes were imprisoned there. So when I heard about Bad Girls: The Rebels and Renegades of Holloway Prison, it seemed like a good opportunity to find out more about why Holloway is so well known.

First opened in 1852, HMP Holloway was made female-only in 1902, rebuilt in 1971-85, and closed for good in 2016. In that time, it has witnessed dramatic changes in society, including seismic shifts in the treatment of both women and prisoners. In Bad Girls, Caitlin Davies recounts how life in the prison changed over more than 150 years, telling the stories of governors and staff as well as the women incarcerated there. Some of the women described in Bad Girls are well known, either for the severity of their crimes, such as Myra Hindley, or because they took a stand for what they believed in, like the suffragettes and the women of Greenham Common. The vast majority of the women who spent time in Holloway, however, are unlikely to remembered by anyone but their families. That does not, however, make their stories any less fascinating.

the history of women in Holloway is a bleak one and stories of triumph are few and far between. It’s impossible not to feel depressed at a century and a half of women betrayed and coerced, condemned and mistreated, wrongly imprisoned, punished and executed. But this is why its story has to be told, because women have for too long been kept out of sight and out of mind behind the walls of Holloway.

Davies, 2018; p.316.

The women imprisoned in Holloway did not just break the law, they also undermined society’s perceptions of gender; crime is simply not feminine. Caitlin Davies doesn’t just tell a good story, she also explores how dominant narratives around gender and femininity are tied up with understandings of criminality and punishment. She questions what prisons are for and highlights how their dual purposes of punishment and rehabilitation rarely complement each other. This book has as much to say to the present as it does to the past.

Although many of Caitlin Davies’ books are clearly based on extensive historical research, she describes herself as a writer rather than a historian, and this is reflected in Bad Girls. Unlike most history books, Davies herself is very much a part of the narrative; she details her visits to prisons and cemeteries, and describes the London cafes in which she interviews former inmates of Holloway and their descendants. I enjoyed this approach; it felt as though Davies is taking the reader with her on her journey to uncover the stories of women who’s lives have often been swept under the carpet.

Bad Girls is an excellent book. Not only is it a great read, it is also an ideal example of how an understanding of the past can illuminate significant issues in the present-day. In the acknowledgements, Davies mentions that she had to cut out a lot of material, and that a lot of stories have been left untold. My response to that is: when can we expect the sequel?

Turbulent Londoners: Susan Lawrence, 1871-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been 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. Next up is Susan Lawrence, an upper class politician who started her career as a Conservative Councillor, but converted to socialism.


Susan Lawrence 1930

Susan Lawrence in 1930 (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

Susan Lawrence was born into a life of wealth and privilege. Well educated, she embarked upon a career as a Conservative politician. It didn’t take her long before the realities of life in London helped in her conversion to non-revolutionary socialism. She became a devoted member of the Labour Party, and went on to be an effective politician.

Arabella Susan Lawrence was born in London to a prosperous family on 12th of August 1871. She was well education, studying at University College London and Newnham College, Cambridge. In her early life, Susan was politically and socially conservative, strongly believing in the British Empire, the Church of England, and charity. In March 1910 she was elected to the London County Council (LCC) as a Conservative. As she immersed herself in London politics however, her beliefs began to diverge from the policies of the Conservative Party.

Over the next two years, Susan underwent a political and personal transformation. Previously a devout member of the Church of England, she became much more secular in her beliefs. She also realised that social change could not be brought about by voluntary work alone, it required action by the state. Susan joined the Fabian Society, a group of non-revolutionary socialists (they wanted to bring about a socialist society by gradual means), and became good friends with Sidney and Beatrice Webb, a power couple of British socialism. Susan served  on the executive of the Fabian Society from 1913 until 1945. As a member of the LCC, Susan became aware of how little the women who cleaned London’s schools were paid. As a result, she became involved in women’s trade unionism. She met and befriended Mary Macarthur, the secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). For the next decade, Susan worked to organise working class women, earning the nickname ‘Our Susan’. In 1912, she resigned from the LCC because of this dramatic change in her beliefs.

Susan still believed in making a difference, and the following year she was re-elected to the LCC as a Labour Councillor for Poplar in East London. After her mother’s death, Susan moved to the East End, living just off the East India Dock Road. It was not unusual at this time for middle- and upper-class women to try to help East London’s poor, but Susan displayed an uncommon level of dedication by actually moving there.

During the First World War, Susan was a Fabian representative on the War Emergency Worker’s National Committee, a coalition of Labour and socialist groups who worked to improve conditions for the working classes. She also served on government committees, trying to ensure the interests of workers,  and particularly female workers, were taken into account. Like many other Labour politicians, Susan was optimistic that post-war reconstruction could be used to benefit the working classes. In 1918, she was elected to the new women’s section of the Labour Party’s National Executive. In just 6 years, Susan had become one of  Labour’s most important women.

In 1919, Susan was elected to Poplar borough council. Two years later, she was one of 30 Poplar Councillors imprisoned because of the Poplar Rates Strike. The Councillors took a stand over the unfair way in which unemployment benefits were paid for in London, which meant that the poorest boroughs had the highest burdens. The government sentenced them to prison indefinitely, but the government backed down and Susan and the other Councillors were released after 6 weeks. Despite their success, the Poplar Councillor’s illegal strategy was unpopular with the rest of the Labour Party.

1924 Women MPs

Women were allowed to stand as MPs for the first time in 1918. By 1924, there were 8 female MPs in Parliament. Susan Lawrence is the second from the left (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Susan was loyal to the Labour Party however, and in the 1920s she turned her attention to Parliamentary politics. After failing to win seats in the 1920 and 1922 elections, Susan was elected as the MP for East Ham North in 1924, becoming one of Labour’s first 3 female MPs. Although she was never a Minister, Susan held several positions in Labour governments became quite successful. She was the first woman to chair the Labour Party Conference in October 1930. Despite being a trailblazer for women in politics, women’s rights was never a priority for Susan. She had been indifferent at best to women’s suffrage, and she didn’t want women’s issues to divide the Labour Party; for Susan, no other identity was more important than class. Unlike other female politicians at the time, such as Ellen Wilkinson, she seemed impervious to the pressure to appear ‘feminine’; she never took much interest in her clothes or appearance.

In the 1931 general election Susan lost her seat, and this marked the end of her Parliamentary career. She tried to get re-elected in 1935, but was unsuccessful. A new and younger group was increasingly leading the Labour Party, and Susan was increasingly alienated. She remained on the Party’s executive until 1941, however. Susan dedicated her retirement to translating books into braille. She moved to Berkshire after her house was bombed during the Blitz, but returned to London after the war, moving to South Kensington. She died at home on 24th of October 1947.

Susan Lawrence was a dedicated and effective politician. She was not a suffragette, but she shared with them a willingness to go to prison for what she believed in. I think it must have taken a huge amount of bravery and resolve to shift her political allegiance as she did, and I admire her for that. Contemporary politicians seem incapable of admitting that they were wrong, and I think they could learn something from Susan.

Sources and Further Reading

English Heritage. “Lawrence, Susan (1871-1947).” No date, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/susan-lawrence/

Howell. David. “Lawrence, (Arabella) Susan.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 28th May 2015, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34434 [Subscription required to access].

Perera, Kathryn. “Susan Lawrence: The Monocled Maverick.” Labour List. Last modified 20th December 2010, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://labourlist.org/2010/12/susan-lawrence-the-monocled-maverick/

Simkin, John. “Susan Lawrence.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUlawrence.htm

 

 

On This Day: The Anti-Iraq War Demonstration, 15th February 2003

Anti Iraq War Demo Hyde Park

Hundreds of thousand of protesters gathered in Hyde Park on the 15th of February 2003 to take part in a global weekend of action opposing the invasion of Iraq (Photo: IWM).

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, global geopolitics shifted dramatically. The US adopted an aggressive ‘with us or against us’ stance, and Muslims replaced Communists as the biggest threat to Western civilization. The US government identified several countries to bear the brunt of this aggression, whether they deserved it or not; they were described as the ‘Axis of Evil.’ Iran, Iraq and North Korea were the most common targets, although other countries were also identified. The US accused Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, of possessing weapons of mass destruction and having links to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind 9/11. At the beginning in 2003, despite opposition from the UN and countries such as Canada, France, Germany, and Russia, the US and its allies were preparing to invade Iraq. Millions of ordinary people also opposed the invasion, and the weekend of the 15th and 16th of March 2003 saw what was probably the biggest protest event in global history.

It is very difficult to estimate the number of people who take part in protest marches, but between 6 and 10 million people took to the streets in more that 600 cities in 60 countries around the world. The march in Rome made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest anti-war rally in history, with around 3 million people taking part. The London march was jointly organised by the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain, with support from another 450 demonstrations.

The plan was that 2 marches (known as feeder marches) would set off from different parts of London. Londoners and people from the south of England would gather on the Embankment, and people from the Midlands and the North would meet at Gower Street. The two marches would meet at Piccadilly Circus then march as one to Hyde Park for a rally. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport tried to ban the rally; blaming health and safety concerns and the need to protect the grass in Hyde Park. No one bought this argument however, and Jowell was forced to back down.

 

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It is estimated that more than a million people attended the march in London (Photo: Daily Mail).

The weather in London on 15th March 2003 was cold and grey, but the number of people who turned up to take part exceeded all expectations. The feeder marches started earlier than scheduled because of the sheer number of people there, but many people were still delayed for a long time before they were able to set off. The speakers at the rally in Hyde Park included Harold Pinter, George Galloway and Tony Benn, but lots of people didn’t arrive until after the rally had finished, and many didn’t make it as far as Hyde Park at all.

Despite the significant delays, the atmosphere was good and the day was peaceful. Many of those who took part were not hardened activists, they were ‘normal’ people who were moved to protest by what they saw as a gross injustice. For thousands, it was their first protest march. This made the sense of betrayal and disillusionment even worse when it changed nothing, and the Labour government led by Tony Blair sent British troops into Iraq. Others argued that one protest march was never going to change anything, and that marches have to be used in conjunction with other tactics of resistance to achieve concrete change.

Troops from the US, UK, Australia and Poland invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003. Although Saddam Hussein was overthrown relatively quickly it was a long, drawn-out conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions lost their homes. The US didn’t withdraw the last of its troops until 2011, and Iraq is still dealing with the legacies of the conflict. To make matters worse, it was later revealed that Iraq never had weapons of mass destruction, and many people feel that the war was illegal and politicians such as George Bush and Tony Blair should be charged with war crimes.

The global protests on 15th and 16th of March 2003 may not have had the desired effect of preventing the invasion of Iraq, but they certainly demonstrated the strength of global opposition to the war and the increasing ability of social movements to coordinate internationally. The London protest was probably the biggest political demonstration the UK has ever seen, and it was a clear statement that not everyone accepted the black-and-white geopolitics of the War on Terror.

Sources and Further Reading

IWM. “5 Photographs from the Day the World said No to War.” Last modified 15 June 2018, accessed 31 January 2020. Available at https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/5-photographs-from-the-day-the-world-said-no-to-war

Jeffery, S. “UK’s ‘Biggest Peace Rally.'” The Guardian. Last modified 15th February 2003, accessed 31st January 2020. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/feb/15/politics.politicalnews

Murray, A. and Lindsey German. Stop the War: The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement. London: Bookmarks, 2005.

We are Many. Film directed by Amir Amirani (2014).

Wikipedia. “15 February 2003 Anti-way Protests. Last modified 30th January 2020, accessed 31st January 2020. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/15_February_2003_anti-war_protests

Book Review: Queer City-Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

Queer City Front Cover

Queer City by Peter Ackroyd.

Peter Ackroyd. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day. London: Vintage, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback. 

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific writer of books about London, both fiction and non-fiction. I have read, and enjoyed, his books before (My review of London: The Biography (2001) can be found here), so when I saw Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, I was fairly sure it would be worth a read. It did not disappoint; like Ackroyd’s other non-fiction books, Queer City is well-written and engaging.

The book pretty much does what it says on the tin; it is a chronological history of queerness in London. It is difficult to research any section of society that has been traditionally overlooked, particularly one that was by necessity so secretive for large parts of history. A lot of the sources Queer City draws on were written about London’s queer population, rather than by them, and Ackroyd himself acknowledges that it can be impossible to tell whether these accounts are accurate, exaggerated, or even entirely fictional. Nevertheless, the book recounts an impressive number of examples, and just because researching an element history is difficult, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.

Ackroyd, 2017; p. 232.

Queer City is descriptive rather than reflective or analytical. Ackroyd briefly engages with the question of whether or not London is particularly conducive to queer culture, but I would have liked to see more of this kind of discussion. At times the book can get a bit list-y, with example after and example, and limited analysis. But that is the kind of feedback I would give when marking an undergraduate essay, so maybe I’m being unreasonable.

Most history books that cover significant periods of history tend to get more detailed the closer the narrative gets to the present. This is understandable, because of the relative availability of historical sources, but it can be frustrating. Queer City bucks this trend, with far-flung historical periods getting significantly more coverage than the recent past. This is a refreshing change, but I actually would have liked more detail about the last 50 or so years, when there has been so much dramatic change for LGBT+ people. Significant events like the Wolfenden Report, the legalisation of gay sex, Section 28, the Civil Partnership Act, and the Gender Recognition Act are all covered only briefly.

In-depth, critical historical research is important because it can challenge our perceptions of continuity and normality in society. By helping to publicise London’s queer history, Ackroyd is helping to deconstruct the argument that being queer is abnormal. As well as being a good book, Queer City is an important one.

Turbulent Londoners: Elizabeth Fry, 1780-1845

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 I’m focusing on Elizabeth Fry, who you may recognise as the face of the English £5 note between 2002 and 2017, but how much do you actually know about what she achieved?


Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry in 1843. Portrait by George Richmond (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Elizabeth Fry was a penal reformer and philanthropist whose portrait graced the English £5 note between 2002 and 2017, only the second woman to appear on English currency (the first was Florence Nightingale). She was a strict Quaker, and her religious beliefs drove her philanthropy and campaigning. Elizabeth Gurney was born on the 21st of May 1780 in Norwich, the 4th of 12 children. The 7 girls in the family received a thorough education, but Elizabeth missed a lot, and didn’t learn to spell until much later. Both her parents came from respectable Quaker families, but after her mother died in 1792 the rest of her family didn’t take religion too seriously. Elizabeth did, however, and in 1799 she adopted the dress and speech of a strict Quaker.

On the 19th of August 1800, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, who came from a wealthy orthodox Quaker family. Between 1801 and 1822 the couple had 11 children. At first the family lived in central London, but in 1809 the family moved to East Ham, which at this point was a small village outside London. Despite a busy family life, Elizabeth did a lot of work for the local community, distributing clothing, food, and medicine in what was known as the ‘Irish colony.’ Despite her own slow start, education was a high priority for Elizabeth; she started a Sunday school in Earlham, and co-founded a school for girls in East Ham. She was an advocate of vaccination, and helped almost completely eliminate smallpox from the villages around East Ham. In 1811 she was acknowledged as a Quaker minister, and began a long career of preaching and writing and distributing religious tracts. Despite her husband’s support, Elizabeth always felt a tension between her religious ambitions and her marital duties.

In 1813 Elizabeth first visited the women’s side of Newgate prison, notorious for it’s poor conditions. She was appalled by what she saw, as well as the severity of criminal law at the time. An interest in prisoners is part of Quaker tradition, and Elizabeth was not the only reformer who took an interest. She was unusual because of her gender however, and she was also the first to take a specific interest in female prisoners. Elizabeth believed that prisoners should be treated humanely, and that the primary purpose of prisons should be reform rather than punishment. She advocated for women-only prisons, with female staff. Elizabeth didn’t return to Newgate until December 1816, but when she did she met with the prison authorities and prisoners and instituted a series of reforms. These included religious and elementary education for the prisoners and their children (children were often imprisoned with their mother at the time); a classification system for prisons; prison dress; constant supervision by matrons and monitors; and paid employment. Fry or one of her supporters also visited daily to talk with the women or read to them.

The conduct of the female prisoners in Newgate improved dramatically as a result of Fry’s reforms, and her success in the infamous prison won her a lot of her supporters. In April 1817 the Ladies’ Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate was set up. In 1821, it was expanded to become the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reform of Female Prisons, the first nationwide women’s organisation in Britain. From 1818 onwards, Elizabeth toured the country, combining her responsibilities as a Quaker minister with her prison reform efforts. She would visit prisons and suggest improvements, as well as establish local ladies’ committees to visit prisoners. In 1827, she published a handbook detailing her reforms: Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners. Elizabeth also advocated reforms to capital punishment and the treatment of female prisoners on convict ships bound for Australia; she was responsible for considerable improvements in conditions on the ships.

In 1828, Elizabeth’s husband went bankrupt. This was a very humiliating time for the family, and must have been very difficult for Elizabeth as her husband was disowned by the Quakers. She was able to keep up her campaigning though, as she was supported financially by her brothers. During the 1830s, Elizabeth began to face serious opposition to her prison reform ideas; as a religiously motivated woman, her ideas were dismissed as old-fashioned and unprofessional. Her opposition to the increasingly popular system of solitary confinement meant that her ideas were increasingly accused of being out of date. Despite this, between 1838 and 1845 Elizabeth made 5 trips to Europe, where she lobbied for better treatment of prisoners and lunatics, the abolition of slavery, and religious toleration.

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Elizabeth Fry was on the English £5 from 2002 until 2017. The image on the left of the note is an idealised depiction of Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate (Source: Open University).

Elizabeth’s health declined over several years, and she died of a stroke on the 13th of October 1845. Her legacy was significant; she had contributed to prison and legal reform around the world. Her example also helped to start the organised women’s movement; she strongly believed that women should become active on behalf of other women. Her achievements were acknowledged in 2002, when she became the second woman to appear on a Bank of England note. The recognition was well deserved.

Sources and Further Reading

Crone, Rosalind. “The People on the Notes: Elizabeth Fry.” The Open University. Last modified 21st February 2017, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/the-people-on-the-notes-elizabeth-fry

de Haan, Francisca. “Fry [nee Gurney], Elizabeth.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 1st September 2017, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/10208 [Subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Elizabeth Fry.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/REfry.htm

London’s Protest Stickers: Hong Kong Protests

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On a recent trip to London I found multiple protest stickers relating to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19)

At the time of writing this post in December 2019, protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than 6 months. What started as resistance against a specific law became a movement against Chinese rule that took everyone by surprise in its ferocity and determination. The protests have been outward looking, with demonstrators calling on the international community to intervene on their behalf. To an extent, the rest of the world has responded, with many world leaders (including most recently Donald Trump) calling for the rights of the protesters to be respected. There has also been significant demonstrations of international solidarity. A few months ago, I wrote about a Lennon Wall for Hong Kong that I came across in Melbourne this summer, and on a recent trip to London I found a large number of protest stickers relating to the city. It is interesting to reflect on whether this solidarity reflects patterns of emigration from Hong Kong, is simply support from the international activist community, or is a mixture of the two.

To see where these stickers were found, check out the Turbulent London Map.

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A simple demand for freedom in London’s China Town. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s situation is anything but simple. Handed back from Britain to China in 1997, the city has lived under a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement that sees Hong Kongers enjoy much more freedom than Chinese people on the mainland do. The protesters argue that this freedom is being eroded however, and they are willing to fight for it despite the overwhelming power and might of the Chinese state (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gerrard Street, 19/11/19).

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The Hong Kong protesters have embraced technology, including social media and the internet. This hashtag is used on social media to critique China from multiple angles, not just it’s handling of the Hong Kong protests (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gerrard Street, 19/11/19).

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This sticker was located on the characteristic gates that mark the entrance to London’s Chinatown (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gerrard Street, 19/11/19)

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It is perhaps not surprising to find protest stickers relating to Hong Kong in China Town, but such stickers can actually be found all over London. It may seem hyperbolic to call the protests ‘The Revolution of our Times’, but it certainly does feel like they are significant. I would be very surprised if Hong Kongers were able to win freedom from Chinese rule, but I never expected the demonstrations to last this long, and the hopelessness of the cause makes the protesters all the more admirable (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 21/11/19).

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Using post-it notes as protest stickers is a tactic that I have come to associate particularly with expressions of solidarity with Hong Kong – I have seen it in Sydney, Melbourne, and now London. Amazingly, only one person has died during the protests so far, although there have been several suicides associated with the campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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This collection of post-it note protest stickers I found under the railway bridge across Borough High Street shared characteristics with a Lennon Wall, where people are encouraged to put up their own messages. These two stickers seem to have been written by different people, one of whom is particularly pessimistic about the outcome of the protests (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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The protesters have 5 demands. One of which, the withdrawal of the hated extradition bill, has already been achieved. Another demand is the formal retraction of the government’s classification of some of the first protests on the 12th of June as a riot. The protesters argue that this was a political move, and that there wasn’t any rioting. It is hard to deny that there has been rioting since then, however (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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I assume this is referring to the Extradition Bill. The Bill would have made it easier for suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, where the justice system can be biased and political, and torture is sometimes used. The Bill was clearly just the final straw, however, as many more grievances have been voiced over the last few months (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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The writer of this sticker, declaring that Hong Kong is dead in French, clearly has no doubts about how the protests will end (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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This sticker shows Joshua Wong, who was imprisoned for his role as a leader the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. There are many similarities between the protests in 2014 and those in 2019, and Joshua Wong has emerged as a spokesperson of the 2019 movement, although there don’t appear to be any clear leaders (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 21/11/19).

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This sticker doesn’t have much English text, but the protester is holding a placard which lists some of the demonstrators’ key demands. If anyone would be willing to translate the rest of the sticker for me, I would be very grateful! (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 21/11/19).

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Again, I can’t tell what the top sticker is saying, but I think the image depicts a protester and a Hong Kong policeman. The bottom sticker depicts a Hong Kong protester, now well known for covering their faces, and says: “Even the darkest night will end. Together we fight and the sun will rise. Guardians of Hong Kong (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 21/11/19).

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This sticker has quite a lot going on. It is accusing the Hong Kong police of working with the triad, Chinese criminal gangs. The photos show police officers being respectful of an alleged gang member, and mistreating a protester. The sticker also argues that the 1997 handover treaty in which China promised to uphold the One Country, Two Systems policy has been violated (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 21/11/19).

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Apparently not everyone in London sympathises with the protesters. It looks like someone has deliberately tried to obscure the message of this sticker by scratching off the words ‘Hong Kong’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 21/11/19).

Turbulent Londoners: Beatrice Webb, 1858-1943

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. Next up is Beatrice Webb, an economist, sociologist, labour historian, Socialist and social reformer.


Beatrice Webb

Beatrice Webb in 1943 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Nowadays, we take it for granted that the causes and impacts of poverty are things that can be researched, quantified, and understood using academic research. It has not always been this way, however, and up until the early twentieth century everything that was known about poverty, as well as how to counter its effects, were based on assumptions and guesswork, frequently coloured by class-based prejudice. Beatrice Webb was one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. As well as fighting poverty, Beatrice began the process of properly understanding it.

Beatrice Potter was born on the 22nd of January 1858 to a wealthy family in Standish, Gloucestshire. She was well-educated by governesses, and later cited the co-operative movement and the philosopher Herbert Spencer, a family friend, as early influences. In 1890 she met Sidney Webb, and they married two years later. It was a long, happy, and intellectually productive marriage; the pair frequently wrote together. In 1892 Beatrice’s father died. Theresulting inheritance set her up for life, leaving her free to concentrate on her research and campaigning.

Like a lot of well-off women at the time, Beatrice came into contact with poverty through her volunteer work. In 1883 she started working with the Charity Organisation Society in Soho. She also volunteered as a rent collector in model dwellings in Wapping. Model dwellings were houses built by private companies that sought to improve living conditions for the working classes as well as making a profit. It was this experience of charity work in London that made Beatrice realise how few social workers actually understood poverty. She decided to use scientific research methods to help improve the situation. She is credited with the foundation of empirical investigation in political science and sociology.

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Beatrice and Sidney Webb in about 1895 (Source: LSE)

The Webbs were active members of the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation that believes in democratic reform rather than revolutionary overthrow. The society supported the Webbs in writing books and pamphlets on socialism and the co-operative movement. Beatrice made important contributions to the political and economic theory of the co-operative movement, even coining the phrase ‘collective bargaining.’ In 1895 the Fabians, including the Webbs, founded the London School of Economics and Political Science with the noble goal of bettering society. Now, LSE is one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Beatrice was an early advocate of the welfare state. She understood the structural nature of poverty and believed, despite her own volunteering efforts, that private philanthropy was an ineffective way of dealing with long-term poverty. She believed in a national minimum; a standard of living which all citizens were entitled to and should not be allowed to fall below. She worked on the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress in 1905-9, although her recommendations were largely ignored. The National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution was set up to campaign for the changes she proposed to the Poor Laws.

Like the rest of the Fabian society, the Webbs were gradualists. They didn’t believe in revolution, although they did believe the socialism was inevitable. Beatrice was so convinced of this that after WW1 she started to write more prolifically, believing that her income would be confiscated by an imminent socialist government. Despite this conviction, the Webbs were criticised by other socialists as being too cautious and bourgeois. Initially suspicious of party politics, the Webbs joined the Labour party in 1914, and in 1922 Beatrice was part of Sidney’s successful election campaign.

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Beatrice and Sidney Webb on their trip to the USSR in 1932 (Source: LSE Library).

At first, the Webbs were wary of Russian Communism, but their frustration with UK politics after the collapse of the Labour government in 1931 made them reevaluate. Beatrice liked the principle of collective altruism (self-sacrifice for the greater good) promoted by the USSR. In 1932, the Webbs spent 2 months in the USSR, and they later co-authored a book called Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? which was criticised for being too supportive, particularly after the full horrors of Soviet rule began to come out.

Beatrice’s relationship with the women’s right’s movement was more complex than most. In 1889, she signed a petition against women’s suffrage, believing that economic emancipation was more important than the right to vote. She later changed her mind, and in the early 1900s was a strong supporter of the campaign for the vote. During WW1, she chaired a War Cabinet Committee on pay which called for equal pay. In 1932, she was the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the British Academy, which demonstrates her contribution to opening up academia for women.

Beatrice Webb died on the 30th of April 1943. Her remains were later moved to Westminster Abbey, a gesture of recognition for the contribution she made to society. If she was alive today, she might be called an activist academic – someone who combines their research with activism. Not only did she help to found the modern discipline of sociology, and fight for what she believed in, she helped begin the process of normalising the presence of women in academia. Beatrice Webb was a remarkable woman.

Sources and Further Reading

Davis, John. “Webb [nee Potter], (Martha) Beatrice.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2008, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36799 [subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Beatrice Webb.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUwebbB.htm

Wikipedia. “Beatrice Webb.” Last modified 13th September 2019, accessed 2nd October 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Webb

Turbulent London: Mary Damer Dawson, 1873-1920

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. Next up is Margaret Damer Dawson, animal rights campaigner and founder of the first female police force in Britain.


Margaret Damer Dawson

Margaret Damer Dawson in her Women’s Police Service uniform (Source: BBC).

It might be tempting to think that the recent increase in vegetarianism and concern for animal rights is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, the campaign for animal rights can be traced back a long time. Margaret Damer Dawson’s involvement in animal rights activism would be enough to make her worthy of attention, but she also went on to be the founder of the first female police force in Britain, making her doubly fascinating.

Margaret Damer Dawson was born on the 12th of June 1873 in Hove, East Sussex. Her father was a surgeon, and she had a comfortable upbringing, and an independent income that allowed her to pursue her campaigning interests as an adult. She was probably educated at home, but studied at the London Academy of Music when she was older.

Dawson was a committed campaigner, devoting her life to the causes she believed in. She first got involved in campaigns against the cruel treatment of animals; in 1906 she became the Organising Secretary of the International Animal Protection Societies, and in 1908 she was made the Honorary Secretary of the International Anti-Vivisection Council. She was also an active member of the Animal Defence and Anti-vivisection society, which campaigned against the use of circus animals and the killing of animals for meat, amongst other issues. Vivisection is a particularly unsavoury practice, where operations are performed on live animals for scientific research or education. In 1906 Dawson organised the International Anti-Vivisection and Animal Protection Congress in London.

Although not actively involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, Dawson was interested in feminist issues, such as the trafficking of women and children. After the beginning of the first world war, she championed the formation of the first women’s police force in Britain. Campaigners for women’s rights knew that male police officers often handled cases involving women poorly, and it was thought that female police officers would help protect women. The government had previously been opposed to female police officers, but with so many male officers joining the army they relented. Along with Nina Boyle, a campaigner for women’s rights and member of the Women’s Freedom League, Dawson was permitted to set up the Women Police Volunteers (WPV). At first the WPV consisted of 50 women, all of independent means. They initially concentrated their efforts on London, and their responsibilities included looking after refugees arriving in London after fleeing the war.

In November 1914, Dawson and Boyle had a disagreement that caused Boyle to leave their joint venture. The Army had set up a training camp for new recruits at Grantham, and the WPV were asked to protect the trainee soldiers by controlling women of ‘bad character’ in the area, effectively imposing a curfew on women. Boyle wanted to refuse, viewing the request as an attack on women’s rights. Dawson argued that they should accept any orders they were given to prove that they could accept police discipline. Dawson had the support of the WPV members and won the argument; she inspired loyalty and affection in the women who served under her. After Boyle left, the WPV was renamed the Women’s Police Service (WPS), and Mary Allen became Dawson’s second in command. Allen was a former member of the WSPU, and formed a close relationship with Dawson; the two women would live together until Dawson’s death.

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This plaque, at 10 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, marked where Margaret Damer Dawson lived with Mary Allen (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

In 1916 the Ministry of Munitions asked the WPS to supervise the female employees working in munitions factories. Dawson recruited and trained 140 women for this task, with no financial input from the government, on the understanding that the scheme would be funded if it proved successful. The WPS training, which took place in East London, received lots of attention from the press, which did not please the Home Office and the leadership of London’s Metropolitan Police.

By the end of the war the WPS had more than 350 members around the country, although many weren’t sworn in as police officers and could not make arrests. After the Armistice, many of the women who had worked during the war were expected to give up their jobs to make way for the returning soldiers. The Baird Committee on the Employment of Women on Police Duties approved the employment of female police officers, although the Home Office was reluctant. 47 members of the WPS were hired by Chief Constables around the country, although the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was especially hostile. He seemed to have a personal grudge, and refused to hire any members of the WPS, although he did recruit women who weren’t loyal to Dawson.

Dawson had to step down from the WPS in 1919 due to poor health, Mary Allen took over as Commandant of the WPS. Margaret Damer Dawson died of a heart attack on the 18th of May 1920. Allen believed that Dawson’s constant struggle with the male police establishment had contributed to her early death.

Margaret Damer Dawson was a fierce and determined campaigner. During both phases of her activist career she fought hard for what she believed in, and as Commandant of the WPS she began the process of normalising women in the police force, disproving many of the prejudices of the male policing establishment. In 2019, women make up 30% of the UK’s police officers. As with many areas of employment, the battle for gender equality is not yet won, but we owe a debt to women like Margaret Damer Dawson, who fired the first shot.

References and Further Reading

Doughan, David. “Dawson, Margaret Mary Damer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 3rd January 2008, accessed 22nd October 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/45544 [Requires a subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Margaret Damar Dawson.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2015, accessed 22nd September 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wdawson.htm

Wikipedia. “Margaret Damer Dawson.” Last modified 7th October 2019, accessed 22nd October 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Damer_Dawson