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 In her later years, she wrote an unpublished autobiography, which Fern Riddell draws heavily on in Death in Ten Minutes.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.

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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, 08/04/19).

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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

Turbulent Londoners: Peggy Duff, 1910-1981

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. Next up is Peggy Duff, who worked as a peace campaigner for three decades.


Peggy Duff

Peggy Duff was a prominent peace campaigner and the first General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) (Photo: Ken Garland).

Born to a stereotypical middle class family in suburban Middlesex on 8th April 1910  Margaret Doreen Eames (known as Peggy Duff after her marriage) probably didn’t anticipate that she would grow up to become one of the most prominent peace campaigners of the twentieth century and a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which is still going strong more than 60 years later.

Peggy attended Hastings Secondary School for Girls. The headmistress hinted at her future path by describing her as “very public spirited.” She read English at Bedford College, and worked as a journalist after her graduation in 1932. In 1933, she married Bill Duff, a fellow journalist. The couple had 2 daughters and a son. Peggy started to get involved in peace campaigns in the late 1930s.

Tragically, Bill was killed in November 1944 whilst covering a American air raid on the Burma Railway. In order to support her family, Peggy worked full-time during the Second World War for Common Wealth, a socialist party to the left of Labour. The party performed very poorly in the 1945 General Election, and Peggy went to work for Save Europe Now, an organisation which sent food and clothing to occupied Germany and Austria. They also campaigned for the repatriation of German and Italian prisoners of war. This must have been a very difficult job at a time when they would have been very little sympathy for the soldiers and civilians of countries that lost the war. Peggy worked for Save Europe Now until 1948.

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The plaque on the house where Peggy Duff lived in Albert Street, north West London (Photo: London Remembers).

Between 1929 and 1955, Peggy was the business manager of Tribune, a socialist magazine that would later describe itself as the “official weekly” of the CND. Between 1955 and 1957, she was the Secretary of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (not the catchiest name ever). Capital punishment was not abolished for murder in the UK until 1965. In 1965, Peggy was elected as a Labour member of St. Pancras Borough Council. She fought hard for the rights of council tenants, who were being squeezed by the post-war housing shortage and rising rents (some things in London never change!). Her methods of achieving this were not always popular, however; she supported controversial redevelopments and slum clearances.

At the Labour Party Conference in 1957, Aneurin Bevan (the driving force behind the National Health Service, but at this point he was Shadow Foreign Secretary) shocked his supporters by denouncing calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world was a controversial issue, but Bevan dismissed calls for Britain to disarm with the argument that it would weaken Britain’s negotiating position on the international stage. That November, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, with Peggy as General Secretary. One of the CND’s best-known tactics is the Aldermarston Marches, when activists marched between London and Aldermarston in Berkshire, where nuclear bombs were being produced. Peggy organised the second Aldermarston march in 1959, and all of the others that followed until 1963. She was known amongst fellow activists for her energy and resilience.

CND London-Aldermaston

A photo from one of the Aldermarston marches, most of which were organised by Peggy Duff (Photo: CND)

Peggy resigned from the Labour party in May 1963 over Harold Wilson’s support of the Vietnam War and his refusal to condemn the dictatorship in Greece. Peggy’s commitment to peace outweighed her political allegiances. In 1965, Peggy stepped down from her role in the CND and began working for the International Federation for Disarmament and Peace, an alliance of peace groups from around the world, including the CND, who refused to take sides in the emerging Cold War. She published her memoirs, called Left, Left, Left, in 1971.

Peggy died on the 16th April 1981, aged 71. She had dedicated most of her adult life to campaigning for the peace, as well as bringing up 3 children on her own. The CND, which she helped to found, is still going strong and arguably one of the best-known campaign groups in British history. That is a legacy to be proud of.

Sources and Further Reading

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. “60 Faces: Peggy Duff.” No date, accessed 22nd February 2019. Available at https://cnduk.org/60-faces-peggy-duff/

Mathieson, David. Radical London in the 1950s. The Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016.

Oldfield, Sybil. “Duff [née Eames], Margaret Doreen [Peggy].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26th May 2005, accessed 22 February 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/70428 [requires a subscription to access]

Wikipedia. “Peggy Duff.” Last modified 3rd February 2019, accessed 22nd February 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peggy_Duff

Book Review: Radical London in the 1950s

Radical London in the 1950s

Radical London in the 1950s by David Mathieson.

David Mathieson. Radical London in the 1950s. The Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016. RRP £14.99 paperback.

I have been studying the history of protest in London for more than five years now, so it’s relatively unusual for me to come across a book on this subject that I haven’t seen before. So when I found Radical London in the 1950s, I was pretty excited. The book tells the story of a decade of radicalism in St. Pancras and Holborn, now within the London borough of Camden.

The subject of Radical London in the 1950s is a little more specific than the title lets on. It actually deals with a decade of radicalism in Holborn and St. Pancras to the north-west of central London that culminated with the St. Pancras rent strikes and riots in 1960. In 1956 the St. Pancras Council swung dramatically to the left when John Lawrence, socialist and former member of the Communist Party, was elected as council leader. He ushered in an era of radicalism which saw the launch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in February 1958, the red flag flying over St. Pancras Town Hall to celebrate May Day in 1958, and civil defence and social housing policies that defied the Conservative national government.

The key issue addressed in the book is housing. After World War Two, there was a desperate shortage of affordable, decent housing in London. For a time, the post-war Labour government invested heavily in building affordable homes. However, in 1951 the Conservatives took power and house-building was left to the market. As the value of land in London rose, many developers chose to build office blocks rather than the homes Londoners so desperately needed. Rents for those who had homes also increased. St. Pancras council resisted these trends for several years, attempting both to build affordable housing and keep the rents of council tenants low. This was an unsustainable position without the support of national government, however, and the council was eventually forced to back down. This led to a rent strike that lasted almost a year, and two days of rioting when two striking tenants were evicted from their council homes in September 1960.

The most striking thing about Radical London in the 1950s is the obvious similarities that can be drawn with modern London, and the current state of the Labour Party. The housing crisis that is ongoing across the UK is felt most acutely in London, where rents are astronomical, and luxury housing is being as an investment rather than to provide much-needed homes. The other issue which Mathieson discusses that feels remarkably familiar is divisions and conflicts within the Labour Party. The St. Pancras Labour council was rebellious, and often diverged from the policies of the main party. There were also divisions within the local Labour Party, leading to further conflict. It is hard not to be reminded of the current divisions between pro- and anti-Corbyn factions. In both cases, significant energy has been wasted fighting each other, when it would have been better spent fighting the opposition. I find it incredibly frustrating that obvious lessons from this episode were not learnt, or were quickly forgotten.

Radical London in the 1950s is easy to read, and well-paced. It includes a timeline of key events, and a list of the key individuals with brief biographies, which is very helpful. It also sheds light on the interaction between local and national government, which is an interesting topic that I haven’t read much about before. I do have some criticisms however, although they are quite minor. I would have appreciated a map of the area in question. St. Pancras and Holborn are now within the modern-day London Borough of Camden, so I would have appreciated some help identifying the precise area that the book relates too. Also, there are multiple typos, much more than you would normally expect to find in a published book. If David Mathieson were a student, I would advise him to proofread his work out loud, as this is a helpful way of identifying typos that have previously been overlooked.

I always welcome a book about protest history in London that I haven’t read before, and Radical London in the 1950s is an interesting read. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in London, politics, or housing.

 

Turbulent Londoners: Eliza Sharples, 1803-1852

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The first Turbulent Londoner of 2019 is Eliza Sharples, radical speaker and partner of Richard Carlile.


Eliza Sharples

Eliza Sharples (1803-1852). This image comes from a biography of Richard Carlile written by the couple’s daughter, Theophilia (Source: The Battle of the Press, 1899).

To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women in the UK the right to vote, all of the Turbulent Londoners I featured during 2018 were involved in some way in the campaign to increase the political rights and responsibilities of women (See the Vote100 page for the full list). Most of them were active in the mid-to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The history of female radicalism in London goes back much further than that however. One such radical was Eliza Sharples, who was one of the first women to speak publicly on the topics of politics and religion.

Eliza Sharples was one of 6 children, born into a middle class manufacturing family in Bolton in 1803. She was well educated, attending boarding school until she was about 20. As a young woman, Eliza was both politically and religiously conservative. When the radical Richard Carlile (a prominent atheist who campaigned for universal suffrage and freedom of the press) visited Bolton in 1827, Eliza was unimpressed. After she met him at a dinner party in 1829 however, she became curious about the man and his politics. She began to read The Republican, the paper Carlile edited. In 1830 she began writing to him. Despite Carlile being married, they fell in love, and Eliza determined to share his work.

Carlile was imprisoned multiple times for publishing radical material. In 1831 he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for seditious libel. The following January, Eliza moved to London and began visiting Carlile in prison. Carlile invited her to speak at the Blackfriars Rotunda, a venue he took over in 1831 and used for radical lectures and meetings. Other speakers included William Cobbett, Henry Hunt, and Robert Owen. Eliza gave her first lecture on 29th of January 1832; she was advertised as the first woman to speak publicly on politics and religion. She gave two lectures on Sundays, as well as Monday and Friday evenings. The Friday evening lectures were free, ensuring the venue remained accessible to the poorest Londoners. In her lectures, Eliza argued that Christianity was the main barrier to the dissemination of knowledge, and by restricting education, religion also limited freedom.

As well as lecturing, Eliza also ran the Blackfriars Rotunda, and edited a new weekly radical journal called Isis. She was also Carlile’s biggest supporter whilst he was in prison, visiting him regularly. In 1832 Carlile’s wife, Jane, moved out of the family home. The following April, Eliza gave birth to a son, named Richard Sharples. Carlile finally acknowledged his relationship with Eliza, announcing that they were in a ‘moral marriage.’ Throughout 1832 the audiences and income from the Rotunda fell, and Carlile had to close it in 1833.

Richard Carlile was released from prison in August 1833. The couple lived near Fleet Street. Their first son died of smallpox that October, but Eliza went on to have three more children: Julian Hibbert, Hypatia, and Theophila. Eliza accompanied Carlile on his lecture tours, although he became increasingly religious as time passed, which alienated him from other radicals.

Richard Carlile died on the 10th of February 1843. Eliza now had to provide for her family alone. For a while she took charge of the sewing room at Alcott House, a small utopian spiritual community in south-west London. She inherited some money from an aunt which allowed to set up on her own, renting apartments and doing needlework. In 1849 a public subscription helped her to establish a coffee house which doubled as a discussion room at 1 Warner Place on Hackney Road. She used this venue to advocate for radical thought and women’s rights. The business wasn’t profitable however and eventually shut down, just as the Blackfriars Rotunda had. Eliza died at her home at 12 George Street in Hackney on the 11th of January 1852.

Eliza Sharples may have dedicated herself to radical ideas because she fell in love, or she may have come to her radical beliefs regardless. Whatever her reasons, she was a dedicated and enthusiastic public speaker, at a time when it was very unusual for women to speak in public on any topic, let alone politics.

Sources and further reading

Parolin, Christina. Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London, 1790-c.1845. Canberra: Australia National University E Press, 2010.

Royle, Edward. “Carlile, Elizabeth Sharples,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 6th November 2018. Available  https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/38370 [requires subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Elizabeth Sharples,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2017, accessed 5th November 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Elizabeth_Sharples.htm

Simkin, John. “Richard Carlile,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2017, accessed 17th December 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/PRcarlile.htm

 

Politics and Street Art: Brexit in Brick Lane

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Street art is a format the frequently expresses political viewpoints (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

If you’ve spent any time in the UK over the last few years, then you won’t have been able to escape Brexit. Britain’s exit from the European Union may well be the most significant thing that’s happened in this country in decades, and it hasn’t even actually happened yet. Brexit has seeped into every aspect of life. Brick Lane in Shoreditch is one of the best places in London to see street art (and to get bagels!). The street and surrounding area has a fascinating social and cultural history, and in the last twenty years or so has become one of the most painfully cool parts of London. It is a hub of independent shops and cafes, art galleries, and gentrification. Brick Lane itself is an informal open air art gallery, covered in street art that is painted or covered over regularly. Street art is a format that often engages with politics, and the artists who produce it are not afraid of expressing subversive or critical views in their work. On a recent visit to Brick Lane in December 2018, I noticed a distinct anti-Brexit theme to much of the street art I found.

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This is an example of paste-up art, which has been produced elsewhere then attached with wheat paste or wallpaper paste. It looks hand drawn rather than printed. The artist, Honesy, has a bold, simplistic style that I quite like (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is also an example of paste-up art, although it was obviously printed rather than hand drawn. This means the artist can produce as many identical copies as they like, although I only saw this poster once on Brick Lane. It was produced by a pair of artists called Quiet British Accent, who make street art based around pre-decimal pennies, a red white and blue colour scheme, and the acronym QbA (in this case it has been expanded to Quiet Balanced Advice) (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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To be honest, this is the least artistically accomplished artwork that I came across in Brick Lane that day. It looks like permanent marker on a bathroom or kitchen tile, but I don’t know if the tile was installed by the artist, or if it was already there and the design was drawn on in situ. There is so much street art and grafitti in Brick Lane that it is often layered on top of each other, with new stuff partially or completed obscuring older artworks. My gut instinct is that this tile was already on the wall, and the artist made use of it rather opportunistically. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t time and thought put into the design, however. This might not be as high-quality as the other artworks featured here, but someone still put some effort in (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is another example of paste-up street art, this time produced by Uberfubs, also know as the Street Jeweller. This artist is known for images of skulls, often adorned with rhinestones or crochet. Their works also often contains a political message, such as this one. (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I haven’t been able to find out who produced this poster, another example of paste-up art. Many of the key architects of Brexit have been accused of acting to serve themselves, rather than in the best interests of the country (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This poster was obviously produced by the same artist as the previous one. It features the inexplicably influential Jacob Rees-Mogg, comparing him to Voldemort, the evil villain from Harry Potter (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This mural was produced by American street artist BK FOXX, who is known for her photorealist style. It was painted in September 2018. It doesn’t explicitly mention Brexit, but it is hard to interpret it any other way. (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

London’s Protest Stickers: Anti-Capitalism and Anti-Austerity

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Stickers of all kinds are a common sight in London (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Shadwell Gardens, 12/09/17).

Many of the issues that I talking about in these protest stickers blog posts can be traced back to our underlying economic system: capitalism. As such, many of the protest stickers I find take issue with capitalism directly. Linked to capitalism is austerity, an economic policy of public spending cuts associated with neo-liberalism, the system which governments in the UK and USA have followed for almost the last half-century. Since the last global financial crisis in 2008, the UK government has enforced a policy of austerity that has affected public services in all areas. A significant amount of the energy of activists and social movements since 2010 has been devoted to fighting these cuts, and countering their impacts. The protest stickers I’ve found reflect this struggle against austerity and the wider economic system that it derives from.

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‘Fat cat’ is a common way to describe rich, greedy people. This sticker takes the metaphor literally (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Aylesbury Estate, 05/05/15).

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This sticker was produced by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Their name may not be very punchy, but the sticker is (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Bloomsbury Road, 28/05/17).

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This sticker was produced by Active Distribution, but points viewers towards the websites of two other groups. The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke works to combat the violence that union leaders often face when standing up to Coca-Cola and it’s bottlers and subsidiaries, particularly in Columbia and Guatemala. War on Want campaigns on a variety of issues with the overarching aim of creating a more just world. In 2006, they published a damning report on Coca-Cola’s activities around the world (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Kennington Park Road, 04/06/15).

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This sticker is produced by a group called Anti-Capitalist Action. The website on the sticker doesn’t exist, but there is an active community page on Facebook (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston Road, 09/02/16).

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This sticker isn’t associated with a particular group or campaign, but has a general anti-capitalist sentiment, urging the viewer to live for their own pleasure rather the profits of their boss (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Torrington Place, 21/02/17).

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This sticker was also produced by Active Distribution. It features an unattributed quote relating to the way that it is often the most vulnerable people, such as the poor, the homeless, or immigrants, who are blamed for some of society’s biggest structural problems (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston, 17/02/15).

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The People’s Assembly is an anti-austerity movement that argues that austerity is not the only way to improve the British economy. In fact, they argue that it does not lead to a strong economy at all (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Malet Street, 17/02/15).

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Stick it to the Tories is a sticker campaign thought up by the West Wales Peoples Assembly. The project is a few years old now, and unfortunately the website is no longer functioning. Nevertheless, it is an interesting example of a forum for sharing sticker design and encouraging protest stickers (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 24/05/15)

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This sticker also focuses on the Conservative government’s austerity policies rather than austerity more generally (in recent years, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been just as supportive of cuts as the Tories). This sticker highlights the hypocrisy of austerity, which takes resources away from those who need it the most, supposedly because of a lack of money. At the same time, the richest in society get tax cuts (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Swiss Cottage, 12/10/17).

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This sticker uses symbols rather than words to get it’s point across. Scissors have been a well recognised symbol for economic cuts for the last decade or so. One of the key slogans during the student protests in 2010 was “Don’t run with scissors,” warning against hasty cuts that would do significant long-term damage (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Fleet Street, 20/06/15).