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

Turbulent Londoners: Mala Sen, 1947-2011

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today it is the turn of Mala Sen, writer and human rights activist.


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Mala Sen, 1947-2011 (Source: The Guardian)

Racism, and prejudice are still  very real issues in modern Britain. Often, discrimination can compound other issues such as employment and housing. Indian activist and writer Mala Sen saw the intersection of these problems when she moved to Britain in the late 1960s, and fought to make them better. She is part of the reason that Brick Lane in East London is home to a thriving Bangladeshi community to this day.

Mala Sen was born on the 3rd of June 1947 in Uttarakhand in northern India. Her parents divorced when she was 6, after which she was raised by her father. She moved to Mumbai to study Home Sciences, where she met and fell in love with Farrukh Dhondy. In 1965, aged 17, Mala moved to the UK to be with Dhondy. They married in 1968, and although they divorced in 1976 they remained close.

In the UK, Mala worked as a seamstress. She quickly became aware the severe racial inequality and prejudice in the UK, and started to get involved in race relations. In one of her first experiences of activism, she fought for the rights of Indian factory workers in Leicester. Mala was an early member of the Race Today Collective, a leading voice in Black politics in Britain. She wrote for their magazine, Race Today, about the condition of Bangladeshi sweatshop workers in the East End of London. They lived in crowded dormitories where beds were shared around the clock by workers on different shifts. Many of the workers had left their families behind in Bangladesh, so were not entitled to housing benefit.

Spurred on by these dreadful living conditions, Mala was a founding member of the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG). In the early 1970s, the Bengali community in East London was growing rapidly but faced racism and discrimination. BHAG sourced council houses and squatted empty buildings for the Bengali community to live in. BHAG’s activities eventually led to the establishment of Brick Lane as a safe living area for the Bangladeshi community.

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A mural in brick Lane depicting Mala Sen by artist Jasmin Kaur Sehra, part of a series commissioned by the Tate Collective to celebrate the contributions of ‘unknown’ women in 2018 (Source: Kevin Lake).

Mala was also an active member of the British Black Panthers (BBP), which was based in Brixton. Less militant than the American Blank Panthers, the BBP believed in educating black people about their history and giving them a voice. This chimed with Mala’s own philosophy; she argued that supporting people to empower themselves was the best form of activism. Later on, Mala became a researcher for television documentaries. This led to her researching and writing about women in rural India, many of whom were treated very poorly. Her best known book, India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, took 8 years to research.

In her later years, Mala became disillusioned with British and Indian politics, the feminist movement and the East End Bangladeshi community. She died in Mumbai on the 27th of May 2011, aged 63. Although she lost faith in the causes she fought for, that does not diminish her contribution to them, nor make her any less worthy of remembrance.

Sources and Further Reading

Bayley, Bruno. “The Amazing Lost Legacy of the British Black Panthers.” Vice. Last modified 10th August 2013, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.vice.com/sv/article/9bz5ee/neil-kenlocks-photos-give-the-british-black-panthers-the-legacy-they-deserve

Jackson, Sarah. “Mala Sen: Writer and Race Equality Activist.” East End Women’s Museum. Last modified 18th July 2016, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/mala-sen-writer-and-race-equality-activist?rq=mala%20sen

Kotak, Ash. “Mala Sen Obituary.” The Guardian. Last modified 13th June 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/13/mala-sen-obituary

The Telegraph. ” Mala Sen.” Last modified 30th May 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/8546445/Mala-Sen.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Further Reading

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

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

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

London’s Protest Stickers: Gentrification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25

Guilty and Proud of it Front Cover

Guilty and Proud of It! by Janine Booth.

Janine Booth. Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25. Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2009. RRP £12.00 paperback. 

In 1921, 30 Labour councillors for Poplar in East London were imprisoned for 6 weeks because of their refusal to participate in a local government system that was unfair. They knew that they were breaking the law, but willingly sacrificed their freedom in order to challenge a law that they firmly believed was unjust. Despite strong opposition, including from within the Labour Party itself, their stand was successful, forcing the national government into an embarrassing climbdown. In Guilty and Proud of It!, Janine Booth tells the story of what has become known as the Poplar Rates Rebellion, as well as the longer conflict between the national government and the socialist Labour councillors that lasted from their election in 1919 until 1925.

Poplar council chose not to concede but to fight. And by fighting, it won. Poplar’s story – of defiance, of protests, of mass participation, of prison – has to be told. It deserves its place in the list of historical struggles that each generation of socialists and labour movement activists learn about, alongside the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the General Strike, Grunwick, the Miner’s Strike, the Poll Tax.

Booth, 2009; p. ix-x.

In the 1920s, Poplar (now part of Tower Hamlets) was one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. At the time, local governments had to pay unemployment and poverty relief benefits out of the local rates (like council tax today). The more poor and unemployed people in a borough, the more money had to be raised from the local residents. It was an unfair system which meant that the richest boroughs, where people could most afford higher taxes, actually had the lowest rates. In Poplar, Labour won 39 out of 42 council seats in November 1919. They set about using this impressive majority to make genuine improvements to the lives of working-class Poplar residents, which upset local elites, including employers and landlords.

For the next 6 years, the council would struggle with these local elites and central government, taking a defiant stance that became known as Poplarism (not to be confused with Popularism!) In 1921 the councillors demonstrated just how far they were willing to go, refusing to back down over their demands for a fairer rates system even when they were sentenced to prison indefinitely. The government backed down and the councillors were released after 6 weeks, winning significant concessions over rates.

Guilty and Proud of It! is a lucid account of a fascinating episode in London’s rebellious history. Janine Booth is a trade unionist and socialist herself, and her admiration for the rebel councillors and the stand that they took is evident. The book is less neutral than an academic book would be able to get away with, but Booth does not allow her politics to cloud her judgement. The concluding chapter of the book contains a thorough and balanced analysis, making convincing arguments about why the Poplar councillors were successful, why other councils were so reluctant to join them in their stand, and how Poplarism is relevant today. A lot of history books aimed at a popular audience do not contain this sort of critical analysis, so it was a pleasant surprise. This chapter also helps the reader link the book to wider contexts. Some may describe a book on such a short period of local history as niche, but Booth demonstrates Poplarism’s relevance to ongoing conflicts between local and national governments.

Guilty and Proud of It! is an accessible, engaging book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in London’s history, protest history, or local government.

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

Triumph of Order Front Cover

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

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

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

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

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

Keller, 2009: p.223

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

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

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

Book Review: Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Death in Ten Minutes Front Cover

Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

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

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

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

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

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

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