The East End’s Radical Murals

Cities are too often bleak places to live in and a mural is one way of making them more attractive and human.

The East End can boast a large number and variety—in sharp contrast to the lack of art galleries in the area.

(East End News, 1986)

I have recently been doing some research on the Cable Street Mural in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive (which is, by the way, a lovely place to work- the staff are very helpful). The Mural is located on the west wall of St. George’s Town Hall in Cable Street, and was completed in 1983. It is over 3,500 square feet, and it commemorates the Battle of Cable Street, which took place in the area on the 4th October 1936. Demonstrators clashed with police as they tried to clear a route through the East End for the British Union of Fascists to march. The march was called off, and ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ the demonstrators’ slogan, has become a catchphrase of anti-fascist movements of all kinds.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George's Town Hall.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George’s Town Hall.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

When doing archival research, it is not uncommon to get distracted by not strictly relevant, but still very interesting, material. I discovered that the East End does indeed seem to have a strong tradition of street murals, and the Cable Street Mural is not the only one with radical subject matter. London is perhaps not the first city that springs to mind when you think of politically motivated murals- Belfast or Dublin might seem more obvious. London does not like to be outdone however, and political murals do exist here if you are willing to look for them.

Sadly, there are not as many protest-themed murals in East London as there used to be. The Peasants Revolt mural, previously located in Bow Common Lane, was unveiled in 1981 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt. The peasants had camped in Mile End on their way to London to demand reduced taxation, an end to serfdom and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts. Richard II did not meet their demands, but it remains a well-known period in English history. The mural was designed by Ray Walker, who was one of the three artists who took over from David Binnington when he resigned from the Cable Street Mural project in 1982. I have not been able to find out exactly when or why this mural was removed, and why it wasn’t afforded the same protection and investment that the Cable Street Mural has. The Cable Street Mural has been repaired every time it has been vandalised, and was restored in 2011 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle.

The Peasant's Revolt Mural (Source: Unite the Union).

The Peasant’s Revolt Mural in Bow Common Lane. Unfortunately it no longer exists (Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

One radical East End mural which can still be seen today is that commemorating the Poplar Rates Rebellion. Located in Hale Road in Poplar, the mural was completed by Mark Francis in 1990, and restored in 2007 by David Bratby and Maureen Delenian with help from local children. In 1921 30 local councillors were sent to prison after refusing to collect the rates from residents because they were unfair. The mural tells the story of the Rebellion in 4 panels, mainly using words. It does include an image of the well-known political radical George Lansbury, and local residents holding placards that declare ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.”

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural in Hale Road (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

Poplar Rates Mural Detail

A close up of George Lansbury and Poplar residents (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

The East End has a strong tradition of radicalism and protest, but a lot of it is not well known. Murals and other forms of public art are a good way of ensuring that historical protests are not forgotten. The Cable Street Mural in particular still draws visitors, and its striking colours and imagery are well worth going to see for yourself. If you have a few spare hours, why not go and check out these memorials to the East End’s turbulent history?

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Mural by George.” East London Advertiser. 31st August 1990.

Anon. “Murals in the East End.” East End News. May 1986.

Anon. “Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural.” London Mural Preservation Society. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.londonmuralpreservationsociety.com/murals/poplar-rates-rebellion-mural/

Anon. “Trade Union and Labour Movement Heroes Commemorated.” Unite. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

Rolston, Bill. “Politics, Painting and Popular Culture: The Political Wall Murals of Northern Ireland.” Media, Culture, and Society. 9, no.1 (1987): 5–28.

What’s in a Name?

Richard_II_meets_rebels

Richard II meets the rebels on 13 June 1380. This image is from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart’s ‘Chronicles’.

Occupy. The French Revolution. The Notting Hill Riots. The Battle of Cable Street. The Gordon Riots. The American War of Independence.

Many episodes of protest and contentious politics have been given a catchy name by which they are remembered. It is one of those things that you ( or I, anyway) don’t tend to think about very much. A name is often the first thing you learn about an event or period of time, and it is frequently the only thing you remember long after you have forgotten any other details. As such, it has a lot of power to shape perceptions of the event or time period they are referring to. But names can be misleading, creating perceptions that are inaccurate, or even flat out wrong. I have recently come across several examples of such misconceptions, which highlight the importance of  an awareness of how these names came about, who came up with them, what their purpose was, and, on occasion, the need for a new name.

The recent BBC2 series Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives devotes an entire episode to John Ball, fourteenth century preacher and inspiration behind the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. In it, Bragg briefly argues the the Peasant’s Revolt is a misnomer, because  it was not only peasants that took part. Artisans, shopkeepers and other members of the middle class were also involved in the insurrection. Bragg doesn’t mention where the title Peasant’s Revolt came from, but it clearly may have served to belittle and minimise the movement by attributing it solely to the least powerful group in society. It may even have been a deliberate attempt to reduce the significance of the event in the eyes of history, by hiding the fact that a cross section of society were not supportive of the government, rather than just one group.

A similar example is the Matchgirl’s Strike of 1888. Louise Raw’s excellent book Striking a Light argues for the use of the term ‘matchwomen’ instead of ‘matchgirls’. Although many of the women involved were very young, the use of the word ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’ paints a particular picture of the strikers, portraying them as innocent, inexperienced, vulnerable, and in need of help. This image served the purposes of both supporters and critics of the strike at the time, but it has contributed to a skewing of the way that history views the events. Over time the agency of the women has been removed reducing the popular narrative of what happened  during the strike to an inaccurate caricature.

The effects of these derogatory names are not always negative, however. During the course of the wonderful East London Suffragette’s Festival recently, I learnt that the name ‘Suffragette’ was coined by a reporter for the Daily Mail, aiming to shame and belittle these women conducting themselves in such an outrageous manner. The insult backfired however, as the women of the suffrage movement embraced the title, taking ownership and turning it from an insult to a celebration of the women’s tactics.

Of course it is not possible for a name to encompass every single aspect of a protest or social movement, and I am not arguing that it should be able to. I am merely pointing out that, like most things, names are not neutral, unbiased descriptors. Like almost everything else, they should be viewed with a critical eye, and their purpose and effects should be carefully considered.

The Suffragette

The Suffragettes embraced the title meant as an insult (Source: Museum of London).

References

‘Now is the Time: John Ball.’ Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives. BBC2. Broadcast 2nd August 2014.

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.