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.