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History you don’t learn at school

This article is over 13 years, 5 months old
Red Saunders spoke to Matthew Cookson about his new photographs which recreate key moments of working class struggle to inspire fightbacks today
Issue 2231
Watt Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 by Red Saunders
Watt Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 by Red Saunders

Britain’s rulers like to present democracy, the welfare state and legal equality as gifts that they have given to ordinary people.

In reality, mass movements against our rulers have won these gains. Those in power don’t want people to know about upheavals that have threatened them.

We aren’t taught much about the radical history of Britain in school, but socialists fight to bring this history to as many people’s attention as possible.

Red Saunders, a photographer and one of the founders of the Rock Against Racism campaign in the 1970s, is helping to do just that.

He has produced three incredible photographs of people playing historical characters to recreate key moments in Britain’s history.

The Hidden series includes an image of Wat Tyler and the Peasants Revolt of 1381, radical writer Thomas Paine from the 18th century and black Chartist leader William Cuffay and supporters in 1848.

“I did these images to give new life to important episodes in working people’s history,” Red told Socialist Worker.

“They address the huge struggles that people underwent to win the gains we have today.

“The project is about memory—taking things from the past and making them relevant today.

“Today we are fighting to hold onto our rights. It was wonderful to talk to students who came into the museum after a demonstration the other day.

Slave trade

“Some people say they didn’t know that a black man had been elected as a leader of the Chartists, and I reply that I hadn’t known that for quite a long time either.

“Cuffay’s election shows that, while Britain was the home of the slave trade and white supremacy, it was also the home of massive resistance to those things.”

As Tony Benn, patron of the project, says, “Hidden allows us to visualise key moments in the long struggle of working people for democracy and social justice.

“Those who see these representations will be able to identify with past generations and gain confidence from the knowledge that they are part of a world-wide movement that has always existed and must be sustained.”

The project is only possible because people volunteered to help—including photographers, students, stylists and Socialist Worker’s regular cartoonist Tim Sanders.

The inspiration for Hidden came through Red’s long involvement in the socialist movement.

“In the 1960s I was involved in Cast theatre, which was linked to the International Socialists (the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party),” said Red.

“I did a few images and montages for Socialist Worker. These included a Father Christmas shot dead in Northern Ireland after breaking a curfew imposed by the British state.


“One of the things that kicked Hidden off was when I took part in an SWP revolutionary walking tour of east London a few years ago.

“Paul McGarr, then a Socialist Worker journalist, said that the dagger on the City of London’s coat of arms was the one that murdered Wat Tyler.

“It showed how triumphant the ruling class felt and I thought, bloody hell.”

Red plans to shoot more images—including the early women’s rights fighter Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical preacher John Ball, one of the inspirations for the Peasants’ Revolt.

Hidden is an innovative way of keeping struggles alive—and inspiring battles today.

As John Ball said in words that echo down the ages, “Matters cannot go well in England until all things shall be held in common, when there are no vassals or lords.

“If we stand together all manner of people now in bondage will follow us and be made free. We will have some remedy either by fairness, or otherwise.”

Peasant battles shook the rich

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 came close to overthrowing England’s rulers. The rebellion saw tens of thousands of people take up ideas of liberty and equality.

The king, landowners, bishops and wealthy merchants dominated feudal England. Most of the remaining population were bound in serfdom to their lords and forced to work for them.

The authorities brought in a poll tax—a single flat rate tax for everyone, whatever their wealth—to help pay for a war with France. This made peasants’ lives worse.

The people of Fobbing and Brentwood villages in Essex refused to pay. The revolt soon spread to Kent and other parts of England.

Two great peasant armies marched on London—Wat Tyler led one from Kent and Jack Straw led one from Essex. They entered the city after the people opened the gates for them.

The peasants attacked the property of the rich. They seized the Archbishop of Canterbury and the treasurer of England—the equivalent of chancellor George Osborne today—and beheaded them.

Tyler then demanded that King Richard II liberate the serfs, freeze rents and pardon all rebels. The king agreed—but he then lured Tyler to a meeting where he was assassinated.

The king’s army launched a major attack on the disorientated peasants and killed thousands.

Despite this defeat, England’s rulers realised things could not continue in the old way and serfdom eventually disappeared.

Kings: no more than machines

Thomas Paine was great at making radical ideas popular. He encouraged resistance to autocratic rule throughout the late 18th century.

He was born in England in 1737 and emigrated to America in 1774. There, Paine became one of the key supporters of a revolution against British rule.

His pamphlet Common Sense argued for mass struggle to create an independent and democratic republic. He is best known for his book The Rights of Man, a superb defence of the 1789 French Revolution.

Paine believed that ordinary people should have the right to elect their own representatives and reject the rule of anyone—kings, judges, priests—not accountable to them.

He wanted the monarchy abolished and a form of welfare state established to help the poor. He was an egalitarian who hated the royal family, writing, “It requires some talents to be a common mechanic; but to be a king requires only the animal figure of man—a sort of breathing automaton.”

The huge popularity of Paine’s work terrified the ruling class—200,000 copies of The Rights of Man were sold in two years. Radical groups sprang up across the country.

Paine was found guilty of sedition [action deemed as encouraging uprisings against the state] in a show trial, but he had already left for France where he had been elected as a member of the revolutionary National Convention.

After siding with moderate elements in the revolution, he was thrown into jail. He continued to be a radical, writing The Age of Reason, his great attack on religion.

Slave’s son led Chartists

William Cuffay was one of the leaders of the Chartists, the first mass movement of Britain’s working class. Millions supported the People’s Charter, which demanded votes for all men, annual parliaments and other reforms.

Cuffay was the son of a freed slave. He was radicalised after being sacked in the mid-1830s.

He joined the Chartists and was elected president of the London Chartists in 1842.

He was on the left of the movement, pushing for militant tactics. The right wing press attacked him. The Times newspaper referred to the London Chartists as “the Black man and his Party”.


But one of his contemporaries said that Cuffay was “loved by his own order, who knew him and appreciated his virtues, ridiculed and denounced by a press that knew him not and had no sympathy with his class”.

One hundred thousand people turned up to march on parliament with the Charter in April 1848. The ruling class threatened mass repression and the Chartists’ leaders called it off.

Cuffay was furious with them. He was later arrested and tried for being part of a group attempting to organise an uprising in London. He was sent to Australia for the rest of his life.

Cuffay was pardoned in 1856 and continued to fight for working class rights until his death in a workhouse in 1870, aged 82.

Hidden is on display at the Museum of London, London Wall, London, EC2Y 5HN. Entry is free. Go to for more information. Prints of the William Cuffay image can be purchased from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop—phone 020 7637 1848. For more on Red’s projects, go to


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