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Radical London

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
Lindsey German uncovers the hidden history of the city—one of dissent and rebellion stretching through the centuries
Issue 1923b

London’s image to many is cold, wealthy and impersonal, but its real history is of revolt and subversion. The crowd—sometimes called the “mob”—has played a big part in London’s history, and has developed a consciousness of us against them, the poor against the rich.

In this city of great wealth there is a dislike of the rich, so that even now the rich live in enclaves away from the poor. When the two do meet, as in the new Docklands developments, class tensions rapidly come to the fore.

London’s radical history is hidden. Yet if you search out Turnham Green tube station on the District Line you will be at the scene of one of the main struggles between the monarchy and the people. In November 1642 Charles I marched from Oxford to retake the capital, which was overwhelmingly for parliament. The parliamentary leaders were considering doing a deal with the king. But the people of London thought differently.

They raised a force of 6,000 to join the army—raw recruits, including many London apprentices. The women mobilised to dig earthworks to defend the city. The king turned back and never captured London.

Today if you visit Whitehall you can still see two statues—one of Oliver Cromwell outside parliament, and the other of the head of King Charles outside the banqueting hall where he was beheaded in 1649.

In 1780 the greatest London riots ever took place—the Gordon riots, which started as a protest at the Catholic Relief Act going through parliament. Most Londoners were Protestants and regarded Catholicism as a force for reaction. The rioters targeted the wealthy and, above all, the hated Newgate prison. It was burnt down and its prisoners released—showing how people felt about the hated law and authority.

Many criminals, such as the highwayman Jack Sheppard, were popular heroes. The rioting crowd were composed of a cross-section of London’s working population, including the Spitalfields silk weavers, forced out of France for their radical Protestant views, apprentices and artisans, and a number of black servants.

London could not grow without its immigrants—from the rest of Britain and Ireland, refugees from Europe, Jews fleeing the Tsarist pogroms of Russia, and African-Caribbeans and Asians from the former empire in the 20th century.

Immigrants have tended to be radical. The Irish played a big part in the Chartist movement which gathered its great demonstration on Kennington Common in 1848.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were refugees following the defeated 1848 revolutions in Europe. Marx wrote Capital in the reading room of the British Museum. He and Engels enjoyed pub crawls on Tottenham Court Road.

The International Workingmen’s Association was formed in St Martin’s Lane in 1864, and the Hyde Park railings were torn down in the 1860s as part of the fight for the right to use the park for protest.

Trafalgar Square became a site of protest too, and there were battles to stop protesters using it. In 1886 a meeting there and subsequent march to Hyde Park led to riots and looting in the West End. In 1887 police banned gatherings by the unemployed in the square. Huge crowds marched to the square to assert their right to free speech. The police fought them in bloody battles, and on one protest an unemployed worker was killed.

London was in ferment in the 1880s: radicals campaigned for free speech in the East End; socialism was reborn and had as its supporters George Bernard Shaw, William Morris and Eleanor Marx; and the working class rose in the struggle for the new unions of the unskilled, especially women and immigrants. Most famous were the strikes for the Matchgirls and for the Dockers’ Tanner.

London rose up again with the movements of the Suffragettes, the Irish and strikers in the years up to the First World War. In 1911 striking women workers from Bermondsey jam and pickle factories, dressed in their Sunday best of feather boas, went round and picketed out other workers.

In 1936 Jews, Communists and socialists led a huge anti-fascist march against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts who wanted to march in the East End. The battle of Cable Street marked a turning point in defeating Britain’s fascists.

When the Second World War came in 1939 working class Londoners were left to face bombing without adequate shelters. So began the successful agitation to open the deep tube stations as air raid shelters. After the war a mass squatting movement began to find housing for the many who had no homes in the bomb-damaged city.

The modern history of London has continued in this tradition. Local campaigns have stopped motorways being built and have created working class housing enclaves against the wishes of the property developers.

Workers have fought for trade union rights—to free the Pentonville dockers in 1972, supporting the miners in 1984-5 and again in 1992, and fighting scabbing at Wapping in 1986-7. In 1990 the poll tax riot marked the end of Margaret Thatcher.

Black people have fought for their rights and against the fascists, most notably in Lewisham in 1977 and in Southall in 1979. White people always fought alongside them, and two white socialists have been killed by police on anti fascist demos—Kevin Gately in Red Lion Square in 1974 and Blair Peach in Southall in 1979. In the early 1980s young blacks rose up in Brixton and elsewhere, determined to be treated with respect and justice.

Great anti-war demos have taken place in London—against Suez in 1956, against nuclear weapons in the late 1950s and again in the early 1980s, and now against the war on Iraq, the biggest protests ever.

Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square are known round the world as centres of protest. The demos have also asserted free speech, which takes us back to the traditions of the 17th century where this story began. We in the anti-war movement stopped the government barring us from Hyde Park.

So remember when you march on the ESF demo this week that you are part of a history of black and white, young and old who have made London their city—a city of protest and change.


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