from the 1985 Women Against Pit Closures anthology of children’s writing, More Valuable Than Gold. Welcome to the Notts miners We put a big sign up in the hall of our school and it said, ‘Welcome to the Notts Miners’. We had Punch and Judy, Doctor Smarty Pants and a big party in the hall. The miners’ children came and we played. One boy had a funny badge. It was a little clown saying, ‘If Thatcher gets up your nose, picket.’ Some of the children said they weren’t allowed to talk about the strike in their school. The newspapers said our school put little children out on the street for Arthur Scargill, which is silly. Then an inspector came to our schools, and the teachers were worried. There shouldn’t be any inspectors – all the children and all the grown-ups in the school should be the inspectors.
Christine contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in a scan of Hackney Womens’ Paper – a publication she had been involved with producing in 1972. And of course I was!
The Paper includes invaluable first person accounts from women about their experiences at Hackney Hospital and some demands for better treatment and conditions:
Alongside this, there are some great insights into the paternalistic/patriarchal views of Doctors, and analysis and commentary on contraception, welfare provision, health & class and the effects of proposed Council rent increases on women. And some sharp asides on everyday life for women in the early 1970s:
I think it holds up really well in 2022.
The scan of Hackney Womens Paper #1 that Christine kindly provided has now been uploaded to archive.org so you can read it cover to cover for yourselves.
Christine also agreed to have a chat with me over Zoom about her time in Hackney. We talked about Hackney Womens Paper, communes, squatting, healthcare and a whole lot more…
How and when did you end up in Hackney?
I went to India overland in 1969 when I was 20, as many young people did those days. On the way back, I met two guys having breakfast in a railway station. We got talking, they were architecture students from Cambridge university who had dropped out, which was what I was also doing.
And they wanted to start a commune. It ended up being in Hackney, Hackney Wick. We bought a house in Hackney for something like £6,000 pounds. A four-story Victorian house with a big garden, near to Victoria Park.
We moved in there in the autumn of 1970 and lived there for a couple years or so. These were heady times. It started with six of us and a plan of sharing everything. Soon lots of other people were turning up, and coming to live in the house, going in and out of the house, having meetings. We had lots of radical ideas but only slowly asked ourselves “what exactly are we doing here?”
Well, that was going to be one of my questions. Was it already an overtly politicised thing, or just simply a convenient way to live – or was it both?
I guess it was different for different people. Basically, we were idealistic, some were more politicised than others. We all knew there was definitely something not working with society and the world as it was. So much injustice and inequality. I can’t remember exactly the basis of the politics at that time, it was fairly eclectic but we definitely thought that we could live together and share everything and there was a political aspect to that. I’d never particularly thought of myself as political – but I used to hang out with some ‘anarchists’ when I was at university…
There was “flower power” and there were hippies. Actually, where I first became more politically aware was through Civil Rights movement in the US and then the Vietnam War and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher – reading his poems in Peace News. When you are, 17, 18, 19, there’s sort of real energy, where you really see the suffering and want to do something, help people, see a change….
I had been to a Bob Dylan concert in 1964 when I was 14 and what he was singing really touched me and changed my life in a way. So I was political, but it wasn’t like I was a ‘Marxist’ or a “this” or a “that”. What did we call ourselves? I don’t know, libertarians maybe. And by the 70’s, the women’s movement was also coming up – “consciousness raising” groups!
Were those groups held in your commune?
No, that tended to be something that the women from the house went and did with other groups of women. But we held women’s meetings at the commune too. Interestingly, looking back, we had this idealistic naivety, to think that we could just all go in and share everything. We’d all had fairly middle-class backgrounds and didn’t know what was hitting us [laughs]. It went right up against our habits.
So, doing it became quite difficult, I guess? In the way that communal living throws up all sorts of psychological, economic and political issues. You said you stayed there for a couple of years. Is that why you left?
No, that wasn’t why I left. It was why it was psychologically difficult. We had lots of great times too. There was a wonderful big round handmade table, we used to cook meals together, we renovated the house, grew vegetables, there was always something happening, people coming and going. I moved on because I wanted to focus more on community action.
There was another similar commune nearby, in Grosvenor Avenue, which was much more politically orientated. Some of the guys there had also been in Cambridge with the people that I was with. It was the same tendency you might say.
Absolutely. I saw a talk recently by some of the Grosvenor Avenue people. Some of them disrupted the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall in 1970…
And I remember watching it on telly knowing it was going to happen. It was incredible.
So maybe that leads us onto the context of producing Hackney Women’s Paper. It sounds like it was a natural reaction to the experiences people were having. But in a way, putting something out there – putting pen to paper and printing things is a bit of a step up from what might be a quite insular communal world? So how did it come about and how was it received?
Just to say one other thing about the atmosphere of those times. There had been a Dustmen strike in Hackney and one night we got word “the people in the flats have put all the rubbish out on the road”. So we headed straight down to Cassland Road and there’s lots of people around and there was loads of the rubbish that had accumulated blocking the road. To get the Council to deal with it, you know? So, there was that sort of energy around, fighting back, not taking it lying down. Of course, the working-class tradition in England is just remarkable. So well organised over many years. I think the Women’s Paper also came out of that.
There were three or four women living in the community who were interested in taking more community action and what galvanised us was the experience of our friend who had her baby in Hackney Hospital. She did have a really hard time, especially because she was unmarried and was French.
And so to begin with, we just researched, we went around the flats knocking on people’s doors and saying, “have you had a baby in Hackney Hospital?” – a mixture of courage and naivety! And so, we collected a lot of these stories and we put them together in the paper.
And actually, I read it all today, which I hadn’t done for years. The first time I tried to read it recently, I thought “oh, I can’t look at this language. I can’t go there.” But I quite enjoyed it today, really.
The interesting thing is over the last 10, 15 years, I’ve worked in a place we call the spiritual care center. It’s a place for people who are living with illness or facing dying can come and find spiritual and emotional support. And I also helped run workshops with nurses and carers to explore how to offer that sort of support. So that was interesting, because I’d not made the link, that I’ve always been interested in this.
I can’t remember all the details of putting the paper together, there were three of us, three of our names are on it. I remember we worked together well, each offering different skills and ideas, and we had some fun with the cartoons. I think the front page is great and actually there’s a lot of humour there and the cartoons are all pretty good. They go in there – at the right sort of level.
It stands up really well, I think. I was really surprised when I saw it because I’m a massive Hackney radical history nerd and I hadn’t heard about it.
You wouldn’t have heard of it. I mean, it was number one, but there was never a number two.
Do you remember roughly how many you produced?
I imagine hundreds rather than thousands?
Yes, absolutely. We knew guys who had a printing press so they did it for us. I think this came out before Hackney Gutter Press?
Yes there were things like Hackney & Stoke Newington People’s Paper that I think became Hackney People’s Press. But certainly, most of the ones that had quite a big distribution seemed to be a couple years later…
At the time that we were putting this together, my address is given as is 96 Eleanor Road [Hackney Central / just north of London Fields]. And that was a squat. I moved out the commune into a house squat in early 1972. So actually, [the paper] must have come out in early 1972.
So that was exciting, opening up an empty house, putting on a new lock and moving in.
Lots of empty houses to break into, presumably?
Yes there were. I actually found an article today from October ’72, when Hackney Council took us and the women next door to court to try and evict us. Our neighbours were West Indian, extended families, lots of children. The women were the strong ones, there were men living there as well of course, but the women were holding it together. In fact, it was these women who showed us how to get into the house. Amazing. So, we ended up living next door.
When we went to the court, we all went together. We took all the kids, 14 adults and eight kids. And we all went to court and we fought it. What happened was the judge granted the eviction order, but said it couldn’t be enacted until the council actually needed the house.
And I think that was the first time that had happened. I’m not sure. It says in the article that there was a Councilor involved, but I don’t remember him at all. I thought we did it all ourselves!
We weren’t a housing cooperative or anything at that time. We just wanted to stay in the houses. There are some great quotes in the article:
“And people are just saying, we’d like to stay here until the places are needed. We don’t want to be moving into substandard accommodation. We’re angry at the situation. The council leave many houses empty. People around here are glad to be involved because we cleaned up the rubbish and discouraged rats and mice.”
And we had sort of testimonials from a lot of neighbours saying that we were great neighbours and everything. So that’s a bit of a diversion from the paper…
But that’s the interesting thing for me – that it isn’t just the paper, it’s the wider social context that produces it. By today’s standard, it’s quite an alternative lifestyle and then the paper springs out of that. I was going ask about how it was received – how much tension there would’ve been with men?
Yes, we were looking for an alternative life style. There wasn’t a lot of tension with the men. In the house, they supported us but also left us to it…
Actually, looking back and seeing what’s happening now, in many ways there have been very positive changes, and there’s a much greater awareness. But these days, I sometimes feel for the young men, it can be hard on them to ‘get it right’ and they come in for a lot of criticism. I can see real paradoxes in where this has got to now, you know?
At the time, there were guys like Roger. [When you sent the link to me] I thought, “is this tongue in cheek?” But I think it was probably just too much psychedelics!
My impression is that there was that very druggy hippy current and the political one. And at a point they had to break part and be different things…
I think there was a whole spectrum, from very stoned or trippy to hardline left-wing groups, So at the extremes they were very different, but there was also overlap, people found where they wanted to be and also moved around.
Coming back to the Women’s Paper, after printing I think we took them around shops and left them there. We also just gave them away. I mean, it said two pence but I’m sure that we weren’t busy collecting the 2p’s. There were quite a lot of other things going on at that time.
Because we do say, [in the paper] “if anyone has been bothered by this, please come and contact us.” But I don’t remember many people coming. I remember the contact with people more from going around and talking and collecting the stories.
And actually, all the stuff about doctors – it’s interesting again, how things have changed over the last 50 years. But there was a bit at the end, I thought, “wow, were we really writing that then?”.
Do you know this book called Being Mortal by Atul Gawande? It’s a tough read but very good. Basically, it’s about how we’re all going to die, and how people aren’t treated according to what they actually need or want. And particularly around death and dying, because dying is seen as a bit of a failure of the hospital system. Doctors don’t like people to die so there’s all these heroic measures for keeping people alive these days.
And there is an article in the paper saying “we’re being treated not for what we need, but what for others need.” So that’s interesting – 50 years ago, we were writing things like that.
My impression of being a man who’s gone through the birth of our daughter, in Homerton Hospital is that there was still some way to go. But it was described in the paper as being like going to a factory. And from my perspective, in the year 2000, you could see that there was at least a little bit of sensitivity around the parents’ needs and different ways of doing stuff.
Yes, back then the hospital structures were more regimented so it became a bit factory like. Nurses were told ‘You are here to do a job so get on with it’ Today there is a lot more acknowledgement of the need for sensitivity, but staff are still overworked and underpaid which makes this hard to maintain. In 1970’s nurses were also fighting back, looking for better wages and working conditions.
Sometimes when I speak to people that are a lot younger than me, they seem to feel that things are just terrible – it’s gonna be the end of the world – we’re all doomed. And I think we do need to tease out the things that have got better. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
Things have got better and they’ve got worse. I live in Ireland now, in Southern Ireland. I was talking to someone today who was involved in a similar movement, at the same sort of time but in Ireland. It was different in Ireland. They were fighting for the right to buy contraception, you know?
And we were saying that we really thought the world was going to come to an end at the beginning of 1980s, we thought capitalism would collapse and that would be it. So we didn’t look for long term jobs. We didn’t get careers. We really thought it was going to happen. Then slowly but surely, we realised “oh, maybe this isn’t happening”.
But it makes me think of how it is for people today, because these days we think “climate change, it’s got to be the end.” Not denying that the situation is very serious, but who knows what solutions will come. My generation thought – nuclear war, we’d wipe all ourselves out. When I was a teenager main thing was CND. There had been two major world wars in that century already. So, in my childhood, my grandparents talked about the first world war. My parents and their friends talked about the second world war. And now there was nuclear weapons. So that radicalised us. And that’s what was making us look for alternatives. You could say it was a revolutionary time.
I really can’t tell you much more about what happened with the paper, only it was very formative for me! And obviously I ended up carrying these views with me.
I did think of myself as a Marxist for a while, after the paper. We had been busy being active, squatting and working in the ‘Claimants Union’ supporting people to get what they were entitled to, sometimes harassing people working at the social security office. Also helping people to open up houses and squat, all of that. We aspired to be ‘revolutionaries’, so at a certain point we started to study Marx and other communist writers, to learn and understand more about the history and dynamics of class struggle.
Some of the guys from the other commune, were more politically oriented than we were and we started meeting together. Interestingly enough, I only realised afterwards that one of them, his parents were in the Communist Party. It was quite male dominated. I remember saying very little. I bought into it a lot. It was Marxism but with quite a lot of influence from Wilhelm Reich? [Sex-positive psychotherapist and communist].
We called ourselves, but never publicly, The East London Anti Rents Group! We talked, but we didn’t really take much action. This was like ’74, ’75 and there was a bit of a feeling like “it’s not 1968 anymore”. That energy was gone and I think Margaret Thatcher was already around. And so, it was falling apart, in a way.
Sometimes people have their radical youth and then edge away from it, but still retain some of the values. Especially if you’ve been involved with something quite intense, like squatting and communal living and being a Marxist. So I guess that’s the question: what happened then? Would you still call yourself a Marxist and where did you end up? I don’t want create an idealised version of you that just exists in squats in the early 1970s…
I’d love to show you where I ended up. [Christine turns her camera around and shows me a lovely view out of her window of the sea.]
[laughs] OK that does look quite good!
I love showing it to people. It’s an amazing place, but very windy. In 1977, I moved to Ireland. Because the group disbanded and it seemed the revolution wasn’t happening, I actually worked in Hackney Hospital for a while in the laundry and I delivered glue around shoe factories and I did meals on wheels, different stuff working around in Hackney.
And, my Mum died suddenly around that time. I was quite young and that threw me into a lot of grief and I decided wanted to move out London.
I drove around England and in a Morris Traveler [iconic 1970s mini-van with wooden window frames] trying to work out where to go. And then someone suggested I went on holiday to Ireland. So I came to Ireland and – there’s space here, you know? At that time, there was something like 4 million people in the whole of Ireland. And there were 8 million people in London or something [laughs]. And things just fell into place for me. I got a job, I found a place to live. I moved to Dublin to begin with.
I’d been doing Tai Chi and I got interested in Buddhism, which is something that quite a lot of the political people did. It’s a bit like the Gandhi quote: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”. And there was always an element of that with the Wilhelm Reich stuff, that we carry the political structures within us. There was a level of trying to work with that within ourselves already.
Reich said that there could be issues around hyper political activists and their character armour and repression and things like that…
A certain level of it could be very male dominated. Which is probably why there had to be a women’s movement at that time. Because the men articulated and the women…
…did the typing and washing up?
Yeah. Cooked cherry pies and all these things. I couldn’t type!
So this is where I’ve ended up. I helped to found a Buddhist Retreat Centre in the West of Ireland. Which is now building the first Buddhist Temple in Ireland. And we built this spiritual care center, which is quite unique. Though again, it was a little bit, “what are we doing here?”
We started off thinking we were going to build a hospice two hours’ drive from the nearest big hospital, on the edge of a cliff. It was a new thing. We were saying in Hackney Womens’ Paper that there’s need for spiritual, emotional, care and this is what we were trying to offer. Particularly for people who are facing death or facing an illness that might lead to their death.
So that’s what I’ve been doing, but it’s still being invented… this [is now an issue] for the next generation.
Yeah I think “dignity in dying” is going to be a huge issue as opposed to keeping everyone alive for as long as possible regardless of the situation…
I think, these days there’s a certain denial of death, partly because of our expectations of modern medicine. So within the hospitals, there’s not an acceptance of death in a certain way. So, people are heroically kept alive over a prolonged time. I worked for a while as a hospital chaplain in Cork and I remember one woman, she was 86 and she just had major heart surgery. And when I was talking to her, she said “I can’t believe God didn’t take me”.
I recently heard someone say “we need to die because it makes space for other people on the planet, so more human beings can enjoy this planet”. My generation’s been incredibly fortunate actually, just for starters, better pensions than ever before. But there’s a quite lot of us… so it’s a drain on the younger people who are keeping it together, always paradox.
It sounds like you have done your bit, though! I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, Christine.
Ishaque Ali and his nephew Faruq ed-Din were walking down Urswick Road in the early hours of Sunday morning, 25th June 1978. A white youth approached the pair and asked them for a match. And then for money. He then kicked Ishaque and was joined by two other white youths who attacked both Bengali men. By some accounts Ishaque was also strangled with bootlaces belonging to one of his assailants.
Ishaque Ali died of a heart attack in Hackney Hospital shortly after the assault. He was just 45 years old and had lived with his family in nearby Coopersale Road. Mr Ali had come to London from Bengal nine years previously and worked as a tailor. He had five young children.
Detective Chief Superintendent George Atterwil led the investigation into the killing and told The Times that “the motive here is theft and robbery” – i.e. not racism.
Others, including the bereaved family, took a different view. Ishaque’s cousin Sofar ud Din told the Hackney Gazette:
“He was attacked because of his colour. There was no money taken. It happens all the time in the East End.”
Alok Biswas of Socialist Worker knew the family:
“Faruq, who is recovering in hospital from his severe beating told me that the white youths called the two Bengalis ‘Paki bastards’ and ‘stinking blacks’. Let’s not be mealy-mouthed about this: Ishaque Ali was murdered. Had it not been for a West-Indian man who came to their assistance, Faruq would also be dead.”
Biswas also noted that the family was not aware of Ishaque having any heart problems.
I’m sure that people will come to their own conclusions about this, but given what we now know about the policing in the late 1970s and the general culture of the time, it seems unbelievable that racism played no part in the incident.
Two months previously, another Bengali – Altab Ali – was stabbed to death in a racist attack in St Mary’s Park, Whitechapel (the park was renamed Altab Ali Park in 1998). And two weeks later, the front page story in the Hackney Gazette was “State of siege for us – protest Asians” following an unprovoked attack on eight Bengalis by three car loads of youths in Bow. Alongside all this, the fascists of the National Front were antagonising the community in Brick Lane with their large paper sales there each weekend.
The police and community respoonse
Patrick Kodikara of Hackney Council For Racial Equality told the Hackney Gazette:
“We are fast losing confidence in the police’s ability to defend the ethnic minority communities. If that means black self-defence groups, so be it.”
The Gazette’s editorial suggested more black and asian police officers as an alternative solution and deplored suggestions of vigilantism. A later editorial continued this theme, rebuking the “hysterical prodding that certain hot-heads are resorting to for reasons best known to themselves”
Roy Hiscock from Hackney South and Shoreditch Labour wasn’t having any of it:
“A history of the defence of the victimised and the most vulnerable will not be ignored because some well heeled editor, safe from being stabbed, shot at or otherwise attacked makes hysterical cries of ‘gun law’.”
A letter from Hackney Muslim Council attempted to find some middle ground:
“The principle and the manner of self-defence need to be examined within and outside the ethnic groups. While rash and violent langauge will be dangerously irresponsible, to sit back and do nothing would be criminal and immoral.”
Doomed Conservative parliamentary candidate Tim Miller felt that more police on the street and harsher penalties for criminals was the answer. Instead, the community got out on the street:
On Friday 30th June, 300 people marched with black flags and black armbands from the site of Ishaque’s attack to Hackney police staton. The protest was organised by Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee. The group announced a day of action for Monday 17th of July:
On the day 70 percent of Asian shops in Hackney were closed and many children did not attend school. A number of pupils from Clapton School attended a rally at Hackney Town Hall and spoke out against the police and SUS laws alongside trade union and other community leaders. The day culminated in a three hour sitdown demonstration outside Bethnal Green police station in protest at three arrests of protestors.
The attackers and investigation
Ishaque’s attackers were described as white and between the ages of 18 and 20. They were reportedly casually dressed and between 5 foot 5 and 5 foot 7.
Three young men were eventually arrested for the attack and charged with murder: James Mitchell (17 years old, a cabinet maker from Kentish Town Road, Camden) and two sixteen year old males from Homerton.
All three were granted bail at Old Street Court on Friday 30th June 1978 (the same day as the community marched) and were required to live outside London until the hearing, which was scheduled for September 6th.
I’ve not been able to find out definitively if they were convicted but this tweet from Searchlight Archive suggests that they were, albeit one year later in September 1979:
In an article for the Altab Ali Foundation, Rajonuddin Jalal cites Ishaque Ali’s death as being a key factor in the emergence of the anti-racist organisation the Bangladesh Youth Movement (BYM):
“I was involved in the formation of the BYM, which was a crucial youth organisation organising against the then National Front (NF) from back in 1978. I was involved in setting up many cultural projects in Tower Hamlets, for example The Kabi Nazrul Centre. The youth movement played an important role, against the fascist when they became organised and active in Brick Lane area, following the murder of Altab Ali and Ishaq Ali back in 1978.
BYM was one of the leading organisations that organised the first protest march that involved about 2000 of Bengalis coming out in the streets of London, marching from Whitechapel to the House of Commons and back. And the slogan was ‘Here to stay, here to fight”.
In Hackney the National Front became increasingly active in the summer of 1978 and even opened their Nartional HQ in Hoxton in September. In December a black teenager named Michael Ferreira was fatally stabbed by an alleged National Front supporter in Stoke Newington, his injuries greatly exacerbated by the indifference of police officers who were asked to help.
Several hundred people attended Michael’s funeral procession.
Michael’s death and the general climate of violent racism led to the formation of Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation. This set the scene for the community response to Colin Roach’s death from a gunshot wound inside Stoke Newington police station in 1983 and various police scandals unearthed by Hackney Community Defence Association throughout the 1990s.
Notes and a plea for corrections
Ishaque Ali’s death is under-reported online. Usually it appears in passing as part of an article about the murder of Altab Ali in Whitechapel.
Most online reports say Ishaque was attacked on the 26th of June 1978, whereas it’s clear from my research that it was the early hours of the 25th. Ali is also described as young throughout the internet, but was 45 years old.
I think it’s important to try and get these things right – we’re talking about someone’s Dad or husband who was killed in an unprovoked racist attack.
So, for full transparency, I should say that I’ve struggled with which names to use. I suspect this is because of transliteration issues, but I am happy to be corrected. Ishaque Ali (The Times and internet reporting) is also described as Ishakh Ali in Socialist Worker and Ashiq Ali in the Hackney Gazette.
Similarly Ishaque’s companion and nephew Faruq ed-Din is also described as his brother in law. Faruq’s name is also given as Faqruddin (Socialist Worker) and Farique Ud Din (Hackney Gazette).
Press cuttings, sources and further reading
Julie Begum – How a racist murder of Altab Ali changed the way the Bengalis saw themselves in Britain (Altab Ali Foundation PDF)
Gender balance seems to have been a serious issue for Hackney communes in 1972. I have previously posted a similar notice from the same year by a gay collective in nearby Abersham Road E8. The difference is that Abersham Rd notice explicitly mentioned “we are into smashing our male patriarchy” whereas this would not appear to be a concern for Roger (and/or “the gang”).
For me this speaks to a clash of subcultures – on the one hand the hedonist druggies of 86 Sandringham Road. On the other the hard-edged feminist political milieu that would host figures like the Angry Brigade, Astrid Proll and Dalston Men’s Group. The hedonist faction is less well documented, for obvious reasons… I’d love to speak to Roger and the gang about their time in Hackney if they are still around.
Since then I have managed to get hold of a nice booklet they published in 1969 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the organisation. This has now been scanned and uploaded to archive.org where it can be read, downloaded etc.
The Diamond Jubilee document includes a useful history of the Workers Circle and an overview of its activities. Some highlights for me were:
“Trade Unionism has always been part of the life of Circle members. All applicants for Circle membership were asked if they were Trade Union members. All through the existence of the Circle, leadership and assistance, both financial and in propaganda, were given when on strike or in other difficulties, to the tailors, bakers, cabinet-makers, cap-makers, furriers, shop assistants etc., many of them members of the Circle.”
“This was a year of special significance for the Circle’s members who had different ideas about the events surrounding the Revolution in Russia. One result was the formation of what is still Branch 9, founded by members with similar leanings.”
This branch should probably be contrasted with Branch 15 (Poale Zion) formed in East London in 1922 as an explicitly Zionist group. Unfortunately the booklet does not mention tensions between these two tendencies in the Workers Circle.
The document is also a fascinating overview of the Circle’s mutual aid efforts, including weekly legal advice sessions, a convalescent home and wideranging cultural activities including a drama group and music recitals. Of course, it wasn’t all socialising…
1926 to 1939: FASCISM AND NAZISM
“The rise of Fascism and Nazism for the last 6 years of this period involved the membership, now at its peak, in its greatest efforts.
Our members, in London and in the Provinces, were either initiators of activities, or in the forefront of united progressive action. From 1933 – 1939 they participated in every possible action against Nazi Germany, and against the Fascist movement in England.
In 1934, the Central Committee were instrumental in the formation of the Jewish Labour Council, after initiating a Conference attended by representatives of 21 organisations. This organisation led in 1936 to the formation of the Jewish Peoples’ Council against Fascism and Anti-Semitism which carried on a massive propaganda campaign. Many will remember its influence among East London Jewry and their non Jewish allies on October 4th 1936, when the Fascists were prevented from marching through East London. [i.e The Battle of Cable Street]”
Also solidarity with anti-fascist work in Spain:
“From 1936 – 1939 the Circle helped in every way the Aid for Spain Campaign, with collections of money and food. Circle members fought in Spain and some lost their lives in the fight against Fascism. The Circle was linked too in its special support for the ‘Naftali-Botwin’ Battalion of the International Brigade composed of Jews from Poland and other countries.”
It is interesting that the advent of the NHS and its resourcing through taxation had a terrible impact on radical mutual aid societies:
“The 1948 New Insurance Act (the Beveridge Scheme)) dealt the final blow from which the Circle, (and all similar Socities) has never recovered.
With compulsory Insurance contributions deducted at work, and benefits catered for by the State, the only ties that bound members were the ideological ones, (still very strong), the Convalescent Home and sheer loyalty. The decline in membership over the years, bringing our total in 1969 to under 1000, is the result of inability in the face of outside cultural and economic changes to recruit replacements for the natural diminution through death. “
“Since 1961 the Memorial Committee supported by the Circle has campaigned in the Jewish Community for the establishment of a Memorial in London to the memory of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust.”
Stewart Home lived in Hackney in the 1980s and his fiction has often included London’s finest borough as a setting. His earliest novels took a sly dig at the anarchist and arty scenes here, mashing up techniques from the avant garde with pulp fiction from the 1970s.
The 9 Lives of Ray “The Cat” Jones is his fifteenth novel, originally published by Test Centre in 2014. (Around this time the publisher was operating a pop up space at the old Sea Scouts building on Stoke Newington Church Street – now a children’s nursery). I missed the original edition, but fortunately Cripplegate Books have republished the book.
“The Nine Lives of…” is a fictionalised autobiography, based on extensive research and conversations with people who knew boxer and cat burglar Raymond Jones. So… perhaps not something you would expect to read about on a website about the radical history of Hackney? Well, dear reader, I am pleased to say that your expectations are about to be confounded.
Ray grew up in the Welsh valleys and worked as a miner before becoming an infamous boxer and burglar in London. He lived at various locations in Hackney including Brougham Road (later to be an epicentre for squat punks and radicals), Colvestone Crescent and Cranwich Road, Stamford Hill (previously inhabited by anarchist Emanuel Michaels).
The author is not someone who thinks that all criminality is radical by nature and there are a number of amusing sideswipes at anti-social scumbags throughout the book. But by all accounts Ray Jones sustained a successful career as a cat burglar over several decades – and robbed purely from upper class poshos. In Home’s hands our hero becomes an entirely plausible class warrior – hellbent on revenge against a system that persecuted him and the working class as a whole. Ray even makes anonymous donations of wads of filthy lucre to causes like a miners’ benevolent fund back in South Wales.
There are a number of vivid accounts of daring raids on country mansions and even a couple of nail-biting prison escapes. This – along with some wry observations on London’s criminal subculture in the 1950s-1970s – is the heart of the book. It’s a proper page turner.
Jones went straight in 1972 at the age of 52 and set himself up as a market trader on Ridley Road. Throughout the story we are treated to a number of passing thoughts on world and political affairs and I found the juxtaposition of a reflective Ray and the unfolding political turmoil of 1980s London to be a ripping read. He even joins Hackney Anti-Poll Tax Union…
Home’s treatment of the subject matter is done sensitively and affectionately but without the cloying nostalgia that bogs down many a gangster memoir. He doesn’t shy away from some of Jones’ mistakes and regrets. At the other end of the spectrum there are some excellent demolition jobs on the scumbags of the aristocracy and judiciary who find themselves light of some jewelry or other luxury items after a daring visit from “the cat”.
Raymond Jones died in Homerton Hospital in February 2001 at the age of 84. One of his last wishes was for his life story to be published as a book and a film. The 9 Lives of Ray “The Cat” Jones is certainly a fitting tribute to the man.
Sid Easton (1911-1991) was a Jewish cabbie, communist and trade unionist. The following is taken from his autobiographical tribute “The Life and Times of Sid Easton” edited by Graham Stevenson. This is available here (text) and here (pdf scan) and also includes a lot of material on the Transport and General Workers Union attempting to clamp down on communists in its Dalston branch.
At this time  l had an unpleasant tangle with the law, it was an event heavily tinged with anti-Semitism. I had a job carting finished dresses in my cab. I waited whilst they loaded up and then I took them where I was directed. I carried string and I used to put it in one side through an open window and take it out through the other side and tie it to the roof.
Then they would pile dresses on hangers from the string inside the cab. So much so that the guy who sat in the back of the cab was completely invisible to anyone who didn’t know he was in there.
On this job one day, I was going down Dalston Lane, a viciously anti-semitic area. Nowadays it is viciously racist against Bangla Deshis. The traffic lights were just turning red as I got to them, so I pulled up. I wasn’t conscious of cutting anyone up. l was in such a good mood, once I’d finished this job I was going home to have an early finish. All of a sudden, I got the feeling that someone was trying to come over to my nearside, but couldn”t do so as the kerb was in the way. I looked to see what was happening, when someone came over.
“I’ve a good mind to punch you in the fucking jaw for cutting me up,” he told me. I looked at him, “Look, mate ,” I replied. “I wasn’t aware that I cut anybody up. If I did, I’m sorry. But be careful how you go, don’t threaten me, because I’ve got a weak heart,” I checked him. “I’ll give you a weak heart,” he said and swung a punch at me. I opened the big half door of the cab and swung it out as he shaped up. He was forced to step back and so didn’t get anywhere near me. I thought I’d let him see how big I was, because I’ve a tendency when I’m driving to slump down a bit! So, I got out of the cab and said,”Now look, you’ve had two goes.Why don’t you get back into your cab..” (he was actually driving a lorry ) “..and when the lights change we’ll go. I’ve told you, I didn’t intend to cut you up. Whatever I did was done quite unconsciously. I’m sorry, but what else do you want? Blood?”
“You fucking Jew bastard,” he growled and slung one at me. He was a mug, because I could see it coming a million miles away. So I just stopped it and hit him myself. He hit the deck – he fell flat on his face. There he laid. It was unfortunate for me, because immediately I hit him, my arms were grabbed by two men. They turned out to be plain clothed policemen. They stood waiting for the lorry driver to get up, but l’d done too good a job on him and he remained unconscious. Leaving him on the floor they took me to the police station, riding the few yards on the side runners of the cab. My passenger was still in the back and all this time was hidden by the hanging dresses. Well, I didn’t say anything about him!
These policemen knew what they were about alright, they didn’t care that I was defending myself… it was Jew versus Gentile. In the charge room they prepared to do me for grievous bodily harm. One of them says, ”It’s a good job this wasn’t at night, because we’d have done you.” Meaning of course that they would have beat me up under cover of darkness. “Look, I’ll tell you something,” I replied. “If this had been at night the pair of you would have been on the floor and out. But I’ll let you away with it. If you feel like it, I’ll prove it to you.”
By this time a superior officer arrived and began questioning me. He sent the two policemen who had arrested me out for the body. The knocked out lorry driver had come round before the police could get back to the scene of the crime, although they did have a note of the number of the lorry. The driver nonetheless had pushed off without knowing what had happened. Whilst the passenger in my cab emerged from his hiding place and arrived at the station to confirm that I had been a victim not an assailant.
So they were unable to make the GBH charge stick and resorted to charging me only with assault.
As I was leaving the station, the two policemen who had arrested me started whistling “Deutschland Uber Alles” – remember this was 1941! I asked the policeman in charge if he knew what they were whistling and told him that they also had reckoned they would have beaten me up in the backyard if it had been night-time. I told him that they could do that as far as I was concemed, and lock the door, for there was only going to be one person knocking on the door, the other two would only be fit for burying. He said, “You’re loosing your temper.”
I replied, “What do you mean, “loosing my temper” -there’s a war on, didn’t you know! They’re whistling the enemy’s song and you’re talking to me about loosing my temper. I thought this was something you could be in prison for.” Eventually I had to leave the station, my customer was still anxious to deliver his dresses!
In court, both me and the lorry driver were bound over to keep the peace and had to pay a two shillings fine. The policeman who took the money off us said that we had both acted stupidly and that we ought to shake hands, but the other guy refused although I told the policeman that I didn’t want to fight in the first place. So the copper said, “If I turned round the other way, do you want to give him another one!” That was funny, but I said it was too easy and in any case it was no use banging somebody you didn’t really have to be afraid of.
“Daughters of Amazon” attack Hackney porn shop (1983):
Anti-Apartheid activists attack Barclays Bank on Green Lanes (1986).
Damage to property as direct action was reasonably common in the 1970s and 1980s. It had a dual function of “propaganda by deed”, where the business owner (and the community) were left in little doubt about the strength of feeling against them – and of course there was economic damage to the business too.
Furthermore, activists were able to claim responsibility anonymously through the underground and anarchist press via their political statements. The Angry Brigade excelled at this in the 1970s, with some very powerful manifestos – and one of their early targets was Barclays Bank on Stoke Newington High Street (now Stoke Newington Books) which was firebombed on October 26th 1970.
But most damage to property was far less spectacular than that meted out by the Angry Brigade. Indeed, the attraction of low level vandalism was precisely its accessibility – it was cheap and could be done by one or two people at night, etc.
In the 1980s Animal Liberation Front activists must have damaged thousands (if not tens of thousands) of butchers shops and other properties involved with animal exploitation in the UK. Common actions would be anything from graffiti, to glueing up the locks so that the building could not be accessed the next day.
Hackney based anarchopunk band The Apostles (who lived at Brougham Road E8, off Broadway Market) captured the spirit of this particular direct action subculture in their 1983 song “Pigs For Slaughter”:
“Glue the locks of all the banks and butchers – or kick them in, Spray a message of hate across a Bentley – or smash it up, Sabotage the meat in supermarkets – poison them all, Go to Kensington and mug a rich bastard of all his cash.
We’re knocking on your door, We’re taking no more, For this is Class War.
Put sugar in the petrol tank, Deflate the tyres with six inch nails, That’s the way to wreck a Rolls, So get stuck in it never fails. We’ll smash it up and we’ll bum it all down.”
The Apostles – pigs for slaughter
This kind of politically motivated damage to property seems far less common now, mainly because of the increased prevalence of CCTV, but also the laws around incitement are much harsher, so I think people that published manifestos or seemed to be encouraging this sort of thing might find themselves in far greater trouble with the law…
There’s probably a lot more to be written about this area, so any pointers about direct action generally in Hackney or Animal Liberation / animal rights activity in the borough would be welcome.
The obituary above appeared in Direct Action vol 7 #3, in March 1966. Direct Action was the newspaper of the Syndicalist Workers Federation, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation which operated from 1950 until the late 1970s. The SWF then became the Direct Action Movement before changing into the Solidarity Federation in 1994 – an organisation which is still active today.
Who was he? Everything starts with an “E.”
It’s easy to understand that a Jewish immigrant revolutionary might want to keep their personal details secret. Googling “E. Michaels” produces some good results in the anarchist archives, but that is only half of the story…
Fortunately there is only one “E. Michaels” listed in the death records for Hackney for 1966:
Was born in Plock, central Poland on 25 Sep 1890 (near enough to 1891 listed above?)
Emigrated to England at the age of ten in 1900.
Married Rosie Kitman (3 Apr 1892 – 14 Jan 1963) at Mile End in 1914.
Had four children (including Harry, as in the Freedom clipping above, which is reassuring)
Worked as a Tailors Presser.
Died 12 Feb 1966.
This seems to fit quite well with what we know from the obituaries above and the sort of lives that radical Jewish anarchists would be leading at this time. But I’m not an expert, so if any historians or genealogists out there have spotted any errors, let me know!
Update: a comrade has kindly supplied a passport photo of the handsome Michaels.
Anarchy in the East End!
Most of comrade Michaels’ political activity seems to have been in the East End of London in the first half of the 20th Century. He was involved with setting up a “free school” at 62 Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel, which also hosted The Worker’s Friend Club and the East London Anarchist Group. He was also the secretary of the prisoner support group the Anarchist Red Cross and is listed as a donor in a few issues of the London anarchist newspaper Freedom in the 1910s.
According to census data he lived at the following addresses too:
1911: 25 Hungerford Street, Commercial Road
1921: 73 Sutton Street
1939: 163 Jubilee Street E1
But what about Hackney, eh?
Michaels seems to have remained active up until his death. Sparrows Nest Archive has scans of some his letters from 1958 to 1964. Most of these are addressed to Ken Hawkes, the national secretary of the Syndicalist Workers Federation. Many of them mention meetings at Circle House, 13 Sylvester Path, E8. I’ve written about the Workers Circle and Jewish radicals in Hackneypreviously.
Michaels’ letters are largely administrative – donations, exchanges of publications, details of meetings etc. But the letterheads are invaluable:
Firstly, they tell us that Michaels was the Honorary Secretary of the Jewish radical organisations Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Voice of Labour) and Rudolf Rocker Publishing Committee. (Rocker was a German Gentile who became heavily involved with the Jewish anarchist movement).
Secondly, the letters show us where Michaels lived in Hackney. (This is my assumption, based on the nature of the addresses listed and that meetings etc seemed to take place at Circle House and not those on the letterheads). So it looks like Michaels lived at 12 Cranwich Road in Stamford Hill during the 1950s and then moved to “Morley House” N16 in 1961. Which no longer exists…
But! According to this useful blog, Morley House was one of the council blocks at the east end of Cazenove Road, Stoke Newington and was renamed Nelson Mandela House in 1984. There is a quote from Mandela on the side of it which can be seen here.
A diversion down Cazenove Road
According to Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, Morley House was built in 1937-1938 “with a meanly detailed exterior, although the planning of the individual flats was generous at the time”.
Fourteen years after Emanuel Michaels’ death, the flats and exterior would see further anarchistic action.
Hackney Peoples Press reported that Morley House was due for renovation, which meant that:
“All the council tenants were moved out between 1978 and autumn 1979, and the estate was left almost completely empty.”
Perhaps inevitably some tenacious local people seized this opportunity:
“In November 1979 the first squatters started to move in, even though vandalism and thieving had reduced the building to a dilapidated eyesore.
By February 1980 approximately 80 flats were occupied and some residents approached Hackney Community Housing Resource Centre to ask about licensing the house. (A licence to occupy premises does not imply tenancy as such but makes the occupation authorised by the Council.)
They suggested a direct approach to the Council, and three Council Officers were invited to visit the estate and talk to same of the residents. These officers submitted a report to the Housing Management Committee on 31st March this year, and suggested the granting of a license through Hackney Community Housing (HCH). The Committee however, rejected the recommendations and decided to evict the residents – offering the property to HCH as short term housing instead.”
What followed was a bit of a standoff, with the Council refusing to back down and the squatters getting more organised:
“They held weekly meetings, formed themselves into an Association, cleared up rubbish, and met a number of councillors to discuss the matter. They also formally presented a deputation to the Housing Management Committee asking once again for a licence.”
That all probably seems pretty amazing to people who’ve tried squatting recently, but even in 1980, this was simply delaying the inevitable:
Six months later, the Council’s heavy squad made the 200 squatters homeless:
“Following two dramatic dawn raids by police the Morley House squat in Cazenove Road has had all its electricity and gas supplies cut off. At least 25 people were arrested, mainly on charges relating to the stealing of gas and electricity, but the police indiscriminately smashed through the doors of all the tenants on two of the blocks on the estate.
The first raid took place on 14 January and was made by a large number of police, accompanied by police dogs and gas board officials. The police carried no warrants and yet made extensive searches for drugs and stolen goods. Many doors were broken down in the raid, while others had 6-inch nails driven into their hinges to prevent tenants from re-entering their flats. Whilst searching the rooms the police took many photographs, presumably to be used later in evidence.
Using the excuse that many of the tenants were not paying for gas, the supplies to the estate were cut off, although electric cooking rings were brought in by the Gas Board for those who complained that they were in fact paying their gas bills. But in the early hours of the following morning, the police arrived again, this time with Electricity Board officials, and electricity supplies were cut off under the pretext that all the wiring on the estate was in a dangerous condition.
As a result of these raids about half of the 150 people who lived in the squat have been intimidated into leaving. Speaking to residents of Morley House HPP has discovered that these raids follow several months of police harassment. It is estimated that some 50% of the residents had been picked up by the police prior to the raids. Morley House has been a licensed squat for over one year. In that time Gas and Electricity officials have visited the estate several times, but have not ordered any repairs.”
I hope that Emanuel would have approved of the squatters, but you never know. It’s interesting that the block was subsequently renamed Mandela House – Hackney Council in the 1980s was eager to promote social struggles thousands of miles away, but renaming the block after Emanuel Michaels or celebrating the courageous battle of the squatters was off-limits…
If anyone reading this has more information about either Emanuel Michaels or the Morley House occupation, please do leave a comment or drop me an email.