Hackney’s Museum of the Home says its racist memorial is OK, actually

It’s not often that an email from a museum pisses me off, but that was a thing that happened this week.

The monument celebrating slave trader Robert Geffrye

A previous post covered the legacy of slavery in Hackney and looked at how slave owners are memorialised throughout the Borough. This was followed by an optimistic post encouraging people to engage with the consultation about the future of the statue of slave trader Robert Geffyre in the grounds of the Museum of the Home.

On Wednesday the Board of Trustees of the museum wrote to me with the outcome of the consultation:

Thank you for taking part in the consultation about the future of the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye at the Museum of the Home.

Alongside many other cultural organisations across the UK, we have a responsibility to act against injustice, and this includes acknowledging the legacy of colonialism and slavery within our history. 

The statue of Sir Robert Geffrye on our building is a symbol of the historic connection the Museum buildings have to an English merchant whose wealth was partly derived from the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans. Geffrye donated the funds to build the almshouses in which the Museum is housed. 

Following a process of reflection, debate and research, and a consultation conducted in partnership with Hackney Council, the Board of Trustees of the Museum has taken the decision not to remove the statue from the Museum’s buildings.  

The Board believes that the Museum should respond to the issues raised by this debate by continuing with its vision of change at a fundamental level, by diversifying the Museum’s workforce, creative partners, content and programming to become more representative and inclusive.  

The Board feels that the Museum should reinterpret and contextualise the statue where it is to create a powerful platform for debate about the connection between the buildings and transatlantic slavery.

The Museum has a responsibility to reflect and debate history accurately and in doing so to confront, challenge and learn from the uncomfortable truths of the origins of the Museum buildings. 

Many people took time to share their views in the public consultation. Overall, the response was in favour of removing the statue. However, feedback showed that what to do with the statue is a complex debate, full of nuance and different opinions.

The Board has taken the view that the important issues raised should be addressed through ongoing structural and cultural change, along with better interpretation and conversation around the statue. 

When the Museum of the Home reopens – as a place to reveal and rethink the ways we live in order to live better together – we will also be addressing, in our galleries and programming, the connections between the British home and exploitative trade, value systems and physical objects, both historically and today.  

We are committed to continuing to develop our programming and policies on anti-racism and equity to create greater diversity and representation at the Museum. 

The Board’s full statement can be read here.

The Board has chosen to ignore the wishes of local residents and has instead opted for the tiresome conservative position that having a memorial to a racist on prominent display is a good thing to stimulate a conversation about history.

The Museum’s website now also includes, incredibly, a statement in support of Black Lives Matter:

Black Lives Matter

We strongly believe that museums should not be neutral. As a sector we have a responsibility to be inclusive and accessible.

We are committed to anti-racism and equity, and to working harder to make our organisation more representative.

We will learn from history and ensure our staff, programme and collection tell diverse stories and represent Black voices, artists, visitors and communities.

BLM has been consistent in calling for these types of statues to be taken down. Not taking the statue down is against the aims of BLM. It is not “neutral” – it is against Black Lives Matter.

The Board’s decision is so wrongheaded that ITV News has weighed in to make them look stupid:

In that clip Mayor Phil suggests that the Board are “out of touch” and Jermain Jackman (Hackney born and bred winner of The Voice UK) is clear about his anger at the decision.

Former councillor, writer and general comrade Patrick Vernon has called for a boycott (and he is right!):

A parody Geffrye Museum twitter account has been set up and is well worth a follow:

From that account I discovered that the first protest against the decision took place yesterday:

Protest outside Museum of the Home, Saturday 1st August 2020

I think that the Board have groslly underestimated the strength of feeling about this in the community and will regret their decision.

My questions for the Board are:

  1. The Museum’s Director has stated previously that “Homes should be welcoming places of shelter and security, love and comfort. This is what we want our museum to represent We know that for many the statue of Robert Geffrye on our building represents abuse, oppression and the history of thousands of enslaved people torn from their homes and families and forced to work in appalling conditions.” Is this view shared by the Board? Is this still the view of the Director?
  2. Why was it the right to change the name of the museum from The Geffrye Museum of the Home to The Museum of the Home – but it is not right to remove the memorial statue to Robert Geffrye?
  3. How successful do you think you will be in “diversifying the Museum’s workforce, creative partners, content and programming to become more representative and inclusive.” when there is a massive statue of a racist slave-owner looming over the grounds? Why should the museum’s workforce have to face that every day?
  4. Given that none of the Board members are black, was your decision to retain the racist statue against residents’ wishes discussed by the museum’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group?
  5. In the ITV News clip above, the Mayor of Hackney suggests that the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport may have influenced the Board’s decision. Is this true and if so what was their input?
  6. You say on your website that “The feedback from the consultation was considered alongside other information when the Board discussed the future of the statue.” What was this “other information”?
  7. When will you be removing the statue of Robert Geffrye?
The outcome of a conversation about a racist statue in Bristol

July 2020 updates

The usual update of recent radical Hackney films, books, campaigns and other things that have caught my eye over the last month…

Above is a lovely life-affirming film of John Rogers‘ walk from Hackney marshes to Stoke Newington earlier this year. John is the author of The Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City and worked with Iain Sinclair on his London Overground film. The walk includes his compelling commentary about the areas he is navigating and his Youtube channel has a bunch of great films to check out.

This month I have also been enjoying two beautifully produced publications from Rendezvous Projects:

Lightboxes and Lettering: Printing Industry Heritage in East London looks at the premises, processes and people who printed all sorts of things in Hackney, Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Clerkenwell. There are excellent chapters on radical and community presses (inlcuding Hackney’s Lenthal Road and Calverts) as well as a look at the changing gender roles in the industry. More generally the book is an intriguing overview of the changing face of work in East London.

Sweet Harmony: Mapping Waltham Forest’s dance radio stations, record shops & venues, 1989-1994 is obviousy less focussed on Hackney, but should be of interest to ravers old and new. Many of the pirate stations covered will have had listeners in Hackney and the Dungeons venue on Lea Bridge Road was the site of many a messy night for Hackneyites.

Both publications include a tonne of quotes from people and are lavishly illustrated wth maps, photos, graphics etc. You can order them here.

soon to be removed statue of slave trader John Cass on Jewry Street

Earlier this week Hackney Council announced that the park Cassland Road Gardens would be renamed by local residents. As I’ve pointed out previously, Cassland Road (the site of the gardens) is named after slavetrader John Cass. The renaming of the roads around the park is a longer term project and residents are being invited to put forward their thoughts as part of the council’s wider review.

There is less good news from our neighbours in the generally less progressive City of London. Our comrades at Reclaim EC1 have uncovered a wealth of information about City dignitaries including Lord Mayor of London William Russell recently paying homage to John Cass – and subsequently trying to cover their tracks.

The Happy Man Tree, July 2020.

The Happy Man Tree on Lordship Road is under threat of destruction by property developer Berkeley Homes. The tree appears on the Ordinance Survey map of the area from 1870 and so is at least 150 years old.

As the community campaign to save it points out:

This beautiful London plane tree grows on the public pavement on the North End of Lordship Road on Woodberry grove London N4.

It has survived a century and a half of building development, two world wars, road widening schemes with the arrival of the motor car and, so far, Berkeley Homes. But now, in this latest intervention, this majestic and much – loved tree has been condemned to be cut down by Berkeley homes & Hackney Council.

There is an alternative plan.

Viable alternative plans developed with local people would have allowed the development to go ahead whilst keeping the tree. These were rejected by Berkeley Homes as either too expensive or too complicated.

I’d certainly recommend a visit to the tree and a conversation with the campaigners – or a visit to https://www.thehappymantree.org/ where you can add your name to the petition and find out other ways give your support.

There is currently a petition, a legal challenge and perhaps the prosect of more direct action orientated protest, judging by the nice tree house.

When Hackney (almost) defunded the Police

Alongside the generalised anti-racism of the Black Lives Matter protests, it has been great to see specific demands emerge. Some of these have been very practical, such as the removal of colonial or racist statues or support for campaigns around deaths in custody such as the United Friends and Family Campaign. Others, such as defunding the police, would appear on the surface to be much more idealistic or longterm.

For some people, challenging the role of the police is strictly off-limits. A token reform here and there, alongside a rabid competition to give the cops as much money as possible, is what mainstream political debate looks like in the UK in the 2020s. But a growing number of people are not satisfied by that. Here is a handy four minute introduction:

Defunding the police is not a new demand and perhaps previous campaigns can inform the current debate.

In February 1983, Hackney Council’s Police Committee resolved to withold the Council’s £4 million donaton towards the cost of the Metropolitan Police – “the precept”. This was put to a full meeting of the Council on 23rd of February which adopted the following motion:

That the Council take whatever steps are open to it to withold the payment of the police precept both as an expression of anger at the state of policing in Hackney and with a view to bringing home to the Government the community demands for an independent inquiry into policing in Hackney.

Quoted in Policing in Hackney 1945-1984

Hackney People’s Press (#87 Feb 1983) quoted Councillor Patrick Kodikara:

“30 per cent of the ratepayers of Hackney are black. Why should the Council pay the police to practise repression on us?”

The motion was passed – with all of the Labour and Liberal councillors voting in favour – and all of the Conservative councillors voting against.

A recent image produced by Autonomous Design Group

The next issue of Hackney Peoples Press (#88 March 1983) was a bit more cynical:

“The Council’s statement of intent not to pay the precept of £4 million this year is just a gesture. The law does not allow them to withold the money, and, this year at least, they are not going to break the law. But by making the gesture they are indicating that they are paying up under protest, and are joining other London boroughs who have already reached the same conclusion: they pay over ratepayers money each year to the police yet London is unique in the country in not having an elected police authority”

And sure enough, the Council was told by its legal advisers in March that it could not legally withold the money and the precept was paid – I assume in time for the next financial year in April 1983.

The Policing in Hackney book mentions the Council’s decision generating a great deal of media attention, which I’ve not yet been able to track down, but imagine was suitably unsupportive and outraged.

This was all spun by Hackney Central MP Clinton Davis in Parliament:

“My own local authority may be very frustrated—sometimes with justification—by some of the actions, or the inaction, of the local police. The suggestion of the withdrawal of the police precept is, however, an empty but unacceptable gesture which increases the anxiety of many of my constituents—particularly the elderly—that the police are suddenly to be withdrawn. But of course that will not happen.

When I spoke to Councillor [Brynley] Heaven, the chairman of the police liaison committee, he readily agreed that it would not happen. It is a gesture—a vote of no confidence in the police—but I do not believe that such a gesture is justified by the circumstances. If we are to make constructive criticisms about the police, as sometimes we must and as I do today, it does not add to the authority of those who support such criticism to join in every meaningless gesture and every attack on the police.”

Two years later, Hackney Council would verge closer to breaking the law when it refused to set a “rate” (essentially the equivalent of Council Tax now) in response to the Thatcher government’s efforts to restrict local government spending.

This incident of almost defunding the police did not emerge spontaneously from a “loony left” council with nothing better to do. It was the culmination of years of terrible policing resulting in a number of community campaigns…

Background to the motion to defund the police

(This timeline covers the most significant events. Examples of the much more common day to day police corruption and harassment are covered in Chapter 8 of Policing In Hackney).

December 1978: Black teenager Michael Ferreira is stabbed during a fight with white teenagers in Stoke Newington. His friends take him to the nearby police station, where the cops seem more interested in questioning them than assisting Michael, who dies of his wounds before reaching hospital.

24th April 1979: Hackney resident Blair Peach is killed during a protest against the National Front in Southall. 14 witnesses saw him being hit on the head by a policeman. It was generally understood then, and is widely believed now, that Peach was killed by an officer from the notorious Special Patrol Group. The SPG’s lockers were searched as part of the investigation into the death, uncovering non-police issue truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather cosh. One officer was found in possession of a collection of Nazi regalia.

The failure of the police to properly investigate the murder of Blair Peach – and their general harassment of youth, led Hackney Teachers’ Association to adopt a policy of non-cooperation with the police. This is documented in the excellent Police Out of School which is available in full on elsewhere on this site.

November 1979: A conference of anti-racist groups in Hackney calls for the repeal of the “sus” laws that allow police to stop and search anyone they are suspicious of. In 1977 60% of “sus” arrests in Hackney were of black people – who made up 11% of the borough.

February 1980: Five units of the Special Patrol Group began to operate in Hackney with no consultation. When the Leader of the Council criticised the police for this, Commander Mitchell responded by saying “I don’t feel obliged to tell anyone about my policing activities”.

July 1981: Riot in Dalston. Searchlight magazine blamed Commander Mitchell’s hardline policies for the incident.

Also in 1981: Lewisham Council threatened not to pay the police precept.

December 1981: Newton Rose falsely convicted for the murder of Anthony Donnelly, a Clapton resident with National Front connections. A successful campaign results in Rose being freed in 1982 becaue of a “grave material irregularity” in the trial.

April 1982: David and Lucille White, an elderly black couple, are awarded £51,000 damages for “a catalogue of violent and inhuman treatment” by Stoke Newington police.

July 1982: First meeting of Hackney Council’s new Police Committee, set up to consider and monitor policing in the borough – and make the police more responsive to local needs. The committee replaced an informal police liaison group which met in private and alternated its chair between the police and the council. The committee’s meetings were public and chaired by its members. A Support Unit was also established which monitored crime and policing and published reports critical of police powers.

Colin Roach

12 January 1983: Death of Colin Roach by gunshot in the lobby of Stoke Newington police station.

Roach’s parents are treated appallingly by the police. Demonstrations organised by the Roach Family Support Commttee (RSFC) outside the police station result in numerous protestors, including Colin’s father, being arrested.

Ernie Roberts, Hackney MP, made a statement on the public’s concern about the breakdown of community/police relations as well as his support for a public inquiry into the death of Colin Roach. The Greater London Council funded the Roach campaign to the tune of £1,500 shortly afterwards. There was outrage in the press at this use of public money to fund what they saw as “cash to fight the police” and “fostering discontent among black people”.

February 18 1983: Colin Roach’s funeral.

RFSC instigates its “break links campaign” and writes to all Hackney Councillors asking them to:

  • vote to withold the police precept
  • hold a vote of no confidence in Stoke Newington police
  • agree to break all links with the police unless and until an independent public inquiry into the death of Colin Roach was held.

Hackney social services workers put pressure on thier union – Hackney NALGO, which passes resolution calling on members to “break links” with the police.

Meanwhile, slightly east of Hackney:

“Tower Hamlets Council is to be asked on Tuesday to follow the Hackney Council example and consider witholding the Metropolitan Police rate precept. The Newham Monitoring Project is to call upon the local council to do the same unless an independent inquiry into Forest Gate police station in Newham is set up.

Mr Unmesh Desair, the project’s full time worker, yesterday described the station as a “torture chamber”.

The Times, February 24, 1983

Afer the fuss about non-payment of the precept had died down, other aspects of the campaign were still live issues.

In May 1983 Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Ronald Brown, bemoaned the continuation of the “break links” campaign in Parliament, singling out Hackney Council for Racial Equality:

Since 10 January, the new police commander has tried desperately to establish contact between the police and that organisation. Recognising the complaints about the police in London, particularly in Hackney, as well as the difficulties in Hackney as a result of the tragedy that occurred, he has endeavoured to re-establish a relationship with the community. He has approached every group in an attempt to get a dialogue going.

What kind of response did he get from the Council for Racial Equality? In a letter of 21 February it said: I am writing on behalf of Hackney Council for Racial Equality Executive”— not the council, but the executive— who have asked that you give instructions that the local home beat officers covering the HCRE Mare Street office, the HCRE Family Centre, Rectory Road, no longer call”— that phase is underlined— at either of these offices unless HCRE gives a specific call to the police. I trust this will be acted on with dispatch. That was signed by the community relations officer. That destroyed the relationship between the beat policemen and the community in the two areas. By common consent, that relationship had proved valuable. That one letter wiped out that relationship.”

The publication of Police out of School in 1985 generated a further furore and also a PR campaign from the police. The campaign and police response are covered in this great news report from the time:

Conclusion

Calls to defund the police in the 1980s need to be seen as the tip of the iceberg of wider community resistance. This made it much harder to dismiss the idea of defunding as “gesture politics”.

In Hackney, the antagonism between the police and community only intensified after this, with corruption at Stoke Newington police station expanding to include further deaths in custody and police officers getting involved with drug dealing, amongst other crimes. In the 1990s this would be met head on by Hackney Community Defence Association.

I am shit at reading budgets, so please laugh at me, but it looks to me like:

Total council tax donations to Greater London Authority for the year 2020/2021:
£1,010,907,032.68

Amount of this which goes to Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime:
£767,054,360.26

So that’s about 75% of the total.

Hackney’s donation to the GLA would seem to be £24,701,359.02

75% of that is roughly £18 million.

(A purely inflationary rise from the £4m in 1983 to now would be £11.59m, but you would also need to factor in the expanding population of Hackney in that time – according to Wikipedia it was 179,536 in 1981 and 280,900 in 2020 which is an increase of 56%.)

A question worth asking is: would spending this £18 million of our money on other things be better at reducing crime and harm?

Sources and Further Reading

Hackney Peoples Press (various issues)

Police Out of School (Hackney Teachers Associaton, 1985)

Policing In Hackney 1945-1984: A Report Commissioned by the Roach Family Support Committe (Karia Press & RFSC 1989)

Policing London #2 September 1982 (GLC in the Police Committee Support Unit)

John Eden – “They Hate Us, We Hate Them”: Resisting Police Corruption and Violence in Hackney in the 1980s and 1990s (Datacide #14 2014)

Paul Harrison – Inside The Inner City (Penguin , 1983)

Michael Keith – Race, Riots and Policing: Love and Disorder in a Multi-racist Society (UCL Press, 1993).

June updates

Newington Green Meeting House published a short video about Anna Laetitia Barbauld to celebrate her birthday on 20th June:

They have also published a calendar of forthcoming online events, including an “Alternative Statue Tour” on 7th July which takes in some of the Borough’s more progressive residents – old and new -that might be good subjects for future statues. This is followed on 21st July by an event on the Meeting House’s roots in Unitarianism and its connection with dissenters.

Horrid Hackney is a new site by Lucy Madison that promises “a new blog entry every day”. Which sounds exhausting. Entries posted already include some overlap with topics covered here, such as the IRA “bomb factory” on Milton Road, the 43 Group duffing up fascists in Dalston and the Angry Brigade arrests in Stoke Newington. Indeed, the site’s post on the 43 Group coincidentally includes exactly the same video interviews as our one from 2018.

The difference between “horrid” and “radical” is that Lucy’s site includes a lot more about grisly crimes, their victims and perpetrators. Generally these entries are pretty good, but I guess there is a risk of sensationalising murders and murderers and flattening all kinds of activity into an amorphous “extreme” history. It’s unclear, for example, why Lucy feels the 43 Group were “horrid” rather than heroic..

There is a dispute at the Rio Cinema with the Save The Rio group accusing the Board of pursuing unnecessary restructuring amongst other issues. The group has proposed an alternative temporary Board to be convened before an AGM can be called at which members would vote for a new Board. Members of the Rio are being asked to thrash this out via proxy voting. There is a petition for non-members.

A reminder that you have until 3rd July (Friday) to comment on the future of the statue of slave trader Sir Robert Geffrye in the grounds of the Museum of the Home.

Our neighbours and comrades at Reclaim EC1 have published a list of memorials in the City of London linked to colonialism and racism as well as the first installment of a series of posts on the City’s involvement in the slave trade. They also note the recent removal of the memorial bust of former Hackney resident John Cass from St Botolph’s Church, Aldgate High Street on 18 June.

Finally our south London comrades at History is Made at Night posted this video of Luton’s Exodus Collective running a soundsystem on Hackney Marshes as part of a larger free festival in 1998. I assume I was at this, but my memories of that summer are a bit foggy for reasons that are probably best not speculated about…

Have your say on Hackney’s slave-trader statue

Geffrye made his fortune with the East India Company and the Royal African Company

Last Thursday, the Museum of the Home launched a consultation on the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye in its grounds. The consultation is being promoted by the Council. It closes on 3rd July.

In our last post, we identified Robert Geffrye as one of three people who are memorialised in Hackney who profited significantly from the slave trade.

Last year the museum began the process of removing Geffrye from its name, which is encouraging as is this statement:

Homes should be welcoming places of shelter and security, love and comfort. This is what we want our museum to represent.

We know that for many the statue of Robert Geffrye on our building represents abuse, oppression and the history of thousands of enslaved people torn from their homes and families and forced to work in appalling conditions. 

Sonia Solicari, Director of Museum of the Home

The short duration of the consultation suggests that they are not expecting much controversy about this, but I would urge people to complete it all the same. It’s a five minute job and you never know if there will be some sort of rabid right wing “write in campaign” in the current climate.

The Board of the museum will make a decision about whether or not to keep the statue in place in late July. The museum itself is closed because of the Coronvirus lockdown but hopes to open later this year. They have some great online content for people in the meantime.

Kick Over The Statues: Slavery and Hackney campaign

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, but recent events have reinforced the need to. (My usual caveats apply even more – I am not an expert, I am still learning, doing this is part of my process of learning. Comments and criticisms are welcome.)

There are decades where nothing happens;
and there are weeks where decades happen

The headlines are in this superb two minute plea to the Council by Toyin Agbetu from Pan African, human-rights centred organisation Ligali:

Don’t read anything below until you have watched that.

I support this campaign and appreciate the conversations about the legacy of slavery in the borough that it will deepen.

The day after this video was uploaded, Hackney Council announced its review into landmarks and public spaces. The Council followed this up with a further announcement of a listening exercise on future of the Sir Robert Geffrye statue in the grounds of the Museum of the Home. As noted on the museum’s website, Geffrye made his fortune with the East India Company and the Royal African Company. (The museum changed its name last year from the Geffrye Museum of the Home.)

Also this week, a sign bearing former Hackney resident John Cass’ name was removed from student accomodation Sir John Cass Hall on Well Street E9.

Elsewhere in London this week:

Finding out more about Hackney’s connections with slavery

The abolitionists buried in Abney Park Cemetery and other Hackney residents who campaigned against slavery are well documented (although not by me, yet!). But as singer Dennis Brown put it: `”what about the half that’s never been told?”

As we will see, Hackney significant numbers of residents who profited from slavery alongside those who actively campaigned against it.

Some excellent work has been done on this already by Hackney Museum and Hackney Archives (on whose coat-tails I trail – and not for the first time). Local Roots / Global Routes is a great portal with a number of articles and teaching resources.

Martha Rose McAlpine’s 15 minute film is an excellent primer on English colonialism, African slavery, its legacy and how this applies to Hackney:

Kate Donnington’s article The Slave-Owners of Hackney: Re-thinking Local Histories of Abolition and Slavery is recommended. She has expanded on this in a chapter of the book Britain’s History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a ‘National Sin’ (Liverpool University Press 2016) – some of this can be read via Google Books. Otherwise it’s £85, so order it from a library when that is possible again. (Update – Katie has been in touch to say that the draft chapter can be read for free here.)

Madge Dresser’s – Set in Stone? Statues and Slavery in London (History Workshop Journal, Volume 64, Issue 1, Autumn 2007) is very topical but not Hackney specific. It includes useful summary of London’s slavery-related statues.

Radical History + Ropes = Splash

Bristol leads the way

Sometimes this site can seem a bit esoteric or nostalgic. I think the real value in radical history is in inspiring people to act and to show the links between the past and the present. Until last weekend the suggestion that we should get rid of memorials to slave traders was an impossible fringe idea held by a few long term dedicated law abiding campaigners.

But then the people of Bristol took matters into their own hands and dumped a statue of Edward Colston in the river. And now it all seems like common sense. Suddenly loads of people are thinking about the legacy of colonialism and slavery – and what history is. It’s notable that Bristol has a very active radical history group which has campaigned about Colston’s presence for many years as well as documenting WW1 conscientious objectors and building a memorial for inmates of Eastville Workhouse.

Of course, some of my more cynical comrades will argue that the removal of statues and other memorials is window dressing, a token effort that does nothing to really address the enduring legacies of colonialism, slavery and the racist ideology that underpinned them. I would argue back that starting with the simple stuff, the low hanging fruit, is a necessary step to get to the other issues. Or at least it will have to do in the absence of a more militant revolutionary alternative. The conversations we have about this are just as important as the physical removal of the items from the public realm.

Hackney Council’s “review of statues, buildings and public spaces named after slave & plantation owners” is a great initiative. But as events at Bristol have shown us, people will not wait forever…

Three Slave-Owners still memorialised in Hackney

This is starting point that summarises what I’ve been able to find out so far (something that has only been possible because of work done by many others). Its focus is on people connected to Hackney who profited significantly from the slave trade and who still have tributes in public spaces here as of June 2020. There may be more.

Sir John Cass (1661-1718)

Soon to be removed statue of John Cass on Jewry Street from London Remembers

John Cass was also a City Alderman, but in the Tory interest. Though never Lord Mayor, Cass served as Sheriff then as Member of Parliament for the City of London and became a Knight of the Realm. He too was involved in the slave-trade, being a member of the Royal African Company’s Court of Assistants from 1705 to 1708. The Company records show him (then ‘Colonel John Cass of Hackney’) to have been on their ‘committee of correspondence’ which directly dealt with slave-agents in the African forts and in the Caribbean. We know too that Cass retained shares in the Royal African Company until his death. Cass […] also seems to have been linked by family and friends to colonial plantation interests, in his case to Virginia.

Madge Dresser

Cass lived in Grove Road, South Hackney – which looks to now be the north end of Lauriston Road E9. His legacy in the borough includes:

  • Cassland Road (runs between Well Street and Wick Road)
  • Cassland Crescent E9
  • Cassland Road Gardens (a park in E9)
  • Sir John Cass Hall (student accomodaton E9 – sign removed June 2020)

The Tyssen family and William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney (1835 – 1909)

The Baron

According to Wikipedia “Tyssen-Amherst is chiefly remembered as a collector of books, manuscripts, antique furniture and other works of art. He became famous for his Egyptian collection.” Which sounds lovely, but the shine wears off when you find out where the family wealth came from. (Also rich Europeans “collecting” things from Egypt is a whole other colonial story…)

The family seems to have a weird fetish for naming all their male children the same names, which makes things slightly confusing. (Perhaps this was a commonplace posh person thing then?) Of particular interest are:

Francis Tyssen the elder (1624 – 1699). “Came to England from Flushing in Holland in the 1640s and settled in London. He owned plantations in Antigua in the West Indies, from leasing which he accumulated sufficient capital to purchase the Shacklewell estate at Hackney in 1685.” (source)

Francis Tyssen the younger (1653 – 1710). Wealthy London merchant, owned property in Hackney, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Stepney, Whitechapel, Essex and Huntingdonshire. Also owner of Bridges plantation in Angitua, inherited from his father Francis the elder. From his will, it does not appear that the Antiguan property was his principal asset.

Samuel Tyssen the elder (1698 – 1749). Younger son of Francis Tyssen the younger and his second wife Mary nee Western. Inherited Bridges plantation in Antigua and property in Huntingdonshire under the will of his father.

The wealth that the family accumulated from slavery was put to good use. William George Daniel-Tyssen (d. 1838) was the parish of Hackney’s largest landowner in 1831.

The Tyssen famly lived at The Old Manor House, Shacklewell, which was Hackney’s largest dwelling in 1672. Not satisfied with this, they purchased the New Mermaid Tavern on Church Street (now Mare Street) and demolished it so that their new house coud be built there in 1845. Whilst this is hardly the worst of their crimes, I would argue that buying up a pefectly decent pub and turning it into your family home is the mark of a scoundrel. The plaque above currently nestles between Shoe Zone and Admiral Casino on the Narrow Way, so the building has at least returned to more proletarian purposes, whatever we might think of them.

Many of the family are buried at the nearby Church of St John at Hackney.

It looks like William’s eldest son (also called William, what is it with these people?) became William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney in 1892. (I’m not 100% on this because the genealogy of noblemen is not my forte especially when they all have the same forenames).

According to the extremely comprehensive entry on the Tyssens at the Landed Families of Britain and Ireland blog “The family remain the lords of the manor of the three Hackney manors, although most of their estate there has now been sold off.”

The Tyssen family is memorialised in Hackney to this day by the following:

  • Tyssen Street E8
  • Tyssen Road N16
  • Tyssen Community Primary School, Oldhill Street N16

Perhaps Amhurst Road, Amhurst Park and Amhurst Terrace could also be named after The Baron?

Sir Robert Geffrye (1613–1703)

Statue of Robert Geffrye at the Museum of the Home

As noted above Geffrye made his fortune with the East India Company and the Royal African Company. He did not live in Hackney, instead spending much of his life at Lime Street in the City.

His relationship with Hackney began when he died in 1703:

The residue of his estate was to be devoted to the erection of almshouses in or near London. The company accordingly purchased a piece of ground in Kingsland Road, on which they built fourteen almshouses and a chapel, and appointed rules for their government on 17 Nov. 1715 (Nicholl, pp. 569–73). There are now forty-two pensioners, each of whom receives 12/. per annum. In the foreground of the building is a statue of Geffrey, executed for the Ironmongers’ Company in 1723 by John Nost, and […] in 1878, Geffrey’s remains and those of his wife were re-interred in the burial-ground attached to the almshouses (Notes and Queries, 5th ser. xi. 57).

Charles Welch – Geffrey, Robert in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 21

His statue in the grounds of the Museum of the Home is under review. But nearby you also have:

  • The Geffrye Almshouses (in which the museum is hosted)
  • Geffrye Street N1
  • The Geffrye Estate (owned by Hackney Housing)
  • Geffrye Court (a block on the estate)
  • Geffrye Court (also a street name)

And the rest

The Boddington family – Boddington & Co

The Boddingtons were a powerful merchant and planter family whose involvement in the slavery business spanned three generations. Benjamin Boddington (1730-1791) and his brother Thomas Boddington (c.1735-1821) were West India merchants. Both men were involved with the South Sea Company and Benjamin was a Director. The Company won the right to something called the Asiento following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This gave the company the sole right to sell enslaved Africans to the Spanish.

Samuel and Thomas the younger were eventually awarded £39,712 in compensation for 2100 enslaved people in Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, St. Vincent and Jamaica. Some of their plantations were owned by the family because they had lent money to their business contacts in the Caribbean and when those people couldn’t pay them back they took their property as a forfeit for the loan. In this sense their ‘property’ could include both enslaved people as well as the plantation.

In 1766 the senior Boddingtons were residing in Hackney; Benjamin was living in Clapton and Thomas in Upper Homerton.

Hackney, Sugar and Slavery: Teachers Resource – Local Roots / Global Routes

The Boddingtons were also a Dissenting family which suggests that religious radicalism did not always go hand in hand with abolitionist beliefs.

When slavery was abolished in parts of the Briitsh Empire in 1833, it was the slave owners who were compensated by the government for the loss of their “property”. The total sum given to them was £20 million, which was 40% of the national budget, equivalent to some £300 billion today. The British tax payer helped to pay back the loan required for this – a debt that was only settled in 2015.

These payments have left a paper trail, which has been used to create the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database at University College London.

Entering keywords Clapton, Dalston, Hackney, Hoxton, Shacklewell, Stamford Hill and Stoke Newington into the database gives results for a total of 43 recipients of compensation (including those listed above). So there is more work to do on this…

May 2020 updates

Hackney Museum have unearthed an incredible community film project from 1988:

Living On The Welfare Estate is an excellent snapshot of the lives and issues of residents on Clapton Park Estate. There is some homegrown hip hop, reggae and soul music of varying quality as well as general commentary and footage of the area.

From 6:45 onwards there is a section on police aggravation and how resident Peter Richmond was wrongly convicted purely on the basis of statements of the notoriously corrupt Hackney police in 1984.

Friends of Hackney Archives‘ twitter account Hackney History is well worth a follow. They are contributing to the wider Layers of London project and these two recent entries caught my eye:

There is a tonne of other stuff on the site of interest, with a great deal about different areas of the borough and their portrayal in fiction, various addresses profiled etc. You can see the lot here.

Hackney Archives themselves are doing a Friday Feature on Facebook which seems to be generally reprints from “Council Pravda” Hackney Today (no disprespect to the Archives – their bit was usually the only thing worth reading in there!). Appropriately enough the May Day feature was on socialist pharmacist Israel Renson who dispensed medicine from his shop on Well Street and called for the abolition of money using the pseudonym “Philoren”.

Portrait of Abashanti-I (c) Tim Schnetgoeke https://www.schnetgoeke.com/

The Life In Dub podcast is a series of interviews with reggae artists conducted by Steve Vibronics. A recent episode features Hackney soundsystem operator Abashanti-I. It includes some great anecdotes about black history and music in the borough. Seeing Jah Shaka at the Four Aces in Dalston is cited as a defining inspiraton that lead Abashanti-I to start his own soundsystem – which itself became a fixture at “blues dances” (house parties) in Stoke Newington. Prior to this Shanti had been the MC for Hackney’s Jah Tubbys soundsystem in the mid 1980s.

Rio Cinema Archive project images

In our January 2020 update, I was effusive about the Rio Cinema Archive photo project on Instagram. These awesome images are now being collected in a photo book with accompanying commentary. There is a crowdfunder on Kickstarter with preview mock ups and more informaton.

Some of the funding for the book will be put towards community projects and to the Rio Cinema itself, which is currently closed for obvious reasons.

East End Women’s Museum volunteer Charlotte Elliston has been putting her state-sanctioned hour of exercise to good use. Her Women’s History on my walk: Shoreditch and Hoxton documents interesting historical women in the area.

On one of my walks recently I discovered a plaque on Hoxton Street relating to Guy Fawkes failed attempt to burn down the Houses of Parliament:

And this, future radical history in the making, in Clissold Park:

How a Homerton woman stood up to domestic violence and made legal history

Content warning: this post includes some brief textual descriptions of violence and threats against women. Hackney Council’s domestic violence support services can be accessed here.

“Women make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

In 1974 Jennifer Davis was awarded the tenancy of 13 Nisbet House, Homerton High Street. (Nisbet House was built in the 1930s as part of the council’s slum clearances. A previous entry on this blog covers another resident of Nisbet House – tenant activist Bob Darke.)

Jennifer’s partner Nehemiah Johnson was added to the tenancy at his request and they moved in together and later had a daughter. Jennifer was in her late teens, Nehemiah in his late thirties.

Jennifer Davis was the victim of what the court of appeal described as “extreme” violence from Johnson.

Nehemiah’s violence became so extreme that on 18th September 1977 Jennifer was forced to flee with their two and half year old daughter and live in the world’s first Women’s Refuge in Chiswick. Nehemiah then threatened to kill Jennifer – and dump her in the river or chop up her body and put it in the freezer.

This resulted in an important legal case, which Susan Edwards (Professor and Dean of Law at the University of Birmingham) has written about in her chapter of the book Women’s Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland.

Parliament had recently passed The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976 (DVMPA). The act originated as a Private Members Bill authored by Jo Richardson MP, and was the culmination of many years’ campaigning by the women’s liberation movement.

But laws are of little consequence until they are put to the test in court. Someone has to have the unfortunate privilege of being first – and this time Jennifer Davis was one of the women to take on that mantle.

On 11th October 1977 Jennifer applied to Brentford County Court under section 1 of the DVMPA for injunctions restraining the Nehemiah from using violence against her and ordering him to vacate the flat and stay at least half a mile away from it. (It seems reasonable to speculate that she was assisted by the staff at the women’s refuge and perhaps others in doing this.)

“The judge found that the violence and threats of violence, to which Miss Davis had been subjected, were of a horrifying nature. He thought that there was a real risk of further violence in the future. […] The exclusion of [Johnson] from the flat and the prohibition upon his return were necessary to protect Miss Davis and her child in their own home.”

Lord Scarman, 1978

The injunctions were granted. But Johnson appealed – and sickeningly was successful in being granted the ability to return to the flat. The legal arguments around this essentially boiled down to a conflict between property rights and the right to live without exposure to violence. This may not come as too much of surprise to my more cynical readers. (There is more to say here about the historical legacy of women being deemed to be the property of men, for example in marriage – and the struggle to gain the vote, etc).

Jennifer Davis in turn appealed this decision, which lead to further wrangling by men in wigs. The Court of Appeal found in her favour by a majority of three to two judges. The original judgement was restored. According to Lorraine Radford this led to some sexist furore about the decision being “a mistresses’ charter”.

On returning to her flat in Homerton, Jennifer found it completely stripped of all its furniture.

Johnson would not let it lie and appealed once again to the House of Lords (it would be interesting to know where he was getting his funding and advice from?). The profile and importance of the case ensured that Jennifer was well supported on the day:

The Times 18 January 1978

The discussion in the Lords included the out of touch snark characteristic of the place and era, including several references to the “child of their illicit union” who was also “illegitimate”.

But to their credit, the Lords agreed that unmarried women should be treated the same as married ones in this regard and also dismissed Nehemiah Johnson’s appeal, establishing an important legal precedent. William Twining and David Miers describe the decision as “a leading case on the doctrine of precedent and the use of extrinsic aids to interpretation”.

I’m sure this was of less value to Jennifer Davis than being able to live with her daughter in peace in their flat in Homerton. And to the women that followed her…

Jennifer Davis and daughter Cordelia celebrating with Erin Pizzey (right) and Tina Wood of Chiswick Women’s Aid

Susan Davis concludes:

“Without doubt Davis v Johnson was a turning point in both law and judicial understanding of domestic violence. The problem of domestic violence, despite these changes, remains a significant problem in its extent and the failings of the criminal justice response. Over a quarter of women have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16. On average two women in England and Wales are killed by their current or former partner every week. Cuts to legal aid are making it significantly harder for women to access the courts to protect themselves and their family.”

The problem of domestic violence has recently been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown.

Sources / Further Reading / Plagiarism

Susan Davis “Davis v Johnson (1978)” in Erika Rackley, Rosemary Auchmuty (eds) – Women’s Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland (Bloomsbury 2018)

Lorraine Radford – The Law and Domestic Violence Against Women (PhD thesis, 1988) https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/136499.pdf

William Twining and David Miers – How to Do Things with Rules: A Primer of Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

House of Lords Decisions: Davis v Johnson [1978] UKHL 1 (09 March 1978) http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/1978/1.html

Astrid Proll – on the run in Hackney

Astrid Proll: under arrest in Germany

In Germany

Astrid Proll was a household name in the 1970s along with her comrades Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and other members of the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction – aka The Baader-Meinhof gang).

Astrid’s older brother Thorwald Proll introduced her to the circle of radicals that would become the RAF – indeed, she would be one of its founders. The group’s politics were broadly anti-imperialist: opposed to the Vietnam war and outraged by the prominence of former Nazis in West Germany. The state would brand them “anarchist violent offenders”, but most anarchists I know would categorise them as Maoists (and point out that urban guerilla movements with no connection to the working class do not end well).

On 2nd April 1968 (before becoming the RAF), the group had organised arson attacks on two Frankfurt department stores. This was in revenge for the killing of Benno Ohnesorg (a protestor shot by a policeman during a demonstration opposing the Shah of Iran’s visit to West Berlin. The killer would eventually be revealed as an East German Stasi agent) – and also against the ongoing Vietnam war. Days later, Baader and several others including Thorwald Proll were caught by the police and imprisoned.

Baader was eventually freed by armed members of the group during a staged interview with Ulrike Meinhof at a library on 14 May 1970. Astrid Proll was the getaway driver. She was also involved in bank robberies around this time to raise funds for the RAF’s operations and underground existence. She became one of the most wanted women in West Germany.

Proll and RAF member Manfred Grasho were stopped by the cops on 10 February 1971 but managed to get away under police gunfire. It was falsely claimed that she had shot at the two officers attempting to arrest her. However in Hamburg on 6 May of the same year, Astrid was finally caught after a pump attendant at a petrol station recognised her from a wanted poster and alerted the authorities. She attempted to flee but was surrounded by armed officers and arrested – and then charged with offences including attempted murder and robbery.

In November 1971, Astrid Proll became the first of several RAF members to be held in solitary confinement in the new “dead wing” of Cologne-Ossendorf prison. She was 24 years old. The “dead wing” or “silent wing” was an ingenious facility of six cells in which the walls and furniture were painted entirely white. A bare neon light turned on 24 hours a day was supplemented by meagre daylight through a narrow slit too high to see out of. The cells were designed so that no external sounds could penetrate them. It was forbidden for prisoners to hang pictures on the walls.

These conditons amount to torture and would be one of the factors that led subsequent RAF prisoners to go on hunger stirke. Proll spent two and half years in solitary confinement (four and half months of which were in the dead wing). She developed circulatory problems, difficulty breathing, panic attacks and was sometimes unable to walk.

On February 4, 1974 Astrid’s trial was adjourned because of her ill health, and she was granted bail. Shortly after this she fled West Germany under a false passport. After spending some time in Italy, she arrived in London in August 1974.

Astrid in London

I fled to Britain […] and realised how overtly ideological and misguided the German left had become. In Britain the left was more pragmatic and had more realistic goals; it was also more tuned into the real world. A concept as deluded as “armed struggle” would never have come to pass here.

Astrid Proll, The Matured Spirit of ’68

Precise details of Astrid’s early time in London are hard to pin down. She seems to have moved around a lot, living in Holland Park, Mile End and Kilburn as well as several addresses in Hackney. In interviews she has mentioned the support she received from feminists, squatters and Hackney members of the libertarian marxist group Big Flame.

Using her false passport, Astrid got married to Robin Puttick at Stepney registry office on January 22, 1975. She took the name Anna Puttick. This is generally believed to be a marriage of convenience as she was on the run – and a lesbian. As she told Iain Sinclair “I had to have papers, I was so German.”

Living in Hackney

“Solidarity was the precept of the counterculture. The squats were the material basis and preconditon for the emergence of political activism, art and alternative life. These houses, removed from the circulation of capitalist valorisation, were open spaces for experimentations of all kinds towards a life lived without economic constraints”

Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London

So where did she live?

Several contributors to the Kill Your Pet Puppy website mention her being hidden away in the squats of Brougham Road near Broadway Market (the street would later be an epicentre of anarchist punk activity in the 1980s).

Court documents from the time mention her “first squat” at the end of 1974 being 25 Marlborough Avenue E8. Astrid herself in Goodbye To London recalls “squatting with a female friend in a former shoe store in Broadway Market” and she told Iain Sinclair:

“When I heard about the death of Ulrike Meinhof in Stammheim Prison, I lived in a street that no longer exists, Lamb Lane. Beside London Fields. I lived around Broadway Market a lot. There was a huge women’s movement thing, a whole scene.”

Meinhof died in mysterious circumstances on 9 May 1976. The general trajectory of the RAF after Astrid left Germany had been increasingly desperate. Life in exile would have been stressful, but must have seemed like the better option.

There was a thriving alternative scene in the capital at the time and Astrid mentions attending women-only dances as well as suppoting the striking Asian women workers on the picket lines at the Grunwick dispute in West London. But the past was never far away…

Writer Philip Oltermann suggests that Proll and “a group of lesbians from Bow” were in the crowd of 80,000 at the free Rock Against Racism / Anti-Nazil League gig in Victoria Park on 30 April 1978. He mentions her “panic rising” when she saw the RAF logo onstage on the t-shirt worn by Joe Strummer of The Clash:

Joe Strummer’s Red Army Faction t-shirt at Victoria Park Rock Against Racism gig 30 April 1978

(Incidentally the burgeoning “punkademic” industry seems inexorably drawn to making connections between the RAF and punk. Personally I think it’s clear that Strummer was a poseur with a nice turn in protest music and social observation, but he was sorely lacking in political analysis. Tom Vague concludes his RAF book with a fantastic photo of Sid Vicious and John Lydon posing in front of a Baader-Meinhof wanted poster in Berlin in 1977. In the same year anarchist punks Crass pasted up a poster near Covent Garden’s Roxy club with the slogan “Germany got Baader-Meinhof, England got punk but they can’t kill it”. I’d say one t-shirt, one photograph and one poster were slim evidence, but I’m not a lecturer with a quota of publications to fill. I’d be much more interested to hear about what other gigs Astrid Proll and her social circle were going to in mid-70s London…).

“I always knew that a photo of me could give me away and destroy my London life. So I avoided being photographed. When the book ‘Hitler’s Children:The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang’ was released, female friends went out and stole the book off bookstore shelves or tore out the pages with my photograph”

Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London

Friends from the time mention her being a good neighbour and putting down roots:

“The children would be in and out of her house at the weekends, she’d be delighted on the occasions they stayed the night there because she revelled in their company and because it left me free. [She put] all her energy into her work, into friendships, into the squatting and local communty as a whole.”

Anonymous friend quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll

This lifestyle and support network would do a fine job of keeping Proll out of sight of the authorities… for a while.

“Women Work In Hackney”

Astrid’s work in London is better documented than where she lived. Each of her three jobs had a Hackney connection.

In the Spring of 1975 she was employed as a gardener by the council:

“I went to get a job with Hackney Council. I was a park keeper. In Clissold Park, my favourite park. I was working with an Irish guy, raking, mowing. They threw us both out, him and me. After six months. […] I had Clissold Park. I had London Fields. I had a little park which was in Shoreditch. It was around a church, a little garden. I had to go out in the morning and open it.”

Quoted by Iain Sinclair

Hackney Council also paid for Astrid to train as a car mechanic:

[…] in 1976 [she] enrolled on a government training course in car mechanics at Poplar Skill Centre. She left the course with a City and Guilds Certificate and, [had] taken an evening class in welding […] She had obtained all the necessary qualifications; national insurance card, union card and driving licence in the name of Senta Puttick.”

Court documents

She was apparently the only woman on the training course. Car mechanic was an unusual profession for a woman in the 1970s and especially one trying not to attract attention. Not to mention being photographed for an exhibition:

Alleged photo of Astrid Proll by The Hackney Flashers

I’ve used this image before in a piece about radical photography collective The Hackney Flashers and hadn’t noticed the connection. The exhibition was in 1975 and is interesting as it connects Astrid Proll with the radical feminist groups of the time.

“I did not live underground in England,” she insists. “I lived with other youths who also read Marx and idealised the working classes. I worked on the shop floor and as a car mechanic. This attitude was very admired in the Seventies.” 

Quoted by Tina Jackson

Her new skills got her nicknamed “Anna the Spanner”. She put them to good use, running a car maintenance class for women and in 1977 got a job at the iconic Lesney factory next to Hackney marshes. Lesney’s made “Matchbox” toy cars and was a big employer in the borough. She started as a fitter’s mate and was eventually promoted to be a supervisor. She was a member of the Amalgamated Electrical union. (Speculation – the Big Flame group were quite big on this sort of shop floor activity?)

“At work, Anna had to cope with the suspicion, ribaldry and loneliness that comes with being the only woman in a traditionally male job. At Lesney’s some of the men wouldn’t work with her because she was a woman, and one of the supervisors was always really down on her. Anna is an inspiration to me, and to other women, in her determination to fight this sex discrimination and not let herself be discouraged.”

Anonymous friend, quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll

In late 1977 she got a job training young offenders as mechanics at Camden Enterprises on Finchley Road, West Hampstead. Accordng to journalist Tina Jackson she subverted the training programme by “showing some of her students how to use the skills she’d taught them to steal cars”.

It would be her last job in London for some time…

Arrest

On 15 September 1978 a couple of uniformed policemen visited the Camden Enterprises workshop. Astrid’s manager Vincent Wilcox assumed they wanted to speak to him about a motoring offence. He soon realised he was off the hook:

“The next moment about ten plain clothes officers from Scotland Yard came in and took her up to the recreation room, pushed her up against the lockers and searched her.”

Quoted in BBC: On This Day

Proll did not resist arrest. It is heartening that she doesn’t seem to have been grassed up by anyone in the London counterculture:

“I was most likely recognised by a policeman when I accompanied a young man who was always stealing cars and getting into trouble to the police station. As the officials from Scotland Yard took me away from the garage, the young men looked at me, stunned. I just said ‘I won’t see you again’.”

Astrid Proll, Farewell To London

She quickly released a statement through her solicitor: “I have lived in England for the past four years – I have no contact with the Red Army Faction and I have tried to settle down as best I could in the circumstances.”

The RAF women had long been salivated over by the media and so Astrid’s arrest was predictably sensationalised. Her contacts were interrogated by reporters and every aspect of her lifestyle picked over:

Tabloid press cutting reproduced in Tom Vague’s Televisionaries: the Red Army Faction story

Proll would later tell journalist Kate Connolly “The British tabloids were one of the most terrifying things I have experienced.”

Campaign

"Free Astrid Proll" graffitiin West London from Christopher Petit's film "Radio On"
“Free Astrid Proll” graffiti in West London from Christopher Petit’s film “Radio On”

Whilst Proll was being held and questioned at Paddington Green police station, her support network sprang into action:

Graffiti backing her rapidly appeared. Lee Nurse and a friend cycled late one night down to Old Street where they painted ‘No extradition for Astrid Proll’ across the top of the large ventilation shaft in the centre of the roundabout. It remained in place for many years and only disappeared when the new ‘silicon roundabout’ appeared as part of the transformation of the area into a ‘technology hub’

Christine Wall

One of the most remarkable things about the story of the RAF is the widespread support they seemed to have had in West Germany at the time – with some estimates suggesting 10,000 sympathisers. Similarly in London, the “Friends of Astrid Proll” solidarity campaign appears to have been sizeable and multifaceted.

Poster for November 1978 benefit gig

“The Passions and the Nips, Shane MacGowan’s pre-Pogues group, appeared at a Rough Theatre benefit for the defence fund of Astrid Proll of the Baader-Meinhof gang”

Tom Vague

“We actually helped to organise the Astrid Proll thing because she was a friend, we knew her as Anna and she worked as a mechanic teaching young people at a youth project in North London. I remember her being very interested in my old Vauxhall and then later reading about her Baader Meinhof exploits, it seems she was their getaway driver! I also remember Crass phoning up and desperately wanting to play at the gig (being anarchists I suppose they would), but there wasn’t space on the bill for them. They were very disappointed. It was a good gig, well attended if I remember correctly.”

Richard Williams, drummer for The Passions

The gig was followed by a discussion at the Scala Cinema and a film benefit at the Womens Art Alliance, showing “Shirin’s Wedding” – which is about the unfortunate life of a young female Turkish migrant to West Germany:

Discussion advertised in anarchist newspaper, Freedom 14 October 1978
Benefit notice from feninist magazine Spare Rib #77

Singer Nik Turner (most famous for his time in Hawkwind) was inspired by Proll’s plight (and apparently her time squatting in Brougham Road?). The first single by his new band Inner City Unit was originally called “Solitary Astrid”. However “to avoid controversy” the song was given the title “Solitary Ashtray”. Which does beg the question why the b-side was called “SO T RY AS I D” (“so try acid”)?

Before performing the song in Bristol in 2016, Nik told an amusing tale of donating to the Friends of Astrid Proll support fund – and because of all this being raided himself by Special Branch for drugs and terrorist materials.

This cultural solidarity provided the funding and wider context for the political work being done. Astrid was transferred to Brixton prison shortly after her arrest. Friends of Astrid Proll organised pickets of the prison and protests at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court where her case was being heard:

The Times 10 April 1978
Demo notice in Freedom, December 1978.

Brixton was – and remains – a male prison. There were two other female prisonsers at the time: Iris Mills (an anarchist arrested as part of the “Persons Unknown” case – who would be acquitted) and young Palestinian activist Khloud al Mugrabi (who may have been Iraqi or Lebanese? And spoke no English). All three were “Category A” prisoners – requiring maximum security.

Proll was allowed visitors though – and was able to write letters to supporters that were used in their literature.

Naturally one of the objectives of the campaign was that Astrid be transferred to the female Holloway Prison in North London. Alongside this the main demand was that she should not be extradited on the grounds that she would not get a fair trial in West Germany and that the new anti-terror laws there were draconian.

She was understandably terrified of returning to Germany as she was still suffering from the trauma resulting from her imprisonment in the “dead wing”:

“Not even today, six years later, have I completely recovered […]. I can’t stand rooms which are painted white because they remind me of my cell. Silence in a wood can terrify me, it reminds me of the silence in the isolated cell. Darkness makes me so depressive as if my life were taken away. Solitude causes me as much fear as crowds. Even today I have the feeling occasionally as if I can’t move.”

“I do not expect to survive if I return to Germany.”

Astrid Proll quoted in Friends of Astrid Proll literature

Three leaflets from Friends of Astrid Proll are available as PDFs here.

Extradition and Trial

Various attempts were made to thwart the extradition process including Astrid applying to be a British citizen by dint of her marriage and several years of residence. This was a longshot – complicated by her using false papers to get married and the lack of affection for her by the British state and media. The case is still cited today in legal textbooks.

The legal battles were eventually exhausted and Astrid returned voluntarily to Germany in June 1979. Her trial there commenced in September and went a great deal better than anyone was expecting.

The most serious charge was of the attempted murder of police officers during an attempted arrest back in February 1971. This was dropped when it emerged that the state had evidence all along that she hadn’t opened fire.

Astrid Proll leaving her trial in Germany 1980.

In February 1980 Astrid Proll was sentenced to five-and-a-half years for bank robbery and falsifying documents. But as she had already spent more than two thirds of her sentence in British and West German jails she was released immediately. She was 32 years old.

Freedom and aftermath

The British Home Secretary banned her for life from entering Britain. After a lengthy legal battle she was allowed to return in 1988.

She studied film and photography in Hamburg and subsequently worked as a picture editor for the German magazine Tempo and The Independent newspaper in London.

Her 1998 book Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the run 67-77 apparently documents the pre-London years (and is now prohibitively expensive).

In 2010 she contributed to the exhibition “Goodbye To London: Radical Art & Politics in the 70s” and edited the accompanying book which includes some excellent material about squatting, LGBT culture, Hackney Flashers, Grunwick etc – as well as an essential foreword by Proll that is quoted above.

Sources / Plagiarism / Further Reading

Anon – The Passions: Frestonia, Fiction and Friction (The Passions website)

Jean Barrot – Letter on the use of violence (1973)

BBC “On This Day: 15 September” – 1978: German terror suspect arrested in UK

Kate Connolly – Astrid Proll’s journey to Terror Chic (The Guardian 6 October 2002)

Friends of Astrid Proll – The Court Situation (1978)

Friends of Astrid Proll – Freedom For Astrid Proll (1978)

Friends of Astrid Proll – The Case Against Her Extradition (1978)

A. Grossman – “State-Fetishism”: some remarks concerning the Red Army Faction (1979/1980)

Tina Jackson – The Terrorist’s Family Album (The Indepedent 8 October 1998)

Andre Moncourt & J. Smith – The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History volume 1 Projectiles For The People (Kersplebedeb & PM Press 2009)

Philip Oltermann – Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters (Faber & Faber 2012)

Astrid Proll (ed) – Goodbye To London: Radical Art & Politics in the 70s (Hatje Cantz 2010)

Astrid Proll – The Matured Spirit of ’68 (The Guardian 19 March 2011)

Iain Sinclair – Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report (Hamish Hamilton 2009)

Nik Turner / Inner City Unit performance, The Louisiana, Bristol 25 August 2016 Youtube

Tom Vague – Euroterrorism: Well It’s Better Than Bottling It Up (Vague #201988)

Tom Vague – Televisionaries: The Red Army Faction Story 1963-1993 (AK Press 1994)

Tom Vague – Westway Psychogeography Report 3 (Colville Community History Project #13, October 2015)

Christine Wall – Sisterhood and Squatting in the 1970s: Feminism, Housing and Urban Change in Hackney (History Workshop Journal #83 Spring 2017)

Various – Brougham Road, Hackney, London E8 (Kill Your Pet Puppy 15 May 2008)

Legal documents

Puttick v. Attorney-General and Another 1979 April 30; May 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 http://uniset.ca/other/cs4/puttick1.html

Regina v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Puttick 1980 Oct. 31; Nov. 14 http://uniset.ca/other/cs4/puttick2.html

Puttick Orse Proll v Secretary of State for the Home Department Immigration Appeal Tribunal 9 August 1984 https://www.refworld.org/cases,GBR_AIT,3ae6b6571c.html

Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group pamphlet reprint

Photo courtesy of See Red Press

Five years ago we reproduced the whole of “If You Want Peace, Prepare For War” by the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group and wrote:

“…the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Committee which, not uncommonly, was more interesting than the Angry Brigade itself, a widely-based, politically creative organisation of very different people.” – John Barker

Below is a complete reprint of a Stoke Newington Eight Defence Group booklet. It’s a good example of a document which you see mentioned everywhere but can’t actually read without access to private libraries or the money to pay for antiquarian books. Until now.

There is a lot here to disagree with, but it does perhaps show the sort of debates that were taking place at the time.

The text has now been reprinted with a new introduction and endnotes by the enigmatic See Red Press who kindly sent me a copy. It is a beautiful edition, but the introduction does intensify my unease about the contents:

Regardless of the illegitimacy of the prosecution evidence, it’s likely that at least some of the defendants were actively involved in carrying out the activities of the Angry Brigade. John Barker later said, “In my case the police framed a guilty man.” Bombs and explosions have been associated with anti-authoritarian struggle across the world for centuries, but in more recent years in the UK the idea of ‘terror’ – and its identified perpetrators – have been increasingly individualised and racialised, enshrined in state programmes such as Prevent. It has equally been restricted. Those who undertake direct action against the state increasingly seek to distance themselves from the label of terrorism, often enforcing its use against those with less leverage in society. If authoritarian terrorism is ideology maintained by force, what does, and could, anti-authoritarian terrorism look like? And is there a place for it now, in 2020 in the UK?

The short answer to this latter question is no. A longer answer is: whilst this is an interesting question, it is the wrong one. This is an anti-authoritarian blog and I shall place my cards on the table and say that I would like those in power to be considerably more scared of the rest of us than they currently seem to be. There is a class war raging and we are losing it.

The “terror” card is one weapon in the state’s armoury that is used to divide us. A whole swathe of completely reasonable groups have been accused of terrorism or “domestic extremism” in recent years, including anti-fracking protestors, trade unionists, anti-fascists and volunteers fighting ISIS in Syria.

“Direct action against the state” can take many forms and the Angry Brigade’s tactics are a useful historical example of something that creates a lot of noise but achieves little in isolation.

Reviewing issues of Hackney Gutter Press from the early 1970s shows us that 137 people were identified by the state as Angry Brigade suspects and many of them were subjected to dawn raids, arrests and lower level persecution. At the same time large numbers of radicals were diverted from their day to day community and workplace campaigning to defend arrestees as part of organisations such as the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group. This collateral damage needs to be included in any analysis of this period.

There are unfortunately no shortcuts to “peace”.

These reservations aside, the booklet is recommended as a useful slice of Hackney’s radical history. It can be got cheap here from AK Press.

Whilst you’re there you may also want to pick up copies of Angry Brigade: Documents and chronology (which includes all of the AB’s poetic communiques sent to the press) and Gordon Carr’s The Angry Brigade: A History of Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group which is so far the definitive account.

Our previous posts on the Angry Brigade and Stoke Newington 8 can be seen by clicking on the tag below.