Forthcoming radical history events in Hackney

“A unique reading of the commissioned text, Wollstonecraft Live! which depicts the shooting of a biopic of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life, with actors, an original music score, and you, the audience. Taking place in the atmospheric 18th century Unitarian Chapel in Newington Green, attended by Wollstonecraft in the 1780s. Come and hear the pulse of her words woven through the tapestry of a story of and about her life, linking past and present.

Directed by Anna Birch

Script by Kaethe Fine

Sound design by Alastair Gavin”

Tickets £7.50 from here.

Roots, Rhythms & Records: The sounds and stories of African and Caribbean music in Hackney

Hackney Museum: 4 October 2018 – 16 March 2019

“From making beats in bedrooms to performing on stage, enjoying sounds in shebeens to looking sharp for the club, this exhibition explores the history of African and Caribbean music in Hackney.

Through stories of musical innovation, distribution and enjoyment, this exhibition celebrates the impact of African and Caribbean music in Hackney and beyond.

Join us for the exhibition launch on Thursday 4th October, from 6pm. Free, please RSVP here:

FREE

Hackney Museum
Ground Floor
Technology and Learning Centre
1 Reading Lane
E8 1GQ

https://www.hackney.gov.uk/museum-visiting

Do you remember Hackney spycop Tim Spence?

The Undercover Policing Inquiry is continuing to issue cover names of police spies who were engaged in surveillance and infiltration of protest groups.

A further five names were released this week, including HN 88 “Tim Spence”:

Cover name released: “Timothy Spence”. Groups: Stoke Newington and Hackney Defence Campaign, Hackney Campaign Against the Police Bill; 1983 – 1987.

There are several courses of action that will hopefully arise from this, which readers of this blog may be able to help with.

Firstly, if you knew “Tim Spence” or were active in either of the groups mentioned above, please get in touch with the Undercover Research Group. The UCG is run by activists and is completely independent of the Inquiry. Their aim is to create profiles of spycops to enhance activist investigations into this area. They are good people.

Secondly if you have memories, publications or insights into the groups named and the campaigning they did, please get in touch with me and I will add them to this site.

Here’s what we know so far:

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Hackney Campaign Against the Police Bill

The Police Bill was a typically draconian bit of Tory legislation giving the cops more powers to they could better attack people who were the victims of the government’s own policies. Its proposals included:

  • hold people for 96 hours without charge
  • set up random road blocks around an area
  • conduct forcible intimate body searches of detainees
  • use force in taking fingerprints (even of minors)
  • seize confidential information held by doctors, lawyers, journalists

It became the Police Act in 1985, but there was a great deal of resistance to it from 1983 onwards.

The national campaign against the Police Bill was based at 50 Rectory Road, Stoke Newington N16.

Interestingly, the campaign seems to have received funding from Ken Livingstone’s GLC to the tune of £38,000 which lead to questions being asked in parliament.

Some of this money presumably was spent on admin and printing leaflets (some of which can be downloaded as pdfs here).

There was also a conference at Hackney Town Hall in May 1983:

Kill the Police Bill. 1983

Much of the above is based on this blog post by Hackney comrade John Eden, who also mentions the campaign’s own reggae single by Ranking Ann:

 

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Stoke Newington and Hackney Defence Campaign

Some of the comments of the release of the cover name have confused this campaign group with the Hackney Community Defence Association, which was not formed until July 1988, one year after “Tim Spence” stopped being deployed.

However this leaflet and the commentary makes it clear that the Stoke Newington and Hackney Defence Campaign was involved with defending people who had been arrested during protests about the death of Colin Roach by a gunshot in Stoke Newington Police Station in 1983.

Why this is important

These were legitimate protest groups that campaigned to assist victims of police brutality and also against the potential for police powers to be extended via a change in the law.

That the police would insert a spy into these groups is perhaps not surprising given what we now know. But it is (to put it politely) not a great sign for a supposedly healthy democracy.

 

“Breaking Ground” film about London Irish Women’s Centre – now online

London Irish Women’s Centre was at 59 Stoke Newington Church St from the early eighties until 2012.

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I’ve covered this film previously on the blog and very much enjoyed it when it was screened at The Rio.

The film can now be viewed for free online until the end of May: http://www.breakinggroundfilm.com/

There is a trailer here to whet your appetite:

You can also buy a DVD of the film from the link above.

 

Enoch Powell in Dalston

Enoch Powell’s infamous racist “rivers of blood” speech was delivered in Birmingham in 1968.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, he was President of Hackney South and Shoreditch Conservative Association in 1973. It seems like the presidential position was elected, so he was clearly popular with Hackney’s Torys at the time (if not with the party leadership).

The borough’s Torys invited Powell to deliver a speech in 1976 – even though he had left the Conservatives to join the Ulster Unionists two years previously:

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Powell would later inspire the “Enoch Powell is Right” Party – a split from the National Front which stood in Hackney Council elections in 1981.

Hackney Fascists: “Enoch Powell Is Right” Party – 1981

The National Front and its several disputatious progeny fought a minimal election campaign in the May 1981 County Council and Greater London Council elections […]

A further [NF] splinter group labeling itself “Enoch Powell Is Right” fought the three seats of the Borough of Hackney and also Stepney and Poplar. At least two of these four candidates had fought seats for the NF in the 1977 GLC and 1978 borough elections […]

The four “Enoch Powell Is Right” candidates averaged 2.6% [of the vote].

from: Racial Exclusionism and the City: The Urban Support of the National Front
by Christopher T. Husbands (Routledge, 1983)

You can see from the results below that the Enoch Powell Is Right (EPR) candidates actually stood against the National Front (NF) ones, splitting the fascist vote cleanly in two:

EPR

Robin May went on to form the British National Party with John Tyndal in 1982.

Enoch Powell himself was intimate with Hackney Conservatives in the 1970s.

See also: The National Front’s Hackney HQ

Anti-fascist Hackney: The 43 Group – in their own words

As I said in the recent post about the Jewish Workers’ Circle, pretty much everything you need to know about The 43 Group is covered in Morris Beckman’s superb book.

If you haven’t got a copy yet, the 43 Group was set up in 1946 by Jewish ex-servicemen and women who had returned to the UK after the war and been sickened to see fascist groups organising again on the streets of London. Ridley Road in Dalston was a favourite venue for open air fascist meetings.

The 43 Group mounted a courageous and robust physical response to the fascists (and also did intelligence work, publishing, lobbying etc.) and claimed many victories in the process.

Below is a collection of audio and video documentaries in which former members of the group tell their story far better than I would be able to.

A Rage In Dalston – a BBC Radio 4 documentary from 2008 that I just uploaded to the underused Radical History of Hackney Youtube channel. Alan Dein met ex-43’ers when he worked at the Jewish Museum London and compiled this compelling hour of interviews, commentary and a bit of dramatisation.

The programme features a stellar cast of former 43 Group members, including: Morris Beckman, Martin Bloch, Stanley Marks, Alec Carson, Vidal Sassoon (yes that one), Mildred Garland, Joe Endom. Phil Goldberg, Len Sherman and Harry Kaufman. Also former Dalston policeman Charles Hasler, Trevor Grundy (author of “Memoir of a Fascist Childhood”) and Professor Colin Holmes. Inspiring stuff:

The Unfinished War – a short (20 mins) black and white film from 2000 (Available in better quality on Vimeo ):

Jewish Ex-servicemen of Group 43 – 5 minute interview by the Guardian with former 43-ers Jules Konopinski and Harry Kaufman:

Battling British Fascists – an 18 minute soundclip of BBC World Service History Hour from 2017. Featuring Jules Konopinksy and Professor Nigel Copsey:

Whilst we’re on Youtube, let’s round things off with some banging acid techno from 1993 by Brandon Spivey and Richie Anderson:

The Workers’ Circle – fighting anti-semitism in Hackney

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Flyer for 1949 Workers’ Circle meeting in Stoke Newington, courtesy of Hackney Archives.

I’ve been a bit negligent in documenting Jewish radicalism in Hackney so far. The reason for this that there is so much of it that it’s a slightly intimidating prospect.

One of the first books I ever read about the radical history of Hackney was Morris Beckman’s superb The 43 Group: The Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism (Centerprise, 1993). Doing a blog post about the 43 Group seems pretty redundant when Beckman’s book is such an amazing combination of social history, good humour – and Blackshirt Fascists getting righteously duffed up. It’s recently been republished, so you really should be reading that instead of this.

On a similar note, even listing radical Jewish people who have been active in Hackney is fraught with problems as I’m sure I’d leave someone out. And the nature of radical politics is that many of the people I have in mind have wildly divergent politics anyway – “Jewish radicalism” isn’t just one thing.

Let’s just start by saying that there is a continuous line of radical Jews in East London from at least the formation of the Hebrew Socialist Union in 1876 right up to Jewdas today. I say “East London” because Jews were generally concentrated around the industrial heartland of Tower Hamlets in the 1870s. Moving out to the leafy suburbs of Hackney became fashionable (and economically viable) between the wars.

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Nevertheless, radicals like Rudolf Rocker lived in Shoreditch in 1896 whilst editing the Jewish Anarchist paper Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend). And we know that fellow Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman attended fundraisers for the paper in the East End too. (She properly disses Eastenders for all being drunkards in her autobiography Living My Life though).

The paper eventually gained a circulation of 5,000 copies. There is more on Arbeter Fraint at the excellent London Rebel History Calendar site by our comrades Past Tense.

Arbeter Fraint activists Arthur Hillman and Nathan Wiener were also involved with setting up the Workers’ Circle Friendly Society.

This superb article by David Rosenberg describes the energetic atmosphere of early Jewish radicalism in London. It includes the following about the establishment of the Workers’ Circle in 1909:

[Morris Mindel] chaired a group including anarchists and socialists that established the Circle. While unions fought for better conditions in individual workplaces, the Circle organised joint activities across occupations to strengthen secular Jewish working class life and culture in the East End.

Other friendly societies at the time were often boosted by an initial injection of philanthropic money, but the Circle stuck firmly to its principles of doing everything from its own resources and from the bottom up. It collected weekly subscriptions from members to fund its initiatives. Its most basic economic role was providing benefits for members facing great hardship. Those who were long-term unemployed through illness could draw benefits. Those suffering bereavements could arrange secular Jewish burials through the society.

It established a building fund and in 1924 purchased a large building in Whitechapel known as Circle House which had two halls, a library and several meeting rooms.  On Thursday nights, two sympathetic law graduates provided a free legal advice surgery. The Circle’s “propaganda committee” set up a series of Friday night lectures. On Sunday nights it offered concerts and Yiddish theatre performances.

In the late 1920s young Polish Jewish immigrants colonised a top floor room to establish the Progressive Youth Circle, which used Yiddish as the medium for discussion on women’s rights, free love, communism and Zionism. They invited trade unionists and political activists to speak to them, studied left wing writers, and developed Proltet an agitprop Yiddish workers’ theatre group.

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Circle House at Alie Street, Whitechapel . From Joe Jacobs’ Out of the Ghetto

Jack Shapiro recalls that the Workers’ Circle was “full of a vast variety of militants fresh out of the revolutionary parties in their own countries [whose] militancy and keenness to keep the struggle alive was an important inspiration to young people such as myself.” 

Joe Jacobs gives a flavour of the day to day activities of the Circle in his autobiography Out of the Ghetto: My Youth in the East End – Communism and Fascism 1913-1939 (another book everyone should read):

There was the Workers’ Circle, “Circle House”, in Alie Street, a hive of working class activity. This was a Jewish organisation organised on the basis of a friendly society with all sorts of mutual aid activities. Many of the leading lights had tried to bring a little of the ‘old country’ into their lives. They were former ‘Bundists’ from Poland, Anarchists and Libertarians from all parts, Socialists and Freethinkers. Every shade of Russian and European Labour thought and action were represented here. In addition there were Zionists and other purely Jewish organisations. There was a very good bar – no alcohol, but good food, continental style, Jewish of course. Chess and draughts as well as the inevitable dominoes were played for hours on end.

The National Archives notes that the Workers Circle began partly because its founders “did not find existing Jewish friendly societies suitable, because of their religious and class bias.” Morris Mindel’s son Mick later mentioned that the Circle’s rules and regulations “caused quite a stir among bourgeois friendly societies, especially the declaration that we welcomed women to free membership”.

Indeed, in this short lecture, a Mr Pearce recalls that many of the working class audience at Workers Circle concerts didn’t quite know how to behave properly:

The second half of Pearce’s lecture covers the discussions around how Jewish groups should respond to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. He mentions a delegation from the Workers’ Circle visiting the Board of Deputies to discuss setting up Jewish self-defence organisations. And being rebuffed. Undeterred, the delegates worked with other radical groups to set up the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism. All seven members of the first executive committee of the Council were Workers’ Circle members.

The Council organised opposition to a British Union of Fascists march through the East End on October 4th 1936 which became the infamous Battle of Cable Street. Joe Jacobs notes that people who required legal assistance after Cable Street were instructed to go to Room 5 of Circle House.

Pearce also states in his lecture that Workers’ Circle members volunteered to fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War, some being killed as part of the conflict. In her dissertation on East End Jews in Politics, Elaine Rosa Smith mentions that the Workers’ Circle was involved with fundraising for anti-fascists in Spain and subsequently aid for Jewish child victims of Nazism in Poland.

Circle House in Alie Street was bombed during the 2nd World War.

David Renton’s Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s gives some clues about the continuing work of the Circle after the war in 1947:

In London, the Workers’ Circle concentrated on putting pressure on the London City Council not to let halls to fascists, and the Circle also called a large anti-fascist public meeting in Shoreditch Town Hall. Although the Circle was active it was not complacent. Members of the Workers’ Circle criticised the Circle itself and other Jewish organisations for not doing enough. As M.D. Rayner commented, “At the fascist meetings at Hackney, Bethnal Green etc., individual Jews were present, and they were vocal and otherwise active, but the communal organisations and leadership had fallen down.”

The National Archives notes a general decline in Circle mutual aid activity after the war:

In its heyday there were about 3,000 members paying 2s. 6d per week for which they got 30 shillings a week when sick, £5 towards cost of seeing specialist and grant to buy false teeth and glasses. [1] […]

The Second World War saw another decline in membership, destruction of the Alie Street hall and considerable damage to the rest of the premises. The formation of the NHS also reduced the incentive for membership.

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After the war Circle House was sold and the organisation moved to 13 Sylvester Path, Hackney, in 1956. Membership continued to decline, with branch mergers, though post-war activity included an exhibition on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and support for the the state of Israel.

It’s clear from the “how to fight anti-semitism” flyer at the top of this post and the Renton quote above that the Circle had been active in Hackney and Stoke Newington prior to its HQ moving here, so I think we need to up our game in documenting its activities in the Borough. (If you have anything to add to this piece, leave a comment!).

The Sylvester Path premises were shared by the London Jewish Bakers’ Union. There’s a short clip about them and their banner on Youtube courtesy of the Jewish Museum:

Two members of the Workers’ Circle went on to be Mayors of Hackney:

Sam Cohen (former Workers’ Circle Chairman) became Mayor of Stoke Newington in 1959 and Mayor of Hackney in 1978.

He seems to have fared better than Solomon Lever who was Mayor of Hackney from 1951 to 1952. Solomon was the acting general secretary of the Workers’ Circle in 1959 when he was tragically and brutally killed as part of a robbery of its premises at 13 Sylvester Path.

The Workers’ Circle closed down shortly after its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1985.