Government demands Museum of the Home keeps racist statue against wishes of the community

After several weeks of confusion and outrage, the reasons for the Museum of the Home retaining its memorial to slave trader Robert Geffrye against the wishes of the community are becoming clearer.

When the decision to keep the statue was announced, I asked the Museum a bunch of questions including:

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?

This week a brace of emails extracted via a Freedom of Information request provided the answer. Huffington Post provided a good summary: Museum Felt ‘Extremely Compromised’ By Minister’s Plea To Keep Slave Trader Statue.

It has emerged that shortly after the community clean-up of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, Oliver Dowden (Her Majesties HM Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) wrote to the Museum of the Home to say:

“You play a crucial role in conserving our heritage assets, caring for our national
collections, providing access to knowledge and leading efforts to offer cultural education to all.

“I am aware that the issues of contested heritage provoke strongly held views, and that right now these issues will be in the forefront of your minds. I therefore wanted to share with you the government’s position on these issues.

“The government believes that it is always legitimate to examine and debate Britain’s history, but that removing statues, artwork and other historical objects is not the right approach.

“Confronting our past may be difficult at times but, as the prime minister has
stated, we cannot pretend to have a different history. Historical objects were created by previous generations, who often had different perspectives and different understandings of right and wrong.”

As a government-funded organisation, I would expect you to be mindful of the above approach, which has been agreed with Historic England. If you plan to make any statements or actions in relation to this issue, please contact DCMS in advance of doing so.”

The reference to funding can only be seen as a not-so-veiled threat in the current climate.

Tory Minister Oliver Dowden thinks Hackney is a great place for a racist memorial

Dowden’s minsterial duties include appointing three of the Board members at the Museum of the Home and its Chair.

As Minister for culture, Dowden is the de facto minister for the burgeoning culture war in the UK. It is unsurprising that he has recently intervened in favour of Little Britain characters “blacking up” and “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope & Glory” being sung at the Last Night of the Proms.

He is MP for well-to-do Hertsmere in Hertfordshire. According to They Work For You, he has “Generally voted against laws to promote equality and human rights”. Dowden’s interference in Hackney is unwelcome.

A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport backed their minister:

“Whilst it is always legitimate to examine Britain’s history, removing statues, artwork and other historical objects is not the right approach. Instead, we should aim to use heritage to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.”

“Publicly funded museums must not remove statues that form part of a listed building or other heritage objects in their care for political or campaigning purposes. They must be seen to be acting impartially, in line with their publicly funded status.”

“Impartiality” is great cloak here for keeping everything the same forever – which is I guess the definition of “conservative”. But there are no plans to reintroduce statues of Jimmy Savile, oddly.

But yes, we will continue to educate people about Britain’s history. And perhaps create some history ourselves in doing so, as the people of Bristol have shown.

Hackney Citizen approached Ligali’s Toyin Agbetu for his charateristically spot on comment:

“As I read the communications between the Geffrye and government, it revealed that the culture minister Oliver Dowden was more concerned with preserving a monument that literally celebrates the history of Britain’s slaving past than developing assets that accurately reflect the reality of British society and culture as it exists today.

“It’s a backward-looking form of bourgeois cultural purism normally practiced by racists who feel threatened by the call for progressive change made by movements like Black Lives Matter.

“I interpret the statement, which explicitly highlights the fact that the Geffrye as a government-funded organisation is expected to be mindful of choosing to remove the statue, as a threat. The instruction telling the Geffrye staff to contact the government first if they go against its dictates was chilling.”

Ligali has also made a formal complaint to the Charity Commission about the Museum’s decision (and it was the museum’s decison – let’s not forget that)

Others including Diane Abbot have been similarly outspoken:

Still no comment from Meg Hillier, the MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch where the Museum is based though?

The museum is yet to announce a reopening date (September had been mooted). There is talk of “further reflection” by the Board. But talk and reflection are not enough.

The reopening of The Museum of the Home will be an excellent opportunity to “educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.” And if the museum will not do that, then the community will.

Outrage at museum’s “racist statue must stay” decision

The Museum of the Home has gone very quiet since announcing last week that it would defy public feeling and keep its memorial to slave-trader Robert Geffrye. Its usually very responsive Twitter account has not posted anything since 31st July. They haven’t answered my questions.

Alongside narky radical historians and the usual lefties, the museum’s decision has been condemned by the Mayor of Hackney, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington Diane Abbott as well as several local councillors. (I have not yet seen any comment from Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch?)

I was also very pleased to see this statement from artist Maria Fusco who was commissioned by the museum to produce an artwork for its reopening.:

Other coverage this week has included:

Vice Magazine – A London Musuem Is Ignoring Calls To Remove Statue of Slave Trader Robert Geffrye (Bex Wade)

Hackney Citizen – “Geffrye Must Fall”: Stand Up To Racism protest calls on museum to remove statue (Ed Sheridan)

Hackney Gazette – Hoxton’s Museum of the Home announces slave trader Geffrye’s statue will stay put (Emma Bartholomew)

Museums Association – Museum of the Home Decides to Leave Geffrye Statue In Place (Geraldine Kendall Adams)

Huffington Post – ‘Black Lives Clearly Don’t Matter’ As Museum Ignores Public Vote And Keeps Slave Trader Statue (Chris York)

Ligali – Museum Keeps Toxic Slavery Statue and Removes Support for Black Lives Matter

(In fact the Museum has bizarrely decided to move its statement on BLM here – as several people have pointed out, you cannot support BLM and also agree with the decison to retain the statue).

Ligali have also produced this graphic comparing the Museum to the now closed LD50 gallery in Dalston which was happy to host meetings of the racist alt-right:

Image from Ligali website

Pressure on the Museum is building. Elsewhere in London there is ongoing work to document racist memorials in Islington and the City of London – and evidence of City dignitaries celebrating the legacy of Hackney slave-trader Sir John Cass.

But let’s finish with a song. Paul Lime has suggested the following ditty which can be sung to the tune of “Solidarity Forever” by Ralph Chaplin. Let’s make some noise and bring down Geffrye.

Posted on twitter by @lime_paul

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

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…

Mary Wollstonecraft in Hackney

Sunday’s radical history walk around Newington Green was an excellent afternoon out – and very well attended, with over 50 people.

Past Tense have a map of radical Newington Green available (scroll about three quarters down the page). They are also now on Facebook, so “like” their page if you are interested in future walks.

project_2478_main

The walk reminded me that I have failed to write anything about 18th Century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft on this site.

Wollstonecraft is best known for her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which is often claimed to be the first major feminist work in the English language. She has a couple of significant connections to Hackney:

Mary’s family briefly moved to Hoxton in 1774, when she would have been about 15 years old.

In 1784 she opened a boarding school for girls in Newington Green along with her sister Eliza and friend Fanny Blood. She also attended the Green’s radical Unitarian Church (which is still there) and befriended its minister Dr Richard Price. The freethinking community of Newington Green at that time meant that Mary was also able to debate with people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestley.

Newington Green was also where Mary started her career as a writer.

The Mary on the Green Campaign is fundraising for a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft to be built and placed in Newington Green.

It was argued persuasively on the walk that Wollstonecraft was written out of feminist history in the 19th Century because of her supposed immoral behaviour, including having children out of wedlock, having affairs etc. London is generally lacking in statues of women, too.

In the meantime there is a less traditional memorial to her on the outside wall of the Unitarian chapel by local artist Stewy:

marygraff

A Radical History of Hackney Parks

IMG_1288

“The Park is called the People’s Park
And all the walks are theirs
And strolling through the flowery paths
They breathe exotic airs,
South Kensington, let it remain
Among the Upper Ten.
East London, with useful things,
Be left with working men.

The rich should ponder on the fact
Tis labour has built it up
A mountain of prodigious wealth
And filled the golden cup.
And surely workers who have toiled
Are worthy to behold
Some portion of the treasures won
And ribs of shining gold.”

An ode to Victoria Park, 1872
(from Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park)

The text below was originally published as a pamphlet, bashed out for the Radical History Network meeting on “Community Empowerment and Open Green Spaces”, July 10th 2013. (I have a couple of the pamphlets left – drop me an email if you want one.)

It’s full of holes, a work in progress. Get in touch with additions, criticisms, comments.

late20c2

1275 The area that is now London Fields was recorded as common pastureland adjoining Cambridge Heath. In 1540 the name London Field is found recorded as a separate item consisting of around 100 acres in changing ownership of land. London Field was one of the many “commonable lands” of Hackney where the commoners of the parish could graze their livestock on the fields from Lammas Day (Anglo Saxon for bread mass), August 1st, celebrating the first loaf after the crops had been harvested, to Lady Day, March 25th. This arrangement was known as Lammas Rights and was protected by law. (from here)

1700s In the Marshes towards Hackney Wick were low public houses, the haunt of highwaymen. Dick Turpin was a constant guest at the “White House” or “Tyler’s Ferry” and few police-officers were bold enough to approach the spot.

1750 onwards Clissold House (originally named Paradise House) was built, in the latter half of the 18th century, for Jonathan Hoare, a City merchant, Quaker, philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner. (His brother Samuel was one of the founders of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.). The grounds of the house went on to become Clissold Park.

1793 Big open-air demonstration on Hackney Downs, in support of the revolutionary gains in France. The tutors Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Gilbert Wakefield organised lectures on the French Revolution at the New College, a non-conformist academy (“by-word for revolutionary opinion”) at Lower Clapton.

1840 Abney Park Cemetery opens as the first fully non-denominational burial ground in Europe (where anyone could be buried, but especially non-conformists, dissenters etc). Many anti-slavery campaigners are buried there.

1845 Victoria Park is opened following a petition by 30,000 local people to Queen Victoria. “There was no bathing pool provided and local youths were in the habit of bathing – naked! – in the adjacent Regent’s Canal.  Attempts to police such shocking behaviour were unavailing and within a few years a pool was provided in the park itself.” – Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park

1848 Chartists meet at Bonners Park (near Victoria Park) to march on Parliament.

1860s Hackney Downs open space (originally common land) preserved as parkland as a result of pressure by the Commons Preservation Society.

1866 Widespread pickets and demonstrations for universal male suffrage as advocated by the Reform League during summer. After disorder at Hyde Park the Tory government banned all protest meetings throughout London. The ban was widely ignored; a huge “illegal” rally took place in Victoria Park.

1872 180 acres in Hackney are preserved as public open space and protected from the encroachment of development. Including Clapton Common and Cockhanger Green (now boringly called Stoke Newington Common).

1886notice

In the 1880s the grounds of Clissold House and the adjacent Newington Common were threatened with development, and two prominent campaigners, Joseph Beck of The City of London and John Runtz of The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) persuaded the Board of MBW to buy the land and create a public park. (from Clissold Park User Group, as was the image above)

1885 William Morris speaks at Victoria Park:

The political culture of the day was not simply confined to the clubs and indoor meeting places. The open-air meeting, whether in the park, or on the street corner, remained the principal forum for addressing the uninitiated, convincing the unconvinced, spreading the word. William Morris was one of the mast well known public speakers for socialism of the period, and visited Hackney often. There is a fine portrait of him speaking to a crowd in Victoria Park in 1885 in Tom Mann’s Memoirs:

He was a picture on an open air platform. The day was fine, the branches of the tree under which he was speaking spread far over the speaker. Getting him well in view, the thought came, and has always recurred as I think of that first sight of Morris – “Bluff King Hal”. I did not give careful attention to what he was saying, for I was chiefly concerned to get the picture of him in my mind, and then to watch the faces of the audience to see how they were impressed…. Nine-tenths were giving careful attention, but on the fringe of the crowd were some who had just accidentally arrived, being out for a walk, and having unwittingly come upon the meeting. These stragglers were making such remarks as: ‘Oh, this is the share-and-share-alike crowd’; ‘Poverty, eh, he looks all right, don’t he?’ But the audience were not to be distracted by attempts at ribaldry: and as Morris stepped off the improvised platform, they gave a fine hearty hand-clapping which showed real appreciation.

(From Hackney Propaganda: Working Class Club Life and Politics in Hackney 1870-1900)

1887 Free speech demo in Victoria Park in March.

1889 Clissold Park was opened by the newly formed London County Council (LCC). The two ponds in the park are named the Beckmere and the Runtzmere in honour of the two principal founders.

1926 Victoria Park is the site for some enthusiastic speeches in support of the General Strike. The park is closed briefly to the public during the strike when the army is stationed there – for reasons which seem to be unclear.

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1930s Hackney Red Radio (a branch of the Workers Theatre Movement) perform agit prop and pro-working class skits and plays. The group performs in parks, streets etc, including London Fields, where they are pelted with over-ripe tomatoes by an unappreciative audience on one occasion.

“We are Red Radio,
Workers’ Red Radio,
We Show you how you’re robbed and bled;
The old world’s crashing,
Let’s help to smash it
And build a workers’ world instead.”

1936 British Union of Fascists holds regular rallies in Victoria Park including clashes with anti-fascists. Also a large anti-fascist meeting in July organised by the Trades Councils of North and East London: “A mile long procession headed by a brass band culminated in a large public meeting which declared its unalterable opposition to fascism and to the war which it would inevitably lead.” Fascists attempt to march through East London in October for another Victoria Park rally, but are prevented from doing so by anti-fascists: The Battle of Cable Street. They did not pass.

1939 Trenches are dug in Hackney Downs, Victoria Park and other open spaces at the outset of the 2nd World War.

(There is a bit of gap here! Can you help fill it? What happened between the 1930s and the 1970s?)

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1978 80,000 attend huge Anti-Nazi League concert in Victoria Park (apparently the stage was in Hackney but the audience was in Tower Hamlets!).

1980s Three GLC-organised festivals in Victoria Park. Two are themed around peace / against nuclear weapons – including one on Hiroshima Day, 6 August 1983.

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1981 Funk The Wedding concert takes place in Clissold Park on the day of the marriage of Charles and Di. (from History Is Made At Night, as is the image above)

1983 Clissold Park Free Festival, August?! (mentioned here, any further info welcome)

1990s The demolition of London Fields Lido is resisted by the people of Hackney, including standing in front of the bulldozers. Local people led campaigns to reopen the Lido and cleared away vegetation. The children’s paddling pool which was closed in 1999, was reopened by local people for summer seasons. In 1998 the Lido was squatted for housing, a café and communal events. In August 1998 there was the Carnival of the Dispossessed, a benefit for Reclaim The Streets. The Lido was squatted for a second time 2002-2005. (From Past Tense)

1990 Hackney residents burn Poll Tax bills in Clissold Park.

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1991 Anti-Fascist Action sponsor Unity Carnival on Hackney Downs:

“AFA had surprised everyone by organising the biggest anti-fascist event for over a decade, drawing 10,000 people to the Unity Carnival on Hackney Downs. Supported by a wide range of organisations, from the Hackney Joint Shop Stewards Committee, to the Fire Brigade Union, the Carnival programme again drew attention to rising levels of race attacks and urged people to become pro-active: ‘We have organised today’s event to draw attention to the growing number of racist attacks especially in east London. The fact that some sections of the community virtually live under siege is unacceptable and we hope you are prepared to do more than just come to this symbolic show of unity. Support the activities on the back of this programme to get organised and do something to stop racist attacks.'”

Sean Birchall – Beating The Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action (Freedom, 2010) p250

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1994 Hackney Homeless Festival, Clissold Park – 30,000 people. Clashes with police afterwards. (image by Jamie from tribe.net)

1996 Hackney Anarchy Week, a ten day festival including a punks’ picnic and 3-sided football match in Clissold Park.

2007 After much resistance and protest, the Manor Garden Allotments (near Hackney Wick, but apparently not technically in Hackney!) are demolished to make way for the Olympics. Similar struggles take place on Hackney Marshes (where football pitches are closed to make way for a coach park)

2012 A small “Occupy London” camp sets up briefly in Haggerston Park.

Sources/Acknowledgements

http://www.londonfieldsusergroup.org.uk/

http://www.clissoldpark.com/park-history/

Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park

Barry Burke and Ken Worpole – Hackney Propaganda: Working Class Club Life and Politics in Hackney 1870-1900 (Centerprise, 1980) (William Morris)

Barry Burke – Rebels With A Cause: The History of Hackney Trades Council (Centerprise. 1975)

History Is Made At Night (Funk The Royal Wedding)

Past Tense (London Fields Lido)

Getting Involved

Hackney Council’s list of Park User Groups.

Further Reading: Modern

The Rise of the Friends Groups Movements, by Dave Morris

Finsbury Park: A History of Community Empowerment, by Hugh – Friends of Finsbury Park

The Community-Led Transformation of Lordship Rec, by Friends of Lordship Rec

Further Reading: Older

Down With The Fences: Battles For The Commons In South London, by Past Tense

Subversive of Public Decency: Open Space In North / North East London: radical crowds, immorality, and struggles over enclosure, by Past Tense (not online yet)