Book review: The 9 Lives of Ray “The Cat” Jones by Stewart Home

Stewart Home lived in Hackney in the 1980s and his fiction has often included London’s finest borough as a setting. His earliest novels took a sly dig at the anarchist and arty scenes here, mashing up techniques from the avant garde with pulp fiction from the 1970s.

The 9 Lives of Ray “The Cat” Jones is his fifteenth novel, originally published by Test Centre in 2014. (Around this time the publisher was operating a pop up space at the old Sea Scouts building on Stoke Newington Church Street – now a children’s nursery). I missed the original edition, but fortunately Cripplegate Books have republished the book.

“The Nine Lives of…” is a fictionalised autobiography, based on extensive research and conversations with people who knew boxer and cat burglar Raymond Jones. So… perhaps not something you would expect to read about on a website about the radical history of Hackney? Well, dear reader, I am pleased to say that your expectations are about to be confounded.

Ray “The Cat” Jones shortly before his death at the age of 84 in 2001

Ray grew up in the Welsh valleys and worked as a miner before becoming an infamous boxer and burglar in London. He lived at various locations in Hackney including Brougham Road (later to be an epicentre for squat punks and radicals), Colvestone Crescent and Cranwich Road, Stamford Hill (previously inhabited by anarchist Emanuel Michaels).

The author is not someone who thinks that all criminality is radical by nature and there are a number of amusing sideswipes at anti-social scumbags throughout the book. But by all accounts Ray Jones sustained a successful career as a cat burglar over several decades – and robbed purely from upper class poshos. In Home’s hands our hero becomes an entirely plausible class warrior – hellbent on revenge against a system that persecuted him and the working class as a whole. Ray even makes anonymous donations of wads of filthy lucre to causes like a miners’ benevolent fund back in South Wales.

There are a number of vivid accounts of daring raids on country mansions and even a couple of nail-biting prison escapes. This – along with some wry observations on London’s criminal subculture in the 1950s-1970s – is the heart of the book. It’s a proper page turner.

Jones went straight in 1972 at the age of 52 and set himself up as a market trader on Ridley Road. Throughout the story we are treated to a number of passing thoughts on world and political affairs and I found the juxtaposition of a reflective Ray and the unfolding political turmoil of 1980s London to be a ripping read. He even joins Hackney Anti-Poll Tax Union…

Home’s treatment of the subject matter is done sensitively and affectionately but without the cloying nostalgia that bogs down many a gangster memoir. He doesn’t shy away from some of Jones’ mistakes and regrets. At the other end of the spectrum there are some excellent demolition jobs on the scumbags of the aristocracy and judiciary who find themselves light of some jewelry or other luxury items after a daring visit from “the cat”.

Raymond Jones died in Homerton Hospital in February 2001 at the age of 84. One of his last wishes was for his life story to be published as a book and a film. The 9 Lives of Ray “The Cat” Jones is certainly a fitting tribute to the man.

Hackney HOWLers book launch Thurs March 17th

Slighty short notice but there is an online book launch of “Write Women Into History: Recollections from older Hackney feminists” this Thursday.

My review of the book is here:

Hackney HOWLers – Write Women Into History

Write Women Into History: Recollections by older Hackney Feminists was published last year as part of the HOWL (History of Women’s Liberation) project.

HOWL was established in 2019 to mark 50 years since the earliest UK Women’s Liberation Groups were formed and to:

“reveal and collect the wealth of stories by grassroots women from diverse backgrounds who were part of this important movement”

The fourteen contributors met online during the lockdown to discuss their lives, their writing and to draw each other for the cover artwork.

The resulting booklet is nicely produced with a great variation of styles from diverse contributors and numerous photographs and illustrations. I especially enjoyed Sue O’Sullivan’s recollections of the Sheba feminist publishing collective in 1980s Dalston, BJ & MJ’s dialogue about their mother/daughter relationship and Gilli Salvat on the first UK black lesbian support group – but there is something of interest on every page. (I was also excited to see a chapter by my next door neighbour – hello!)

The concise (and very readable) contributions tend to focus on the positive (and frankly we all need a bit of that). So this isn’t the place for extended accounts of fallings out and schisms. There are some simply stated differences though. For example Stephanie Henthorne’s “political lesbians (what was that all about?)” is perhaps affectionately at variance with Jan S’s “For me, heterosexuality seems incompatible with feminism”.

I think the most striking aspect of the book is the general impression it gives of the oppressions women faced in the late 20th Century in the UK, the courage it took to join a movement that was battling them – and the fun that could be had being part of that. Of course, some progress has been made since – not least because of the hard work done by the contributors and their allies in the feminist movement. But if you’re reading this, I’m sure you’d agree that there is still a long way to go – so it’s gratifying to see that many of the Hackney HOWLers are still active in a number of radical projects today.

Copies of the book can be ordered from Lulu for £5 plus p&p.

Photo by the project designer Luise Vormittag

Women in the Hackney “rag trade” (1980s)

A Hackney Communist Party investigation into the conditions of women working in the local clothing industry.

It includes many quotes from women about their hard work, struggles for decent wages, juggling childcare and even some interesting observations on home working that might be more relevant to many of us now. Online sources suggest a publication date of either 1981 or 1983.

Inside Out is in the tradition of the two essential Working Lives books publishd by Centerprise in the 1970s. The first of these covered work in Hackney from 1905-45, the second 1945-1977.

There has been a huge decline in the number of manufacturing jobs in Hackney since the 1980s. (An estimated 3,000 jobs in total as of 2019 vs 12,000 jobs in the clothes industry when Inside Out was published). I would highly recommend the Angry Workers of the World collective’s recent book Class Power On Zero Hours for a recent investigation into the working conditions in warehouses and factories in West London.

There is a full PDF of “Inside Out” here. Text and images below.

Women In The Rag Trade: Inside Out
By Hackney Communist Party Womens Group

Walk along Dalston Lane, up Ashwin Street, and throug to Ridley Road, heading towards Shacklewell Lane. It’s not far – it might take you 20 minutes. Signboards everywhere, Denelight, Mindy, Rimplan, Palenstar, Multimodes and dozens of others. Small factories, crammed into basements, behind shop fronts, on one floor of a half empty warehouse, in someone’s back room.

Some recently boarded up or left semi-derelict, premises for sale or to let. All are clothing factories. It could be anywhere in Hackney, for clothing is the most important manufacturing industry, employing over 12,000 people locally. And most of those workers are women.

This is the story of those women, told partly in their own words and partly through the few facts and figures available. It’s by no means a complete account. The issues are those most often commented on when discussing women’s employment – what jobs women do, wages, equal pay and job security, health, childcare, home-working and union membership. The experiences and information about Hackney gathered here will, we hope, be useful; we didn’t always find what we expected. And if it helps to ilustrate the need for basic changes in our society, so much the better.

Making Clothes

Hackney has always been an important area for clothing. Until recently, much of the work was Outerwear – tailored suits and coats for the high quality ready-to-wear market. Factories were large, employing over 1000 people, mainly men.

But most of these factories have gone, taking advantages of grants to move out to the suburbs or Development Areas, or closed altogether, victims of the changing market in menswear from bespoke tailoring to casual clothes. But that wasn’t the end of the industry; small workshops, sweatshops, sprung up to take their place, employing women and immigrant workers.

“Ours is a small factory, about 22 on the machining floor, It’s owned by two sons and their mother — she’s dead now, It used to be a family factory, some of the women are 60 and 70 years old. Now younger people, Turks, are coming into the trade”.

Almost all of these factories make women’s clothing – either high quality outerwaer (costume and mantle in th trade) or cheap dresses and light clothing.

A few Hackney factories sell direct to shops, but many operate as outworkers for major companies – Windsmoor, Marks and Spencers, Burberry’s.

“We make coats and jackets for C&A, Top Shop, Littlewoods, British Home Stores. We do mail order as well”.

It’s convenient for the major companies. They do the designing, make the patterns, undertake marketing – someone else has to cope with changes in fashion, lay-off workers, have machines idle, train new workers, keep up-to-date with new equipment. And small factories find it difficult to raise investment – an automatic basting machine with variable temperature controls for synthetic fibres costs anything from £40, 000.

To avoid these problems, manufacturers employ home-workers to do part-work, usually seaming, sleeves, linings. They cost the employer nothing in heating, lighting and National Insurance, they have no security of contract, and many work for lower rates.

It’s the outworkers and homeworkers who are suffering most in the current recession. As living standards fall, people have less money to spend on clothes. A 20% rate of inflation, plus 15% V.A.T. has made garments expensive. Also imports are cheaper, not just from Third World countries, but also from Europe, particularly West Germany and Finland where investment in automation is high. And with British companies dependent on overdrafts, high interest charges hit hard. Over 3000 recorded redundancies in London alone between November 1979 and March 1980. Thousands more are on short time.

Factories in Hackney haven’t escaped. After 62 years of making high quality suits and coats for the West End, including Harrods, Mono’s in Shoreditch shut in December 1979.

“I don’t know why we’re closing really; he says it’s because of high costs, the clothes are too expensive and they can’t sell everything we make.”

Homeworkers have also been affected.

“I know lots of people who have lost work. One day the man says ‘there’s no more’. It’s very difficult for them.”

No-one sees a bright future for the industry in the months ahead.

Jobs for the Girls

Walk into any clothing factory and you’re immediately struck by the lack of automation, the importance of the skills of cutters and machinists, the large number of people in so small a space. The work is highly specialised.

“I do lining, I sew the linings in the coats and suits, I’ve more or less always done that job.”

“Piecing up means making up the sleeves and belts.”

“I’m a special machinist — buttons, button-holes, felling, overlocking, all those.sort of things.”

“As a top machinist, it means you can do any part of the garment, you can make the complete garment out.”

“I’m a finisher, it’s the last thing done by hand. I won’t work the machines, they’re too big and dangerous, so I won’t go near them.”

Almost all the jobs are done by women. Men tend to do particular jobs like cutting and pressing, but the women we spoke to didn’t feel that these were the better jobs.

“They do the same as women, they work on the machines; but men don’t do the job I do, finishing.”

“There are three boys, the governor’s son a and another man, all the cutters are men. No women has ever asked to do cutting.”

Moving to a new section of work isn’t easy. Most factories have no formal training, either for newcomers or those wanting more skills. Evening classes stopped many years ago. The Clothing and Allied Industries Training Board have schemes around the country, but employers in London aren’t interested.

When trade is good, they can poach by offering higher wages; now, they lay off the least skilled, and drop the rate.

Because training is a problem, it’s been difficult to recruit young people; many of the women have been in the trade a long time.

“Well, I did a five-year apprenticeship —but now you come in and if you can use a machine, a few weeks tuition and if you’re in any way quick you pick it up.”

“When I went into the trade, I’m going back a few many years now, we used to work with experienced persons, we’d have the whole bundle and do it right out, but now it’s different, now you go as a section worker.”

With no set criteria for defining different grades of work, moving up a grade is often a question of luck and nerve:

“I went to Shoreditch and got more money because I had the cheek to say I was experienced, Some places give you a trial, but I was lucky. If I didn’t know how to do something I would ask – I’d say ‘you do it differently in this factory’ – then they’d show you, But you had to be quick, or they’ll throw you out. That’s how I became a top machinist.”

As factories close down, getting another job appears to raise few fears for some:

“This is my first trade; when I get fed up with it I just go off and do dif ferent things. I’ve worked in a cigarette factory, spirit factory, tea factory, it makes no dif ference really, it’s only the money that matters.”

“I haven’t looked for anything yet because you can’t start until you finish here; I’ve never had any problems. I might look for something different, but this is all I know.”

But for others, another job isn’t so easy:

“Because I’m older, there’s not much, cleaning, tea lady. There’s not many opportunities from where I live.” (Haringey)

“It’s a shame this place is closing down, It was convenient, local and the hours more or less flexi. Conditions were good compared to some places.”

Not Pin Money… but Peanuts!

Wages in the clothing industry have always been low. From the beginning of this century attempts have been made to regulate pay through the Wages Council Agreements. The minimum rate for 79/80 for working a 40 hour week was set at 105p. per hour.

Outside London, many workers are at or even below this legal minimum. In Hackney, the shortage of skilled labour has pushed up the rate, although home-workers and those working in very small sweat shops often get less. Average rates quoted were £1.60 to £2.00 per hour: pay for a full-time machinist of £55. to £60 per week. Cutters (men’s jobs) were more likely to earn £100 a week.

But comparing rates in the industry is difficult. Machinists, examiners, passers and fixers are usually on piece-rate; others are on time-rate – final examining examining, quality control, cutters. But many machinists also work time-rate.

How much you earn is a secret. In one factory no two machinists will necessarily be earning the same.

“Everyone gets what they have individually arranged between themselves and the governor, and he tells you to keep it to yourself.”

“Everyone is paid a different amount, it depends on your ability. You set your own price. I came here as a top machinist so therefore I negotiate what I think I’m worth. I know what the going rate is but if you think you deserve something better you go ahead and ask,

Often, especially in the smallest places, work is ‘off the book’. No record of payment is made by the employer who gives cash-in-hand. If you’re earning less than £55 a week, paying tax and National Insurance isn’t very attractive. But getting more money can be hazardous.

“My friend, one day I saw the boss come up and give her £5. I asked her what for and she said she’d been to see him to get more money, but she didn’t want it on her slip. So every week he gives it to her in her hand, But now he’s forgetting and she has to keep asking – she doesn’t like it.”

Many women in Hackney don’t work a full 40 hour week. Part-time hours vary, but somewhere between 26 and 35 hours is common. So few women earn more than £50 a week. And part-time rates don’t appear to be covered by the Equal Pay Act. At least that’s what the women workers at Mono’s found when they went to the Equal Pay Tribunal.

“The Tribunal, there was no-one on the bench who knew anything about this trade. They didn’t know what we were talking about, facings, piecing up and such.”

“We picked out who we thought was earning more, we had to put our names down against as many as we felt were earning more than us. Some women picked out men who were only earning a penny more. Two women went to the Tribunal and found they were earning more than the men. We looked fools. The men wouldn’t tell us beforehand. The Union should be entitled to ask.”

“One case, she was working in a set with men, whilst we were working in sets with all women. They put her with the highest paid man she was working with.”

“We lost the Appeal on part-time. He (the boss) said the women were privileged to be able to work part-time. At that time I didn’t know he had two men working upstairs part-time.”

“The Chairman, he said he had a part-time secretary and there were times when he needed her and she wasn’t there. But it’s not the same, when you’re not sitting at the machine, someone else is – you expect the same hourly rate. After all, I work 26 hours a week, and come every day. I still have the same fares as full-time workers, over £1 a day. It’s about time people got travel allowances off their tax.”

“We went up first and then he (the boss) went up afterwards so he’could say what he liked and you couldn’t say – ‘well, that’s not true’ “.

“One woman here on tailoring, if anything goes wrong with the work, a little hole, she can invisible mend which none of the men can. The boss said the man was paid more because as well as being a tailor he booked in the work. But all he had todo was to write a number on a bit of paper and hang the work up. That’s all he had to do. But the woman lost because he spoke as though that man had big books to look after. We didn’t get a chance to challenge that.”

“The Tribunal’s put there to make you feel, well, they’re trying, but they’re not really.”

So even when payment is by the hour, the Tribunal ruled that an equal hourly rate only applies if you work 40 hours a week. It’s not surprising that employers willingly take part-time workers. For many many women, this is one of the attractions of clothing

“I work 9.30 to 3.30 because you can’t leave the kids to go to school, they’d never go.”

“I leave at 8.30 from Woolwich Arsenal and get here about 9.30, they’re quite good about that.”

For full-time workers the day can be long. Half the women who work in Hackney don’t live in the Borough; clothing is no exception.

“I work 8.30 to 4.40, it takes me about one and a half hours to get here by tube and bus.”

“Some of the old women work part-time. But I work 8am to 5pm.”

Holiday entitlements are negotiated by the Union and incorporated into the Wages Council Agreements. But in many of the smaller factories, getting holidays with pay can be a problem, especially if you’re working part-time. But here again, if you’ve got skills, employers can appear generous:

“I think I can have three weeks paid, but we go go to see our family in Spain so I say how much I want and I can go. Unpaid of course. Some factories won’t let you do that, they even say when you can go.”

On the inside

…It’s lunchtime, half an hour to eat your sandwiches, have a cup of tea, and get on with a bit of your own work. You’ll have to eat at the bench, between the machines, scissors, threads, half-made garments. If you’re lucky you can make a cup of tea in the kitchen, partitioned off in the corner. Feel a bit off-colour, well sorry but there’s nowhere for you to lie down…….

Something out of the last century? No, just the average clothing factory.

“Our new factory, its got no rest room or canteen, just a little kitchen to make tea. All I know, when they built it new, an inspector came.”

There are all sorts of hidden hazards around. Open any copy of the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Journal for the compensation awarded for industrial injuries – Mrs ——— N.E. London, £313.05. She’d tripped down the stairs at work and broken her ankle, because there were no lights. A more serious accident might bring £1000.

But many health complaints just aren’t recognised ag resulting from working conditions, or else are put down to carelessness.

“I have glasses for working now — but it’s difficult to say it’s because of the work, it could be my age.”

Clothing factories are notorious fire hazards – old buildings, narrow staircases, faulty wiring, hot presses, synthetic fibres, corridors blocked with racks of clothes and cardboard boxes

“The factory where I work was burnt down a few months ago, a fault in the wiring I think. Luckily it was a night. Now it’s quite new. I don’t know if there are any safety regulations, even since the fire we haven’t had a fire practice.”

None of the women we spoke to could ever remember having instructions about accidents or fire. They’d just get out as best they could. Yet Health and Safety is the employer’s responsibility and fire drills are compulsory under the Health and Safety at Work Act. But with few inspectors, enforcement of this and other requirements is almost impossible.

What about the Children?

Paid work is only one of the jobs women do, there’s also the family to look after.

“I work part-time because even when they work, they’re still your responsibility – they still expect something to eat when they come home from work.”

The majority of women we spoke to were either without children or had grown-up children.

“I’ve two big girls, one’s working and the other’s at school, so I don’t worry about them.”

Working in clothing is difficult for those with younger children and childcare is a constant anxiety.

“I leave them with my mum, but I worry if she gets sick or something. I have to take time off. No, the boss doesn’t mind.”

One alternative to ‘mum’ is a childminder. Hackney is better off than some parts of London for registered childminders, but it’s still not enough, and can be expensive. £12 a week is the rate for looking after a child through Hackney Association of Childminders, not much for working maybe 50 hours a week. But it canstill be too much when your own pay is less than £50.

Many women don’t like leaving their children with childminders, especially if they’re not registered. Often there’s very little space or things to play with, too many children for one pair of hands. But there aren’t many places available in nurseries either.

The most recent data published (a GLC report for March 1975, although probably little has changed since then), showed that for every 1000 children under five in Hackney, there were only 23 nursery places available. It’s better to live in Camden or Islington, which have 85 places and 51 places respectively for every 1000 pre-school children. Yet despite the desparate need, three new nurseries built in Hackney are likely to remain closed.

Home Sweet Home

“I worked at home because of the children. I wanted to be there when they came back from school, not give them a key round their neck.”

“Before I had the children I worked in a shirt factory. But after, it was very expensive to have them looked after. My mother used to look after my daughter but she didn’t want to any more.”

By working in their own homes, women combine paid work and housework. But it isn’t easy when you’re at everyone’s beck and call:

“I’d like to’go back to the factory – maybe I’d get more money because here I’m always doing things, helping people and my work is always behind. My governor doesn’t send me work because of that.”

Children need attention too.

“It’s very hard with the children about. My little girl, she wasn’t used to the machine and when I started she used to go mad — she hated it. They get jealous and want to be picked up all the time.”

“I don’t da much when the children are at home, maybe when they’re on holiday I do about 6 hours work a day. When they’re at school I do more,”

Providing nursery facilities and after-school care would help many homeworkers – but not all.

“Nursery places would be a good idea, but our people wouldn’t like it.”

Looking after your own children isn’t the only pressure forcing ethnic minority women to work at home. Not speaking the language properly, being isolated in a strange factory, it’s a frightening prospect. At home friends can come and chat while you work.

“My friend, I’m teaching her to sew. If she wants she comes here and helps me finish the garments.”

But since most homeworkers arrange their work over the telephone, understanding the language is still important.

“I agree the price with the governor, You have to phone him up. I think he has a two-floor factory, but I’ve only been there once.”

Initial contact with the governor may be made through friends or relatives. After that, the work arrives at the door.

“The man brings the work in a van, He comes regularly every day, but I only take it three days, because I can’t finish it.”

Delivering and collecting the work is often sub-contracted out by the factory. So it’s even more difficult for a home-worker to make contact with her real employer.

In law, homeworkers are sometimes classed as employees and have some legal protections. But most are casual workers, treated by the factory as self-employed. So the governor avoids paying National Insurance or redundancy pay, and can stop supplying work at a moment’s notice.

By accepting this, homeworkers avoid paying tax and insurance too. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be worth working at all. But it means the governor can threaten to report you if you don’t accept his terms.

However,. regardless of the type of contract between the factory and the homeworker, Wages Council Minimum rates of pay should be offered. And from May 1980, the agreement includes holiday pay – for 80/81 this should be 5% of annual earnings, going up to 10% the following year.

Actual rates vary widely and are often well below the legal minimum. How much you get depends on how well you know the industry. .

“The work I’m doing is very cheap. Some skirts are alright, you get 50p and there’s plenty of work in them – in fact I get more than if they’re made in the factory —- but others are only 20p, if there’s not much to them.”

“If I do good work, maybe I get £70 a week, but but last week I got £30,”

The same skirt costs £8 or £9 down Oxford Street. And a £35 jacket may have cost just £1.50 to machine. Set against earnings are the costs of making the garment, most of which are paid by the homeworker.

“I bought the machine. They are £300 now, but I paid £165. Some people get a machine from the governor, but I like to have my own, because one day he might come and take it. We paid cash.”

“I don’t get any allowance for electricity, I think he should. And I have to pay for the machine to be serviced. But he provides all the materials, thread, stiffenings, fastenings.”

So if you take out the extra costs, the real rate per item may be as low as 15p.

Homeworkers face the same safety hazards as in the factory – with children around it can be even more dangerous. Trailing wires, overloaded plugs, scissors and pins. Unsuitable chairs and bad light add to tiredness.

“After 8 hours at the machine, my arms ache terribly. My shoulders get very stiff. I need to do some exercises.”

“I get very bad headaches with my eyes when I’ve been working for a long time.”

Under tne Health and Safety at Work Act, employers are responsible for homeworkers and should ensure that they are working in safe conditions. But checking is impossible – who wants the boss poking around their home. And in any case, if the employer found the premises unsuitable, he’d get some-one else rather than pay for improvements.

Even now, a homeworker may find herself unable to work at home because of planning regulations. If someone claims that the noise of the machine is a nuisance or that the use of the property has changed, then it may be illegal to continue working there. This can often act as a threat even if enforcement is unlikely:

“We were living in a two-room flat and I machined from 10 am to 4pm. I stoppedthen because of the noise. When we moved, I couldn’t continue because of the neighbours. They said they’d get the council. I was told it was against the law to work at home in this area.”

So many rules and regulations which no-one knows about. Working for very long hours for very low pay, disrupting your home. It’s not perhaps surprising that homeworkers are beginning to complain. Some women in Hackney are part of the London Homeworking Campaign, set up to improve life for homeworkers. They’ve drawn up a charter of demands for changes in the law and improved local facilities.

And Hackney is the first Council to appoint a Homeworking Officer – someone to make contact with homeworkers and provide them with information.

It’s a good idea. But why didn’t they realise that many women, especially from ethnic minorities, aren’t likely to welcome a male official into their homes. And in the end, improving conditions for homeworkers depends on getting better wages and conditions for all workers in the industry.

Women together

About 2000 workers in Hackney belong to the Tailor and Garment Workers union, most of them women. Organising the industry is a nightmare – so many small units opening and closing, employers openly hostile.

With a small membership on low wages, union funds are less than adequate. In such a fragmented industry, organisation is heavily dependent on full-time officials.

Only two are available to try and organise the 70,000 workers in the whole of the London region.

Much of their time is spent representing members on Tribunals, keeping in contact with organised workplaces. There’ s not much time to try and locate non-union factories, or do the research necessary to find out what’s going on. Inevitably, the smaller factories get left out.

The boss and the fear of intimidation remain one of the biggest hurdles to making new members.

“People talk very openly to the governor. A Turkish girl came to work here, and she tried to draw the attention of the other Turkish workers to conditions in Turkey — not here, but they weren’t interested. Now we’ve not much work, they’ve told her to leave, not anyone else.”

And with the industry a jungle, the Union can be seen as disturbing time-honoured practices:

“You’ll generally find in a firm like this, the rate of pay is less, the conditions are better, but the rate is less than in a non-Union place, where its free bargaining. Here the Union will get you the annual increment, but if you want more, you go and ask.”

Where women have joined the Union, its advantages are recognised:

“This is a Union shop, and you’re more or less protected, the management can’t say ‘clear off out’.”

Typical of the issues taken up include provision of first-aid rooms, proper toilet facilities, bringing in the public health inspector to measure fume levels and ventilation.

Getting even these basic rights in each factory requires a high level of Union membership. With weak organisation in the early stages, benefits of joining often appear small. It’s a vicious circle.

Time for a change

“The needle was the staple employment of women in London throughout the nineteenth century. Economic instability accentuated the seasonal nature of the work, making the skilled needlewoman’s living precarious, As slopwork (cheap goods) increased, so did the number of out or homeworkers, and the embroideresses, sempstresses, tambourers, artificial flower makers, makers of fine and expensive shirts, could no longer rely on regular employment, not even in the fasionable West End sectors of the trade.”

S. Alexander: Women’s work in 19th Century London.

A hundred years later, and what’s changed? As this pamphlet shows, women clothing workers still earn very low pay, work in bad and over-crowded conditions, find themselves out of work with little or no warning.

It makes you think!

– why is it women have lower paid jobs than men and often worse working conditions?

– why can’t workers run their own factories instead of working to put money in the governor’s pocket?

– why is it so impossible to enforce the few laws that should protect people at work?

– why aren’t there nurseries and proper play facilities for after-school hours?

– why haven’t ordinary people got enough money to buy clothes and other necessities?

Why indeed? And what can we do about it?

Changing our working lives in Hackney overnight is a bit of a tall order, but we can make a start – by demanding higher wages – greater protection for homeworkers – more Health and Safety inspectors – legal requirements that employers allow Union representatives on to their premises – nursery facilities for all children under five.

However, even these small improvements for working women aren’t at all popular with the present Conservative Government. One Minister has pronounced:

“If the Good Lord had intended us to have equal rights to go out to work, he wouldn’t have created men and women.”

They’re more interested in closing nurseries, cutting maternity rights, pushing women out of employment. And by attacking Trade Unions they want to stop us organising any protest.

Whether they succeed or not depends on us. And for many women in the clothing industry, the need for change is obvious:

“After all, it can’t always be like this. Eventually, something’s got to happen.”


We would like to thank everyone who helped in the preparation and production of this pamphlet, and particularly the women who gave up their lunch breaks to talk to us.

Previously on this site:

Communist Plan for Life in Hackney (1930s)

Bob Darke’s disaffection from the Hackney CP in the 1950s.

Hackney Communist Party banner from 1952.

The 62 Group fought fascists in Hackney – now in a BBC drama

Hackney Needs Socialism  – 1978 election pamphlet

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

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:

January 2020 updates

While this blog has hibernated, others have been busy…

Rio Cinema Archive is an Instagram feed that features scans of photographs from a community project based at the cinema in the 1980s. It’s a fantastic resource that shows Hackney in all its glorious colours and includes documentation of number of protests:

1984 collecting for the Miners Strike Support Fund
Colin Roach protest outside Stoke Newington Police Station 1985
Sept 26 1983 saw a day of community action in Hackney to protest cuts to the NHS and hospital closures at St Leonard’s and the Mother’s Hospital on Lower Clapton Rd, pictured here is an effigy of Thatcher the milk snatcher outside St Leonard’s

The scanning is being done by friend of this site Alan Denney and is an ongoing project – at the time of writing just under 700 photos have been posted. There is an article from the Hackney Gazette about the project here.

Tamara Stoll’s Ridley Road Market is a lavish 248 page hardback book featuring archival and contemporary photographs.

“Ridley Road market is where the world meets. No one has captured its vibrancy and humanity better than Tamara Stoll. Her book is now the definitive record of one of the most historic and colourful street markets of London, if not the world.”

Ken Worpole, writer, social historian and Hackney resident since 1969

You can order the book direct from and copies were available in Stoke Newington Bookshop last time I was in there.

On a related note, Verso have published We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-War Britain by Daniel Sonabend. This is a very welcome account of the story of the Jewish ex-servicemen who fought British fascists on the streets of London after World War Two. It widens the scope of the Maurice Beckman’s seminal The 43 Group: Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism that Centerprise published in the 1990s. (Which remains essential and was the first book on the radical history of Hackney that I read).

Sonabend has done a great job of talking to other surviving members of the 43 Group who (understandably) sometimes had slightly different recollections to Beckman. There is a whole chapter of the book given over to 1947’s “The Battle of Ridley Road” in which The 43 Group (and Communist Party of Great Britain) fought physically with the fascist League of Ex-Servicemen for speaking pitches on Ridley Road over several weeks.

You can hear the author discuss the book and his research in this episode of the thoroughly recommended 12 Rules For What anti-fascist podcast:

Ken Worpole has kindly alerted me to the publication of A New World In Essex: The Rise and Fall of the Purleigh Brotherhood Colony 1896-1903 by Victor Gray:

A story of disappointed idealism set in late-Victorian rural Essex where a group of Christian Socialists from Croydon, inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy, went ‘back to the land’ to create a Utopian colony. This detailed study of an influential experiment in community living tracks their struggle to survive and the reasons for its ultimate failure.”

Ken has written an interesting account of Christian Socialists J.C. Kenworthy and John Bruce Wallace, both of whom are included in the book because of their connection with the Brotherhood Church in Hackney.

Ken is also interested in any information that might confirm that Kenworthy Road in Homerton is named after J.C. Kenworthy (as am I – now that I know about it!)

You can find our more about A New World In Essex – and order a copy – from Campanula Books.

Finally, I have failed to get to the Hackney’s Got Style: Celebrating the History and Impact of African and Caribbean Fashion and Hair exhibition at Hackney Museum so am relieved that it has now been extended to Saturday 21st March. Free entry, looks very cool, be rude not to:

Images from the Hackney Museum twitter feed

I also have a bunch of unfinished posts sitting here that hopefully will get done… sometime.

Support your friendly local ex-Angry Brigader!

Bristle has written a blog post about a Kickstarter project to fund the publication of John Barker’s novel “Futures”, which I have reproduced here:

John Barker – former Stoke Newington Eight defendant and convicted ‘Angry Brigade‘ prisoner – wrote a novel called Futures. It was about the 1987 Great Storm, the subsequent Black Monday stock market crash, criminals, corrupt cops and cocaine. It was published in French and German.

Now he and publisher PM Press (which in 2010 republished the classic Gordon Carr text The Angry Brigade with extensive new material, and has also published an impressive twovolume account of the Rot Armee Fraktion amongst many other interesting titles) wish to release it in English for the first time.

To do this they need to raise £5,000. In one lump sum, that’s a daunting task. But crowdfunded by dozens or hundreds of donors – each of whom will be rewarded in kind – it is much more easily achievable.

The pot is nearly full, but there are only 24 hours to go. So please consider throwing a fiver or a tenner or more into the pot at the Futures Kickstarter page.

[John Barker still lives in Hackney as far as I know and the Kickstarter is 95% funded at the time of writing. So a project worth contributing to if you like the sound of it and want to support independent radical publishing. There’s a film of him on the Kickstarter page talking about the book but I can’t get it to work here.]

Race and Council Housing in Hackney, 1984

Race and Council Housing in Hackney

Report of a Formal Investigation conducted by the Commission for Racial Equality into the allocation of housing in the London Borough of Hackney

145 pages
Published January 1984

This is quite heavy-going and sober, with lots of tables and statistics. The upshot is that the CRE found that Hackney’s housing allocation was racist, in stark contrast to its media portrayal as a “loony left” Council. The Council responded positively and agreed to various improvements including ethnic monitoring, something which is standard practise now.

Some of the more readable excerpts are below:


Research has shown that ethnic minorities have been widely discriminated against and disadvantaged in the public housing sector. The Commission therefore decided at an early stage in formulating our strategy on housing to initiate a wide-ranging investigation into the public housing sector. An important part of this work was to establish the extent to which ethnic minority disadvantage in public housing was the direct result of discrimination, as distinct from the indirect effect of local authority allocation polices and practices. Hackney, as an inner-city area with a large ethnic minority population, was considered to be a suitable and representative borough on which to concentrate a comprehensive investigation of the causes of such discrimination and disadvantage.

We embarked on a formal investigation into the allocation of council housing in the London Borough of Hackney in May 1978. Our terms of reference, which were drawn up under Section 49(3) of the Race Relations Act 1976, were as follows:

To inquire into the allocation, disposal and management of local authority housing accommoda­tion and the provision of housing services and facilities by the London Borough of Hackney by themselves, their servants or agents to the residents of the Borough with particular reference:

(a)    to the elimination of unlawful racial discrimination within the meaning of the Race Relations Act 1976;

(b)      to the promotion of equality of opportunity between persons of different racial groups within the meaning of the said Act; and

(c)    to the arrangements made by the Borough pursuant to the duty imposed by Section 71 of the said Act.

Before embarking on the investigation, we held discussions with both Councillors and officials in Hackney and in the course of these the Council proposed an alternative approach to the question, whereby they would set up their own internal housing and race relations monitoring unit to work with us on a cooperative basis, rather than the Council being made the subject of a formal investigation. While we welcomed this initiative and expressed the hope that such a unit would be set up, we nevertheless decided that the investigation should proceed. It was also our view that if we found unlawful discrimination, the results of this type of exhaustive study of one borough’s housing allocations could subsequently be used as a basis for persuading other local authority housing departments throughout the country to develop their own effective equal opportunity programme.

The investigation was concerned with three distinct areas. Firstly, the allocation of patterns of housing cases from the waiting list, transfers, homeless and decant categories, were reviewed over the years 1978 and 1979. Secondly, two poor-quality estates with a high ethnic minority population were studied, in order to determine the factors behind the allocation of tenants to them. Thirdly, the role of the Greater London Council in rehousing a sample of homeless cases from Hackney was examined, also for the period 1978-9. We were therefore concerned with reviewing patterns of allocations for seven distinct populations.

We considered the results of the investigation in September 1982, and provisionally formed the view that the Council had unlawfully discriminated against black applicants and tenants in housing allocations. The basis of the Non-Discrimination Notice, which was subsequently issued and became final on 22 June 1983, was that the Council had been found to have practised unlawful direct discrimination against black applicants and tenants who had been allocated housing from the waiting list, or who had been homeless or decant cases, in that whites had received better-quality allocations of properties than blacks. The finding, in relation to the homeless and waiting list cases, was also supported by evidence obtained in relation to the allocation patterns that had occurred on two individual estates in Hackney.

In order that the borough could comply with the non-discrimination notice, the Commission made specific recommendations. These included:

(a)    the keeping of ethnic records and their subsequent monitoring;

(b)   the setting up of relevant training programmes;

(c)   a review of procedures and practices operated and the criteria used in assessing which applicants and tenants would be offered available property;

(d)  the allocation of a senior official in the housing department, who would be responsible for ensuring the Council’s compliance with the non-discrimination notice and the 1976 Race Relations Act generally.

In May 1983 a final notice under the Race Relations Act was issued against Hackney, the contents of which are attached to the report (Appendix D).

It is worth noting that an important precedent was set in issuing this non-discrimination notice against Hackney Council, in that it is the first time such a notice has been issued solely on the basis of statistical evidence. Until now, findings of discrimination have generally been centred on individual acts of discrimination. The practical difficulty of relying on this approach is that the scope for comparison, to determine whether there has been less favourable treatment on racial grounds, is necessarily narrow. When one finds less favourable treatment there will often be factors present which might appear to explain away the differences on non-racial grounds. However, when large numbers of cases are examined statistically, and less favourable treatment of a racial group is established, and one then examines all possible non-racial explanations statistically, it becomes possible to say with statistical certainty whether they can in fact explain the difference. In practice, non-racial explanations start falling away when subject to this kind of scrutiny. This is the reason why the Commission is insistent that ethnic record keeping and monitoring are essential to securing equality of opportunity, not only in the housing field, but elsewhere. And it is for this reason also that this investigation represents a significant milestone on the long road toward eliminating racial discrimination.

Hackney’s response to our provisional, and then final, finding of discrimination has been extremely positive, and at a council meeting on 22 December 1982, the Chair of Housing Services said:

The CRE has made it clear that what is happening in Hackney is most likely the pattern in most urban authorities . . . The Council should accept the report fully, should implement its recommendations, and should continue to support to the very fullest the efforts of the CRE in seeking to stamp out racial discrimination.

Since then the Council has initiated a number of moves to comply with our recommendations, including the introduction of ethnic records and monitoring, as well as a thorough review of their various housing policies and practices. The final chapter of this report provides a detailed breakdown of the changes that Hackney is implementing in response to the results of the investigation.


Hackney Council’s response

After receiving our notice of the provisional findings of our investigation, the chairman of the housing committee, Councillor Charles Clarke, in a published statement to the full Council, set the tone for the positive and constructive approach which the Council has subsequently adopted in relation to our findings and requirements.

Councillor Clarke said:

I believe that the CRE is setting out on a determined course to establish the secure legal basis which is necessary to fight the racial discrimination that exists in institutions throughout Britain. This is, for example, the first formal investigation by the CRE into public housing. They have made it clear that what is happening in Hackney is most likely the pattern in most urban authorities and hence the study’s importance is not only for this borough but for the whole country. It is for that reason as well as for our own purpose in ensuring that discrimination can no longer take place in our own housing policies that I believe that the Council should accept the report fully, should implement its recommendations and should continue to support to the very fullest extent the effort of the CRE in seeking to stamp out racial discrimination.

The Council during 1983 begun to initiate new policies and procedures and to set up the relevant systems to comply with the requirements of our non-discrimination notice. In response to our requirements the Council informed us of their proposed plans and time-scales in the middle of 1983. The brief details of these are:

(a) The Council had already decided in principle to record the ethnic origin of those seeking or receiving all Council services in December 1982. As far as allocation of housing was concerned, a pilot project was conducted in the middle of 1983 and a comprehensive system was introduced in the latter months of the year. The ethnic question itself is part of the normal application forms filled in by applicants and tenants themselves. A detailed method of assessing the quality of accommodation was also devised during the same period. Hackney hoped that the monitoring system would be operational by the end of 1983 and that the first significant results would then be available, from which further policy issues on methods of allocation could be considered.

(b) Training programmes were introduced during 1983 with an initial emphasis on those staff who were involved in the allocation process. Further plans were made to introduce training on race relations awareness for housing staff generally.

(c) A new post was created at senior managment level, the purpose of which is to monitor progress on race relations in the department and to ensure that CRE requirements are complied with by the Council. This officer is also responsible for a review of the procedures and processes of the allocation system in order to ensure that they are not discriminatory, in the light of our results. This officer will also be responsible for subsequent analysis of the results of Hackney’s own ethnic monitoring system.

The Council has also established a special panel composed of members and representatives from voluntary groups representing tenants and ethnic groups, and this is a sub-committee of the housing services committee. While its immediate task was to co-ordinate the Council’s response to our non-discrimination notice and to take necessary action, the panel has subsequently expanded its terms of reference to include such important areas as personnel issues, housing management and grants policy. It is the main agency for monitoring the Council’s response to our notice, and all relevant reports are considered by it before being submitted to other Council committees.

At one of its early meetings the panel and members considered that the Council should move at as fast a rate as possible in responding to the issues raised by our notice, and it was hoped that this rate would be faster than our time-scales. 

As mentioned above, the response of Hackney to our investigation has been very positive, and given the Council’s current commitment to the eradication of racial discrimination within the housing department, and the introduction of constructive initiatives in relation to race and housing, we would hope that the department will in future become a model as an example of good policy for other departments throughout the country to follow. We also note that the types of policies on race relations being introduced within the housing department are also being introduced in the other directorates throughout the Council.

The nature of the investigation, and the detailed examination of the wide range of factors which had to be taken into account before any conclusion that unlawful discrimination was occurring could be reached, underlines both the complex nature of racial discrimination and the difficulty of proving its continuing existence. It would have been virtually impossible for any individual housing applicants or tenants who believed themselves to have been treated less favourably on racial grounds, to have collected comparative information, even about other housing applications being dealt with at the same time as their cases. It would have been just as difficult for them to establish the foundation for a case which would satisfy a county court.

As Councillor Clarke stressed in his statement to the Council on 23 December 1982, we do not believe that Hackney is in any way unique; where other local authorities have undertaken less detailed internal studies of housing allocations, for example in Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham and the GLC, the types of patterns which emerged were similar to those we found in Hackney. We shall, therefore, over the coming months be discussing this report with other local authorities with a view to persuading them to also monitor their housing provision, without the need for concrete proof of the kind we found in Hackney. This will ensure that black people are being treated equally and, where they are not, that changes are introduced.

Centerprise, working class history and local publishing, 1977

Local Publishing & Local Culture
An account of the work of the Centerprise publishing project 1972-1977

22 Pages
Published by Centerprise Trust Limited 136 Kingsland High Street, London E8


Update August 2020: A PDF of this booklet can be read and downloaded here. Full text and pics below.


What follows is a short history of the way in which the Centerprise publishing project has developed to date. It starts with a short account of how the Centerprise bookshop/coffee bar project was conceived and got off the ground in 1971. Without the bookshop there, as a base, I personally doubt whether local publishing in Hackney would have been conceivable at that time. What the Centerprise bookshop, and the workers in it, offered then, were funds to put into the initial costs of the books, and, equally importantly, an enthusiasm to provide new ways in which local people could become more involved with the work of the bookshop, and the bookshop could become more involved with the lives of local people.

For the most part of these five years of local publishing, that is until recent developments which are described later, the editorial policy of the publishing project was very much a matter of individual judgement within certain guide-lines; politically different, economically different, but not structurally differ-ent really from the ways in which commercial publishers make choices. There was, however, one area of our publishing where quite different editorial deci-sions were made. This area of our work was publishing the local history books produced by an editorially independent group, a local history class run by the Hackney branch of the Workers’ Educational Association, called ‘A Peoples’ Autobiography of Hackney’. In this group, decisions as to themes of Hackney’s working class history to work on and make books about were decided by the group. The connection with Centerprise was made by choice and practically carried out by the convenor of the class for the first four years who was also the full time publishing worker at Centerprise. The section on the work of the ‘Peoples’ Autobiography of Hackney’ group owes much to the comments of the current convenor, Richard Gray.

The ideas which originated the Centerprise publishing project did not arise in a vacuum. At the very time in which a few of us in Hackney were discussing the prospects for local publishing, we were aware of a lot of things happening in other parts of London, as well as other parts of the country. That is partly how change comes about. And clearly this process carries on because in the last five years, local publishing initiatives have occurred in a number of towns and cities, each rising up to meet particular local needs for working people to express themselves, but also each being spurred into existence by something decidedly lacking in the wider culture. At the present time, these groups are meeting together to form a federation of community publishing groups. The prospects, in this area of cultural activity at least, are very encouraging.

The opinions in this account are my personal opinions and understandings. Because the last five years of my working life have been spent involved with this project, it is impossible for me to disentangle private concerns and political investment from the development of the project as part of the wider work of the whole Centerprise project in Hackney. Even so, my account of what the publishing project means has been talked at and with a large number of people over the years and has consequently been modified and enlarged by °the, people’s ideas; this applies particularly, of course, with regard to the other workers at Centerprise.

Ken Worpole

Local Publishing & Local Culture

‘Not in Utopia — subterranean fields —
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of us all — the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all!’

Wordsworth, The Prelude

In May 1971, Chris Searle, a teacher of English at St John Cass School in Stepney, together with Ron McCormick, a local photographer, published a collection of poems written by the children at the school. The anthology was called ‘Stepney Words’. The subsequent events are now quite well known: Chris Searle was dismissed from his job and many of the children at the school came out on strike on his behalf, supported by the parents in many cases. The question at issue and around which quite diametrically opposed positions were adopted, was whether the children’s poetry, much of it quite despairing about their own lives and the possibilities in front of them, ought to be objectified in published form and thus become a statement in the political and cultural arena. The school authorities thought not, but many people thought the children’s voices should be heard. A lone voice at the back of the crowd shouted, ‘But is it Art?’

In the same month, on May 1st 1971, two youth worker and a newly-qualified community worker opened Centerprise in Hackney, a community centre based on a general bookshop, a coffee bar and two meeting rooms. Stepney and Hackney are only three miles apart, yet at that time, neither initiative knew of the other’s existence, although it didn’t take long for them to meet up, and recognise the common ground on which they were working. Thought about carefully, it would be a mistake to describe the timing and place of these two projects as coincidence. Both had, in different ways, identified a real need in deliberately neglected inner city areas like Stepney and Hackney, which was a lack of any kind of provision by which working class people could participate in the world of books, either by having a wide choice to buy from locally, or having the chance to have published things they themselves had written.

The following map, published some time ago in The Guardian, shows quite clearly the large scale abuse of cultural rights that commercial priorities produce: whole London boroughs being without any provision for making a wide range of books available to choose from and buy. Remarkably, there isn’t any embarrassment about this situation in the publishing and bookselling world, the attitude being that where capitalism’s cultural super-tankers can’t sail, all other routes are closed. An article in ‘The Bookseller’, the trade publication of bookshops, noted the opening of Centerprise in May 1971, and doomed it to fail within months. Six years later, the bookshop flourishes, selling a variety of books from almost every category that the publishers produce.

A few people in the past have asked why all of us associated with Centerprise have described easy access to a good, wide-ranging general bookshop as a ‘cultural right’. There are a number of answers to this question, some of them relating just to bookshops and others relating to much wider questions of people’s rights to be involved in all aspects of the culture of the society in which they live. A basic reason for seeing bookshops as necessary places in any community is because, in their absence, many people are condemned for not taking an interest in books. Time and again in the educational press, parents have been accused of not taking an interest in their children by buying books for them, whereas what the very clever commentators have failed to take into consideration is that it is impossible for most parents, usually in working class areas, to do so: there aren’t any places to buy them from. The experience of the Centerprise bookshop has been that children’s books constitute the largest selling section, and given the resources to do more bookstalls in schools and in other places in the community, this could potentially become an enormous area of work.

Secondly, since we all have no choice other than to live in the society we live in, it is important that we all have the right to know as much about its nature as possible. We regard education as a right, even if we don’t all get the same opportunities and what we get doesn’t tell us much. Similarly most of us feel that libraries are a right since it is through books that most aspects of what goes on in society are recorded. The right to buy books is simply an extension of these principles. This is particularly important in an area like Hackney since, ironically, many recent books on politics or sociology have been written about working class people who live in areas like Hackney, and we feel very strongly that people have a right to read what other people, invariably from a different class, are writing about them. Books, of course, are also entertainment, and to have the choice of another form of entertainment is also important. And, also, we have to resist at every opportunity the effects on our lives which commercial priorities engender. If the education service and the right to free medical care had not been fought for as rights, and still remained in commercial hands, then quite seriously there would be even today, hardly any schools in Hackney and certainly no hospitals. Access to books, both to be able to buy them easily, and to be involved in producing them, we regard as a right — amongst many other rights.


Between 1969 and 1973, I taught English at Hackney Downs School. One of the major frustrations I experienced then, as did many English teachers, was the lack of interesting reading material that related to the lives of the young people I was teaching. Generally one had no choice other than to use individual titles which were part of monolithic, finely graded reading schemes, whose subject matter for the most part, was far removed from the concerns and interests of the children who used them. Together with a friend, a local amateur photographer, we worked out the idea of a reading book that was specifically set in Hackney, illustrated with photographs of a group of young boys at large in the flats, streets and market-places of the area.

The text was worked out in consultation with the children. We approached Centerprise in the Autumn of 1971 and asked the workers there if they were interested in publishing this book, if we produced it. They agreed, and in the spring of 1972, ‘Hackney Half-Term Adventure’ was published. It was received with immediate enthusiasm by many local teachers, and more importantly, by school-children in Hackney. We have since been told on many occasions that the book had been read with great excitement by children, who were only too delighted to find page after page of photographs of what they recognised only too well.

At the same time, I was sharing a group of children in a ‘remedial’ class with another teacher, Ann Pettit, and we quickly realised that one of the children, a young West Indian boy, Vivian Usherwood, was writing a series of very original poems, mostly about feeling rejected at school and in the children’s home where he was in care. We both thought highly of Vivian’s poems, and asked him if we could duplicate them and use them with the other children. He was pleased about this and the response within the school was quite remarkable. We then thought they deserved a wider readership and again approached Centerprise to ask them to consider publishing them. The workers at Centerprise agreed, and within two months the first edition of 500 copies of ‘Vivian Usherwood: Poems’ had sold out. Subsequent re-prints within the last five years have brought the sale of Vivian’s poems up to well over 6,000 copies. We know that in a number of cases, local school-children have suggested to their teachers that their school should buy copies of Vivian’s poems so that they could read them in class.

The next Centerprise publication was made jointly with the Hackney branch of the National Union of Teachers. The Hackney NUT were celebrating their centenary in 1972 and Richard Whitmore and myself, both members, suggested putting together a Jackdaw-type collection of local history materials, with an emphasis on the social history of the borough. A collection of maps, facsimile posters, extracts from books about Hackney, transcripts of tapes made with elderly Hackney people about their school-days, photographs and so on, was produced called ‘If it wasn’t for the houses in between … ‘ The interest this aroused, especially in bringing forth elderly people who had written about their lives, made us realise that local history, particularly the social history of the last hundred years, was a very activating subject to study, promoting quite the opposite of that ‘apathy’ which was supposed to be a ‘condition of life’ in the teaching of school history.

It was at this point that Centerprise workers and the policy-making co-operative to whom the workers reported back, started discussing the idea of making local publishing an intergral part of Centerprise’s work in Hackney. A considerable part of the impetus for this had arisen out of the enormous local interest in the books, and the consequence of this is that many new local people were beginning to come into the bookshop, particularly those who had been specifically attracted to the local publications, which were selling in large quantities. These discussions resulted in the setting up of a full-time job at Centerprise with the responsibility for local publishing. This job I took up in September 1973.

Within the first two weeks of starting, two people brought in pieces of work they had written. Dot Starn had been a dressmaker for most of her life, but her autobiographical reminiscences were of her working class childhood in Stoke Newington, and her manuscript came to us as a bundle of pages torn out of an exercise book typed in capital letters. It was a detailed, affectionate account of a childhood within a close family which had had its share of hardship. Most striking, though, were her descriptions of her rebelling against the expectations of what, as a young girl, her interests should have been. As well, a number of now forgotten games and children’s songs were recollected. In November 1973 we printed 1,000 copies of her pamphlet, ‘When I Was A Child’, and within three months, it was out of print.

The other publication we produced before the Christmas of that year was a collection of poems by Christine Gillies, a nineteen-year-old woman who had left school at fifteen and who continued to move from job to job in the hope of finding one that interested her. They also enjoyed a lot of local interest, and together with Vivian Usherwood’s collection, occasioned quite a lot of comment as to how unusual it was to see poetry appearing in print that didn’t seem to come from any kind of established literary culture.

Then at the end of 1973, we published two small stories written by Hackney school-children. In many ways this had been one of the original ambitions, to put into print children’s writing that deserved to get beyond the exercise book. On all levels, they failed to win any serious response; there wasn’t much interest from teachers, and their unavoidable lack of any specific local significance did not cause them to be bought alonside our other publications.

When we had started publishing, we had left all the technical work in the hands of one sympathetic local printing firm. As we began to realise how the process of offset-printing worked, we took more interest in at least designing the books ourselves. All the design and lay-out for the history pack, ‘If it wasn’t for the houses in between …’ was done by Tony Bacon while still a student at Hackney Downs school. Dot Starn’s autobiography was designed by Neil Martinson, a regular user of Centerprise who had just left school and started work for another local printer.

The next person to turn up at Centerprise was Ron Barnes, a cab-driver who had lived all of his life in Hackney. He had been working for some months on his autobiography and having bought some of the Centerprise publications, had realised that we might be interested in publishing his book. Ron’s book, ‘A Licence to Live’, was about a very bleak childhood, a set of appalling school experiences, and descriptions of a number of the thirty-seven jobs he had had before gaining his cab-driver’s licence. What impressed me the most was the connections that had been made between the events that had happened to him and his continuous awareness of the questions that these experiences had raised; every incident in the book had been written about reflectively. In the introduction to his book he wrote:

`Since a child, living in the East End of London, life has always seemed a puzzle to me. I suppose I am not alone in this. But I think the reason I have written this is that all my experiences, good and bad, seem to have built up inside, and this is one way of giving vent to my feelings about life in general. . . . Another reason why I decided to write this is because I have never kept a diary. I don’t think many people in the working class in Hackney keep diaries either. Yet haven’t you ever wondered what life was like for ‘ordinary’ people centuries ago? Not only people in general but perhaps your ancestors, the people that you yourself have descended from. Haven’t you ever wished that you could get a glimpse into the lives of your past relatives, and take yourself back to those past times, and get the feel of just what people were like then, their way of life, their pleasures, joys, disappointments, fears, and most important of all, their deep personal feelings and the impression of the world they lived in?’

For me especially, Ron Barnes’ introduction helped clarify what I felt ought to define broadly the editorial principles which informed our kind of local publishing. The most important priority would be to give working class people, most of whom had probably failed to secure any opportunities for further or higher education, the opportunity now to describe their experiences as fully as possible and to share these experiences through the published forms of autobiography, the social history of their own lives, and the more distanced form of expression which poetry offers. For rather more complicated reasons, we felt that it would be beyond the resources of local publishing to provide facilities to publish individual collections of short stories or any kind of novel; largely these reasons were connected with the difficulty to balance the possible local relevance of these forms with the heavy production costs of books of short stories or of single novels; this was not the case with individual collections of poetry which we could produce cheaply.

Yet there were also more difficult criteria for choosing which manuscripts to publish, again connected with balancing priorities. We felt it important to weigh the quality of expression against the extent to which a particular individual’s experiences could clarify, express with precision, stand for and carry the weight of the typical and common experiences of a much larger group of people who could find and recognise large parts of their own lives within a particular autobiography. Thus the autobiography of a local person who had led an especially unique life in the end for us could not take priority over the autobiography of someone who had described clearly and reflectively a life rooted in the localised and common experience of the majority of working class people in Hackney. This dual function of the autobiographical form, serving to express the feelings of both writer and reader, we found quite marvelously expressed in the conclusion of Stuart Hood’s autobiography,`Pebbles from my Skull’:

‘We may record the past for various reasons: because we find it interesting; because by setting it down we can deal with it more easily; because we wish to escape from the individual prison where we face our individual problems, wrestle with our particular temptations, triumph in solitude and in solitude accept defeat and death. Autobiography is an attempted jail-break. The reader tunnels through the same dark’.

One case of editing for political reasons should be described. One chapter of Ron Barnes’ autobiography concerned a job he had as the chauffeur of an alcoholic, director of a large building firm. This man happened to be Jewish. The conditions under which Ron worked were not really any worse than many other jobs Ron had held, yet this chapter could have been taken up and used as anti-Jewish propaganda. Of course, nothing-could have been further from Ron Barnes’ intentions, as he is strongly against racism in all its forms and guises. However, we felt it had to be omitted because many people might feel that because the experience had been printed in a book this could legitimise anti-semitic feelings, whereas we saw — and continue to see — the function of an autobiography to help people understand the pressures and forces which restrict our lives and thus help in some ways to free people from particular imprisoning and self-defeating attitudes like racism and the acceptance of sexual inequality.

The criteria for choosing which individual’s collection of poems to publish was easier. We looked for poems that were accessible to readers not used to reading poetry, which avoided numerous references to Greek mythology or assumed on the part of the reader a knowledge of a wide range of literary references; in short we chose to publish poems written from people’s felt experiences and communicated honestly with a demand of the reader to go through the experience with the writer. Some measure of the importance of these criteria, and their success, can be gauged by the fact that each individual whose poems we have published since we first produced Vivian Usherwood’s collection had read and responded to the work of our other published poets; in two cases poems were actually written in response to poems by other local authors.

Of the other books which we have published in the last five years, one further one certainly needs to be singled out. This was the book ‘The Gates’, a joint autobiographical novel written by two school students about their experiences as determined school truants who had found themselves at an age of fifteen in a maladjusted school at which point they decided to write their version of what they had gone through. This book by Leslie Mildiner and Bill House we published in co-operation with the Stepney Basement Writers as it was too big a project for either of us. Perhaps the most important comment this book made about the process of writing was made by the two authors who said that when they had decided to write a book about their experiences they had sat down only to realise that despite quite some time being taught English, they had never actually been taught to write — at length or with any sense of purpose or development. ‘We learned to write’, they said, ‘by writing a book’. Their very moving account of what it was about schools that frightened them and made them want to run away provided a much-needed corrective to the many ‘official’ views on truancy which always locate the fault within the attitudes and behaviour of the children. At least one head teacher in London banned the book from being used in her school.


‘But Joseph was interested now in the district he was seeing. Three things came to him in this period; some idea of how events elsewhere affected his own home and village; some knowledge that other communities produced other manners and other men; and then the sense, to describe it as best I can, that under the wide acreage of grass and corn and woods which he saw daily there was a ghostly, ancient tessellated pavement made of the events and thoughts and associations of other times. This historical sense he shared with many of the men he met about his work. Their strong memory for the past was unimpaired by much reading or novelty of experience, and yet their interest had been sharpened by the sense of rapid change’.

M.K. Ashby, Joseph Ashby of Tysoe

Almost at the same time as the work started on local publishing in Hackney, in the early part of 1972, a number of people met together to discuss the lack of any kind of evening class provision in the borough, other than strictly vocational or for craft activities, and decided to set up a branch of the Workers’ Educational Association. The intention was to provide classes directly relevant to local issues, linked with programmes of activity. These early meetings were very large, with something like seventy people, many of them from trade union branches and the wider local labour movement, and there was great hope of bringing out an ambitious programme of classes linked with housing issues, shop-floor economics, the increasingly felt impact of the women’s movement, local history, literature and so on.

We were not prepared to meet such resistance to our two major founding principles, which we felt essential if the programme was going to be seen by local people as relevant: the right of the branch to select its own tutors, regardless of their academic qualifications, and the need to link classes with local action where this was applicable. After at least one year of angry correspondence between Tavistock Square, WC1 , headquarters of the London District W.E.A., and Dalston Lane, E8, corresponding address of the Hackney branch, the branch was demoralised and near to collapse.

Many people involved at the beginning understandably drifted away. Perhaps the most striking case illustrating the inability of the W.E.A. to think outside of its preoccupation with formal academic qualifications was that it took the Hackney branch four years to have one of its tutors accepted on to the W.E.A. Tutors Panel. This particular person, a retired clerk with a background of over fifty years in the labour movement, who had for many years been a prominent thinker and speaker within the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and possessed an impeccable knowledge of classical and marxian economics — but who had left school at fourteen and had no formal qualifications whatsoever — was not considered by the then District Secretary of the W.E.A. qualified to conduct classes on economics in Hackney, where he had lived and been active for most of his life. Happily this situation has changed remarkably within the last two years and the W.E.A. in London is emerging as a much more positive force.

One of the early W.E A. classes, on local history, was proposed after a few of the people involved in the W.EA., including myself, had attended an extraordinarily chaotic conference at Ruskin College, Oxford, in May of 1972. It was called a ‘History Workshop’. The texts preached spoke of making history an engaged mass activity, of building a new history based on the living experiences and memories of working class people who hitherto had been rendered invisible, ‘hidden from history’ in Sheila Rowbotham’s phrase, and the technology which was going to be able to create a completely new kind of history was the tape-recorder. The scales fell away from our eyes; we were converted. We came back to Hackney and decided to start a W.E.A. class on local history which we would call ‘A Peoples Autobiography of Hackney’. The branch notified the London District of the W.E.A. that the class would start in September and that I had put myself forward to be the tutor.

Where is the syllabus, we were asked? Well, the class would read from a range of books on the social history of London in the last hundred years, to get some idea of context, and then talk to elderly people living in Hackney, using tape-recorders, and begin to build a comprehensive local social history. No good; and what about my qualifications? I had given up history at the age of twelve bored to tears. However, I had read quite a bit in the last three or four years. Recognition, it was decided, could not be afforded to such a vague and content-less course convened by an unqualified tutor. We decided to carry on nevertheless. At the first meeting there was a good attendance, a mixture of local teachers, one or two sixth form students, three or four elderly people, a dozen in all, and because everybody agreed that the basic aim of the class was a good idea, we set to work.

We sent a letter to the Hackney Gazette explaining what we wanted to do and asked people who wouldn’t mind talking to us about their lives to get in touch with me as the convenor, at my address. Three or four people got in touch. These people, together with the older members of the group, told us a lot. We played extracts of the tapes, and listened often with something like horror at the details of working class poverty in many families in Hackney at the beginning of the century, and from listening to the tapes framed for ourselves new ways of asking people about their experiences, particularly in relation to certain themes.

One of the people who talked to us, Arthur Newton, a retired shoemaker, in the course of two evenings of tape-recording at his home gave us such a marvellous account of his own life in the industry on the bench, as well as telling us about his father who had made shoes at home and all of those nine sons went into the shoe trade, that we decided to convert Mr Newton’s tape into a published autobiography. We transcribed what he told us, gave him the transcript back and he then rewrote the transcript as he wanted it, often adding new material, and returned to us an almost perfect manuscript in copper-plate handwriting. By common agreement in the group we agreed to publish it through Centerprise. ‘Years of Change’, Arthur Newton’s autobiography, has in the last four years sold 4,000 copies, the majority of them within Hackney itself.

The group began with a strong feeling among its original members that working class autobiographies were worth putting into books. It was not a closely argued position, but a conviction that working class life should not just be reflected upon in the pub and the front room, but should be published in the long-lasting form of books, as a permanent record and as a means of maintaining an active local class-consciousness. We wanted to try to sustain and activate that kind of important local sense of history which is so wonderfully described in M.K. Ashby’s description of her father’s historical sense in the anotation at the beginning of this section.

Listening to the tapes we came across a number of references to a rather eccentric doctor who had lived and practised in Hackney between the wars and who had concerned himself with the health of working class people, often refusing to accept money for treatment, despite his very low charge of threepence a visit. We began to talk to people specifically about him, and Dr Jelley of Hackney, ‘The Threepenny Doctor’, emerged as an extraordinary character: A gruff-mannered man who would more often prescribe a piece of steak than pills, who sold clothes and meat in the same shop as he held his surgery, who fought a running battle with the police and the local authorities in defence of his eccentric behaviour, and who operated an abortion clinic in Homerton High Street for which he was prosecuted and imprisoned. We collected eleven short accounts of him on tape and published a little pamphlet, ‘The Threepenny Doctor’. Some time after this publication we received a curt letter from the British Medical Association disclaiming any connection between Doctor Jelley and their honourable profession. In Hackney, though, he was always remembered with great affection.

The starting point of the group’s next project, ‘Working Lives’, followed a substantial discussion within the group as to the political implications of carrying on as we were. The central issue was that if we only talked to elderly people and produced only books about working class life in Hackney in the early part of the century, we were reinforcing the assumption that history is only about the past; that we were in danger of drifting into sentimentality about the past and ought to realise and encourage others to realise that the present was also historical experience. The aim of the ‘Working Lives’ project, which we have just finished after three years’ work on it, was to produce a series of books which took people’s experience of their work in Hackney from the beginning of the century up until today, and linked them as continuous and dominating experiences in working class life.

The first volume, 1905-1945 contained twelve accounts, largely connected with the traditional industries of the area. The second volume which covers people’s experiences between 1945 and 1975 attempts to give voice to a representative group of people at work in Hackney today. This particular development affected the membership of the group and the content of its fortnightly meetings, We continued to meet to plan, listen to and discuss tapes, to collect and examine photographs and other relevant documents and to prepare books. But the ‘Working Lives’ project changed the people who did it and the way it was done. When we were working on individual autobiographies and ‘Doctor Jelley’, there was a clear division of labour between those who contributed the material and those who serviced the group. Our contributors were members of the group, personal contacts and people who answered our letters in the Hackney Gazette; those who serviced the group were Centerprise workers and members with more academic backgrounds. The ‘Working Lives’ project blurred this distinction. New outside contributors have joined the group and more group members have begun to take on servicing functions. These include recording, transcribing and editing tapes, collecting and copying photographs, arranging meetings, giving talks and slide shows to other interested groups and mounting exhibitions. Very importantly, group editing has begun to replace individual editing: for example, in a given meeting a postman and a teacher might find themselves leading a group discussion with an ex-demolition worker about his account of his work; then they might turn to deciding how to deal with the union censorship of one of the group’s accounts of his job.

This last case was a very important landmark for our work. What had happened was that one of the people in the group had been taped by another about his job. The tape was transcribed and edited jointly. The group member then took this account to his shop steward at work who unilaterally decided that it could not be published. The reason for this decision was important mainly that by honestly describing what he did at work, how he cut corners and with the other workers made the job endurable and human, this was to some extent ‘giving the game away’ to the employers. The group wrote to the shop steward explaining the aims of the whole project and how important he felt it was that working people should demonstrate how it was possible with a strong union to make work endurable. A compromise was reached. The shop-steward made his alterations to the text and then asked us to supply forty copies of the final version. He explained that he would put the text to a shop-meeting and if the other workers were happy with it then we could use the piece. This we agreed to. The meeting of the workers agreed to its publication.

In 1975 the ‘Peoples’ Autobiography’ group was invited by the Hackney Trades Council, who knew of our local historical work, to produce a history of the Trades Council to commemorate its centenary. This was largely done by Barry Burke, a member of the group and himself an active trade-unionist. Other members of the group were able to help by providing extracts from autobiographies which contained details of trade union involvement. In his introduction to the book, the Secretary of the Hackney Trades Council, Michael Knowles, wrote:

‘This publication speaks for itself. It has achieved for the anniversary celebrations more than the Trades Council asked for. It is a permanent record of the great enterprising spirit of Centoprise bookshop and the Hackney Workers’ Educational Association, whose interest and assistance makes local projects like this possible’.

Our current project is an attempt at a collective autobiography: ‘The Island’. Self-portrait of a community’. In this, shared experience is not only hinted at by the juxtaposition of separate individual accounts, but is the basis of the book since they know each other well. ‘The Island’ was an area of five streets in Clapton where the people formed a very close community. The streets were grouped in a circle and there was only one road leading into the circle. Consequently no through traffic ever passed through and outsiders were seldom seen. The streets were knocked down in 1970 to make way for local authority housing and Islanders were rehoused all over East London and Essex.

But the reputation remained. Two members of the Peoples’ Autobiography group knew of ‘The Island’ through friends and relatives and told the rest of us about it. Through word of mouth and the obligatory letter in the Hackney Gazette we are currently in touch with about forty Islanders, many of whom are keen to take part in preparing a book about The Island. In fact so great has been the interest that we have had to move out of Centerprise and use a school hall for full meetings of the Peoples’ Autobiography group when there are special ‘island’ editorial meetings, at which there have been up to forty-five people. For the first time in the history of the group, we are using documentary evidence. For example, we have constructed house by house maps of the streets of The Island from rate-books in the borough archives which are a valuable stimulus to peoples’ memories. And we have also collected over sixty photographs of The Island which have been enlarged and mounted as an exhibition for local events and this always brings new contributors in.


‘It comes back to the question we have already emphasised: is it sufficient for a philosophical movement to devote itself to the development of a specialised culture for restricted groups of intellectuals, or must it, in elaborating a thought which is superior to common sense and scientifically coherent, never forget to remain in contact with the ‘people’ and, moreover, find in this contact the source of its problems to be studied and solved? Only through this contact does a philosophy become ‘historic’, does it cleanse itself of intellectualistic elements of an individual nature and make itself into ‘life’.

Antonio Gramsci, The Study of Philosophy

The more seriously I, and some of the other people associated with the publishing activities, took the work we were involved in, the more we realised that we had to go backwards and find out what had happened in the past in terms of possibilities of working class publishing: what had been tried before, what principles had operated and, what had been, at different times, the relationship between writing, publishing and direct political activism. It may seem a curious way to approach the past, and it could be argued that we would only find evidence that would support and confirm our present position, which was, briefly, that the encouragement of self-expression, the description and analysis of everyday life, our present history, was not a diversion from the ‘real’ struggle to change society, but an integral part of a wider dynamic for change.

Many of the books that we needed were quite difficult to come by in local libraries, so over the past three years we have built our own library at Centerprise. One important advantage of working in a centre which has its own bookshop is that we are able to buy books at the wholesale price, which softens the blow of having often to pay very large sums of money for expensive hardback books about British working class history.

We quickly came to realise that the great periods of political agitation always coincided with intense activity in the publishing of newspapers, periodicals and books, often produced at great risk. In Richard Altick’s ‘The English Common Reader’, we could see this process at work in the middle of the sixteenth century.

‘It was not, however, only the Protestant, and especially the Puritan, emphasis upon private Bible-reading as a way to religious truth and thus to personal salvation which stimulated the spread of reading. The religious controversies that reached a climax in the Civil War played their part as well. They reached into the minds, and even more the passionate emotions, of great numbers of ordinary people, who were stirred by them as later generations would be by purely political furore. And the controversies were carried on by floods of tracts and pamphlets, arguments and replies and rejoinders and counter-rejoinders; printed matter which found a seemingly limitless market among all classes that could read. . . The London bookseller George Thomason collected some 23,000 books and pamphlets printed between 1641 and 1662’.

We discovered that there had been a substantial increase in working class literacy during this period, which later declined as a result of the suppression of the independent presses. The direct relationship between literacy and the groundswell of a rising interest in new ideas, new political possibilities to be sought for, which happened at every key period when the working class movement was forcing its way into the political and cultural arena, was also important to those of us who as teachers of reading in our own working lives, insisted on the meaning of reading materials as more important than the ‘scientifically’ worked out suitability.

We understood that when a dying culture can no longer provide any hopes for living in a different way, can no longer generate a literature and an art that reflect and respond to a widespread demand for meaning, this was when in previous periods of crisis, the working class movement had seen the direct need to take on the responsibility for making a new culture. ‘Go ye and write likewise … all join hands and heads to create a library of your own. Your own prose and your own poetry: you ought to be resolved to create these… wrote the Chartist , Thomas Cooper.

In Altick’s book, ‘The English Common Reader’, in Patricia Hollis’s ‘The Pauper Press’, in Wickwar’s ‘The Struggle for the Freedom of the Press’, in J.F.C. Harrison’s ‘Learning and Living’, in E.P. Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, in Brian Simons’s ‘Education and the Labour Movement’, in R.K. Webb’s ‘The British Working Class Reader’, and more recently in Martha Vicinus’s ‘The Industrial Muse’, we discovered a continuing tradition of self-education on a mass scale, a limitless demand for political ideas and for literature. We also noted the counter-movement of persistent suppression of all forms of working class self-activity, either directly by state legislation (we read Collet’s ‘History of the Taxes of Knowledge’) or by large scale campaigns to divert this demand for knowledge into the safer channels of ‘useful knowledge’, ‘economic literature’ (as most mass production publishing was known as) and other forms of diversionary reading.

Nearly all of the books mentioned above are either out of print, published as expensive hardbacks, or in other ways difficult to get hold of; only one of them is in the more democratically accessible form of the paperback. A consequence of this difficulty in getting hold of such books is that a crucial history, a major tradition that directly links to our own contemporary cultural crisis, is missing from nearly all current discussions on the relation-ship between culture and politics. Even within the labour movement, where one hopes to find more considered positions on these issues, for many the problem is spoken of in terms of dragging the working class (both children and parents) towards books after decades of intractable resistance, rather than seeing the issue as a result of two centuries of active suppression of working class people becoming too interested in politics and literature.

The incalculable years of imprisonment spent by thousands of individuals in the last 150 years for daring to publish, or distribute writings on economics, philosophy, literature and other oppositional categories of thought, provide a major corrective to the notion that working class people have not yet appreciated the value of ‘reading and cultural self-improvement’. In fact, this has been one of the most important lessons we have learned: that by producing books with the active participation of local people, thereby refusing to regard the same people as an undifferentiated mass, we have attracted and sustained an enormous local readership, which the figures at the end confirm. This belies many conventional notions about the ‘apathy’ of people in contemporary society with regard to the events which continue to determine the patterns of our lives, and hopefully provides some indication of one way at least of engaging people directly in discussing the nature of the society in which we live.

One of the factors which, in the eyes of the ruling class accentuated the subversiveness of particular radical books, was the question of price, and therefore economic accessibility.

R.K. Webb noted that in the 1790’s:

‘As the price fell, the liability of radical publications to prosecution became greater. The attorney-general stated that he did not prosecute the first part of ‘The Rights of Man’ because, reprehensible though it was, the circumstances of its publication would confine it to the judicious reader who could refute it as he went along But, when the second part appeared, and when ‘In all shapes, in all sizes, with an industry incredible, it was either totally or partially thrust into the hands of all persons in this country, of subjects of every description. . .’ he had no choice but to prosecute. Sir John Scott told Thomas Cooper that he might publish his ‘Reply to Burke’s Invective’ freely in octavo form, but as soon as it was published cheaply, a libel action would be taken’..

The author of ‘The Rights of Man’, Thomas Paine, is quoted in E.P. Thompson’s, ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, as writing to a friend in 1792, ‘As we have now got the stone to roll, it must be kept going by cheap publications. This will embarrass the court gentry more than anything else, because it is the ground they are not used to’. Martha Vicinus noted that one of the problems affecting the relationship of the working class poet to his own class in the 19th century was price: ‘The costs of book production were generally high enough to cut a poet off from his working class audience’. This, however, was not true of the nationally recognised poets who also found a large and serious working class readership.

Louis James writes in ‘Fiction for the Working Man’:

‘Critics have largely ignored the lower class audience enjoyed by Byron, Shelley and Southey, although it is an important element in the relationship of these poets to their age. Romantic poetry was in fact one of the most consistently profitable lines of publication to lower class publishers at this time, catering as it did for both intellectual and political interests’.

David Craig in ‘The Real Foundations’ has gone on to argue that the working class was more acquainted with the complete writings of the Romantics than were the bourgeoisie:

‘In the 1840’s it was noticed that Shelley and Byron were finding most of their readers among the city workers: ‘the bourgeoisie owns only castrated, family editions, cut down with the hypocritical morality of today’. The same is true of Burns. The core of his work — his best satires on religion — were not in the more expensive Victorian editions. It was the working people, handing round their tattered resewn copies in stackyard and smithy, who were reading him whole:

Sheila Rowbotham in ‘Hidden from History’ has noted that in the later part of that century, the reason why Annie Besant was arrested in 1877 for republishing Knowlton’s ‘Fruits of Philosophy’ was because of its cheapness:

‘She pointed out in her defence that a cheap edition of Knowlton’s pamphlet meant that working class women could purchase for 6d. what richer women were already buying at W.H. Smith’s for a few shillings’.

The relationship between price and the accessibility of alternative forms of publishing is one which presses very seriously on us today. The central principle of the Centerprise publishing project is to only publish in paperback form, with perhaps 200 additional specially bound copies for libraries, and to produce the books as cheaply as possible whilst keeping them as attractive as their commercial counterparts. Some publications require a subsidy over and above that of the salary of the full time worker, yet others eventually produce small surpluses which are fed back into other books. The basic under-pinning needed for this kind of local publishing programme is the salary of a full-time worker, an initial and non-repayable capital grant for stock, and some running costs. For the past four years the Centerprise publications have been financially supported by the Greater London Arts Association, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the London Borough of Hackney. The money we have received as far as I know has not visibly drained the country’s cultural resources; certainly not compared with other recipients of arts subsidies. And I doubt honestly whether the people of Hackney get back in the form of cultural facilities the equivalent of what they actually pay in.

We do not pay authors. We see this kind of local publishing as a service we offer and share with people as part of developing a common local culture. To begin paying fees and royalties could begin to encourage the professionalism of writing, the dangers of which were graphically described by Jack Common, the Tyneside writer, who in his book of essays, `The Freedom of the Streets’, perceived:

‘You see, the present arrangements are so damn ridiculous. The proper study of mankind is man, but the moment any of us shows fa bit of social awareness or insight, we at once make a gentleman of him, thus segregating him from his subject matter and compelling him to work by memory all the rest of his life.’

To argue that writing or the creation of a contemporary history should never become a specialised activity, but that it should be part of the same world as that of one’s day to day work, is not to ignore the tremendous pressures this puts on people who have to write and study in addition to a full day’s work. We would like to see a flexible system of awarding grants to enable working people to take periods away from work, or which would enable them to work part-time for a period, if they have a project in hand that requires a lot of concentrated work. The copyright for anything we publish is given to the writer so that any fees paid by other agencies for reproducing their work elsewhere is payable to the author.

We have observed what happens when commercial publishers take up contemporary working class autobiographies. They are produced as expensive hardback books, edited and produced as commodities and destined straight for the shelves of libraries. No concessions are made to the localities from where the books originated and consequently there is no chance of the perspectives of particular autobiographies being challenged or modified by other people living through the same specific local experiences.

We also believe in following as far as we can the principle that all books publish-ed should be kept in print. In this way publishing becomes a process rather than a series of separate events. We think it is important that the building of a strong local class culture be a cumulative one, where books complement, contradict and reply to other books so that a more fully discussed and comprehensive description and analysis is elaborated. A culture cannot develop if the constituent artefacts appear and disappear sporadically.

Our central priority is a local readership. This is activated and serviced in a number of ways. To date all of our books have been featured or reviewed in the local newspaper, which doesn’t generally carry book reviews, and this is very important for us. Sometimes a book will generate a series of correspondence in the letters page of the Hackney Gazette; this happened very recently when members of a family whose history had been written by one of them took sides as to why it was felt important to ‘resurrect’ the past.

Other correspondents have used historical evidence published in our books to support assertions being made in other areas of local life. Following our early local history publications it was evident that these were being largely bought by elderly people in the borough, and it was partly through realising the dangers of addressing ourselves to just one generation that we broadened out to exploring all aspects of recent and contemporary history. We think it is important that our books get used in schools and where this has happened, although not nearly enough we feel sadly, interesting exchanges have happened. A common complaint made by local teachers is that where school children are using one of the local autobiographies as a text and have taken it home, the teacher has found it difficult to get the book back because the parents have retained it to read. And very importantly, a local autobiography can begin within a family a discussion between parents and children about history, and perhaps children may for the first time begin to see their parents and their grandparents as historical figures. This situation is naturally intensified within families, one of whose members has written a book or contributed to one of the collections.

Of course we are lucky in having our own bookshop in which our publications are a major feature, and we can support them and give them a wider context by stocking alongside them books on related areas of history and literature so that it is possible for readers to move outwards from one local book to a wider history of the same period and about the same class. We also sell though about twenty newsagents in Hackney. Between March 1976 and February 1977 we sold 6,922 of our local history titles in Hackney alone.


‘The mind industry can take on anything, digest it, reproduce it, and pour it out. Whatever our minds can conceive of is grist to its mill; nothing will leave it unadulterated; it is capable to turning any idea into a slogan and any work of the imagination into a hit. This is its overwhelming power, yet it is also its most vulnerable spot; it thrives on a stuff which it cannot manufacture by itself. It depends on the very substance it must fear most, and must suppress what it feeds on; the cultural productivity of people’.

The Industrialisation of the Mind, Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

Two recent developments have occurred which promise to ensure that the work of the Centerprise publishing project will sustain the dynamic which has kept it moving forward in these last five years. Firstly, six months ago Neil Martinson joined Centerprise as the second full-time publishing worker, having been voluntarily involved with the Peoples’ Autobiography Group almost since it started. A second worker was needed to cope with the increased work load engendered by maintaining the substantial administrative work which accompanied the developments described earlier, and also to help service the more complicated, but more democratic editorial procedures which the publishing project has moved towards.

Secondly, after some years of admiring the activities of the Basement Writers group three miles down the road in Stepney, we started the Hackney Writers’ Workshop as a W.E.A. class meeting fortnightly at Centerprise. The Hackney Writers’ Workshop is open to local people interested in writing and sharing their work with others, with the understanding that individuals should be able to develop and grow within the framework of a sympathetic self-critical group. Already it is obvious that in fact the group has worked in this way since there has been a steady increase in numbers — to the point where we need to seriously consider starting a second group — and with hardly anybody dropping out. It has also been obvious how much individual writer’s work has improved and extended in range since coming along; a judgement that most of the writers — including myself— have acknowledged openly. Out of the eighteen people who regularly attend, only two of us, both Centerprise workers, have any experience of further or higher education. At present we are working towards an anthology of our work to be published in Autumn 1977. We have also established a fraternal relationship with the Scotland Road Writers’ Workshop in Liverpool; they have been down to read to us and we have been to Liverpool to read.

We hope quite soon to start a second ‘Peoples’ Autobiography of Hackney’ group, using cameras rather than tape recorders with the aim of collecting old photographs — which we have been doing anyway for five years — and also recording with a camera the whole range of experiences connected with contemporary working class life in Hackney, thus building a visual autobiography of life in this century.

Finally, there are two developments in our local history work that we expect to be able to engage in quite soon. We hope to begin reprinting important books about the East End of London which have not been available for many years but which we think are crucial to deepening and strengthening the historical context of a ‘cumulative’ local culture. The reprinting of Arthur Morrison’s ‘Child of the Jago’, now out of print, and his ‘Tales of Mean Streets’ would be priorities in this programme. We also hope to set going soon a detailed history of the Thames Lightermen which will be written by two lightermen and will provide an account of the reasons behind the decline of the Thames Lighterage industry and conclude with proposals for revitalising that industry. This is a very exciting project since it could show clearly the way in which one can develop from history into a criticism of contemporary economic policies and go beyond that to making proposals for a radically different set of future choices.

The last five years have gone by very quickly. There is no way of measuring the impact that our books have made, within Hackney or beyond. Yet even if Centerprise collapsed tomorrow, it is reassuring to think that in many homes, in front rooms, on bookshelves or on mantelpieces there would remain pieces of tangible evidence that the people who live in Hackney have a history, have written about themselves, have tried to describe and understand the world they have lived in, and which they have wanted to share with others. A society without a memory is like an individual without a memory: it moves without reason or purposeful direction, activated only by forces or pressures outside of itself. I have avoided as far as possible the word ‘community’; it is properly the right word to be used, but it has been so distorted by the process described in the quotation at the beginning of this section, that in some cases I think it is a word and an idea that we will have to re-appropriate at a later point in time, when it once again suits our needs and not the needs of those who are so concerned to impose the sense of ‘community’ upon us as a cheap substitute for a radically different, and better, society. Community, like history, is not something which happens by accident; not given, but made.

Report From Hackney, 1980

Published by Policy Studies Institute, 1980.

62 pages.

A survey of just under 1000 people in the Borough in 1979, focusing primarily on housing, (un)employment, crime, race/immigration etc.

Some choice quotes:

The story is not one of unrelieved gloom. The people of Hackney are as energetic as they are friendly, as immensely varied in their origins as in their present way of life. Many of the buildings are dreary, never their inhabitants.


[…] almost every great act of intolerance in Europe, or elsewhere, has had its repercussions in Hackney, from the persecution of Huguenots in France, the suppression of the Basques in Spain, the pogroms against the Jews in Russia to the victimisation of the opponents of Idi Amin. The incomers have all contributed to the vitality of the borough. They have often arrived in the south of it and moved northwards, and sometimes right out of it, as their circumstances have improved. The three latest waves of migration have been of West Indians in the 1950s and 1960s, of the Asians from East Africa and the Indian sub-continent in the 1960s and 1970s and of Turkish and Greek Cypriots in the 1970s.

People have clearly gone on being attracted to Hackney as a place in which to live. More than three out of every four people in our sample – 77 per cent have moved into the borough since birth. Nearly one out of every two – 46 per cent – came in from other parts of London or Britain, some brought in by their parents but most as a matter of choice.


[…] In spite of the gulf the women felt between their way of life and some of their neighbours, neither of them supported the National Front.

Mary: ‘Someone near here has been vicitmised. He’s had NF painted on his door, he’s had paint and rubbish thrown.’

Janice: ‘He’s a nice man, he’s a doctor in fact. I don’t know why they pick on him. I mean, he heals their wounds, so why should they?’

Mary: ‘The Front are nut cases. Once they start on about the blacks, say the blacks all go, the Asians all go, right? Next thing you know it’s the Jews. Then it’ll be the Irish, then the Catholics. As far as I know, unless you’re white, English and Protestant, you’re out. That the way they see it.’

Gentrification, 1970s style

One quarter of those in our sample who had arrived in the last five years were in the professional managerial class […] Another young single woman lived with four others like her, all members of the women’s movement and consumers of health foods […] the areas where professional people are most in evidence are De Beauvoir Town, Victoria Park and parts of Stoke Newington.

Fewer of the people in the professional and managerial class wanted to leave Hackney than in any other occupational class […] The reasons they had moved into Hackney are obvious enough: cheaper houses near to the centre than in many parts of London. Several of them also appreciated the combination of an old house to live in and the presence nearby of working-class people. Insofar as they were politically minded they tended to be of the left.

[…] Their arrival has, of course, not been welcome to everybody. They have taken over some of the most desirable housing in the borough, and pushed up houses prices beyond the reach of some local people who might otherwise have been able to buy. […]


There has been, and is, much poverty in Hackney. An enquiry in 1971 showed that the average household income was lower than in any other London borough.


People had many different grievances on this score and we cannot do more than give an impression of them, partly because they varied so much. In a furnished flat or room the complaint was often enough about the rent. In an unfurnished flat it could be about the lack of a bathroom (There are still some 14,000 households in Hackney which do not have exclusive use of bath, hot water and an inside W.C.). In Council flats, where most of the people lived, it all depended on the flat.

A nation grievously divided between poverty and affluence will never survive. If Mr Heseltine thinks that areas like Hackney do not need special help he should first come to Hackney to spend a night on one of its housing estates.