“Most Awful Place in Britain”: Hackney 1982

Paul Harrison was a journalist whose first books were on the Third World. His 3rd book is concerned with the London Borough of Hackney based on  his research between May 1981 and July 1982.

It includes a lot of depressing detail on the deprivation which was prevalent in Hackney at that time. The statistics can be a bit wearying, but this is compensated by the numerous personal interviews which are included and the general insights the author provides.

Harrison’s book is a good counterbalance to the romanticism some people have about the “good old days” in Hackney. The intensity of the poverty, horrendous working conditions, terrible housing, violence and racism is remarkable – the author makes a compelling case that the Borough was the worst place to live in the UK (although neighbouring Tower Hamlets was also a contender by many measures).

I am obliged to say that wherever there is oppression you will also find resistance (something I definitely believe… in my more optimistic moments…). Alongside the crime and crumbling infrastructure of 80s Hackney, the book also includes some brief pieces on community organisation and a really good report on a dispute at the Staffa Products factory in the Lea Valley which included an occupation of the premises by striking workers. I got quite excited about that before I realised Staffa Products was in Leyton rather than Hackney and therefore slightly out of scope for this blog.

There is also a great first person account of a riot in Dalston in 1981 which I will post up here soon.

Paul Harrison went on do work for the UN and publish a further book on “pantheism”. He has a website here.

I found my copy for a quid in the basement of Housmans, London’s leading radical bookshop. You can also buy second hand copies of the book cheap online.

Below is a section from the prologue of the book which gives a reasonable overview of Hackney’s grimness at the time:

The Breaker’s Yard

Hackney, like most urban settlements of any size, is a patchwork. It exists as a unit only as a local-government entity. It possesses an aorta: the long straight road, once the Romans’ route to Cambridge, that begins in the south as Shoreditch High Street and ends in the north at Stamford Hill, changing its name half a dozen times along the way, from Kingsland Road to Kingsland High Street, and from Stoke Newington Road to Stoke Newington High Street.

But Hackney is a place curiously without a heart, an uneasy amalgam, still only in its late teens, of three older boroughs —Shoreditch, Hackney and Stoke Newington — themselves formed by the fusion of several parishes. Hackney is an archipelago of islands, each with its own distinctive geo-morphology and ecology. In Shoreditch, atolls of dilapidated small factories, warehouses and offices, cut off by a sea of metropolitan traffic.

To the north, Hoxton, a concrete forest of council blocks, still largely inhabited by Cockneys, one of the few places in the borough’s boundaries where some networks of community and kinship survive, albeit much weakened and frayed. Further north again, De Beauvoir, whose stately terraces — by far the best built and best laid out in Hackney — increasingly house the upper-middle and professional classes.

East of that, Haggerston and Queensbridge wards, more than three-quarters council tenants, and planning-blighted London Fields and Broadway Market, with shops boarded up or burnt out and streets of houses either empty, with doors and windows breeze-blocked up, or housing squats of radicals and feminists: Why pay rent when they don’t give a damn about you? reads one painted slogan.

Demolition of Metal Box factory on Urswick Road (c) Alan Denney
Demolition of Metal Box factory on Urswick Road, 1983. © Alan Denney.

East again, Homerton and Lower Clapton, streets of humble Victorian terraces, many of them not much above the level of the Hackney Marshes and the River Lea that bound the borough’s eastern limits. The Marshes, Hackney’s only area of ‘natural’ wildlife, are marred by motorbike scramblers, electricity pylons and what little exists of large-scale industry in Hackney — Lesney’s Matchbox Toys (closed down in 1982), Metal Box, James Latham Timbers.

Inside the bend of the river, stretching from Stamford Hill down to the flyovers of Eastway, a long succession of council estates, each cursed with its own subtle combination of torments: the rain-penetrated towers of Trowbridge; Kingsmead with its air of a high-security prison; crime-plagued Clapton Park; and a row of grim blocks — like Wren’s Park, Wigan House, Lea View and Fawcett. Along the borough’s northern edges, bounded by Seven Sisters Road and Amhurst Park, lie the more desirable wards of Hackney, becoming fashionable among radical professionals and long the home of most of Hackney’s large Jewish population, including members of the revivalist Hasidic sect whose bearded men wear broad-brimmed black hats, long black coats and hair in ringlets.

And in the heart of Hackney lie terraces of the worst Victorian housing, originally dominated by cheap rooming houses, now in the process of changing over to gentrification, housing associations and infill council housing: a chaotic mixture of races and classes where whites, West Indians, Asians, Africans and Cypriots are shuffled like the suits in a pack of cards.

Even a superficial tour would show that most of Hackney is not healthy or prosperous. There are piles of refuse in ‘many streets, and run-down shops with safety grilles left up even when they are open. There is an air about people in the street or in the bus queues: of patience adopted not out of a tranquil mind, but out of necessity, holding in a tense bolus of sufferings. An air, not of open despair, but of lack of hope; not of misery, yet of an absence of joy. An air of aggravation and diffuse anxiety. For Hackney is a sump for the disadvantaged of every kind, a place to which those with the fewest resources sink, and from which those who gain any freedom of choice escape. It is a place of deprivation, of poverty, of toil and struggle and isolation, a knacker’s yard for society’s casualties,
a breaker’s yard where the pressure of need grinds people against each other and wears them down.

Ridley Road market, 1982. © Alan DenneyRidley Road market, 1982.  © Alan Denney.

You can get a glimpse of the problem from the statistics. Even by Inner London standards, Hackney is an unusually underprivileged place. It has the second highest proportion of overcrowded households in Inner London, the second highest proportion of manual workers (two-thirds), the second highest proportion of households with no car (two-thirds), the second highest male unemployment rate (22 percent in January 1982), and the second highest proportion of children in care (one child in forty). On all these criteria, Tower Hamlets, usually known as London’s East End, pips it to the post. But Hackney leads Tower Hamlets in other indicators: it has the second highest proportion (after Haringey) of people living in households with a New Commonwealth head (27 per cent), the second highest incidence (after Lambeth) of violent street crime. And Hackney leads the field for a string of other factors. It has the highest female unemployment rate in London and the highest proportion of single-parent families (with 15 per cent of children under sixteen). It has by far the highest proportion of dwellings unfit for human habitation — one in five — and by far the lowest educational attainments in London. It has the highest proportion of registered disabled in London. It has the highest level of smoke pollution. And it has the honour of being the only Inner London borough without a tube station. Incomes in Hackney are the lowest in London, and well below the national averages despite much higher than average housing and transport costs. In April 1981, average weekly earnings were £133.50 for men and £94 for women — bottom of the Greater London league in both cases. One in three male manual workers earned less than £100 a week, one in ten earned less than £72.30. These figures are for full-time workers whose earnings were unaffected by absence: average incomes in Hackney, dragged down by high levels of part-time or short-time working, by lay-offs and absenteeism, and by unemployment, are far lower.

There is no objective way of weighing one type of misery against another. No one can construct an unchallengeable index of total deprivation that would enable us to rank locations in the lower reaches of hell. There are, of course, subjective measures. In 1978 the National Housing and Dwelling Survey asked people in inner-city areas what they thought of their neighbourhood. The proportion of respondents in Hackney who were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the area was 42 percent, by far the highest in the country — a full 11 percent ahead of Tower Hamlets, the nearest London rival, and almost double the highest figure outside London (22 percent for Manchester).

It is invidious to make comparisons, but I believe that Hackney is one of two or three contenders for the title of the Most Awful Place in Britain.

There are many people who live in Hackney who will deny this: middle-class owner-occupiers will tell you aggressively that it is not at all such a bad place to live. And probably it is not, for people with cars, telephones, bank accounts and self-contained dwellings. They do not have to walk along dangerous streets with all the money they possess in their pockets, or queue for hours at bus stops, or search for unvandalized phones when someone falls ill. They do not have to share toilets or baths. They do not have to wrestle shopping and pushchairs up stairs or into lifts that often do not work. They do not have to suffer damp and cold. They do not have to be humiliated in social-security offices or wait months for essential repairs. Above all they are there by choice, not by compulsion. They can leave at any time they want: they do not have the sense of imprisonment, of closed options, that plagues those without the incomes or the saleable skills that would enable them to get out. Whether a place is tolerable to live in, or intolerable, depends on your income; that is as true of Britain as a whole as it is of Hackney.

For the poor, Hackney is something akin to the Slough of Despond, a place so terrible that the only recourse seems to turn tail and run. Yet most of them lack the means of escape — the money to buy a house elsewhere, the skills or certificates to get a job elsewhere.

Hackney Peoples Press, 1975 + Hackney Mental Patients Union

My HPP archive is missing the issues between the debut in 1973 and the ones below, but a previous post highlights an edition I don’t have from 1974.

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Both of these issues are about 3 quarters A4 size. The May issue is 12 pages and the July one (below) is one sheet bigger at 16 pages.

The May issue is essentially “the health special” with pieces including:

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Abortion – opposition to a private members’ bill seeking to disallow abortions except where a doctor agreed that there was a risk to a woman’s life or health. (Like a lot of these bills, it didn’t go anywhere. Hard to say whether that is through resistance or lack of support). Also the lowdown on the difficulties faced by women seeking abortions in Hackney.

Hackney Helps Hoteliers – on the huge subsidy (£450,000 a year) paid by the council to the owners of bed and breakfasts so they could house 155 homeless families. Hackney was the top borough in London for this at the time. The article rightly points out that the money would be better spent on building or acquiring council houses. Nearby Camden had purchased several thousand homes for this purpose over the previous few years, compared to 189 by Hackney in 1974 – and 37 in 1973.

Hackney Reading Centre – a new joint adult education venture between Centerprise and City and East London College.

Centerprise – funding difficulties and a deficit had built up. The council had refused to increase its £1000 a year grant.

Hackney Health Guide – a four page feature on health facilities in the borough – and also the issues they faced.

Stop The Road – opposition to proposals for a huge new road from Dalston to Hackney Wick.

Marsh Festival – taking place in July with a “Hackney Marsh on Sea” theme – Punch and Judy, donkey derby, etc.

Groups / Contacts – everything from Gamblers Anonymous to playgroups and 3 branches of Hackney Young Socialists.

Also a feature on Hackney Mental Patients Union, which was then based in a “democratic community”-run house at 37 Mayola Road, Lower Clapton. The group named the building “Robin Farquharson House” after the mental health activist of the same name who had recently died as the result of an arson attack on his home in Kings Cross:

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Photo of Andrew Roberts at doorway of Farquharson House

Photo of Andrew Roberts at doorway of Farquharson House

There is a wealth of information about Hackney based mental health campaigning at Andrew Robert’s website:

http://studymore.org.uk/mpu.htm

(There is quite a lot of text on the page so you will need to press CTRL + F on your keyboard and do a search for “Hackney” – or anything you fancy…). The following is of interest:

Friday 6.5.1974 4.30pmFirst meeting of Hackney Hospital MPU

“Alan Hartman explained what kind of things the mental patients union does. Refusing treatment, cruelty to patients, clothes grants, fighting against being discriminated against in jobs… Alice ill-treated by nurses…”

“Resolved that a branch of the Mayola Road M.P.U. be formed in Hackney Hospital. proposed Alan Hartman, seconded Alice. 15 for – none against. Alan Hartman elected chairman..”

The meeting was adjourned after the senior nursing officer attempted (unsuccessfully) to break it up.

Hackney Gazette 6.8.1974 MENTAL PATIENTS UNION IS NOW RECOGNISED

The Hackney hospitals branch of the Mental Patients Union is the first in the country to achieve recognition. Psychiatric wings in both the German and Hackney Hospital are affected.

The MPU aims to bring about a better deal for patients in mental hospitals, and improved status.

Mr Andrew Roberts, of the Hackney branch, claims that several patients in Hackney Hospital psychiatric wing had spoken of better treatment by staff since the branch was recognised on July 18.

People’s News Service 1.6.1974 “MENTAL PATIENTS’ UNION MEMBER ESCAPES COMPULSORY DRUG TREATMENT.

Last week Tony O’Donnell moved into the house of the Mayola Road Mental Patients Union in East London after a long struggle to find a place where he could live without having to undergo injections of modicate, an extremely strong drug used on people diagnosed as schizophrenic…”.

Joan Hughes recalled Robin Farquharson House in 2006:

We ran the Robin Farquharson House in Mayola Road for three years. This was divided into individual rooms that were entirely under resident’s control, but it also had an office which served as a crash pad in emergencies. We often had people staying who were going through a crisis and who were supported by other residents. We also helped and advised people by telephone and letter, and there were any visitors from all over the country as well as from abroad.

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The July issue is still a bargain at 5p – especially with the extra pages! Features this time on:

Hoxton Hall – 80 years of its role as a hub for working class culture and education.

Stop The Road – the proposed Dalston to Hackney Wick road was refused by the council, but there was concerns it could still be pushed through by the GLC.

Barbauld Road: Cheaper to Stop the Bulldozers – Opposition to the demolition of houses in south Stoke Newington. The argument was that it would be £2million cheaper to renovate the existing homes. (I assume that this advice was ignored and that the estate on Barbauld Road is what happened?)

Health on the Cheap – a critical article about the reorganisation of Hackney hospitals by an anonymous doctor who had worked in them.

Abortion: the fight goes on – report on a demonstration against the proposed amendments to abortion law covered above. And the general lack of access to abortions for women in Hackney even without it.

Hackney Women’s Aid – short feature on women’s refuges etc. The absence of funding from Hackney Council is very troubling.

Nursery Nurses Win – negotiations culminate in an agreed 36 hour week and backdated pay rise.

Repairs: Who carries the can? – The state of the 26,000 council homes in Hackney. HPP conducted surveys amongst tenants in De Beauvoir and Stonebridge – a number of issues were identified.

Also groups and contacts (pretty much as above, but now includes Hackney Committee Against Racialism), a call for help with the paper, various upcoming events.

and:

A round up of housing news including housing association / council skullduggery and some properly horrible stories about housing situations people in Hackney had to endure.

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Plus! Music on the back page!

Music makes money. The star system produces glamorous performers on the one hand and passive consumers on the other. It’s not just that the music industry is a business – ruled by profit – the star system corrupts everybody learning or creating music. The motivation for learning or making up music is too often dreams of fame or fortune, not creating something for our friends, workmates or comrades to express the realities of our lives.

I’m not sure they would have been fans of the X-Factor… I should point out that I don’t agree that music fans are necessarily passive consumers (some of them put quite a lot of effort into it, whether “it” be active listening, involvement in fan communities or simply dressing the part when they go out). I also think that whilst music that expresses the “realities of our lives” is needed, that it would be quite boring if that was the only music around. Sometimes we need sounds that help us escape, or imagine new realities…

Having said all that, Hackney Music Workshop looks like it did great work!

(At some point I would also like to cover the Hackney Musicians Collective and their now unaffordable 1981 LP – any info welcome…)

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Issue 19 would appear in May 1976…

Mike Gray remembered at Chats Palace

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From Facebook:

Please join friends and ex-colleagues of Mike Gray at Chats Palace at this private view of ‘Mike Gray – in Black & White’

This collection of Mike’s photographs celebrates his great contribution to the community arts scene of Homerton and Clapton, most notably, his unique roles in establishing Hackney Marsh Fun Festival, Chats Palace and the ‘Save Sutton House’ campaign.

Mike died in January this year. There were some inspiring obituaries about him at What Is Chats Palace and The Guardian.

Hackney Gutter Press issue 5, September 1972

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This issue:

Cover story on council rent increases.

Dock strikes – dockers sold out by the union.

A Cautionary Tale – The eviction of a family squatting on Sandringham Road E8. “There is no such thing as squatters rights” […] “if we organise ourselves, the sky’s the limit: we can defend whole streets of squatters, as they started to do in Bride Street Junction: we could take over blocks of flats, new hotels, as they have done in Italy (and did in England after the war). We could stop communities like De Beauvoir and Mapledene being ‘redeveloped’ into luxury flats, and the poor being pushed out into new towns…

“Many of us have squatted ‘successfully’ – without being evicted – for a long time now. But it’s not enough: we haven’t won until there’s no more homeless, until the system that made us homeless and makes profit out of empty houses, that puts the rich in palaces and the poor in overcrowded ghettoes is TOTALLY OVERTHROWN.”

“There are squatters meetings every week in a different house: contact CENTERPRISE  to find out when and where the next one is. CENTERPRISE, 34 Dalston Lane E8”

A Living Income For All“I’m not interested in the right to work, what must come is the fight for a share of the wealth that’s going”

Shitting Bricks – builders’ strike.

Strikers and the SS“The Social Security is the biggest strike fund of them all! Strikers are beginning to realise this on a large scale and organising with Claimants Unions to make sure they get their benefits”

Antisocial Insecurity – on how protest movements have forced welfare concessions from the state.

Courting the Union – the continuing saga of three Claimants Union members who were charged with criminal damage after a protest at the Lower Clapton Social Services office the previous February. The three defended themselves and challenged the jury selection process (rejecting managers from standing and challenging the lack of black jurors).

The main allegation was that the defendants “smashed up two cubicles and kicked open the door separating staff from claimants”.

The defendants countered this by highlighting discrepancies in the prosecution witnesses testimony and pointing out that “people had been waiting for over four hours, how the office was packed with about 80 claimants, how many of these claimants had been deprived of their rights, how the SS clerks stopped working apparently because of the noise and how one SS clerk, John Fawcett, hit a claimant in the face and smashed his camera. They all said that [defendant] Chris Ratcliffe had been sitting in the waiting area at the time of the damage and [defendant] Eddie Rose didn’t arrive until well afterwards. The defence witnesses described how the cubicles were smashed up by about 20 or 30 angry claimants.”

One defendant was acquitted, the other two were found guilty and conditionally discharged and ordered to pay £20 costs each.

Laughter in Court – another set of Claimants Union activist on trial, this time following a demonstration at Bonhill Street Social Security the previous March. 3 of the 4 defendants were women. One of them was pregnant and asked for an adjournment because she felt ill. This was refused and resulted in the defendants disrupting proceedings until an adjournment was granted.

Women and the Tory Rent Act – being disproportionately effected by rent increases.

Asian Invasion – against the Powellite racism against immigrants from Idi Amin’s repression against Asians in Uganda.

Plus updates on the Stoke Newington 8, attempted eviction of squatters by Acetel Housing Association and the usual classified ads (click to enlarge):

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Despite the “this could be the last time” story on the back page (see above,) there was at least one further issue of Hackney Gutter Press.

After this the paper merged with Hackney Action to form the much longer running Hackney People’s Press. More about which in due course…

A Radical History of Hackney Parks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1885 William Morris speaks at Victoria Park:

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

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

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

1887 Free speech demo in Victoria Park in March.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1990 Hackney residents burn Poll Tax bills in Clissold Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources/Acknowledgements

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

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

Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park

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

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

History Is Made At Night (Funk The Royal Wedding)

Past Tense (London Fields Lido)

Getting Involved

Hackney Council’s list of Park User Groups.

Further Reading: Modern

The Rise of the Friends Groups Movements, by Dave Morris

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

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

Further Reading: Older

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

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

Rush FM raided, 1993

A previous post looks at pirate radio in 1990s Hackney and specifically Rush FM, a station based on the Nightingale Estate in Clapton.

In the summer of 1993, Rush was busted in a high profile raid:

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Thanks to Steph for sending the scan of this story from the Evening Standard. (Click to enlarge).

I think the many of the claims made in the video and press coverage can be taken with a pinch of salt. People running pirate radio are no angels, but they’re not stupid – so broadcasting on airline or emergency frequencies is a no-no. I think the drugs connection is exaggerated, as is the claim that Rush was so well fortified that the army would have to be called in!

Steph has also uploaded a recording of a Kool FM show recorded the weekend after the raid on Rush. The MCs are in fine form reacting strongly against the media coverage of pirates and denying the drugs connection. See especially around the 23/24 minutes mark for mention of the Evening Standard.

More information on the show, including a tracklist over at Soundcloud.

Kool FM was also originally based around Hackney and Tower Hamlets and is one of the longest running pirates in the world, having broadcast pretty much continuously since 1991 (though I think they moved to internet radio recently). Here is a documentary on Kool and other pirates from 1996 (it includes a police officer from Stoke Newington station on a Station FM phone in!)

Perhaps the last word should go to Dica & Ben Intellect, whose “Can’t Stop The Pirates” samples extensively from the TV news report above:

“Not A Thing Was Moving” – Hackney and the 1926 General Strike

Hetty Bower

“Not an hour on the day, not a penny off the pay”

There’s a fantastic brief video interview with 106-year-old Hackney resident Hetty Bower at the BBC site, which is as good a place to start as any:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17609400

Here’s some biographical information about Hetty from the Time Of Their Lives site:

Not everyone develops their undying love of music sitting under the family’s mahogany dining table during air raids.  Not everyone goes on to become an indefatigable peace campaigner, marching against nuclear weapons, the Iraq wars and Israel’s attacks on Gaza at the age of 103.  Hetty Bower is not everyone.
Hetty was born in Dalston, London in 1905. During World War I air raids, the voice of Caruso singing arias from Pagliacci rang out from the giant horn of the ‘His Master’s Voice’ gramophone to drown the noise of anti-aircraft guns. Sometimes the family sheltering beneath the solid table sang along.  Hetty’s eldest sister – a strong influence later, introduced symphonies into the musical mix.  Hetty was hooked.

Since the interview above, Hetty has celebrated her 107th birthday and is now one of the oldest people in the UK. Proof of the restorative power of a life of struggle I guess!

What was the General Strike?

I’m stealing and modifying this introduction from Past Tense’s excellent text on the General Strike in Southwark:

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of workers taking action themselves without them…

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off. Since then the General Strike has entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain. […]

The General Strike was of course a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages and conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

The accounts here […] fail to analyse at all WHY the General Strike failed, despite the powerful unity of the working class nationally and locally. The TUC leaders sold out the Strike, but despite their anger, support for the miners and resentment towards the TUC, neither the Councils of Action, the Trades Councils, the militant left, nor the insurgent workers they claimed to represent, significantly broke out of the official structures, to either broaden the Strike while it was on or to continue it after it had been called off.

[…] When the union leaders called the strike off, millions of workers, after an initial upsurge, obeyed, whatever their feelings. Workers told not to strike or to go back to work even before the Strike ended, did as they were told. And the Communist Party of Great Britain […] made little attempt to challenge the TUC running of events in fact calling for “All power to the General Council.”

Thousands of working people fought the cops and scabs for nine days, all over the country. But only by breaking out of TUC control and extending the struggle on their own behalf could the outcome have been any different.

What happened in Hackney?

hackneytcbook

The following text is taken from Rebels With A Cause: The History of Hackney Trades Council 1900-1975 by Barry Burke (Hackney Trades Council and the Hackney Workers’ Educational Association, 1975):

When the strike was declared in May 1926, the Hackney Council of Action took over a local boxing hall, the Manor Hall in Kenmure Road [I think at number 16], as the headquarters and ran the strike from there. Throughout the duration of the strike the Council of Action was in continuous session organising the strike locally. Reports were arriving all the time from various parts of the borough and the place took on the character of a nerve centre.

Not everyone was called out on strike at once and there were others such as local tradesmen who were exempted by the TUC. These tradesmen had to present themselves to the Council of Action, give their reasons for wanting to carry on their business, and if the Council were satisfied they were given a permit and a sticker to be put on their vans. It stated “BY PERMISSION OF THE TUC” and the strikers had great satisfaction sticking these on.

Public meetings were held all over the borough, particularly around the Mare Street area and Kingsland Road, the two main thoroughfares that cut through the borough and in Victoria Park.

Police intimidation was always a problem for the strikers and it was in Kingsland Road that this manifested itself in an untypical but frightening confrontation on Wednesday 5th May. One eye-witness recalls:

“The whole area was a seething mass of frightened but nevertheless belligerent people. The roads and pavement were jammed, horse vans, lorries and ‘black’ transport were being manhandled; police were there in force and I suppose that for a time things could have been described as desperate.

The crucial point came when a fresh force of police arrived on the outskirts and I heard an officer call out ‘Charge the bastards. Use everything you’ve got’. And they did. I saw men, women and even youngsters knocked over and out like ninepins. Shades of Peterloo. If they had been armed, apart from their truncheons and boots, Kingsland Road would have gone down in history as an even greater massacre.”

The police carried out baton charges in other parts of Hackney on the same day and the St John’s Ambulance men set up a casualty station in Kingsland Road a day or so afterwards.

Mounted police escort vehicle during the General Strike in London, 1926

Mounted police escort vehicle during the General Strike in London, 1926

Mare Street Tram Depot, now Clapton Bus Garage [and now presumably the Bus Garage at the bottom of the Narrow Way?] was to be the scene of further incident on that same Wednesday. The men had all joined the strike on the first day along with the other transport workers and the depot was empty. Even the canteen staff had gone home and all that was left was the picket line outside. Suddenly, under military escort, along came a crowd of ‘patriotic volunteers’ to start up a tram service.

The picket line was not big enough to stop them entering the depot but by the time this was done, word had reached Harry Lee and his Council of Action round the corner in Kenmure Road. Within minutes the area outside was packed with strikers. Their attitude was that the ‘blacklegs’ may have got in but they were not going to let them out!

All day the crowd stayed outside and not a tram moved. As evening approached, the poor unfortunates trapped in the tram depot realised that their stomachs were complaining. None of them had brought food in with them and the canteen staff were not working so they just had to stay hungry.

A few attempts to escape were made but were unsuccessful and about midnight, the Manor Hall received a visit from the local police superintendent. He asked in the most polite way for the Council of Action to assist him. The reply from Harry Lee was less polite.

During the early hours of Thursday morning, a few did escape from the depot but were chased all the way down Mare Street, past Well Street to the Triangle where they were finally caught. Unfortunately, at this spot stood a horse trough full of water, so that it was a number of very bedraggled and hungry ‘blacklegs’ who made their way home that day. No further attempts were made to take any trams out from that particular depot.

Strikebreaking was enthusiastically encouraged by Hackney Borough Council, now no longer in Labour hands. Right from the start they issued a notice calling for volunteers to man essential services. An office was opened in the public library opposite the Town Hall where strikebreakers could sign on and this was kept open from 9am to 8pm. The Council at that time did not have a single Labour member on it and was comprised of 100% Municipal Reformers (Tories and Liberals who stood together on an anti-socialist ticket).

It is interesting to compare Hackney Council’s attitude to those of Shoredtich and Bethnal Green, two neighbouring boroughs. In both of these, Labour Borough Councils were in office and the respective strike headquarters there were in the Town Halls themselves!

In Hackney, the Council met on the Thursday and set up a special sub-committee to discharge any emergency functions that were needed. A squad of Special Constables was established for the protection of municipal buildings, one of those was the Mayor’s son who was ‘just down from Oxford’ and was on duty at the Town Hall.

The Hackney Gazette, the local newspaper, did not appear in its usual format as the printers had joined the strike. Instead the editor brought out a single sheet; which makes interesting reading, especially the bulletin brought out on the second Monday of the strike (10th May). With the headline MILITARY ARRIVE AT HACKNEY, it went on to state that:

“Victoria Park has been closed to the public. In the early hours of Saturday morning, residents in the locality were disturbed by the rumble of heavy motor lorries and afterwards found that military tents had been pitched near the bandstand… We understand that detachments of the East Lancashire Fusiliers, a Guards Regiment and the Middlesex Regiment have encamped in the park… another body of Regulars is stationed in the vicinity of the Marshes at Hackney Wick.”

Whether this was meant to frighten the strikers or not is not clear but it certainly had no effect on the numbers out on strike in the borough. Despite scares and rumours about people drifting back to work, the number of people on strike in the second week was more than had come out at the beginning on the 3rd of May. All the large factories in the borough had pickets outside them – Bergers Paint Factory in Hackney Wick, Polikoff Ltd., a clothing firm at Well Street and Zinkens Furniture manufacturers in Mare Street were three of the largest.

Nothing moves without our permission

Nothing moves without our permission

All public utilities were either closed or being run rather badly by amateurs. The Hackney Gazette once again reported that three boys of the Clove Club (the Hackney Downs School ‘Old Boys’) were driving a train between Liverpool Street and Chingford and that one of the volunteers at the Council’s Dust Destructor was a parson who was busy shovelling refuse into the hoppers. That probably explains why the Council ended their meeting on the Thursday with the Lords Prayer!

The end of the General Strike came suddenly on Wednesday 12th May, with most strikers in a buoyant and confident mood. The TUC leaders, fearing what they had unleashed, went cap in hand and unconditionally surrendered to Baldwin at 10 Downing Street.

When the news came through to the Strike HQ at Kenmure Road, the first reaction was one of disbelief. Notice were put up advising strikers not to pay attention to what they called ‘BBC Bluff’, but when the official notice of a return to work was given to them during the afternoon, their first reaction was that the strike must have been successful. The Hackney Gazette reported that

“it was publicly alleged that the miners were going back to work without any reduction of wages. There were shouts of ‘We’ve won!’ and cheers, while a section of the crowd began to sing The Red Flag”.

However, as soon as the truth filtered through to them the reaction according to one participant was “bloody murder”. Julius Jacobs who was active in Hackney during the General Strike remembers that ‘The Bastards’ was the most favourable epithet applied to the General Council of the TUC:

“Everybody’s face dropped a mile because they had all been so enthusiastic. It was really working and victory seemed to be absolutely on the plate.”

However, the strikers were still in a militant mood unlike their leaders. That evening, a huge march took place. Several thousands of strikers took part in a march from the Manor Hall in Kenmure Road down Mare Street and Well Street to Hackney Wick and Homerton ending up in a mass meeting outside the Hackney Electricity Works at the end of Millfields Road. A drum and fife band accompanied the marchers and it was led by two men with a large banner. Before the arrival of the marchers, police were rushed up to the Works in a lorry which was driven at great speed through the crowd by one of the Special Constables and as the gates were opened for it, a number of soldiers in field uniform and wearing steel helmets were seen inside. The march was so long that after having a mass meeting by the head of the marchers, the speakers had to go to the back of the march which stretched for about a third of a mile and hold another one.

The return to work was orderly and in most cases without incident. A certain amount of victimisation of militants took place but no more than anywhere else.

See also: