Hackney’s racist police in the 1940s

Sid Easton

Sid Easton (1911-1991) was a Jewish cabbie, communist and trade unionist. The following is taken from his autobiographical tribute “The Life and Times of Sid Easton” edited by Graham Stevenson. This is available here (text) and here (pdf scan) and also includes a lot of material on the Transport and General Workers Union attempting to clamp down on communists in its Dalston branch.


At this time [1941] l had an unpleasant tangle with the law, it was an event heavily tinged with anti-Semitism. I had a job carting finished dresses in my cab. I waited whilst they loaded up and then I took them where I was directed. I carried string and I used to put it in one side through an open window and take it out through the other side and tie it to the roof.

Then they would pile dresses on hangers from the string inside the cab. So much so that the guy who sat in the back of the cab was completely invisible to anyone who didn’t know he was in there.

On this job one day, I was going down Dalston Lane, a viciously anti-semitic area. Nowadays it is viciously racist against Bangla Deshis. The traffic lights were just turning red as I got to them, so I pulled up. I wasn’t conscious of cutting anyone up. l was in such a good mood, once I’d finished this job I was going home to have an early finish. All of a sudden, I got the feeling that someone was trying to come over to my nearside, but couldn”t do so as the kerb was in the way. I looked to see what was happening, when someone came over.

“I’ve a good mind to punch you in the fucking jaw for cutting me up,” he told me. I looked at him, “Look, mate ,” I replied. “I wasn’t aware that I cut anybody up. If I did, I’m sorry. But be careful how you go, don’t threaten me, because I’ve got a weak heart,” I checked him. “I’ll give you a weak heart,” he said and swung a punch at me. I opened the big half door of the cab and swung it out as he shaped up. He was forced to step back and so didn’t get anywhere near me. I thought I’d let him see how big I was, because I’ve a tendency when I’m driving to slump down a bit! So, I got out of the cab and said,”Now look, you’ve had two goes.Why don’t you get back into your cab..” (he was actually driving a lorry ) “..and when the lights change we’ll go. I’ve told you, I didn’t intend to cut you up. Whatever I did was done quite unconsciously. I’m sorry, but what else do you want? Blood?”

“You fucking Jew bastard,” he growled and slung one at me. He was a mug, because I could see it coming a million miles away. So I just stopped it and hit him myself. He hit the deck – he fell flat on his face. There he laid. It was unfortunate for me, because immediately I hit him, my arms were grabbed by two men. They turned out to be plain clothed policemen. They stood waiting for the lorry driver to get up, but l’d done too good a job on him and he remained unconscious. Leaving him on the floor they took me to the police station, riding the few yards on the side runners of the cab. My passenger was still in the back and all this time was hidden by the hanging dresses. Well, I didn’t say anything about him!

These policemen knew what they were about alright, they didn’t care that I was defending myself… it was Jew versus Gentile. In the charge room they prepared to do me for grievous bodily harm. One of them says, ”It’s a good job this wasn’t at night, because we’d have done you.” Meaning of course that they would have beat me up under cover of darkness. “Look, I’ll tell you something,” I replied. “If this had been at night the pair of you would have been on the floor and out. But I’ll let you away with it. If you feel like it, I’ll prove it to you.”

By this time a superior officer arrived and began questioning me. He sent the two policemen who had arrested me out for the body. The knocked out lorry driver had come round before the police could get back to the scene of the crime, although they did have a note of the number of the lorry. The driver nonetheless had pushed off without knowing what had happened. Whilst the passenger in my cab emerged from his hiding place and arrived at the station to confirm that I had been a victim not an assailant.

So they were unable to make the GBH charge stick and resorted to charging me only with assault.

As I was leaving the station, the two policemen who had arrested me started whistling “Deutschland Uber Alles” – remember this was 1941! I asked the policeman in charge if he knew what they were whistling and told him that they also had reckoned they would have beaten me up in the backyard if it had been night-time. I told him that they could do that as far as I was concemed, and lock the door, for there was only going to be one person knocking on the door, the other two would only be fit for burying. He said, “You’re loosing your temper.”

I replied, “What do you mean, “loosing my temper” -there’s a war on, didn’t you know! They’re whistling the enemy’s song and you’re talking to me about loosing my temper. I thought this was something you could be in prison for.” Eventually I had to leave the station, my customer was still anxious to deliver his dresses!

In court, both me and the lorry driver were bound over to keep the peace and had to pay a two shillings fine. The policeman who took the money off us said that we had both acted stupidly and that we ought to shake hands, but the other guy refused although I told the policeman that I didn’t want to fight in the first place. So the copper said, “If I turned round the other way, do you want to give him another one!” That was funny, but I said it was too easy and in any case it was no use banging somebody you didn’t really have to be afraid of.

Further reading

E. Michaels – a Jewish Anarchist in Stoke Newington

The obituary above appeared in Direct Action vol 7 #3, in March 1966. Direct Action was the newspaper of the Syndicalist Workers Federation, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation which operated from 1950 until the late 1970s. The SWF then became the Direct Action Movement before changing into the Solidarity Federation in 1994 – an organisation which is still active today.

A brief death notice in Freedom February 19th 1966

Who was he? Everything starts with an “E.”

It’s easy to understand that a Jewish immigrant revolutionary might want to keep their personal details secret. Googling “E. Michaels” produces some good results in the anarchist archives, but that is only half of the story…

Fortunately there is only one “E. Michaels” listed in the death records for Hackney for 1966:

Further poking about turns up this lovely bit of genealogy, which suggests that Emanuel:

  • Was born in Plock, central Poland on 25 Sep 1890 (near enough to 1891 listed above?)
  • Emigrated to England at the age of ten in 1900.
  • Married Rosie Kitman (3 Apr 1892 – 14 Jan 1963) at Mile End in 1914.
  • Had four children (including Harry, as in the Freedom clipping above, which is reassuring)
  • Worked as a Tailors Presser.
  • Died 12 Feb 1966.

This seems to fit quite well with what we know from the obituaries above and the sort of lives that radical Jewish anarchists would be leading at this time. But I’m not an expert, so if any historians or genealogists out there have spotted any errors, let me know!

Update: a comrade has kindly supplied a passport photo of the handsome Michaels.

Anarchy in the East End!

Most of comrade Michaels’ political activity seems to have been in the East End of London in the first half of the 20th Century. He was involved with setting up a “free school” at 62 Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel, which also hosted The Worker’s Friend Club and the East London Anarchist Group. He was also the secretary of the prisoner support group the Anarchist Red Cross and is listed as a donor in a few issues of the London anarchist newspaper Freedom in the 1910s.

According to census data he lived at the following addresses too:

  • 1911: 25 Hungerford Street, Commercial Road
  • 1921: 73 Sutton Street
  • 1939: 163 Jubilee Street E1

But what about Hackney, eh?

Michaels seems to have remained active up until his death. Sparrows Nest Archive has scans of some his letters from 1958 to 1964. Most of these are addressed to Ken Hawkes, the national secretary of the Syndicalist Workers Federation. Many of them mention meetings at Circle House, 13 Sylvester Path, E8. I’ve written about the Workers Circle and Jewish radicals in Hackney previously.

Michaels’ letters are largely administrative – donations, exchanges of publications, details of meetings etc. But the letterheads are invaluable:

Firstly, they tell us that Michaels was the Honorary Secretary of the Jewish radical organisations Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Voice of Labour) and Rudolf Rocker Publishing Committee. (Rocker was a German Gentile who became heavily involved with the Jewish anarchist movement).

Secondly, the letters show us where Michaels lived in Hackney. (This is my assumption, based on the nature of the addresses listed and that meetings etc seemed to take place at Circle House and not those on the letterheads). So it looks like Michaels lived at 12 Cranwich Road in Stamford Hill during the 1950s and then moved to “Morley House” N16 in 1961. Which no longer exists…

But! According to this useful blog, Morley House was one of the council blocks at the east end of Cazenove Road, Stoke Newington and was renamed Nelson Mandela House in 1984. There is a quote from Mandela on the side of it which can be seen here.

A diversion down Cazenove Road

According to Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, Morley House was built in 1937-1938 “with a meanly detailed exterior, although the planning of the individual flats was generous at the time”.

Fourteen years after Emanuel Michaels’ death, the flats and exterior would see further anarchistic action.

From Hackney Peoples Press #59 August 1980

Hackney Peoples Press reported that Morley House was due for renovation, which meant that:

“All the council tenants were moved out between 1978 and autumn 1979, and the estate was left almost completely empty.”

Perhaps inevitably some tenacious local people seized this opportunity:

“In November 1979 the first squatters started to move in, even though vandalism and thieving had reduced the building to a dilapidated eyesore.

By February 1980 approximately 80 flats were occupied and some residents approached Hackney Community Housing Resource Centre to ask about licensing the house. (A licence to occupy premises does not imply tenancy as such but makes the occupation authorised by the Council.)

They suggested a direct approach to the Council, and three Council Officers were invited to visit the estate and talk to same of the residents. These officers submitted a report to the Housing Management Committee on 31st March this year, and suggested the granting of a license through Hackney Community Housing (HCH). The Committee however, rejected the recommendations and decided to evict the residents – offering the property to HCH as short term housing instead.”

What followed was a bit of a standoff, with the Council refusing to back down and the squatters getting more organised:

“They held weekly meetings, formed themselves into an Association, cleared up rubbish, and met a number of councillors to discuss the matter. They also formally presented a deputation to the Housing Management Committee asking once again for a licence.”

That all probably seems pretty amazing to people who’ve tried squatting recently, but even in 1980, this was simply delaying the inevitable:

From Hackney Peoples Press #65 Feb 1981

Six months later, the Council’s heavy squad made the 200 squatters homeless:

“Following two dramatic dawn raids by police the Morley House squat in Cazenove Road has had all its electricity and gas supplies cut off. At least 25 people were arrested, mainly on charges relating to the stealing of gas and electricity, but the police indiscriminately smashed through the doors of all the tenants on two of the blocks on the estate.

The first raid took place on 14 January and was made by a large number of police, accompanied by police dogs and gas board officials. The police carried no warrants and yet made extensive searches for drugs and stolen goods. Many doors were broken down in the raid, while others had 6-inch nails driven into their hinges to prevent tenants from re-entering their flats. Whilst searching the rooms the police took many photographs, presumably to be used later in evidence.

Using the excuse that many of the tenants were not paying for gas, the supplies to the estate were cut off, although electric cooking rings were brought in by the Gas Board for those who complained that they were in fact paying their gas bills. But in the early hours of the following morning, the police arrived again, this time with Electricity Board officials, and electricity supplies were cut off under the pretext that all the wiring on the estate was in a dangerous condition.

As a result of these raids about half of the 150 people who lived in the squat have been intimidated into leaving. Speaking to residents of Morley House HPP has discovered that these raids follow several months of police harassment. It is estimated that some 50% of the residents had been picked up by the police prior to the raids. Morley House has been a licensed squat for over one year. In that time Gas and Electricity officials have visited the estate several times, but have not ordered any repairs.”

I hope that Emanuel would have approved of the squatters, but you never know. It’s interesting that the block was subsequently renamed Mandela House – Hackney Council in the 1980s was eager to promote social struggles thousands of miles away, but renaming the block after Emanuel Michaels or celebrating the courageous battle of the squatters was off-limits…

If anyone reading this has more information about either Emanuel Michaels or the Morley House occupation, please do leave a comment or drop me an email.

Sources and further reading

Special thanks to Neil Transpontine.

The Workers’ Circle – fighting anti-semitism in Hackney

Tom Brown – Story of the Syndicalist Workers Federation: Born in Struggle at Libcom, who also have an archive of the SWF’s Direct Action newspaper.

Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner – The Buildings of England: London 4: North, Yale University Press 1999.

George Cores – Personal recollections of the anarchist past (published by Kate Sharpley Library, available at Libcom)

Nick Heath – Echoes of Ferrer in an East End back street at Libcom

Albert Meltzer – The Anarchists in London 1935-1955. A personal memoir (online at Libcom, hardcopy from Freedom Press.)

Rob Ray – A Beautiful Idea: History of the Freedom Press Anarchists (Freedom Press, 2018)

Philip Ruff – Book Review – The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid, 1923-1931 (KSL/ABSC, 2010) at Kate Sharpley Library

Hackney Peoples Press #59 August 1980

Hackney Peoples Press #65 Feb 1981

Lenin in Hackney – revisited

Nine years ago I wrote about the visit of prominent communists to Hackney in 1907:

Since then, additional information has come my way about:

  • The press hysteria concerning some of the female delegates attending the congress
  • The location of the place in Dalston where hundreds of the revolutionaries stayed throughout the event
  • The identity of the painter who portrayed this momentous occasion

I’ve also added details of some source material at the end and reuploaded the short film discussing it all…

This has been added to the original post to keep everything in one place, so click on the link above…

Dalston Mens Group (1977)

Few figures are so universally mocked as the male feminist. Dalston Mens Group seemed too good to be true when I chanced upon it. An almost perfect artefact of “right on Hackney”, like the satirically elitist “Stoke Newington Jazz Club” in The Mighty Boosh tv comedy series.

But Dalston Mens Group was a real and fascinating example of the plethora of radical organisations in the borough in the 1970s. Its oddness and the feelings of awkwardness it raised with me made it even more interesting.

Breaking through the cringe

Looking into the embarrassment people feel about male feminists is a scab worth picking. So here is a summary of what I reckon are the problems people have:

Earnestness. The idea that male feminists overstate the importance of their area of interest (and that it is better to not talk about it, probably). That it’s embarrassing and unmanly to be interested in feminism rather than traditional manly pursuits. Especially if it means that you veer into “feminine” territory, like expressing your feelings. And that all this is unattractive to “real” (i.e. not feminist) women anyway. Alongside this, there is a feeling that male feminism is an indulgence for middle class people who have too much time on their hands.

Virtue signalling/Insincerity. That basically male feminists are broadcasting their niceness for the benefit of feminist women as they think it will help them gain credibility and perhaps get laid. In doing this, male feminsts want to appear to be superior to “normal” men who are untainted by feminism. There is an overriding suspicion that male feminists don’t actually believe any of it. At its most extreme there is the idea that men are genetically predisposed to be bestial gropers and male feminists seek to deny this is the case.

Most people reading this have probably been irritated by people who are simply too “right on” to be enjoyable company. But many of us would also concede that occasionally being challenged on our behaviours and language has been a good opportunity for learning and reflection. So there is a balance to be struck.

All of the above has meant that I would probably call myself someone who was a supporter of feminism and women’s rights, rather than a feminist. It’s clear to me that the struggle for gender equality is real and ongoing, so we all need to play our part. And I try and do what I can, but I’m not some kind of super-enlightened mega-activist crusader or anything.

There is something in all of this about what masculinity is and what being “a real man” entails, which I have struggled with myself. As a straight cis man, I have taken pride on several occasions in the past with the suggestion that I was “not a real man” from various people (some of whom were probably well-meaning and some definitely not), but these days I’m less sure if that’s helpful.

Being a “real man” is as unattainable for most of us as being the sort of perfect embodiment of womanhood suggested by mainstream culture is for women. It’s probably better, in the short term, to radically expand the definition of what masculinity can be and so try to make it less important, rather than jettison it entirely (as suggested by John Stoltenberg in his provocative book Refusing To Be A Man: Essays On Social Justice (1989)). As well as supporting the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements, obviously.

Recent campaigns like #metoo, Everyday Sexism, Everyone’s Invited and Reclaim These Streets have seen increased focus on men taking responsibility for their behaviour – and that of other men.

Alongside this inspiring upsurge of feminism there has been a regrouping of anti-feminism on the alt-right. The very online world of disaffected young men can be a recruiting ground for far right movements. The 2016 documentary The Red Pill (directed by Cassie Jaye) has been a lightning rod for some men’s grievances against what they see as feminism and the problems it has caused them.

The film makes a reasonably compelling case for the problems men face in western societies in the 21st century, but then blames these difficulties on the gains of the feminist movement. In fact many of the issues raised by the men in the film could be resolved by feminism.

For example men not being able to express their feelings does lead to mental health issues and a greater likelihood of death by suicide than in women. Feminism seeks to deconstruct the binary divide of macho men / feminine women, so that all human beings can express themselves sincerely and authentically.

And many of the issues men face could be solved by socialism. Men are more likely to die in workplace accidents than women – and the solution to this is a strong trade union movement rather than whining about feminists.

So men organising as men is both necessary and rife with all sorts of problems. And examining mens groups during previous waves of feminism might help us with unpick some of the issues of today. Or give us a laugh. Or maybe both of these things.

The origins of Dalston Mens Group

Dave Phillips (photo courtesy of The British Library)

The British Library has a helpful audio interview with Dalston Mens’ Group founder Dave Phillips. It’s clear that the sort of reservations I have set out above were also present in the 1970s:

There was a men’s conference, which I didn’t go to, held somewhere I think in the Seven Sisters Road, it must have been about 1973 or ’74. So we were aware that there were these men’s groups starting up, but we were very suspicious of them, innate personal conservatism being one reason, but… [laughs].

What else? Subterranean homophobia, I don’t know, I mean the sense that these were kind of all a bit sissy and a bit sort of.. but then we were trying to sort of work out what the different kinds of strands around were, there seemed to be one strand around which was very much about trying to do something to assist the women’s movement. These were people who called themselves anti-sexist men.[…]

There were about ten of us all told. And we were trying to fit together a kind of, you know, our commitment to Trotskyist politics, as we thought it was, and feminism, and trying to fit our response to feminism.

Dave Phillips

Dave and several of the other founders were also members of the International Socialists (I.S.), one of the larger Trotskyist groups in the UK. (I.S. became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977). Dalston Mens Group was not an official I.S. group or front – indeed several comrades I’ve spoken to about this have expressed their surprise at this connection. For me, one of the most striking things in the texts of Dalston Mens Group is their openness about their doubts and insecure feelings – something that is anathema to the cast iron certainty of most Trot papers and groups. In fact I’d say that their attempts to organise without hierarchy and to combine the personal and political had more in common with some anarchist groups.

What does a Mens Group do?

Dave goes on to mention their activities:

All these groups in effect, with the benefit of hindsight, were quite limited in their effects, but they were into things like setting up crèches and looking after the kids while the women went to give out leaflets and stuff like that.

[…] there was another strand which was very much into personal exploration. The Brixton men’s group, were very into Reich and Gestalt therapy and stuff like that and were into exploring their own selves and were quite good, much better than we ever were, at being critical of each other, and exploring the kind of contradictions inside people’s personal positions.

There was a kind of position that we termed the guilt tripping, which was the kind of men who felt they were personally responsible for sexism, and were very into kind of trying to change themselves. So as we went on we became quite critical of that position, we felt you couldn’t really strip out sexism through an act of will, or self-development. They were people who were into developing a lifestyle, you know, a non-sexist kind of lifestyle, which took various forms, you know, a lot of sandal wearing and brown rice, nut rissoles and that sort of stuff.

Dave Phillips

The group apparently also published at least five issues of Mens News, which is how I came to find out about them. I’ve only managed to obtain one issue, which I have scanned and made available as a PDF here. (Leave a comment below if you have access to other issues or know where they can be found?)

The contents of Mens News are a mixed bag. “Dalstons Mens Group – A History” is reproduced in full below and covers the origins and anxieties of the group. There is more mention of the consciousness raising than the practical support given to the feminist movement.

“Ideals & Reality” contrasts socialist and mens groups and how the practice of both falls short of the theory. It has some, frankly, slightly dodgy passages like this one that veers towards “Nice Guy Syndrome”:

“I remember the parties I went to, the girls I lusted for, the impossibility of matching the charisma of [musician] Jet Harris, the unattainability of the women, who now 15 years on tell me that I exploited them, when I couldn’t get near them.”

“Sixteen Thoughts” is a political/theoretcial analysis of the history of feminism with some interesting conclusions about seventies culture (for example the “ham masculinity” punk rock and horror firlms). I thought these bits were good:

“Feminism shows us yawning holes in present day socialism’s ways of organising and lack of popular appeal and has a critical contribution to make to tjhe creation of a new revolutionary movement.

Mens groups are not inherently anti-sexist, it is all-male groups which administer most of capitalism.

The point finally is not a purely mental effort to abolish our sexual conditioning, but the abolition of the material relations which give rise to our condition.”

Dalston Mens Group – Sixteen Thoughts

There are also three articles on the difficulties of parenting in a nuclear family:

And finally an article on Islington Mens Group from 1974 which was allegedly “found in a disused squat”.

This probably all sounds quite dry, but there is self-deprecation in Mens News #5 as well as some amusing collages and graphics:

Illustration from Mens News #5, with a graphic nicked from anarchist Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex

Menswear: male feminist style & fashion

“I think we all had long hair, but then, everybody in the 70s, almost everybody had long hair, I mean coal miners had long hair, everybody had long hair, footballers had long hair. There was one strand amongst men’s groups, I mean I seem to be centred on Wandsworth, who were trying to construct an androgynous lifestyle, which went as far as, you know, they removed their body hair and they waxed their chests, and [laughs]…

But remember, this was the period of glam rock and the glam period, so I can remember being in this men’s conference we organised. Well there we all were, we’d be wearing our kind of bell-bottomed baggy trousers, a lot of sandals. I think we were into nail varnish a bit. I used to have a toenail that was always a very, very, I don’t know what colour you’d call it, not turquoise exactly, but quite strikingly coloured toenail. Not too much, but you know, a real hint. [laughs] There was quite a lot of wearing of kind of ethnic neckwear and stuff like that about at that time.”

Dave Phillips – from an interview for The British Library

The back page (above) lists a number of kindred groups around England. As usual there is scant information about what happened to them, how they fizzled out etc. I think it’s reasonable to assume that some people drifted away and others got involved with other campaigns.

Perhaps traces of the 1970s mens groups can be seen in 1980s/90s organisations like Men Against Sexist Shit. I was also inspired by seeing large numbers of men supporting the 2019 Womens Strike rally in London with cooking, childcare etc.

In Their Own Words: Dalston Mens Group – A History (from Mens News #5 1977)

Our group really started in January 1976 out of a nucleus of 5 men, who had been meeting together for 3 months. We had only hazy ideas of why we wanted to be in a group, some of us had heard, or read about other mens groups or been to the early mens conference in London. We wanted to try and create the sense of community that many women seemed to have in the Womens Movement, and which we as men seemed to he lacking, lost in a world of ritual personal isolation. We had all been influenced by women in Womens Liberation and were very much aware of the personal limitations of ‘comradeship’ in most socialist groups.

The 8 of us in the group are involved or connected to socialist political groups, mostly to the Socialist Workers Party (or IS as it then was) and heavily involved in trade union branches at work plus the usual left campaigns. We know we are opposed to Reformism and Stalinism. But we don’t have a definite ‘line’ about personal politics, we are not trying to function as a mens’ cell inside political groups, or as an organised grouping inside the mens movement.

We do believe that part of the process of linking the personal and the political involves bringing together socialist politics and personal and sexual politics. That means, at this stage, straight Marxist men need to be a lot more emotionally honest with each other. We are critical of and get upset and depressed about the way left groups have traditionally resisted or opposed developments in personal politics, especially the Womens and the Gay Movements in recent years. But we also criticise those who reject left groups and socialist politics as one focus of an assertion of personal politics.

We have all recognised the impact of our experience as socialists and the role of the Womens Movement on our lives as men. In the group we have tried to bring these two strands in our lives together. We don’t claim we have had any conspicuous success at doing it – it’s not easily done and the two worlds of experience continually resist each other – but in the end that is at the centre of what we are aiming to do. It would be nice to produce a neat theoretical analysis of all the questions and issues that we’ve raised and discussed, but we’re still muddled.

As a mens group, we are not activists, we don’t go out into the world and do things around mens politics, nor are we a reading group, holding theoretical seminars. Consciousness-raising is the best way to describe our meetings. What we have discussed has always started from our own personal accounts of our experience. Through sharing our personal experience of sexuality we have tried to understand our experiences and to change the way in which we see the world in terms of how we relate to other men, women and kids. From our personal experience of lives and relationships, loves, problems, fears and hopes we’ve set out to connect what we have in common with the rest of our politics. This has been vary erratic – mainly, sometimes with great intensity, we have discovered each other in new ways and gained a lot of strength and support from being together and sharing our personal feelings with other men. This comes as a great relief after many years of ‘relating’ in traditional blokish ways.

Four of us have kids, one very recently. Three or us have been married at one lime, but all have split up from their wives, one recently while in the group. We are all straight with a spattering of gay experiences. And we’re all in the ‘educated middle class’ now, professionally employed… or unemployed, although we came from a much wider class background in the working and lower middle class with parents who wouldn’t have dreamt of going to college themselves. Which defines some important limitations about our group. We meet once a week for about two or four hours, with lapses and sometimes month-long breaks owing to problems of time, work and other commitments. We have mainly been a closed group, and there is no formal structure – it’s a leaderless group and though meetings usually have a main theme decided on at a previous meeting we don’t often keep to it. Sometimes we just start talking around what has been happening to us the previous week. Or wait till someone says something everyone else picks up on.

Most of us have known each other for some years – some of the relationships in the group go back over a decade! Surprisingly, this didn’t cause difficulties – in fact being in the group helped open up relationships which had got stuck in old grooves and being friends outside the group has helped us stay together as a group through times when we felt very unclear about our aims. When we can’t think of anything to talk about, or we are all tired or fed up, we can always just have a drink together. But the meeting provides the institutional framework in which we talk about mens politics and try to develop our political understanding of men and the male role. At times it is a very frustrating and stagnating process but by and large we go on feeling that we benefit from meeting and that it has changed us in the way we function with other women and men outside the group in the rest of our lives. Though often it is difficult to put your finger on some of these changes or to find words to describe them.

At first we talked about our selves – personal histories of what our childhoods were like, parents, schools, learning about fucking, our current sexual states and the way we were living. This helped us get to know each other and put everyone in the same positon – those who were new to the group as well as old mates. We went on to discuss a lot of topics that we variously thought were important adolescence, fucking, nuclear and multiple relationships, having children, work, jealousy, the women’s movements, sexuality and sex objects, male relationships, loneliness, collective living, drinking, pornography, fascism.

It is impossible to summarise what we discussed and learnt in all this. Usually we just learnt about each other’s ideas and experience. We hardly ever felt we got to the stage of working an issue right out so that we all ended up sharing a particular analysis or conclusion about something. Two themes did keep cropping up repeatedly – one was the importance of kids when you start thinking about almost any of these matters, how having them affects you totally and comes to influence your relationships and what you can give and take from them. Secondly, we talked a lot about monogamy and multiple relationships and their different problems in the context of seeking some sort of change from the limitations of nuclear set-ups, their closedupness and resistance to change. Multiple relationships in which most of us have been involved sometimes for several years and sometimes with women who are also with other men in the group have their own problems, to say the least.

These discussions, have not got us to a position of formulating any grand theories – in fact we’ve often felt bogged down and confused about where we are supposed to be going. We constantly discuss the nature of the group, whether it ought to exist and where we are at, usually in terms of whether the group should set out to be supportive or ideological or interventionist. We’ve tried to be supportive within the limits of our own personal psychologies and our experience, and we’d like to develop a clearer ideological grasp of ourselves.

Mainly, we’ve been led on to asking more questions about what we aim to get out of the experience. How do we get away from the pragmatism of our approach to issues in order to develop a socialist critique of men, masculinity, chauvinism and sexual oppression? How do we do this without losing a lot of what goes on in the group that is new and exploratory? What should be the relationship of men to feminism and the Womens Movement? How do we avoid colluding in our own forms of mystification? How do we get to be more critical of each other? How can mens issues be raised on a more general political basis — in trade unions and political groups? Unless we can begin to generate specific demands around the experience of being men in a sexist and capitalist society, for instance, demanding rights in our conditions of work that recognize men have relationships with their children, mens groups risk remaining small, inward-looking and irrelevant to the outside world.

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.”

Acknowledgements

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

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

At an early 62 Group encounter outside Hackney town hall, Maurice charged at a huge fascist bruiser and smashed him to the ground. He then grabbed his jacket with such force that the lapels came away in his hands. “Next time you buy a suit,” he advised, “go to a proper Jewish tailor.”

Maurice Podro obituary, Daniel Sonabend, The Guardian

“The British National Party has a meeting on John Campbell Road. We formed up a flying wedge and charged at them. There were only about twenty or thirty of them and we kicked the shit out of them. They took their walking wounded to the Metropolitan Hospital in Kingsland Road, where there was a black doctor in charge in casualty, so they all came limping out again. We were waiting outside and helped them on their way again.”

62 GROUP MEMBER TONY HALL IN “PHYSICAL RESISTANCE: A HUNDRED YEARS OF ANTI-FASCISM” BY DAVE HANN

This week the BBC announced a new TV drama had gone into production:

Introducing Aggi O’Casey and Tom Varey who lead in gripping new thriller “Ridley Road” for BBC One…

Ridley Road tells the story of a young Jewish woman, Vivien Epstein, played by Aggi O’Casey, in her first television role.

After falling in love with a member of the 62 Group, she rejects her comfortable middle-class life in Manchester and joins the fight against fascism in London, risking everything for her beliefs and for the man she loves.

Inspired by the struggle of the 62 Group, a coalition of Jewish men who stood up against rising neo-Nazism in post-war Britain, Vivien is working with them when she realises that Jack, her missing boyfriend (played by Varey) has been badly injured. Vivien infiltrates the NSM, a neo-Nazi movement which is becoming increasingly prominent in London. As Vivien descends further into the fascist organisation her courage and loyalties are challenged.

The series is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Jo Bloom, who explained the idea behind her book to the Hackney Gazette:

“I attended a funeral of one of my mum’s oldest friends,” Bloom says. “My father and I were about to leave when we were asked to give a lift to an elderly man who had a problem with his hip.”

The man in question turned out to be Monty Goldman, a notable communist activist, who stood for election for Mayor of Hackney in 2002 and 2010 and for Parliament for Hackney South and Shoreditch in 1997 and 2005.

“In the car on the way to the nearest station, he and my father started talking about post-war east London where they both grew up,” she says.

The two men discussed the 43 Group, the anti-fascist group set up by Jewish ex-servicemen after World War II, as well as the 62 Group which was founded to fight the resurgence of fascism in Britain in the sixties. Whilst her father had not been a member of either group, he knew lots of people who had. And Monty had fought alongside both groups.

Mony Goldman (image courtesy of Hackney Museum)

Mony Goldman is a Hackney fixture who has stood as the Communist candidate in more local elections than most people have voted in. He’s got his hands dirty with street poltiics too:

“I always tried to keep out of getting hurt. I was sensible. If I missed our crowd of people, I wasn’t going to be a hero and fight ten blackshirts on my own. I didn’t mind one to one, there was nothing barred. You kick ‘em where it hurts!”

MONTY GOLDMAN INTERVIEWED FOR FOYLES BLOG

The 62 Group were the successor organisation to the more well known 43 Group, who fought Oswald Mosley’s fascists after the 2nd World War. The 43 Group are reasonably well known with two excellent books and several documentaries available. The 62 Group are less well known but hopefully that can change now.

The 43 Group wound down in 1950, having smashed Mosley’s fascist Union Movement off the streets and given them a good hiding on several occasions at Ridley Road market in Dalston.

But as recent history shows, fascism rarely disappears for long:

Flyer for ill-fated neo-Nazi rally in 1962

“…within a few years, Mosley had already chosen London’s black community as a new prime target, while in 1962, the neo-Nazi activist Colin Jordan felt comfortable enough to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square beneath an eighty-five-foot-long, eight-foot-high banner reading ‘FREE BRITAIN FROM JEWISH CONTROL.’ This prompted the creation of the 62 Group, which intended to carry on the job of their predecessors.”

MARCUS BARNETT REVIEWING DANIEL SONABEND’S 43 GROUP BOOK FOR JACOBIN

As Past Tense point out, the rally was disrupted by anti-fascists, some of whom had been members of the 43 Group. This would lead to the formation of the 1962 Committee, more commonly known as the 62 Group. In another post Past Tense also note the differences between the 43 Group’s membership and the new organisation:

While similar to the 43 Group in some ways, there were some marked differences. Britain in the 1960s was a different place to Britain at the end of the Second World War, and so the composition of the new group was different. As with the earlier organisation, the left and the Jewish community remained leading players in the wider anti-fascist movement; but the left’s influence in the Jewish community was beginning to wane. International events and demographic shifts were changing the nature of London’s Jewish community in particular. Thus the 62 Group was not dominated by the left in the same way that the 43 Group had been. Although some of those who set up the 62 Group had been involved in the 43 Group, a new generation was also becoming involved.

This is mildly disputed by at least one former 62 Group member:

“Don’t let anyone kid you that the 62 Group was an exclusively Jewish organisation, because it wasn’t. There were all sorts in it. The backbone of our part of it was the Stoke Newington branch of the Communist Party. They weren’t all members of the CP, but people associated with it, sympathisers, friends, villians, all sorts of people”

TONY HALL, QUOTED IN “PHYSICAL RESISTANCE: A HUNDRED YEARS OF ANTI-FASCISM” BY DAVE HANN

Having said that, the group’s composition certainly created some problems for Hackney anti-fascist Gerry Gable:

“In Hackney, which had been a focal point of fascist and anti-fascism activity in the 1930s and postwar, people were getting together to prepare to resist the gathering storm. And it became my job to bring people from all sorts of backgrounds to cleanse the streets of the enemy.”

“I was chief steward of the North and East London Anti-Fascist Committee, a multi-racial group that included members from most of the political parties, including even some Young Tories from Stepney… Lots of us were workmates – I was a sparks [electrician] in the building trade as were some of my black mates. We would police building sites where racists were at work and clear them off the sites. Fascists had even been allowed to attend trade union meetings wearing their badges; we went along and tossed them out.”

“A new activist anti-fascist group, The 62 Group, was formed after Jordan’s National Socialist Movement rally in Trafalgar Square in 1962, but some of us could not, or would not, join as it was solely a Jewish organisation […] Although I qualified as Jewish because my mother was Jewish, my dad was a non-practising Anglican and I decided not to join. Nevertheless, the Leadership of the Group invited me to become one of its two Intelligence Officers, although I insisted on selecting my own team of people to engage in ‘special operations’.”

GERRY GABLE, QUOTED BY PAST TENSE


Gable would later be one of the founders, and longest serving editor, of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.

The 62 Group was even more clandestine than the 43 Group and did not publish a newspaper or make public statements unlike its predecessor. By 1963 the police estimated that the group had 200 members, with 70 in London (Nigel Copsey, Fascism in Britain).

Fascist rallies recommenced in Hackney in the early sixties along with racist graffitti, violent assaults on black and Jewish people and even an arson attack on a synagogue. Hackney police provided protection for fascist rallies and were unenthusiastic about investigting racist crimes.

I have so far discovered the following examples of 62 Group (and related militant anti-fascist) activity in Hackney from this era:

Hackney’s finest attack the Blackshirts on Ridley Road, 1962

31st July 1962: Former fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley has been assaulted at a rally in London’s east end. He and members of his anti-Semitic Blackshirt group were punched to the ground as soon as his meeting opened at Ridley Road, Dalston. Police were forced to close the meeting within three minutes and made 54 arrests – including Sir Oswald’s son Max.

A crowd of several thousand had gathered in the area, where Sir Oswald, leader of the Union Movement formerly known as the British Union of Fascists, planned to speak from the back of a lorry. As soon as he appeared from between two police buses the crowd surged forward and knocked Sir Oswald to the ground. […] He was met by a hail of missiles including rotten fruit, pennies and stones and people tried to storm the platform.

His speech was drowned out by continuous boos and a chorus of “down with the fascists”. Scuffles continued as Sir Oswald was shepherded to his car and his vehicle was punched and kicked as it drove off though a gangway cleared by mounted police. (BBC “On This Day”)

3rd August 1962: Despite a TV appeal by the Mayor for Hackney residents to keep away from Ridley road, by 7.30 about 1500 people had gathered at the corner of Ridley Road. Immediately he appeared, the crowd pressed in on Sir Oswald. He was pulled to the ground, punched and kicked. Fierce fighting then broke out, combined with shouts of “Down with Mosley, Down with Germany.” Mosley disappeared under a group of struggling, punching men and women, only to reappear and start hitting, fighting his way to a loudspeaker lorry. His words were drowned by the shouts of the crowd and the sudden cry of “Sieg Heil”– the victory cry of Hitler. Coins and tomatoes were thrown at the lorry, and Sir Oswald fought his way to a green car, just as the police stopped the meeting. Abuse was hurled at Mosley, but he forced his way into the back seat with a bodyguard on each side. The lorry of his supporters, surrounded by mounted police, made its way into Kingsland High Street. People on board were shouting “Two-Four-Six-Eight, who do we appreciate?” The ensuing cry of “MOSLEY” incensed the crowd, which chased the lorry. Shop windows in the High Street were broken as men and youths, chasing the lorry, clashed with police. (Hackney Gazette 3/8/1962 – quoted in Heroes Or Villains? by Anti-Fascist Action).

2nd September 1962: Hundreds of angry East Enders gave a stormy reception to Fascist meetings at Hertford Road, Hackney and Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green. Both meetings were broken up the police, before they got out of hand. Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement meeting at Victoria Park Square collapsed under a hail of stones, eggs and fruit, and resulted in over 40 arrests. Mr Jeffrey Hamm started the meeting with a few supportes. When Sir Oswald arrived about an hour later, the crowd had increased and eggs were being thrown. He climbed onto the speaker’s ‘platform’ – a lorry – and spoke for two minutes, but his speech was drowned by shouts of “Six million Jews! Belsen, down with Mosleyl” Then the police ordered the meeting to close. As Mosley moved away the crowed advanced towards his car and hammered on the windows with their fists. He was followed by his suporters, mainly teenagers, in the speakers lorry. Later, Mosley was reported to have said that he intended to hold more meetings. At Hertford Rd, the British National Party meeting, led by Mr John Bean the party’s acting secretary, was met with strong opposition by a large crowd of mostly Jewish people, and the twelve supporters were told to stop the meeting. In an address, Mr Bean, who was guarded by mounted policemen, said his speaker system had been ‘smashed’ and a Land Rover had been wrecked. Most of what he said was inaudible because of the heckling. Two of his supporters stood in front of him with bandaged heads. They had earlier been in a scuffle with anti-fascists in Kingsland Rd. Yellow Star held a marathon fillibuster meeting at Ridley Rd., Dalson, which 26 lasted all day, forcing the British National Party to hold it’s meeting a quarter of a mile away at Hertford Rd. (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62 – quoted in Heroes Or Villains? by Anti-Fascist Action)

12th September 1962. 400 young people marched from Ridley Road to Whitehall to demand that incitement to racial hatred be made a crime. They walked in silence, some wearing the yellow Star of David, some carrying barriers urging “Black and White Unite”. (Layers of London)

16th September 1962: Followers of Sir Oswald Mosley fought a series of running battles with Hackney Young Socialist supporters and others in the Ridley Rd., Dalston, area on Sunday. The scuffles spread along Ridley Rd.l into Kingsland Rd. and nearby side streets as 50-60 police moved in and arrested 14 people, amomg them two juveniles. Sir Oswald’s plans to hold a rally were thwarted by Hackney Young Socialists who staged a day long meeting in the weekday market place. Instead, the Union Movement leader addressed followers in Hertford Rd., Dalston, a few hundred yards away. He spoke for some 25 minutes to an audience of his own supporters hemmed in by a tight cordon of police. This meeting passed off without incident. Then about 20 of his audience moved off to Ridley Rd. Shortly afterwards fighting broke out at the previously peaceful Ridley Rd. meeting. Police who were disbanding after the Mosley meeting were quickly called to Ridley Rd., as anti-fascists began actively protesting against the heckling Union Movement men, among them Mosley’s 22 year old son, Max. One young man wearing the Union Movement badge was chased along Kingsland High Street by other men, then trapped in a doorway 27 and pulled to the ground and pummelled before being rescued by police. Other clashes broke out in sidestreets as the Fascist supportes left the area. As the main party of hecklers tried to drive off in their car, other cars attempted to hem them in. More scuffles followed all over the road.” (Hackney Gazette, 18/9/62 quoted in Heroes Or Villains? by Anti-Fascist Action)

1963: Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement withdraws from street activity. The British National Party adopt a “flash mob” mentality for rallies and paper sales, avoiding publicity to minimise physical attention from anti-fascists.

January 1965: The Greater Britain Movement attempts to hold an evening rally at Ridley Road. Both the police and the 62 Group are attacked with pick axe handles and knives. Later that night GBM members are attacked at their Norwood Headquarters. (Searchlight’s History of the 62 Group by Steve Silver, available on Libcom.)

It’s worth mentioning that the 62 Group and other organsations were the militant tip of the iceberg of resistance to fascism in Hackney in the 1960s:

“I remember seeing Mosley at Ridley Road on the back of a tipper truck and everyone was throwing stuff at him. Not just your normal anti-fascist protestors but old mums, shoppers, everybody. I saw one woman take off her shoes and throw them at Mosley because that’s all she could find to throw. Other people were throwing eggs, pennies, organges off the stalls, anything they could lay their hands on.” 

62 GROUP MEMBER TONY HALL IN “PHYSICAL RESISTANCE: A HUNDRED YEARS OF ANTI-FASCISM” BY DAVE HANN


Tony also mentions some rather more clandestine operations including home visits for people found doing racist graffitti, plumbing alterations to pubs that wouldn’t serve black people and covert mechanics on a Union Movement van on Balls Pond Road the night before a rally. He is also suitably sanguine about the results of the group’s hard work:

“There was a period when every Sunday morning they would turn up, get a punch on the side of the ear, have their papers thrown all over the pavement. They stopped trying after a while. Nobody could sustain that. This was done on the basis that violence worked. They were not going to come back to Hackney if they got a good kicking every time they showed their faces”

62 Group operations decreased in the late 60s, mirroring the downturn in far right activty. The group attempted to disrupt the inaugural meeting of the National Front in 1966 and the relaunch of the National Socialist Movement as the British Movement in 1968. These two fascist organisations, and Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968, would lay the foundation for the British far right in the 1970s, which would be opposed by different militant anti-fascist organisations….

It’s hard to know how the Ridley Road TV series will treat the heroic legacy of the 62 Group – it is after all just one element in the plot alongside the more romantic or mundane aspects. Hard to know also how the portrayal of militant anti-fascism will play out in the tedious culture wars we are living through. People upset by “cancel culture” may raise an eyebrow at what the good people of Hackney were doing to drive fascists off our streets in the 1960s…

Astrid Proll – on the run in Hackney

Astrid Proll: under arrest in Germany

In Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrid in London

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

Astrid Proll, The Matured Spirit of ’68

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

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

Living in Hackney

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

Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London

So where did she live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London

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

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

Anonymous friend quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll

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

“Women Work In Hackney”

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

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

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

Quoted by Iain Sinclair

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

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

Court documents

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

Alleged photo of Astrid Proll by The Hackney Flashers

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

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

Quoted by Tina Jackson

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

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

Anonymous friend, quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll

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

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

Arrest

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

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

Quoted in BBC: On This Day

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

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

Astrid Proll, Farewell To London

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

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

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

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

Campaign

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

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

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

Christine Wall

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

Poster for November 1978 benefit gig

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

Tom Vague

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

Richard Williams, drummer for The Passions

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

Discussion advertised in anarchist newspaper, Freedom 14 October 1978
Benefit notice from feninist magazine Spare Rib #77
A further benefit event from March 13th 1979. Photo from Hackney Museum’s “Making Her Mark: 100 years of women’s activism” exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrid Proll quoted in Friends of Astrid Proll literature

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

Extradition and Trial

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

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

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

Astrid Proll leaving her trial in Germany 1980.

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

Freedom and aftermath

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

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

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

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

Sources / Plagiarism / Further Reading

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

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

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

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

Friends of Astrid Proll – The Court Situation (1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal documents

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

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

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

Bob Darke on how to fight racism in Hackney, 1978

Bob Darke is best known for the 1952 book The Communist Technique in Britain about his disaffection with the Hackney Branch of the Communist Party. That’s been previously covered here.

Darke criticised the CP for its subservience to Stalinist Russia at the expense of working class issues in Hackney. So it was hardly surprising that after he left the party he continued to work as a bus conductor and focus on trade union and tenants issues:

I live in Nisbet House, Homerton, a block of council flats in the Borough of Hackney, where washing is always hanging on the lines on the verandas, and there are bicycles and prams in the tiled hallways and sheds. Such a block of flats in the East End is a world of its own, closer-knit than the luxury flats in the West End where, I imagine, a man can lock his door on his neighbours. But if, in the East End, you can’t keep your own business from the neighbours that also means that your circle of friends is all the wider.

The Communist Technique in Britain, p7

In the clip above he makes the case for strong tenants organisations being bulwark against racism and the spread of organisations like the National Front. 

The sad story of Fred Demuth – Marx’s son in Hackney

“I can’t help feeling that Freddy has had great injustice all through his life.”  – Eleanor Marx

Photo of Frederick Lewis Demuth 1851-1929

Frederick Demuth 1851-1929

Frederick’s Demuth’s story is a convoluted one which is contested by a number of historians – and tainted by hostility or deference to his alleged father. This bias makes it difficult to do justice to Demuth himself. 

People have strong feelings about Karl Marx, so I’ll put my cards on the table from the outset and say that reading his books has helped me to understand the world. I would thoroughly recommend David Harvey’s lectures about Capital which can be viewed on Youtube or downloaded as mp3s. As an individual Karl seems as charming and annoying and brilliant and messed up as the rest of us – if not more so. More on that later.

We have some travelling to do before we reach Hackney, so please bear with me…

Marx – married and on the move

Karl Marx married Jenny von Westphalen in 1843. They had been engaged for seven years and had known each other since childhood. In October 1843 the Marxes moved from Jenny’s family home in Kreuznach (near Frankfurt) to Paris. It was a busy time. Karl wrote for a radical journal, met lifelong comrade Friedrich Engels for the first time and began his expansive study of political economy that would be the basis for Capital. The couple’s first daughter Jenny Caroline was born in 1844 (the convention is to use the second name to avoid confusing the Jennys, as we will see).

The Marx family were kicked out of France in 1845 and headed to Brussels. Jenny Marx’s mother was worried about them and sent her housekeeper Helene ‘Lenchen’ Demuth to help. Lenchen stayed with the Marxes for the rest of their lives.

Jenny Laura Marx was born in Brussels in 1845. The Marx family and Lenchen decamped to London in 1849. The two junior Jennys were followed by Edgar (1847); Henry Edward Guy (1849); Jenny Eveline Frances (1851) and Eleanor (1855). That’s six children born to Jenny senior in 11 years. But that wasn’t quite the end of it…

Helene Demuth gave birth to Frederick Demuth on 23 June 1851 in the Marx home of 28 Dean Street, Soho. She was not apparently in any kind of “respectable” relationship at the time, so young Freddy was fostered out. The Marx children assumed (or rather, were helped to believe) that frequent visitor Engels was responsible. But Helene never spoke about her son’s father.

It is now generally (but not universally) believed that Karl Marx was actually Frederick Demuth’s father. This means Karl was shagging Helene whilst his wife was pregnant with Jenny Eveline. His letters from the time mention that he went into hiding in the British Library for many days when Lenchen’s pregnancy would have been discovered.

Frederick Demuth in Hackney

Freddy Demuth as a dashing Hackney lad

Frustratingly little is known about Frederick Demuth’s life compared to his birth. (If you know more, or where to find out more, please leave a comment!)

Freddy was fostered by a family named Lewis in East London. He trained as a skilled fitter and turner (lathe operator – possibly gun-smithing) and left his foster family and “rough childhood” as early as possible.

Ellen Demuth

In January, February or March 1873 Demuth married the Irish gardener’s daughter Ellen Murphy (b 1854). The couple lived in Hackney in the early 1880s and had a son, Harry (aka Frederick confusingly) in 1882.

The tomes of Marxological correspondence show that Eleanor Marx maintained a friendship with Freddy from at least the 1880s onwards.

When Karl Marx died in 1883, Helene Demuth became Engels’ housekeeper (Jenny Marx senior had died a few years previously). Harry Demuth would later recall his father taking him to visit granny Helene at Engels’ Regents Park Road home.

Eleanor continued her efforts to bridge the gap between Freddy and his presumed father Engels:

“Freddy has behaved admirably in all respects and Engels’ irritation against him is as unfair as it is comprehensible. We should none of us like to meet our pasts, I guess, in flesh and blood.”

Perhaps because of this Freddy was invited to Engels’ 74th birthday party in November  1894. But there was no time to develop things further – Engels died the next year. He left nothing in his will for Freddy, but the “legitimate” Marx children were included and are said to have given him regular support. There are contested suggestions that Engels confessed that Marx was actually Freddy’s father on his deathbed.

One account states that Eleanor Marx introduced Freddy to Clara Zetkin as “my half brother” during the Second International’s Congress of 1896 in London’s Queen’s Hall, Langham Place.

In February 1888 Freddy joined the Kings Cross branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers as a skilled fitter. The ASE would shortly become the third largest union in Britain and embark on a lengthy strike for an eight hour day. (Workers’ struggles around the length of the working day was one of the themes Karl Marx tackled in volume 1 of Capital which had been published in English in 1887.)

When Helene “Lenchen” Demuth died of cancer in 1890 she left all her worldly goods – including ninety-five pounds – to Frederick Lewis Demuth of 25 Gransden Avenue, Hackney.

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The site of 25 Grandsden Avenue

That side of Gransden Avenue is now a building site, but our comrades at Past Tense have written about the area as part of their essential Hackney Walk:

London Fields east: Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street, Lamb lane, Gransden Avenue:

Sidworth Street was the site of a V2 bomb during the war and in the 1960s and 1970s industrial unties built.

In 2010 one block (13018) was squatted as Urban HapHazard Squat. Some buildings around Sidworth Street and Mentmore Terrace are currently squatted, some with the knowledge/permission of the property owners.

Properties round here bough by local council after WW2 (bomb damage & slum clearance) and in the 1970s. During this time there were several traveller sites on Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue and  Mentmore Terrace. In the 1980s a site on Gransden Avenue/London Lane was being considered as a permanent local authority traveller site.

Freddy’s son later recalled that they inhabited the first floor of the “ramshackle” house, with the Clayton family on the ground floor. Henry Clayton worked with Freddy at Paterson and Cooper, a firm of electrical engineers and scientific instrument makers based at Telegraph Works, Pownall Road, Haggerston.

The 1891 census has the family of Frederick, Ellen and Frederick jnr still at Gransden Ave. Freddy is listed as engineer and fitter. But by the 1901 census only the father and son remained.

In 1892 Freddy’s wife Ellen had left him to run away with a soldier. She also nicked most of his possessions, as well as £29 belonging to a workers’ benevolent fund that comrade Demuth had been entrusted with. Ouch. Eleanor Marx pulled some strings and bailed him out with the assistance of her siblings.

Freddy posing with Hackney Social Democratic Federation comrades

Harry Demuth told journalist David Heisler about his father’s political activity increasing around this time, including being an avid reader of the socialist newspaper The Clarion and his membership of the Hackney Social Democratic Federation, attending their meetings at the Rendezvous Cafe at 155 Mare Street and the British Oak Tavern on Lea Bridge Road. There is also mention of Freddy being one of the founders of the Clapton Park and District Co-Operative and Industrial Society at 28 Brooksby’s Walk in Homerton. Harry recalls his father studying the works of Marx and Engels and having their pictures on the walls of their family home.

We also know that Freddy was a founder member of the Hackney Labour Party. (When was this? The Labour Party was founded in 1900, but its first showing in Hackney parliamentary and council elections is 1922. Separate Hoxton ran a Labour candidate in the 1919 council elections though).

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54 Reighton Rd

By 1911 Freddy was boarding at the slightly more upmarket 54 Reighton Road in Upper Clapton. `His profession is listed as mechanical engineer – working with fountain pens. He was boarding with the Payne family. Alfred Payne had also been a founder member of Hackney Labour Party and went on to become mayor of Hackney between 1919-20.

Harry lived elsewhere at this point, working as a cab driver before briefly emigrating to Australia.

Freddy (front and centre) convalescing from a period of illness, 1912

In 1914 Freddy started working at the Bryant and May factory in Bow, initially as a fitter and then as a foreman. He’d previously had roles at Gestetner (Lea Valley) and stamp printers De La Rue (Bun Hill Row). In 1924 he retired at the age of 73. He was still a member of the Hackney branch of Amalgamated Engineers Union.

Freddy died of heart failure in Upper Clapton in 1929, outliving all the other Marx children. At that point he shared a house with Ellen “Laura” Payne, the widow of Alfred Payne. Freddy’s son Harry was for some reason named as his nephew in his will – he got the surprisingly large sum of £1971 12s 4d. Rachel Holmes suggests that this inheritance may have been a product of the financial support Freddy had received from the Marx siblings.

Yvonne Kapp has Frederick Demuth’s last address as 13 Stoke Newington Common:

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13 Stoke Newington Common

The hazards of moral judgements and historical perspective

“[Karl] did not love the boy, the scandal would have been too big.” – Louise Kautsky

There are two very polarised perspectives on Frederick Demuth and they are both entirely wrong.

Socialists and Communists generally gloss over Freddy’s existence as an unfortunate event that is either an interesting footnote or something that demonstrates the steps that the workers’ movement had to take to defend itself from attacks in the media.

Generally, if he is ever mentioned at all, Freddy is one weapon in an arsenal of tools used to attack his father. If you listened to conservative commentators you would know that Karl Marx was a terrible person who never worked a day in his life (in fact he was paid as a journalist and author) sponged off factory owner Engels (partly true – although Engels was more than willing to help out his objectively more talented comrade) and more seriously raped his servant. The latter claim is of course impossible to prove or disprove now.

The few accounts we have of life in the Marx family household seem to indicate that there was a great deal of mutual affection between Karl, Jenny senior and Helene. That said, there is clearly a power imbalance between employer and employee which makes it difficult to know how complete consent can be in a sexual relationship which takes place in that context.

We also know from accounts of the Marx household and the wider historical context that finances were tight (and often desperate) – and that “respectable” families did not include children born out of wedlock.

Karl Marx shouldn’t have shagged his housekeeper. But he did. Is this a stain on his character? Yes it is. Does it undermine his ideas? Not really, but it is a black mark for sure.

They think only of two individuals and forget the family. They forget that nearly every dissolution of a marriage is the dissolution of a family and that the children and what belongs to them should not be dependent on arbitrary whims, even from a purely legal point of view.

On a Proposed Divorce Law, 1842

The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women toward freedom, because in the relation of woman to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation.

The Holy Family, 1844

The nucleus, the first form of [property] lies in the family, where wife and children are slaves of the husband. This latent slavery in the family, though still very crude, is the first property …

The German Ideology, 1846

In the above quotes, Marx recognises the unequal status of women in capitalism and the effect that the dissolution of a family can have on children. He would also have been only too aware of the differences in class between him and his housemaid – and the consequences of their relationship being discovered.

Marx and Engels’ vision for a new world included some laudable words about women and relationships:

It [communist society] will transform the relations between the sexes into a purely private matter which concerns only the persons involved and into which society has no occasion to intervene. It can do this since it does away with private property and educates children on a communal basis, and in this way removes the two bases of traditional marriage, the dependence, rooted in private property, of the woman on the man and of the children on the parents.

Communist Manifesto, 1848

But the world of 1848 (and 1851 when Freddy was born) was even further away from that than we are now. Marx fostered out Freddy because that is what most people in that situation would have done at the time – and because a public scandal about his family would undermine the work he was doing. He behaved in accordance with his class, which meant oppressing his servant even more than usual when the chips were down.

I am not married. I am writing this whilst my daughter does her school homework at the same table. I am able to do this without controversy because of the work done by feminists and the workers’ movement over the last 167 years to loosen the strange-hold of conservative values on the family and child rearing. Marx’s contribution to this process of social change cannot be ignored.

Having said that, parts of the left would still rather cover up a scandal than address the failings of the men it elevates to leadership positions. In 2013 the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party was rocked by accusations that it had covered up allegations of rape and sexual misconduct against one of its leading members. As one of the female victims said at the time: “They are putting the interests of the party above the interests of the women.”

The personal remains political. Which brings us back to Frederick Demuth.

If you subtract the question of his father from the equation, Freddy’s life remains interesting and worth celebrating. He escaped a harsh childhood and a horrendous marriage breakup and still managed to retain his humanity – his capacity to care for others. His years of union work and political activism are the quiet, patient building blocks out of which we will construct a better world.

demuth-freddy

Notes and sources

I first heard about Frederick Demuth during a talk given by Barry Burke and Ken Worpole at Pages Bookshop in 2015. So thanks as ever to them for all the work they did on Hackney’s radical history before I even got started.

I have used the following for this piece:

Eduard Bernstein – What Drove Eleanor Marx to Suicide (1898) – includes a number of letters from Eleanor `Marx to Freddy that demonstrate he was her main confidante towards the end of her life.

Terrell Carver – Marx’sIllegitimate Son’ …or Gresham’s Law in the World of Scholarship – a useful dose of scepticism on the Marx-paternity claim.

Hal Draper – Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation

Edna Healey – Wives of Fame: Mary Livingstone, Jenny Marx and Emma Darwin (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Rachel Holmes – Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury, 2014)

Yvonne Kapp – Eleanor Marx: A Biography (Verso, 2018) – the main source. Appendix 1 especially.

Yvonne Kapp – Writing Eleanor Marx  – includes an account of the Demuth family contacting her after being messed about by a journalist who stole their family photos.

Frances Wheen – Karl Marx (Fourth Estate, 1999)

Two newspaper articles from the David Heisler interviews in the early 1970s:

ABC Madrid – El Hijo Que Carlos Marx Trato De Olividar (“The son that Karl Marx tried to forget”) (1974)

Der Spiegel – Marx: Ungeliebter Sohn (“Marx: Unloved Son” – google translate) (1972)

The Workers’ Circle – fighting anti-semitism in Hackney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also on this site:

The Workers Circle Diamond Jubilee 1909-1969

E. Michaels – a Jewish Anarchist in Stoke Newington