ARCH: Hackney Autonomous Refugee Centre (1996)

For squatters this is a simple extension of the logic of turning empty buildings into homes. Here are people in a strange country with very simple and urgent needs: somewhere to live and something to eat. Here is a borough with a record for keeping properties empty and here are some activists willing to crack a few buildings. Simple.

Squall Magazine

82-90 Stoke Newington Road was a Magistrate’s Court from 1889. Barbara Windsor may have attended with Ronnie Kray when he was done for receiving stolen goods. The court would naturally be one arena where the oppression of working class residents of North London played out and it is gratifying to see that it was also a site of resistance to this:

The building is now St John’s Court (flats). As Alan Denney notes – a large “Police Court” sign was removed before the conversion, as presumably state-sadism is not a good selling point. St Johns Court is now a listed building. A one-bed flat can be rented there for £1,321 a month at the time of writing.

But… between the building being a court and becoming ‘luxury” flats, it was put to better use…

1996 was the last gasp of John Major’s Conservative government before New Labour were elected in the following year. On February 5th 1996 the Tories cut off benefits to asylum seekers who did not apply for asylum at the port of entry, and to those who lost their application but were awaiting an appeal.

Contrary to the bullshit spouted about asylum seekers “taking our jobs”, they were actually legally prevented from working. As London freesheet ContraFlow put it:

With no possibility to work legally, and now no way of getting any other money, increasing numbers will be left to starve, in the hope that they’ll return to wherever they had to flee from, unless we do something about it. Because of this situation, and the fact that the Refugee Council, who had money to open a hostel, hadn’t, a large squat was opened up in Hackney as an emergency shelter, and to highlight the situation, a squat called ARCH – Autonomous Refugee Centre Hackney.

The building was the old Magistrates Court in Stoke Newington Road, empty for years and with steel doors and windows but with an open window on the first floor that had been tempting the locals for ages.

According to anarchist magazine Black Flag, ARCH “was set up by local squatters, The Refugee Support Group from the Colin Roach Centre and others” and was supported by “local Kurdish and Turkish Groups, some churches and local shops”

Squatters’ magazine Squall interviewed some of the organisers:

Chris Locke of ARCH explains: “We wanted to provide homes for refugees affected by the Social Security changes. On the way we found lots of other stuff to do; ranging from getting decent solicitors for people to finding them clothes and food.” Warren, another member of ARCH, states the group’s intention to create alternative solutions: “We understand these people are alienated, some come from war zones and oppressive regimes to the big city. Providing bedding, conversation and a good meal is enough to give the basis of what they need; the dignity to keep their sanity and keep on living.”

ContraFlow went into more detail on the logistics:

The first mistake was going in before checking who owned it – it was assumed that as it was still for sale it still belonged to the state, which would’ve made it appropriate and make procedings predictable.

In fact it had been bought by Harinbrook Properties, a small property company connected to Eugena, a building outfit, who liked to pose as security guards, bailiffs and anything else. They tried three illegal evictions, which were foiled by physical force, with great assistance from the local Turkish and Kurdish community, and the cops. The cops only tried once to force their way in, but were eventually convinced that their legal position was rather dubious.

All this made the situation rather stressful and tiring, as 24-hour watches were kept until the owners finally decided to go to court.

ARCH Newsletter logo reproduced in “Squatting is part of the housing movement”

After ARCH was evicted, Squall spoke to some of the people that needed its help:

Meanwhile in a Stoke Newington pub, two ARCH volunteers stroll in with a couple of young refugees; Varben from Kosovo in former Yugoslavia and Antonio from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.

Antonio, a doctor from Cabinda, tells his story: “I left because of the civil war. I was afraid I would be killed. I had many problems because I was treating people from all the different parties who are at war. Some parties didn’t like me helping all sides but I am a doctor, I must help anyone who needs it. They put me in prison for a long time. Then I escaped and came here.” Antonio had no idea he had to apply for asylum as soon as he arrived and is currently waiting for the Home Office to process his asylum application. On average this takes nine months.

Varben hitch-hiked to England in a lorry from Macedonia: “When I got to London I slept out on the streets at Victoria Station for three days. I met an African who told me to go to the Home Office.” Varben says there were at least ten other refugees sleeping at Victoria whilst he was there: “I don’t know what happened to them, they didn’t speak English.” The Refugee Council referred him to a hostel for five days and then on to a church. He believes that squatting is a logical solution: “Why have houses empty? Why have people sleeping in the church?” He is looking forward to an English course organised for him by ARCH and the Churches Refugee Network. He too awaits a Home Office decision.

The ARCH crew eventually squatted a house for refugees further north in Stoke Newington. I vaguely recall from a radical history walk a few years back that this was somewhere around Manor Road/Lordship Park?

Before that, there were some lessons learnt and some reflections to be had, as ContraFlow put it:

The second mistake was thinking that the problem of accomodation could be dealt with separately to all the other problems faced by refugees. It was assumed that other groups and networks would step in and take over all the social work stuff, but the first refugee showed that it wasn’t so easy, and that being in a strange country with a strange language makes it pretty damned hard to do anything for yourself, apart from whatever stresses and depression you might bring with.

Anyway, a few people found themselves taking on a whole lot of social work, and running around finding groups that might be able to help out. After three weeks the centre was evicted and plans to move on to a new place immediately were postponed to give time to work out what was actually needed next, and because the squat centre, where some of those involved lived and which was generally used as a base, was also being evicted.

But work continued, with a local church network and community groups, sorting out places for people to stay as well as working on other aspects of the struggle, and support for those refugees who found their way to the network.

The Refugee Council, who had been desperately calling for churches to make space available, stopped referring refugees to the church network because of their connection with ARCH, but the churches remained supportive, and a house was eventually opened up. which is now housing a number of refugees, and one non-refugee for support. Many contacts were made, and networks are being organised around London to try to open up houses and centres in other areas, but it isn’t easy.

One of the vague ideas behind ARCH was that it would take off and become autonomous, that space would be created for refugees to take up their own fight. It hasn’t happened yet. partly because of the low numbers involved so far, and because it will always be easier for activists, who will always have to be around, to give support. The skills are out there, to find and provide what’s needed, if we can bring them together.

This isn’t just another benefit attack to be tagged on to our fight against the JSA. It’s not just another attack on housing adding to homelessness. It’s an attack on the ability of ordinary people like us to escape unbearable conditions created by the global (but still hierarchical) squeeze on our conditions, by local states’ attacks on behalf of global, asylum seeking capital. If money is going to zap around the world looking for cheaper labour and better investments, it can’t allow us to wander off looking for higher wages and better conditions. At best we’ll be allowed to be guestworkers, with our families and the costs of reproduction left behind, and with no rights to settle, organise.

This is an attack on London and its beautiful cosmopolitan mix of cultures and people, an attack on the communities here and on our history of refuge and struggle. In a way it’s a last chance for us to act locally and globally at the same time, to carry out direct actions that make us part of the world instead of just acting against increasingly localised political structures, with occasional solidarity actions to protest at the nastiness of other states. It is also a chance for us (the vast majority of ContraFlow readers, and writers) to break of our ghetto of our European “alternative” scene, and discover the world that is collected together in our cities.

For me ARCH is an inspiring example of practical solidarity being provided to those most in need by people with scant resources. For all its problems, this was direct action at its best. Since 1996 the pace of gentrification in Hackney has accelerated to the point where there are very few empty properties and this increase in value has been reflected in some changes to the law on squatting too. Nevertheless squatting is still happening, but generally in a less open manner. The veterans at the Advisory Service for Squatters are still doing a excellent work in difficult circumstances.

The support mechanism for migrants in the borough have been professionalised and there are obvious advantages to that, although I am sure that the constant worries about funding and simply not having the resources to do what needs to be done must be very stressful: Hackney Migrant Centre is seeking donations and volunteers.

Benefit fundraisers for ARCH and other causes, listed in ContraFlow

Sources/Further reading

“Desperately Seeking Asylum” ContraFlow #18 Mayday 1996 pdf

“Asylum Seekers Attacked” – Black Flag #207 1996 pdf

“Desperately Seeking Asylum”Squall Magazine #13 1996

x-chris – Squatting is part of the housing movement: Practical Squatting Histories 1969-2019 pdf

Police attack Hackney’s striking workers (1990 & 1991)

Police violence against Hackney’s afro-Caribbean community in the 1980s and 1990s is a matter of historical fact, but of course the cops’ racism and criminality didn’t end there…

Background

In 1989 over 4,500 refugees had come to Hackney fleeing the war in Kurdistan. They joined another twenty to thirty thousand Turkish-speaking workers in east London. Almost none of these workers were unionised and no major union had thought to change this. For example, none had ever appointed a Turkish speaking official. But some of these refugees had brought revolutionary traditions from the cities and villages of Turkey and Kurdistan – and they arrived in Hackney at a point where a lot of people were open to political struggle and solidarity.

The 1991 census figures showed that 10,500 people in Hackney worked in manufacturing (as opposed to 12,000 manufacturing jobs solely in the clothing industry in 1981 – and just 3,000 in manufacturing in total in 2019). Many of these jobs were in the textile sweatshops which were dotted around the borough. (See our previous post on working conditions in these for women in the early 1980s)

Call for help leaflet included in Hackney Trade Union News

1989: Protests Against Deportations

On Monday, February 27 1989, the police raided a number of factories in Hackney and arrested 38 Kurdish and Turkish workers. By the next day, seven had been deported and a further fourteen were under threat. This action came in the wake of a wave of raids across North and East London.

The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) clothing branch alongside community and political groups organised immediate protest action: a mass picket of Dalston police station on March 4th. This was followed by a 3,000 strong march the next day and an International Women’s Day march through Hackney under the slogans ‘No Worker is Illegal’, ‘Right to Settle, Right to Work’, ‘No More Deportations’ and ‘No to Police Raids’.

Hackney anti-deporation protest 4th March 1989

Hackney Union News reported at the time:

Factory bosses have used this background [of anti-immigrant sentiment and police harassment] to intensify exploitation. They have been met by increasing struggles over the right to organise in trade unions, and over wages and conditions.

These struggles have led to the formation of the North and East London TGWU textile branch no. 1/1312. The branch will require committed support from the TGWU against the attacks it will face, including trade unionists being shopped to immigration authorities by employers, and in the battles that lie ahead over recognition.

Hackney Union News May/June 1989

1/1312 branch was formed at the initiative of the political organisation, the Union of Turkish Workers, with the assistance of Hackney Trade Union Support Unit and Service Workers Advisory Project (SWAAP). One year later, it had recruited almost 600 workers locally…

Picket at Bacton Fashions

1990: Bacton Fashions strike

Bacton Fashions in Someford Grove, Dalston, was a relatively large clothing sweatshop employing up to 90 workers. It was located in an industrial unit along with other clothing sweatshops. Workers from the different firms used the same entrance to go to work.

Most of Bactons workers were Turkish or Kurdish, had been living in Britain for less than a couple of years and were waiting for a Home Office decision on their rights to remain in the UK. Within the factory there were some members of TGWU’s new 1/1312 textile workers branch.

A series of small-scale strikes had led to a union recognition agreement being signed at Dizzi Limited in nearby Well Street. There were regular leafleting sessions of factories and meetings on workers’ rights at community centres.

The workers at Bacton Fashions had many complaints about low pay, long hours, terrible health and safety conditions, no holiday or sick pay, victimisation, continuous lay-offs without pay and a management prepared to act dictatorially.

When eight workers at Bacton Fashions refused to accept being ‘laid off’ they began picketing. Appeals to other workers to respect their picket line were met sympathetically, but little else. The employer, Mustafa Dill, was sufficiently embarrassed to re-employ the workers and to agree to lay off pay during slack periods. However, he kept breaking his word and there were almost daily walkouts over the next few weeks, as agreements were reached then broken once again.

During a longer strike, it became traditional at the end of the working day for workers from all the firms in the industrial unit to join with the strikers and jeer and handclap the boss and his managerial team as they left work. There was no violence, although tensions were clearly running high and up to 400 people were involved in this daily humiliation of the boss and managers.

The TGWU itself was unhelpful.

On February 26th 1990 the evening picket of about 100 people was attacked by the paramilitary Territorial Support Group of the Metropolitan Police. There was a fierce fight, during which the police were initially chased from the scene, before re-grouping and attacking the pickets and their supporters.

Four pickets (all Kurdish refugees) were arrested and charged with riotous behaviour and actual bodily harm. They faced possible deportation if convicted.

Around 150 people picketed Dalston police station until 5am in the morning.

Only ten people crossed the picket line the next day, forcing Bactons to close.

A campaign to defend “The Bacton 4” was launched at a demo of 400 on April 7th. The campaign helped to secure ‘not guilty’ court verdicts for all four arrestees when their case came to trial in October 1990. It emerged that Special Branch had visited Bactons and showed the security guard photographs of recent demonstrations in London against a visit of Turkish leader General Evren – these photos apparently originated at the Turkish Embassy.

One striker later received a five figure sum in damages for what had happened to him during the police assault.

Bactons was eventually forced to close permanently, only to re-open under a different name and at a different location later. Picketing and a refusal by workers to work there led to its closure again.

As Mark Metcalf of the Colin Roach Centre put it:

While the workers lost their poorly paid jobs they achieved a degree of success showing the employers that they could not do everything they wanted and needed to take the workers needs into account when making decisions. The workers established a pride in fighting back; they closed down the factory and demonstrated they had the power to not only damage the employers’ profits but get rid of it!

An issue of Hackney Trade Union News in Turkish. Photo shows TGWU 1/1312 Textile Branch banner

1991: Solidarity Strike

On January 3rd 1991 over 2,500 London textile workers took solidarity action with their fellow workers on general strike in Turkey on the same day.

As Socialist Organiser reported:

“Factories in Shacklewell Lane, Somerford Grove, Victorian Grove, Tyssen Street, Tudor Grove and Arcola Street were virtually empty as workers refused to cross picket lines.

At 1.15pm, four vans were driven at speeds of over 70mph to the Halkevi community centre on Stoke Newington High St, and officers jumped from the vehicles to race into a crowd of around 120. Five people were grabbed and when friends tried to stop their arrests, around 20 police officers drew their truncheons and batoned people to the ground, arresting them as they fell. One woman meanwhile went to St Barts hospital with a broken leg.

At 2pm a crowd of 150 went to protest outside Stoke Newington police station and when in protest 30 sat down, on the other side of the road to the station, the police paramilitaries of the Bow TSG rushed across the road and violently arrested dozens of people. Others fled, but were pursued by the police in all directions.

Many people were arrested with the police paying special attention to those with cameras, and one young Kurdish man was rugby tackled to the ground, beaten, and his camera taken away.

62 people were arrested with four being taken by the police to Homerton hospital. Access to the casualty department was denied by police at the entrance.

At 6.30pm over 300 people, mainly Turkish and Kurdish, returned to Stoke Newington police station and remained outside singing and dancing until their friends were released. 29 people have been charged with a serious public order offence.

Many were beaten whilst in police custody. The arrestees were helped by Hackney Community Defence Association, which noted several incidents of TSG violence in Hackney the Summer 1991 issue of its newsletter Community Defence. HCDA characterised the January 3rd arrests as revenge for the confrontations at Bactons – and a raid on a gig at Chats Palace as revenge for the Hackney poll tax riot in March 1990:

The facts speak for themselves. TSG officers have an image of themselves as an elite force, and they behave as if answerable to nobody but themselves. There is a certain inevitability that wherever they go, trouble is sure to follow.

Two of the arrestees, Haci Bozkurt and Baki Ates, both 34 and from Stoke Newington, received a great deal of press coverage when their cases eventually came to trial five years later. Both had been granted political asylum after fleeing Turkey to escape police violence and persecution:

“The court was told that in January 1991 the men had been part of a group outside a community centre in Stoke Newington. They had gone to the centre to get news of the general strike then taking place in Turkey. Police were dispersing the crowd when disorder broke out.

Mr Bozkurt asked why a young man was being violently arrested, the court heard. He was then kicked and punched and dragged into a police van. Mr Ates complained about Mr Bozkurt’s treatment and he was grabbed and punched in the eye by PC Michael Fitzpatrick, the jury was told. “It felt like my eye exploded,” he said. He too was put in the van, where he was assaulted again. Both were handcuffed. Mr Bozkurt was also punched by PC Fitzpatrick, tlie court heard, and his nose was fractured. He received multiple injuries, Police said that he had fallen flat on the pavement during the fracas.

Both men were taken to Stoke Newington police station and were eventually seen by doctors. They were sent to hospital, where Mr Ates was found to have suffered a lacerated eyebrow and severe bruising to his eye, which was described by the doctor as a classic boxing injury.

The two men were charged with violent disorder. At Highbury Corner magistrates court in May 1991 no evidence was offered against Mr Bozkurt. Mr Ates was acquitted.”

Guardian Weekly June 23rd 1996

The jury found that the men had suffered false imprisonment, wrongful arrest and assault. Both were awarded £55,000 exemplary damages. Mr Ates received an additional £22,000 compensation and Mr Bozkurt £18,250. A total payout of just over £150,000.

Their counsel, Ben Emmerson, remarked:

“This country should have been a safe haven, but they were arbitrarily arrested, beaten and injured and then prosecuted on trumped-up charges”. Predictably, no disciplinary action has been taken against any of the officers involved and they remain on duty.”

Guardian 14.6.96. Quoted in Statewatch

With thanks to Neil Transpontine and Mark Metcalf.

Sources / Further Reading

Simon Lynn – “Migrant Workers Organise”, Hackney Union News, May 1989

“Textile Workers Strike” Hackney Union News March/April 1990

Hackney Unions News May/June 1989

“Bacton 4 found not guilty” – Hackney Union News, November 1990

“Bacton Fashions” Hackney Trade Union Support Unit: Report 1988-1990

Mark Metcalf – “The Bacton Fashions strike, 1990”

Colin Roach Centre – A Case for Trade Union Rank and File resistance: The Hackney Story (1995)

“Historic Day Ruined by police attacks on striking Turkish and Kurdish Workers” Socialist Organiser #471 (18 January 1991) p7

[Headline missing] Independent Thursday 13 June 1996

Duncan Campbell – “Police pay £150,000 after assault on Kurds” Guardian Weekly 23 June 1996

“Kurds receive £150,000 for police assault” Statewatch bulletin Vol 6 no 3 May-June 1996

The wider pattern of police criminality and corruption at Stoke Newington Police Station in the 1990s – and the campaign against it – is covered in our pages about Hackney Community Defence Association.

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

October 2020 updates

Photo by STN

The controversry about the Museum of the Home’s racist memorial to slave trader Robert Geffrye continued this month. The Hackney Citizen reported that:

Of the 2,187 respondents to the [museum’s] consultation, 71 per cent voted to take the statue down, with 29 per cent saying to leave it up. Four per cent did not respond to the question.

Protests have been taking place regularly outside the still-closed museum and persons unknown have upped the ante with some radical redecoration to the exterior wall as can be seen in the photo above. Police are apparently investigating this as well as the impressive makeover of the statue itself:

Photo by Hackney Citizen

Having steadfastly ignored the wishes of the community, the PR geniuses at the museum raised hackles across the borough with a tweet inviting people to implicate themselves in the ongoing shitstorm:

Their claim about reflecting the communities they serve seems at variance with the position of the Museum’s former Director David Dewing who is said to have stated that he had “no interest in the culture of the labouring classes”.

Out now

In happier news, the The Rio Tape/Slide Archive: Radical Community Photography in Hackney in the 80s book has now been published and if you like this blog you should get it. It’s a lavish production with 254 pages filled with amazing photos and some great commentary from participants in the original Rio Tape/Slide project as well as Michael Rosen and Hackney photographer Alan Denney.

My copy arrived a few days ago and the few pages I have managed so far have already piqued my interest for some future entries here.

The book is £26 direct from Isola Press (and I think from the Rio itself and Artsword bookshop on Broadway Market) and is apparently going quick. If you can’t afford that, then check out the related free exhibition at the newly opened Hackney Museum (the museum that knows how to do things properly in Hackney).

The exhibition online launch event is online with some great presentations about Hackney in the 1980s and the background of the production of the book:

Alan Denney is also in conversation with the Hackney Society on 10th December. This free online event will cover his own incredible photos of Hackney in the 1970s and 1980s.

Some great 1980s posters from the Hackney Empire were unearthed this month. The poster on the left was tweeted by Hackney Museum who had this to say:

Opposition to South African Apartheid was widespread in 1980s Hackney In 1985 workers at the British Tyre & Rubber factory (SA) went on strike over rights, pay and conditions. Within 72 hours they were dismissed.This play was put on to raise money for the strikers #bhm2020

The poster on the right was posted by Hackney ranting poet and author Tim Wells on his excellent Stand Up and Spit blog. Tim’s skinhead werewolf pulp horror shocker of a novel Moonstomp was a highlight of last year and was mainly set in late 1970s Hackney. This month he announced his second novel Shine On Me which promises “Skinhead werewolf, mod witches, dead Crass fans!”

Mick Hugo

Veteran radical Hackney historian Ken Worpole wrote a fascinating obituary for his friend Mick Hugo in the Guardian this month, covering his work as a merchant seaman and his time in Hackney the 1970s as a squatter, housing activist and Centerprise volunteer amongst many other things.

Photo by @happymantree on Twitter

Meanwhile in horticultural history, The Happy Man Tree was voted “Tree of the Year”. It’s a 150 year old grade A London Plane street tree near Woodberry Down which is (still?) slated for demolition by Berkeley Homes.

Hackney Archives is sadly still closed but Friends of Hackney Archives are going strong and have unusually published a copy of their newsletter online with an update on the archives and articles including Philip Twells MP (a slave owner who lived on Stoke Newington Church Street), the campaign to restore the Hackney stocks, Hackney in London Parish maps circa 1900 and more.

Hackney Account is an inspiring youth-led police monitoring group launched earlier this year. They just published their report Policing in Hackney: Challenges From Youth In 2020 with some excellent statistics and commentary about stop and search and other recent policing issues in the borough. I was struck by the title and its resonance with the essential book published by Karia Press in 1988 and how some things have improved since then, while some things have stayed the same.

In the September update I mentioned the public vote to choose the name of the new public square by Britannia Leisure Centre. There are four contrasting radical Hackney options to choose from and the deadline is November 11th.

Finally it was lovely to hear some praise for this site during Mayday Rooms’ online session on “Archiving Radical Spaces” at the London Anarchist Bookfair event.

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…

June updates

Newington Green Meeting House published a short video about Anna Laetitia Barbauld to celebrate her birthday on 20th June:

They have also published a calendar of forthcoming online events, including an “Alternative Statue Tour” on 7th July which takes in some of the Borough’s more progressive residents – old and new -that might be good subjects for future statues. This is followed on 21st July by an event on the Meeting House’s roots in Unitarianism and its connection with dissenters.

Horrid Hackney is a new site by Lucy Madison that promises “a new blog entry every day”. Which sounds exhausting. Entries posted already include some overlap with topics covered here, such as the IRA “bomb factory” on Milton Road, the 43 Group duffing up fascists in Dalston and the Angry Brigade arrests in Stoke Newington. Indeed, the site’s post on the 43 Group coincidentally includes exactly the same video interviews as our one from 2018.

The difference between “horrid” and “radical” is that Lucy’s site includes a lot more about grisly crimes, their victims and perpetrators. Generally these entries are pretty good, but I guess there is a risk of sensationalising murders and murderers and flattening all kinds of activity into an amorphous “extreme” history. It’s unclear, for example, why Lucy feels the 43 Group were “horrid” rather than heroic..

There is a dispute at the Rio Cinema with the Save The Rio group accusing the Board of pursuing unnecessary restructuring amongst other issues. The group has proposed an alternative temporary Board to be convened before an AGM can be called at which members would vote for a new Board. Members of the Rio are being asked to thrash this out via proxy voting. There is a petition for non-members.

A reminder that you have until 3rd July (Friday) to comment on the future of the statue of slave trader Sir Robert Geffrye in the grounds of the Museum of the Home.

Our neighbours and comrades at Reclaim EC1 have published a list of memorials in the City of London linked to colonialism and racism as well as the first installment of a series of posts on the City’s involvement in the slave trade. They also note the recent removal of the memorial bust of former Hackney resident John Cass from St Botolph’s Church, Aldgate High Street on 18 June.

Finally our south London comrades at History is Made at Night posted this video of Luton’s Exodus Collective running a soundsystem on Hackney Marshes as part of a larger free festival in 1998. I assume I was at this, but my memories of that summer are a bit foggy for reasons that are probably best not speculated about…

Club des Femmes seeks 1980s Rio habitues

Pumping Iron II: The Women – from Club des Femmes tweet

WE WANT YOU!

Did you come to the women’s film and video screenings at the Rio in the 1980s? Were you a member of the Rio Women’s Cinema and the Women’s Media Resource Project? If so, we want to hear from you!

From 22 February – 30 May 2020 we will be facilitating a series of feminist re-imaginings, re-screenings, archival activations and reflections at the Rio. 

Please get in touch to take part in this vital project which aims to keep feminist moving image history present and future-looking: hello@clubdesfemmes.com

Club des Femmes are “a queer feminist collective who curate film screenings + events. Our mission is to offer a freed up space for the re-examination of ideas through art.”

Twitter.

https://www.clubdesfemmes.com/

January 2020 updates

While this blog has hibernated, others have been busy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images from the Hackney Museum twitter feed

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

Portraits from ‘A Hackney Autobiography’ exhibition

portraits from a hackney autobiography invite

Regular readers of this blog will remember my enthusiastic support for the A Hackney Autobiography project which documented the Centerprise radical bookshop, cafe, meeting place, community hub.

Well as you can see from the image above, the project continues with an exhibition of photographs “of people who worked at or frequented Centerprise and archive material related to their work”.

 

Enoch Powell in Dalston

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

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

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

powell

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