“Most Awful Place in Britain”: Hackney 1982

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breaker’s Yard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hackney Peoples Press – the first three issues, 1973

Hackney People’s Press was a local left-leaning community newspaper published regularly from 1973 until 1985.

An interview with HPP contributor Charles Foster is available elsewhere on this site. As you can see from the masthead below, HPP was formed by the merger of Hackney Action and Hackney Gutter Press, who were both publishing in the early 70s and have also been covered here previously.

Charles has very kindly donated his archive to this site. The plan is to gradually upload an overview of Hackney People’s Press, year by year, alongside the many other things I want to cover.  I won’t have time to scan every single page, and the combination of oversized tabloid pages and the scanner I have occasional access to will mean that some details are missed out. Nevertheless I hope this gives a good flavour of the HPP project and the radical culture of Hackney in the late 20th Century…

The issues below are all large tabloid format – click on the images for a full size version.

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The debut issue – 5 pence, worra bargain! As you can see from the introduction on the cover, the plan was to publish monthly and to hold open public meetings for contributors. The issues I have from 1973 suggests that this schedule was kept to initially. (Although the page count went down from 12 to 8).

We kick off with an excellent lead story on parents in De Beauvoir seizing some vacant land to use as an adventure playground for kids. The author, Crispin Aubrey, was an interesting figure who was later prosecuted under the official secrets act for interviewing a former GCHQ worker.

(The De Beauvoir Association has published an archive of the “De Beaver” newsletter from the 1970s and 80s which is well worth a look and also covers this).

Other contents:

A critical account of a Hackney Trades Council meeting, in which various union leaderships are criticised for not seeing the wisdom of bringing down the Tory government and establishing socialism via the Labour Party. The meeting “erupted into what was at times an extremely violent violent argument between a small contingent from the Socialist Labour League (Trotskyist) and a much larger number of Communist Party (Stalinist) members.”

Learning Exchange: a free service which puts people interested in learning the same subject in touch with each other. (c/o Centerprise).

Support for striking teachers campaigning for an increase in the London Allowance (and concern that rising housing, prices etc mean that teachers were leaving London – just like now).

After Six in Hackney: full page piece on an advice service for homeless people, operating after 6pm every evening.

An article on closing cinemas with the overly dramatic title “Who Raped Our Screens?” – “Hackney now has only 6 cinemas amongst a population of over 200,000, and one of those, the Dalston Tatler, is for members only. The Stamford Hill Odeon closed only a few months ago, largely on the pretext that the Dalston Odeon has been converted into 3 separate screens. At the same time, prices at Dalston have gone up to a minimum of 55p…”

Homes Saved From Ringway: 1,000 properties no longer being demolished because of the collapse of plans for a big road through Dalston and Hackney Wick following protests.

A double page spread on Kingsmead Estate which is critical of the Tenants Association, but more positive about the work of the Claimants Union on the estate – a representative is quoted on their work to get people the right benefits, help make sure repairs are done by the council and demands for police patrols to sort out menacing kids with airguns attacking people. Also: “We would not let anyone on the estate be evicted without one hell of a fight. We will organise barricades, cordon off the estate if necessary. The days when they could come in and evict someone in relative peace are all over.” (did this ever actually happen though?)

Also interesting to see the council criticised for making Kingsmead into a ghetto, concentrating black people, OAPs and benefit claimants there, the implication being that other estates were reserved for white, relatively more affluent types?

Haggerston Food Co-Op is introduced (but more on them below).

Perhaps slightly jarring with the community articles is a press release about the Stoke Newington 5 (originally the Stoke Newington 8).

Tony Soares (who ran the Grass Roots bookshop in Ladbroke Grove) writes about being convicted for “incitement to murder persons unknown“. Which is as mad as it sounds. Turns out Tony had reprinted the Black Panther Party’s “On organising self-defence groups” article: “The police conceded that there probably would have been no prosecution had it not been for a complaint from Jack Backsi, the Community Relations Officer for Hackney”. Backsi apparently referred the publication to Hackney’s then MP Stanley-Clinton David, asking him to raise it in parliament. Soares was sentenced to 200 hours of community service, which suggests that everyone agreed that the threat he posed was minimal – but that this sort of politics was not welcome in the UK.

There’s a story about some black youths being hassled by the police because one of them was carrying a walking stick – and how this was falsely reported as “Mob Storms Police Station” by the Hackney Gazette.

Also two pages of contact info for community and political groups, and a back page piece by Ken Worpole on William Morris and the meaning of May Day.

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Issue 2 leads with a story about a mother and 4 young kids being evicted from an empty house that they had squatted after waiting for 4 years on the council list. The 3 other squatters who helped her to re-occupy the property were charged with assaulting the police.

Hackney Playbus: Fran Crowther on why it’s needed and an appeal for drivers. (Previousl also covered in an issue of Hackney Action, see here for a scan.)

Unhealthy Health Report – NHS understaffing, infant mortality 33% higher in Hackney than the average for England and Wales, drop in ante natal care sessions, criticism of factory inspectors (2,546 factory premises in Hackney!), etc.

Hackney School Students: participated in a demonstration about democratising school councils. Also uproar at Cardinal Pole school about a DIY students magazine called “Vision” – four of the student contributors were suspended. (Any more info on that would be greatly received!)

“1972 – A Year of Increased Repression”: Overview of The National Council for Civil Liberties annual report, with references to state attacks on the underground press (Oz and IT magazines), republican sympathisers, the Angry Brigade trial, prisoners rights, moves to restrict jury trials and the right to protest, increased arming of the police, etc:

1972repress

Mike Knowles of Hackney Trades Council is given a full page right of reply to the drubbing they got in the first issue. Alongside the correction of some errors in the original article, the general tone is that it’s alright for lefty activists to hold forth about a general strike and socialism but the real issue is how to actually get there – especially if it’s not possible to organise a one day strike on May Day as was being mooted.

Also groups and contacts:

groups

The back page is a heartwarming story about some guerrilla street theatre performers and how they were received around the borough:

theatre

hpp3cov

Issue 3 leads with the a story on the closure of the inspiring Haggerston Food Co-op which has been previously covered on this site by this excellent video:

There is an edge of bitterness to the story, the obvious frustration of not being able to get the community sufficiently involved to keep the co-op going when the activist who ran it solo was rehoused elsewhere. (An all to common problem with community politics but getting all narky about it in print isn’t the solution eh?)

Page 2 covers the trial of the squatters featured on the cover of issue 2. Five charges of breach of the peace were dropped as the cops couldn’t produce their lead witness. Two women were found guilty of obstructing the police (the sentence/fine isn’t mentioned). More happily it’s also reported that Anita Keating, the mother who was evicted, was now squatting successfully in Islington with her kids.

Page 3 reports on a Hackney Young Teachers Association meeting on “West Indian Problems” i.e. racism and cultural differences and the detrimental effect they were having on the education of black kids: “The condescending attitude of some middle class educationalists towards the language of working class children and parents, black and white is partly due to a misunderstanding of the theories of Basil Bernstein, which then makes the sad equation that poor language equal working class impoverishment in a never ending circle. This attitude is doubly tragic because it helps to maintain the exam system in all its immorality and because it checks the child-centred advances made so bravely by our infant and nursery schools.”

The centre pages contrast the Matchgirls strike of 1888 with a strike by Ministry of Defence contract cleaners in 1972.

Also:

  • A report on a family of squatters who have had to move 11 times in the last 8 years.
  • An update on De Beauvoir playground which seemed to be doing well despite council indifference.
  • Hackney and Islington World Development Group – concerned with global poverty, development, trade.
  • Workers Education Association music workshop, Learning Exchange, listings.

The back page reports on some incredible community direct action. After getting nowhere with the police or the council, Stonebridge residents move cars which have been dumped on their estate into the middle of Kingsland Road, causing a traffic jam, but resolving the issue!

Echoes of this sort of thing were later seen with Reclaim The Streets, where old bangers were driven into the middle of big roads as a way of blocking them off before a party commenced. Hackney Independent Working Class Association were still shaming the council about dumped cars in the south of the Borough in the early 21st Century.

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Audio: Radical community arts centres in 1970s and 1980s Hackney – what legacy?

Below is a recording of some talks and discussion at Open School East in 2013:

It covers the origins of spaces like Centerprise (Dalston, 1971-2012), Chats Palace (Homerton, since 1973) and Cultural Partnerships (De Beauvoir Town, 1983-1999) and current projects geared at recording or re-presenting their histories.

OSE_SS

Open School East is based in a former library in De Beauvoir and describes itself as:

a unique space that brings together:

  • A free study programme for emerging artists;
  • A multifaceted programme of events and activities open to all.

Open School East was founded in 2013 in response to spiraling tuition fees and student debt. It was instituted as a space for artistic learning and production that is experimental, versatile and highly collaborative.

Central to Open School East’s approach is a commitment to foster cultural, intellectual and social exchanges between artists and the broader public. We do this by opening our study programme outwards, responding to our locality and providing an informal environment for the sharing of knowledge and skills across various communities – artistic, local and otherwise.

The OSE archive also includes recordings on of other past talks on topics including “Architecture of the De Beauvoir Tow Estate: A discussion between Wilson Briscoe and Owen Hatherley”

They have a whole bunch of interesting activites planned, including a talk by anthropologist Nazima Kadir on “The Dutch Squatting Movement and Self-Organised Groups” on Thursday 25 June 6.30-7.30pm.

Well worth keeping an eye on and supporting.

Hackney Gutter Press issue 5, September 1972

5cov

This issue:

Cover story on council rent increases.

Dock strikes – dockers sold out by the union.

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

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

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

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

Shitting Bricks – builders’ strike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5ads

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

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

Lenin in Hackney

In 1907 the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was held in a church on the corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road in the De Beauvoir area of Hackney.

Attendees included Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Rosa Luxemburg.

In Hackney, That Rose Red Empire, Iain Sinclair notes:

RUSSIAN REVOLUTIONISTS AFRAID OF THE CAMERA

Block headline. Daily Mirror, 1907. Southgate Road. Procession of men in bourgeois-workers’ funeral outfits, umbrellas, removed bowlers disguising beards. Iron railings. Lumpy ecclesiastical bricks. Churches like prisons. Journalists are spooks, double agents, narks. Pigment is metaphor: blood red. Not til the red fog rises. Afraid of the camera’s cyclopean eye, as they walk heads bowed towards it.

Here is Stella Rimington (former Director General of MI5)  to tell us more:

The Congress

Not sure what the provenance of this picture is - can anyone help?

Not sure what the provenance of this picture is – can anyone help?

[Image nicked from here.]

The Congress was a turning point for the RSDLP, with the revolutionary Bolshevik faction winning out against their moderate Menshevik rivals:

“the Party will henceforth pursue the strictly class policy of the socialist proletariat. The red flag of the proletariat will no longer be hauled down before the spell-binders of liberalism. A mortal blow has been struck at the vacillation characteristic of intellectuals, which is unbecoming to the proletariat.”

J.V. Stalin – Notes of a Delegate

One of the other discussions was about whether or not armed robberies were an OK way of securing funds for revolutionary activity. Somehow the Mensheviks managed to get a resolution passed which condemned that sort of thing. Weeks later a group of Bolsheviks made off with 341,000 rubles (over 2 million quid in today’s money) in the Tiflis Bank Robbery in Georgia.

There is a more detailed account of the Contress at Wikipedia, and Lenin’s collected utterances during the event are available at marxists.org.

Trotsky provides some fascinating insights into the social and financial aspects of the Congress:

“The party congress of 1907 held its meetings in a socialist church in London. It was a protracted, crowded, stormy, and chaotic congress. The second Duma was still alive in St. Petersburg.

The revolution was subsiding, but it was still arousing great interest, even in English political circles. Prominent liberals invited the better-known delegates to their houses to show them off to their guests.

The ebbing tide of the revolution was already evident in the lessening of the party funds. There was not enough money for the return journey, or even to carry the congress to its conclusion. When this sad news re-echoed under the arches of the church, cutting into the discussion on armed uprisings as it did, the delegates looked at one another in alarm and amazement.

What was to be done? We could not stay in the church, of course. But a way out was found, and in quite an unexpected form. An English liberal agreed to lend the Russian revolution three thousand pounds, as nearly as I can remember the figure. He demanded, however, that the revolutionary promissory note be signed by all the delegates at the congress, and so the Englishman received a document bearing several hundred signatures, in the characteristic signs of all the races of Russia. He had to wait a long time, however, for the payment of the note.

During the years of the reaction and the war, the party could not even dream of such huge sums. It was the Soviet government that bought back the promissory note of the London congress. Revolution carries out its obligations, although usually not without delay.”

Leon Trotsky – My Life, Chapter XVI

An article in the capitalist lapdog Evening Standard notes that:

Most participants at the congress lodged in Stepney. But not all of them. The individuals who then headed the Marxist movement – Lenin, Georgii Plekhanov and Yuli Martov – preferred to stay in bourgeois Bloomsbury.

They admired its cleanliness and orderliness. With the British Museum in the vicinity they obtained readers tickets under pseudonyms. Among the egalitarian Marxists, some were more equal than others.

The Venue

Brotherhood Church, Southgate Road, Hackney

Brotherhood Church, Southgate Road, Hackney

I can still see the bare walls of the ridiculously shabby wooden church in the suburbs of London, the lancet windows of a small narrow hall much like the classroom of a poor school. It was only from the outside that the building resembled a church. Inside there was a total absence of any religious attributes and even the low pulpit stood not in the back of the hall but squarely between the two doors.

I had never met Lenin until that year, nor even read him as much as I should have done. I was strongly drawn to him, how-ever, by what I had read of his writings, and particularly by the enthusiastic accounts of people who were personally acquainted with him. When we were introduced he gripped my hand firmly, probed me with his penetrating eyes, and said in the humorous tone of an old friend:

“I’m glad, you came. You like a fight, don’t you? Well, there’s going to be a big scrap here.”

Maxim Gorky

Attentive readers of this blog will have seen the Brotherhood Church being mentioned here before, in Hackney Propaganda: Working Class Club Life and Politics in Hackney 1870-1900:

It should not be thought that all religious thinking and church movements were unanimously hostile to the ideas of socialism. There was in this period a movement of Labour Churches.

One of the more ‘utopian’  religious projects which found itself a home in Hackney was the Brotherhood Church which was established in Southgate Road in 1891. It was set up by the Reverend Bruce Wallace – whose name later appears as a speaker at the Kingsland branch of the Socialist Democratic Federation – when he took over an almost derelict church and re-opened it as a centre for a long-term religious and political project.

The following account comes from a book on English utopian experiments, Heavens Below:

“With J.C. Kenworthy he (Wallace) propagated Tolstoyan ideals. A grocery and vegetable co-operative was opened on the 20th Jan. 1894 in Nos. 1 and 5 Downham Road, Kingsland. They aimed to pay Trade Union wages and provide sickness benefits and old age pensions. Unlike other contemporary co-ops the capital subscribed by the Brotherhood to the store earned no interest and the customer’s profit was not paid to them but saved for the purpose of land for new communities. (24)”

The Brotherhood Church survived into the 20th century, preaching and advocating a mixture of Marxism and Christianity so that services would combine readings from the Bible with hymns sung from the Labour Hymn Book.

I’m hoping to write more about The Brotherhood Church soon, but I think it’s clear from the above that it wasn’t such a strange choice to host the Congress – especially as 338 delegates attended – a few more than you can fit into a room above a pub.

So, Hackney played a minor role in the build up to the Russian Revolution! Part of me is quite chuffed with that, but another part wishes that the Irish Dockers mentioned in the Youtube clip had given Stalin a much bigger beating whilst they had the chance…

Lenin in Clapton, too!

The Wikipedia entry on Clapton Square also mentions Lenin visiting his comrade Theodore Rothstein there a couple of years earlier in 1905. Rothstein was a Russian emigre, forced to leave the country of his birth in 1890 “for political reasons”.

Theodore Rothstein, Clapton Communist

Theodore Rothstein, Clapton Communist

Rothstein wrote numerous articles for the British left-wing press at the time. He was a member of various British political groups also (the Social Democratic Federation, British Socialist Party, etc) as well as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. He worked as a journalist, going on to become a Russian translator for the Foreign Office and War Office (although he opposed the First World War).

He lived in England for thirty years, returning to post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, where he served as a diplomat and academic. Theodore Rothstein died in Moscow in 1953. His son, Andrew was also a life-long communist who remained in the UK until his death in 1994.

(More on Lenin in London here – including a suggestion that anarchist Peter Kropotkin may have attended the Congress)

dailymirrorMay-15-1907

Daily Mirror May 15 1907