Dalston Mens Group (1977)

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

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

Breaking through the cringe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The origins of Dalston Mens Group

Dave Phillips (photo courtesy of The British Library)

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

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

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

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

Dave Phillips

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

What does a Mens Group do?

Dave goes on to mention their activities:

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

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

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

Dave Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dalston Mens Group – Sixteen Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Menswear: male feminist style & fashion

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

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

Dave Phillips – from an interview for The British Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Clothes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homeworkers have also been affected.

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

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

Jobs for the Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Pin Money… but Peanuts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the Children?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Sweet Home

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

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

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

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

Children need attention too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for a change

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

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

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

It makes you think!

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

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

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

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

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

Why indeed? And what can we do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

Previously on this site:

Communist Plan for Life in Hackney (1930s)

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

Hackney Communist Party banner from 1952.

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

Hackney Needs Socialism  – 1978 election pamphlet

How a Homerton woman stood up to domestic violence and made legal history

Content warning: this post includes some brief textual descriptions of violence and threats against women. Hackney Council’s domestic violence support services can be accessed here.

“Women make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

In 1974 Jennifer Davis was awarded the tenancy of 13 Nisbet House, Homerton High Street. (Nisbet House was built in the 1930s as part of the council’s slum clearances. A previous entry on this blog covers another resident of Nisbet House – tenant activist Bob Darke.)

Jennifer’s partner Nehemiah Johnson was added to the tenancy at his request and they moved in together and later had a daughter. Jennifer was in her late teens, Nehemiah in his late thirties.

Jennifer Davis was the victim of what the court of appeal described as “extreme” violence from Johnson.

Nehemiah’s violence became so extreme that on 18th September 1977 Jennifer was forced to flee with their two and half year old daughter and live in the world’s first Women’s Refuge in Chiswick. Nehemiah then threatened to kill Jennifer – and dump her in the river or chop up her body and put it in the freezer.

This resulted in an important legal case, which Susan Edwards (Professor and Dean of Law at the University of Birmingham) has written about in her chapter of the book Women’s Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland.

Parliament had recently passed The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976 (DVMPA). The act originated as a Private Members Bill authored by Jo Richardson MP, and was the culmination of many years’ campaigning by the women’s liberation movement.

But laws are of little consequence until they are put to the test in court. Someone has to have the unfortunate privilege of being first – and this time Jennifer Davis was one of the women to take on that mantle.

On 11th October 1977 Jennifer applied to Brentford County Court under section 1 of the DVMPA for injunctions restraining the Nehemiah from using violence against her and ordering him to vacate the flat and stay at least half a mile away from it. (It seems reasonable to speculate that she was assisted by the staff at the women’s refuge and perhaps others in doing this.)

“The judge found that the violence and threats of violence, to which Miss Davis had been subjected, were of a horrifying nature. He thought that there was a real risk of further violence in the future. […] The exclusion of [Johnson] from the flat and the prohibition upon his return were necessary to protect Miss Davis and her child in their own home.”

Lord Scarman, 1978

The injunctions were granted. But Johnson appealed – and sickeningly was successful in being granted the ability to return to the flat. The legal arguments around this essentially boiled down to a conflict between property rights and the right to live without exposure to violence. This may not come as too much of surprise to my more cynical readers. (There is more to say here about the historical legacy of women being deemed to be the property of men, for example in marriage – and the struggle to gain the vote, etc).

Jennifer Davis in turn appealed this decision, which lead to further wrangling by men in wigs. The Court of Appeal found in her favour by a majority of three to two judges. The original judgement was restored. According to Lorraine Radford this led to some sexist furore about the decision being “a mistresses’ charter”.

On returning to her flat in Homerton, Jennifer found it completely stripped of all its furniture.

Johnson would not let it lie and appealed once again to the House of Lords (it would be interesting to know where he was getting his funding and advice from?). The profile and importance of the case ensured that Jennifer was well supported on the day:

The Times 18 January 1978

The discussion in the Lords included the out of touch snark characteristic of the place and era, including several references to the “child of their illicit union” who was also “illegitimate”.

But to their credit, the Lords agreed that unmarried women should be treated the same as married ones in this regard and also dismissed Nehemiah Johnson’s appeal, establishing an important legal precedent. William Twining and David Miers describe the decision as “a leading case on the doctrine of precedent and the use of extrinsic aids to interpretation”.

I’m sure this was of less value to Jennifer Davis than being able to live with her daughter in peace in their flat in Homerton. And to the women that followed her…

Jennifer Davis and daughter Cordelia celebrating with Erin Pizzey (right) and Tina Wood of Chiswick Women’s Aid

Susan Davis concludes:

“Without doubt Davis v Johnson was a turning point in both law and judicial understanding of domestic violence. The problem of domestic violence, despite these changes, remains a significant problem in its extent and the failings of the criminal justice response. Over a quarter of women have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16. On average two women in England and Wales are killed by their current or former partner every week. Cuts to legal aid are making it significantly harder for women to access the courts to protect themselves and their family.”

The problem of domestic violence has recently been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown.

Sources / Further Reading / Plagiarism

Susan Davis “Davis v Johnson (1978)” in Erika Rackley, Rosemary Auchmuty (eds) – Women’s Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland (Bloomsbury 2018)

Lorraine Radford – The Law and Domestic Violence Against Women (PhD thesis, 1988) https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/136499.pdf

William Twining and David Miers – How to Do Things with Rules: A Primer of Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

House of Lords Decisions: Davis v Johnson [1978] UKHL 1 (09 March 1978) http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/1978/1.html

Astrid Proll – on the run in Hackney

Astrid Proll: under arrest in Germany

In Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrid in London

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

Astrid Proll, The Matured Spirit of ’68

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

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

Living in Hackney

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

Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London

So where did she live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London

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

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

Anonymous friend quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll

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

“Women Work In Hackney”

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

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

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

Quoted by Iain Sinclair

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

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

Court documents

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

Alleged photo of Astrid Proll by The Hackney Flashers

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

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

Quoted by Tina Jackson

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

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

Anonymous friend, quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll

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

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

Arrest

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

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

Quoted in BBC: On This Day

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

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

Astrid Proll, Farewell To London

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

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

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

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

Campaign

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

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

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

Christine Wall

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

Poster for November 1978 benefit gig

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

Tom Vague

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

Richard Williams, drummer for The Passions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrid Proll quoted in Friends of Astrid Proll literature

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

Extradition and Trial

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

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

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

Astrid Proll leaving her trial in Germany 1980.

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

Freedom and aftermath

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

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

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

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

Sources / Plagiarism / Further Reading

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

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

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

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

Friends of Astrid Proll – The Court Situation (1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal documents

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

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

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

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/

Forthcoming radical history events in Hackney

“A unique reading of the commissioned text, Wollstonecraft Live! which depicts the shooting of a biopic of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life, with actors, an original music score, and you, the audience. Taking place in the atmospheric 18th century Unitarian Chapel in Newington Green, attended by Wollstonecraft in the 1780s. Come and hear the pulse of her words woven through the tapestry of a story of and about her life, linking past and present.

Directed by Anna Birch

Script by Kaethe Fine

Sound design by Alastair Gavin”

Tickets £7.50 from here.

Roots, Rhythms & Records: The sounds and stories of African and Caribbean music in Hackney

Hackney Museum: 4 October 2018 – 16 March 2019

“From making beats in bedrooms to performing on stage, enjoying sounds in shebeens to looking sharp for the club, this exhibition explores the history of African and Caribbean music in Hackney.

Through stories of musical innovation, distribution and enjoyment, this exhibition celebrates the impact of African and Caribbean music in Hackney and beyond.

Join us for the exhibition launch on Thursday 4th October, from 6pm. Free, please RSVP here:

FREE

Hackney Museum
Ground Floor
Technology and Learning Centre
1 Reading Lane
E8 1GQ

https://www.hackney.gov.uk/museum-visiting

“Breaking Ground” film about London Irish Women’s Centre – now online

London Irish Women’s Centre was at 59 Stoke Newington Church St from the early eighties until 2012.

liwc

I’ve covered this film previously on the blog and very much enjoyed it when it was screened at The Rio.

The film can now be viewed for free online until the end of May: http://www.breakinggroundfilm.com/

There is a trailer here to whet your appetite:

You can also buy a DVD of the film from the link above.

 

Hackney Museum: Making Her Mark: 100 years of women’s activism

making-her-mark-hackney-museum-LST275576

Hackney Museum is currently hosting an excellent exhibit in the history of radical women and women’s activism in the Borough. (Obviously if I had my act together, I would have posted this yesterday on International Women’s Day)

The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with the East End Women’s Museum who have details on their website. There is also some information on the Council’s website here.

A visit is recommended – there is a great spread of material from the Suffragettes through to the peace movement and even Nicola Thorp’s shoes.

There’s an interview on East London Radio about the exhibition too:

Hackney Museum, 1 Reading Ln, London E8 1GQ.

  • 9.30am – 5.30pm Tues, Wed, Fri
  • 9.30am – 8.30pm Thu
  • 10am – 5pm Sat

Nearest station: Hackney Central

The Museum is also currently working on an exhibition of black music in the borough and seeking contributions and input.

Dalston Children’s Centre 1982/3

The comrades at Lesbian History Group have uploaded the annual reports of Dalston Children’s Centre from 1982 and 1983 as PDFs.

The text below sums up its radical ethos:

dcc-1

The Centre was based firstly at 80 Sandringham Road and then latterly 112 Greenwood Road (near Dalston Lane). They also used a number of other venues for activities including St Marks church hall.

The reports are an interesting combination of the expected problems with funding (and the usual tussles about compromising the radical aims of the group to meet funders’ objectives) as well as accounts of the activities of the group, letters from Centre users etc.

dcc-collectively

dcc-easter

The 1983 report includes an appendix of Centre policies, including anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism and anti-authoritarianism – and how these might be applied to education, training and food.

Direct links to the PDFs are here:

https://lesbianhistorygroup.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/dalston-cc-1982.pdf

https://lesbianhistorygroup.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/dalston-cc-1983.pdf

Also of interest might be this report of a recent meeting of the Radical History Network on radical childcare struggles in North London.

 

History Workshop Journal: Feminist squatting in Hackney

m_hiwork_83_1cover

The current issue of HWJ includes an excellent article by Christine Wall titled “Sisterhood and Squatting in the 1970s: Feminism, Housing and Urban Change in Hackney”.

Fortunately for us non-academics, the piece can be read in its entirety online rather than being stuck behind a paywall:

https://academic.oup.com/hwj/article/83/1/79/3862507/Sisterhood-and-Squatting-in-the-1970s-Feminism

There is a particular focus on the area around London Fields / Broadway Market:

By the late 1970s an estimated fifty women-only households were scattered throughout the streets behind Broadway Market, including one continuous terrace of seven women’s squats on Lansdowne Drive. The majority of these women identified as lesbians.

But squatting communities in Ivydene Road and Amhurst Road are also mentioned, as well as some very readable recollections of feminist squatting culture and activism.