There was a poll for Hackney residents to vote on options for a new name for the space. The Council’s Review, Rename, Reclaim initiative crowdsourced some suggestions and identified four black former residents of Hackney to choose between:
S.J. Celestine Edwards (1857/8-1894) – activist, editor and campaigner on anti-colonial and anti-racism.
Kathleen ‘Kit’ Crowley (1918-2018) – respected Cassland Road working class resident.
Francis ‘Frank’ Owausu (1954 – 2018) – arrived in Hackney as a child political refugee. Teacher and co-founder of the African Community School (a “supplementary school” similar to the one shown in a recent episode of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” TV series).
Ralph Adolphus Straker (1936 – 2013) – union activist, anti-SUS law campaigner, Hackney Community Relations Council, African and African Carribbean arts patron.
There is a nice PDF with photos and biographical information about the four people here.
Voting on this has now closed and the new name will be announced in May.
(After a similar consultaiton and poll, the square outside Britannia Leisure Centre will now be renamed BRAFA Square after the Hackney-based 1980s British Reggae Artists Famine Appeal.)
#GeffryeMustFall/ Museum of the Home
In other racist memorial news, I was amused to see the Museum of the Home on the scrounge for cash for a new green roof:
The roof of the museum also features its infamous statue of slavetrader Robert Geffrye. If the Museum thinks that sticking some flowers up there will distract us from Geffrye’s blood-stained stone hands, then they are sadly mistaken. Far be it for me to suggest that getting up on the roof is an opportunity for an unfortunate masonry based accident…
The Board and Museum team are continuing to review, discuss and explore options for the statue.
In the meantime we will reinterpret the statue honestly and transparently to tell the history of Geffrye’s career and his connections with the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans. And we will acknowledge that the statue is the subject of fierce debate.
We will confront, challenge and learn from the uncomfortable truths of the origins of the Museum buildings, and fulfil our commitment to diversity and inclusion.
My position remains that the statue should be removed and that people should not visit the museum until it is.
This is due to the dubious past of the Tyssen family; who the school is currently named after. As part of the Review, Rename, Reclaim Project, Hackney Education informed the school that the Tyssen family played a part in the slave trade. The local authority has, consequently, supported the school to change their name. After consultation with our families and the local community, we decided on the new name Oldhill Community School and Children Centre.
The link above includes a crowdfunder to help with the changes, including new uniforms and tablets for pupils in need.
There is more information on the Tyssen family and its connections to Hackney and the slave trade in a previous post.
Robert Aske and Hackney
Aske Gardens (Pitfield Street, Hoxton) is laid out on land bought in 1690 by the Haberdasher’s Company with money left by Robert Aske.
And where did Aske get his money from? Well, as our colleagues at Reclaim EC1 note, a large portion of his fortune came from his significant investments in the slave-trading operation known as the Royal Africa Company.
According to historian William Pettigrew, the RAC ‘shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade’ (Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752, 2013) including more than 150,000 slaves forcibly transported to the British Caribbean.
Geffrye, Tyssen and Cass are identified as “contested figures” as part of the Council’s Review, Rename, Reclaim initiative. But Robert Aske is not mentioned.
More promisingly, schools named after Aske in New Cross and Elstree are reported to be considering a change of name. A statement issued by the schools’ sponsor, the Haberdashers Company, states:
‘The Haberdashers’ Company and its Schools in Elstree and South London have become aware that Robert Aske was a shareholder in the Royal African Company (RAC). All are clear that the role of the RAC in the slave trade was deplorable and sits in stark contrast with the values which underpin the activities and philosophy of the Company, its schools and beneficiaries today. The schools are already engaged in comprehensive reviews of culture, values and their brands and this matter will be included. The outcome of these fully consultative deliberations, including the future use of the Aske name, will be communicated when conclusions are reached and decisions made. The Haberdashers’ Company is proud of its ethos of benevolence, fellowship and inclusion, and the diverse nature of its membership’.
I hope this sensitivity and momentum can be maintained and that a more appropriate name for Aske Gardens can be found – as well as for the other memorials to Aske in Hackney identified by Reclaim EC1:
Obviously the name of Aske Gardens requires change. It seems likely that nearby Aske Street (N1 6LE postcode) is also named for the merchant Robert Aske and if this is the case it should be changed too.
Likewise, given Aske’s strong association with the Haberdashers’ Company we’d like to see the names of the nearby Haberdasher Estate and Haberdasher Street changed – it should also be noted that the Haberdashers’ Company is closely associated with slave trade figures such as the lord mayor Sir Richard Levett, who will be addressed in part 8 of this series.
A Zen internet page dedicated to Aske’s Hospital and Almshouses is among the places that note this listed building has been converted into flats and is now called Hoffman Square (N1 6DH), but there are stone panels at the front entrance detailing its history (relevant webpage here) that should be removed or at the very least amended to record Aske’s investment in the slave trade.
Latest Salvo in the Culture Wars
Toyin Agbetu is one of the participants in the removal of the Cassland Road sign shown at the top of this post. As a representative of the Ligali organisation he has talked a great deal of sense on Hackney’s colonial legacy and how this might be addressed. Hence him being invited by the Council onto their Review, Rename, Reclaim initiative and Sadiq Khan’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm. He also has a fascinating history in music as a street soul artist.
The Conservative Party is rabidly opposed to any nuanced consideration of colonialism. A previous post on this blog looked at Minister for Culture Oliver Dowden’s interference with the Museum of the Home’s public consultation on the future of the Robert Geffrye statue. So it is hardly surprising that the Tories have subjected individuals on the Mayor’s Commission to intense scrutiny.
Initially Toyin came under fire for having heckled the Queen back in March 2007, during a Westminster Abbey church service held to recognize the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Reader, it may not surprise you that this only made my affection for Mr Agebtu grow.
We all have skeletons in our cupboards and perhaps inevitably the Tories kept going until they found something more damning. Some brief comments by Toyin about the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine, which were unwise in my view, were blown out of proportion in the right wing press.
Some comments discovered by Jewish News are very troubling however, and have led to Mr Agbetu resigning from the London Mayor’s Commission. Toyin’s statement to the Hackney Citizen gives his side of the story and announces that a more developed response will be forthcoming after the elections in May.
On 20th July 1994 a lobby of Hackney Council, held by trades union and community groups to protest at the Criminal Justice Bill and the Council’s plan to use the new powers to evict tenants and squatters, was attacked by riot police of the Territorial Support Group. Officers were seen head-butting, punching and kicking protesters, before arresting seven people, some of whom they injured badly.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
What was the Criminal Justice Act?
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was incredibly wide-ranging and repressive (although it did also include lowering the age of consent for “homosexual acts” to 18). The legislation curtailed arrestees’ right to silence, increased police stop and search powers and infamously clamped down on the ability of squatters, hunt saboteurs and ravers to organise.
In May 1994, Hackney Homeless Festival in Clissold Park had concluded peacefully, but revellers were attacked by the TSG afterwards outside the nearby Robinson Crusoe pub (now the Clissold Tavern). Alongside this, there was the day to day harassment of residents by the notoriously bent Stoke Newington police – and a general climate of cracking down on squatting.
All this meant that the demo was pretty lively:
A large demonstration outside Hackney Town Hall on July 20th ended up as a brief occupation inside. Over 250 squatters and supporters gathered to protest against the council’s ‘para-municipal’ eviction squad, the Tenancy Audit Team, and the worryingly right-wing (Labour) Chair of Housing, Simon Matthews. The occupation and disruption of the first full council meeting since the local elections, was broken up by the police, who violently intervened to eject the occupiers.
Hackneyed Hypocrisy – Squall magazine
DefendThe Hackney 7
Those arrested now face serious charges, which could involve heavy fines or imprisonment. Those with the worst injuries have been charged with assaulting the police. All are denying the charges against them.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
The contact address for the Hackney 7 Defence Campaign was the Colin Roach Centre. The charges included criminal damage (to the town hall doors) and obstruction. The Council wouldn’t leave it there though:
The response of Hackney Council to this attack has been to support the police. In an unprecedented move the Council took out injunctions against those arrested which banned them from council property and a named squat in the borough. This blanket ban would prevent the defendants from using public toilets or housing benefit offices, without written permission.
Likewise, those who work in Hackney would be unable to go to offices of their unions without written permission, or they too would be risking arrest.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
The defendants successfully challenged the Council’s injunctions in court and that part of the case collapsed.
Two of those arrested worked for the Council – one was a teacher and the other worked for Hackney Independent Living Team (HILT) – and was also an active trade unionist. The Council applied political pressure to get these workers sacked before the charges got to court. The police also gave out information to HILT and the media about the arrests, breaching confidentiality.
It appears that John McArthur, the HILT worker, was sacked and I can’t find anything to suggest he was reinstated. It looks like he continued to play an active role in trade union matters in North London, later writing about his experiences with striking JJ Fast Foods workers in Tottenham.
The seriousness of the charges and Council’s victimisation was slightly lightened by the tragic/comic events of another protest later in the year:
Hackney 7 Trial
The trials of the seven people nicked on the Hackney Town Hall demo are now complete. They were arrested during the picket against attacks on squatters and tenants in the borough, and against the then impending Crimjustbill.
The bad news is one bind-over, one conditional discharge and one pleading guilty. The other four got off in exciting courtroom dramas. The cases against Ronnie and Mervyn ended, after a long and fairly positive week of disproving the cops’ stories, when one of our barristers collapsed, and the prosecution decided they couldn’t handle a retrial.
In the other case Simon got off when the magistrate disagreed that the four punches shown on video were ‘reasonable’ restraint as PC Moore claimed, and the prosecution gave up over Jake after the other police witness couldn’t explain his complete invisibility. Countercharges for assault, perjury and conspiracy are planned.
“Hackney Seven Results” – ContraFlow
Simon had been charged with assaulting a police officer, but video footage taken by activists at the protest showed that the reverse was true:
In two cases the judge recommended that video evidence of assaults by members of the Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group (riot squad) be passed on to the Director of Public Prosecutions. We are not holding our breath.
“Council Conspires With Police To Sack Union Activist” – Public Services Workers’ Network
According to the Anarchist Communist Federation, some of the defendants were issued with fines of “up to £3,300”.
The Criminal Justice Act became law on 3rd November 1994. The Labour Party abstained.
A TV news item on the culture war about a statue – from November 1981. The clip reports on the scandal around a campaign for the construction of a monument to ten dead Irish Republican hunger strikers.
Five Labour councillors signed a petition supporting the camaign, but there seems to have been some confusion about whether they knew what they were doing… (insert joke here about Hackney councillors).
The petition was also signed by Ernie Roberts, MP for Stoke Newington, who subsequently withdrew his support.
The call for the monument (and the more pressing need for political recognition of Irish Republican prisoners) was organised by the Smash The Prevention of Terrorism Act Campaign, which according to the comrades at Powerbase was a front for the Revolutionary Communist Tendency. (The Tendency was becoming the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1981 when all this happened. It then evolved into the wildly dodgy Living Marxism/LM before mutating further into the contrarian tentacles of the network around Spiked! and other wrongness).
Hackney was one of several frontlines of the RCT’s battle for Republican prisoners. One year before the monument furore, the Tendency had organised a march from the Town Hall to mark the beginning of the hunger strike:
On 13th October of 1981 the Smash The Prevention of Terrorism Act Campaign ran a meeting at Stoke Newington Town Hall with “relatives of the H-Block Prisoners and prominent hunger strike activists from Ireland and Britain”.
So naturally, the RCP/T seized the opportunity to make political capital out of the monument campaign in their paper The Next Step:
The standard work on the H-Block hunger strikes and the conditions from which they arose is Ten Men Dead by David Beresford. I would also recommend Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left by James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley on the general media climate of the time and its focus on “loony lefty councils”.
Veteran anarchist Stuart Christie died back in August. He was probably most well known for his regrettably failed attempt to assassinate Spain’s fascist dictator Franco in 1964. But that was merely one aspect of a life dedicated to radical politics and publishing. His autobiography Granny Made Me An Anarchist is an essential read.
Stuart was also one of the people arrested in connection with the Angry Brigade bombings in the early 1970s – who became known as The Stoke Newington 8. However he did not live in Stoke Newington – he was picked up by the cops when visiting the flat at 359 Amhurst Road where several of the other defendants lived. He was eventually acquitted of all charges.
Some videos about his arrest and the trial have resurfaced after his death:
The Council website has a very boring web page about Black History Month 2020. Perseverence is rewarded by the discovery that this year’s events include a free online film screening of African and Caribbean History in Hackney on October 7th:
Join Hackney Museum for an online screening of a new film which gives an overview of African and Caribbean history in the local area. The film features stories from our collections, displays and exhibitions, creatively woven together by spoken word artist and performer, Bad Lay-Dee. Followed by a Q&A.
Local residents are being given the opportunity to vote on the name of new public square outside the new Britannia Leisure Centre and the options are… really good actually:
Bradlaugh Square – Charles Bradlaugh was an atheist and freethinkiner in the 19th Century who was prosecuted for blashphemy and (on a different occasion) for obscenity for republishing a pamphlet advocating birth control.
Humble Square – named after the Humble petition of Haggerston residents demanding votes for women in 1910.
BRAFA Square – British Reggae Artists Famine Appeal – set up in 1985 as an afro-centric response to the Band Aid charity single.
McKay Square – Claude McKay was a Jamaican socialist, writer poet and activist.
Rab MacWilliam was editor of N16 Magazine which I have to say was never really to my taste (probably because it never strayed too far from Church Street). But he is by all accounts a good guy and his forthcoming book looks really interesting:
Stoke Newington has long been one of London’s most intriguing and radical areas. Boasting famous residents from Mary Wollstonecraft to Marc Bolan, it has always attracted creative types. In the 1960s and 1970s ‘Stokey’ was becoming a somewhat disreputable neighbourhood, but in recent years its appeal has led to its gentrification and the arrival of a wealthy middle class. The area’s history is a fascinating one. This book reveals, through a combination of anecdote, historical fact and cultural insight, how this often argumentative yet tolerant ‘village’ has become the increasingly fashionable and sought after Stoke Newington of today.
I mentioned Nottinghan’s Sparrows Nest Archive of anarchist material last time but hadn’t spotted that they had uploaded a PDF scan of newsletter from the Hackney Anti-Fascist Committee. I doubt it is too much of a wild leap to presume that this group was some kind of split from the main militant anti-fascist group of the day, Anti-Fascist Action.
I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, but recent events have reinforced the need to. (My usual caveats apply even more – I am not an expert, I am still learning, doing this is part of my process of learning. Comments and criticisms are welcome.)
There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen
The headlines are in this superb two minute plea to the Council by Toyin Agbetu from Pan African, human-rights centred organisation Ligali:
Don’t read anything below until you have watched that.
I support this campaign and appreciate the conversations about the legacy of slavery in the borough that it will deepen.
The day after this video was uploaded, Hackney Council announced its review into landmarks and public spaces. The Council followed this up with a further announcement of a listening exercise on future of the Sir Robert Geffrye statue in the grounds of the Museum of the Home. As noted on the museum’s website, Geffrye made his fortune with the East India Company and the Royal African Company. (The museum changed its name last year from the Geffrye Museum of the Home.)
A statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was also removed from Docklands by Tower Hamlets council.
Finding out more about Hackney’s connections with slavery
The abolitionists buried in Abney Park Cemetery and other Hackney residents who campaigned against slavery are well documented (although not by me, yet!). But as singer Dennis Brown put it: `”what about the half that’s never been told?”
As we will see, Hackney significant numbers of residents who profited from slavery alongside those who actively campaigned against it.
Some excellent work has been done on this already by Hackney Museum and Hackney Archives (on whose coat-tails I trail – and not for the first time). Local Roots / Global Routes is a great portal with a number of articles and teaching resources.
Martha Rose McAlpine’s 15 minute film is an excellent primer on English colonialism, African slavery, its legacy and how this applies to Hackney:
Kate Donnington’s article The Slave-Owners of Hackney: Re-thinking Local Histories of Abolition and Slavery is recommended. She has expanded on this in a chapter of the book Britain’s History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a ‘National Sin’ (Liverpool University Press 2016) – some of this can be read via Google Books. Otherwise it’s £85, so order it from a library when that is possible again. (Update – Katie has been in touch to say that the draft chapter can be read for free here.)
Madge Dresser’s – Set in Stone? Statues and Slavery in London (History Workshop Journal, Volume 64, Issue 1, Autumn 2007) is very topical but not Hackney specific. It includes useful summary of London’s slavery-related statues.
Radical History + Ropes = Splash
Sometimes this site can seem a bit esoteric or nostalgic. I think the real value in radical history is in inspiring people to act and to show the links between the past and the present. Until last weekend the suggestion that we should get rid of memorials to slave traders was an impossible fringe idea held by a few long term dedicated law abiding campaigners.
Of course, some of my more cynical comrades will argue that the removal of statues and other memorials is window dressing, a token effort that does nothing to really address the enduring legacies of colonialism, slavery and the racist ideology that underpinned them. I would argue back that starting with the simple stuff, the low hanging fruit, is a necessary step to get to the other issues. Or at least it will have to do in the absence of a more militant revolutionary alternative. The conversations we have about this are just as important as the physical removal of the items from the public realm.
Hackney Council’s “review of statues, buildings and public spaces named after slave & plantation owners” is a great initiative. But as events at Bristol have shown us, people will not wait forever…
Three Slave-Owners still memorialised in Hackney
This is starting point that summarises what I’ve been able to find out so far (something that has only been possible because of work done by many others). Its focus is on people connected to Hackney who profited significantly from the slave trade and who still have tributes in public spaces here as of June 2020. There may be more.
Sir John Cass (1661-1718)
John Cass was also a City Alderman, but in the Tory interest. Though never Lord Mayor, Cass served as Sheriff then as Member of Parliament for the City of London and became a Knight of the Realm. He too was involved in the slave-trade, being a member of the Royal African Company’s Court of Assistants from 1705 to 1708. The Company records show him (then ‘Colonel John Cass of Hackney’) to have been on their ‘committee of correspondence’ which directly dealt with slave-agents in the African forts and in the Caribbean. We know too that Cass retained shares in the Royal African Company until his death. Cass […] also seems to have been linked by family and friends to colonial plantation interests, in his case to Virginia.
Cass lived in Grove Road, South Hackney – which looks to now be the north end of Lauriston Road E9. His legacy in the borough includes:
Cassland Road (runs between Well Street and Wick Road)
Cassland Crescent E9
Cassland Road Gardens (a park in E9)
Sir John Cass Hall (student accomodaton E9 – sign removed June 2020)
The Tyssen family and William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney(1835 – 1909)
According to Wikipedia “Tyssen-Amherst is chiefly remembered as a collector of books, manuscripts, antique furniture and other works of art. He became famous for his Egyptian collection.” Which sounds lovely, but the shine wears off when you find out where the family wealth came from. (Also rich Europeans “collecting” things from Egypt is a whole other colonial story…)
The family seems to have a weird fetish for naming all their male children the same names, which makes things slightly confusing. (Perhaps this was a commonplace posh person thing then?) Of particular interest are:
Francis Tyssen the elder (1624 – 1699). “Came to England from Flushing in Holland in the 1640s and settled in London. He owned plantations in Antigua in the West Indies, from leasing which he accumulated sufficient capital to purchase the Shacklewell estate at Hackney in 1685.” (source)
Francis Tyssen the younger (1653 – 1710). Wealthy London merchant, owned property in Hackney, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Stepney, Whitechapel, Essex and Huntingdonshire. Also owner of Bridges plantation in Angitua, inherited from his father Francis the elder. From his will, it does not appear that the Antiguan property was his principal asset.
Samuel Tyssen the elder (1698 – 1749). Younger son of Francis Tyssen the younger and his second wife Mary nee Western. Inherited Bridges plantation in Antigua and property in Huntingdonshire under the will of his father.
The Tyssen famly lived at The Old Manor House, Shacklewell, which was Hackney’s largest dwelling in 1672. Not satisfied with this, they purchased the New Mermaid Tavern on Church Street (now Mare Street) and demolished it so that their new house coud be built there in 1845. Whilst this is hardly the worst of their crimes, I would argue that buying up a pefectly decent pub and turning it into your family home is the mark of a scoundrel. The plaque above currently nestles between Shoe Zone and Admiral Casino on the Narrow Way, so the building has at least returned to more proletarian purposes, whatever we might think of them.
Many of the family are buried at the nearby Church of St John at Hackney.
It looks like William’s eldest son (also called William, what is it with these people?) became William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney in 1892. (I’m not 100% on this because the genealogy of noblemen is not my forte especially when they all have the same forenames).
The Tyssen family is memorialised in Hackney to this day by the following:
Tyssen Street E8
Tyssen Road N16
Tyssen Community Primary School, Oldhill Street N16
Perhaps Amhurst Road, Amhurst Park and Amhurst Terrace could also be named after The Baron?
Sir Robert Geffrye(1613–1703)
As noted above Geffrye made his fortune with the East India Company and the Royal African Company. He did not live in Hackney, instead spending much of his life at Lime Street in the City.
His relationship with Hackney began when he died in 1703:
The residue of his estate was to be devoted to the erection of almshouses in or near London. The company accordingly purchased a piece of ground in Kingsland Road, on which they built fourteen almshouses and a chapel, and appointed rules for their government on 17 Nov. 1715 (Nicholl, pp. 569–73). There are now forty-two pensioners, each of whom receives 12/. per annum. In the foreground of the building is a statue of Geffrey, executed for the Ironmongers’ Company in 1723 by John Nost, and […] in 1878, Geffrey’s remains and those of his wife were re-interred in the burial-ground attached to the almshouses (Notes and Queries, 5th ser. xi. 57).
Charles Welch – Geffrey, Robert in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 21
His statue in the grounds of the Museum of the Home is under review. But nearby you also have:
The Geffrye Almshouses (in which the museum is hosted)
Geffrye Street N1
The Geffrye Estate (owned by Hackney Housing)
Geffrye Court (a block on the estate)
Geffrye Court (also a street name)
And the rest
The Boddington family – Boddington & Co
The Boddingtons were a powerful merchant and planter family whose involvement in the slavery business spanned three generations. Benjamin Boddington (1730-1791) and his brother Thomas Boddington (c.1735-1821) were West India merchants. Both men were involved with the South Sea Company and Benjamin was a Director. The Company won the right to something called the Asiento following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This gave the company the sole right to sell enslaved Africans to the Spanish.
Samuel and Thomas the younger were eventually awarded £39,712 in compensation for 2100 enslaved people in Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, St. Vincent and Jamaica. Some of their plantations were owned by the family because they had lent money to their business contacts in the Caribbean and when those people couldn’t pay them back they took their property as a forfeit for the loan. In this sense their ‘property’ could include both enslaved people as well as the plantation.
In 1766 the senior Boddingtons were residing in Hackney; Benjamin was living in Clapton and Thomas in Upper Homerton.
The Boddingtons were also a Dissenting family which suggests that religious radicalism did not always go hand in hand with abolitionist beliefs.
When slavery was abolished in parts of the Briitsh Empire in 1833, it was the slave owners who were compensated by the government for the loss of their “property”. The total sum given to them was £20 million, which was 40% of the national budget, equivalent to some £300 billion today. The British tax payer helped to pay back the loan required for this – a debt that was only settled in 2015.
Entering keywords Clapton, Dalston, Hackney, Hoxton, Shacklewell, Stamford Hill and Stoke Newington into the database gives results for a total of 43 recipients of compensation (including those listed above). So there is more work to do on this…
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:
(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.”
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:
“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…
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:
Proll would later tell journalist Kate Connolly “The British tabloids were one of the most terrifying things I have experienced.”
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’
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.
“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”
“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:
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:
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.
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.
I have mixed feelings about blue (and other colour) plaques.
On the one hand, they are a handy resource for local historians and can highlight hidden aspects of buildings and places to passersby.
On the other hand they generally promote a point of view where history is made by individuals rather than groups, movements and so on.
Furthermore their official status tends to favour respectable (or very old) radicals. So Stoke Newington boasts a placard for peace poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld at 113 Church Street, but there isn’t one at 359 Amhurst Road, site of the infamous police raid that lead to the Stoke Newington 8 trial.
But also… most of the statues and monuments in London are for bastions of the establishment and not those fighting against it. So maybe the more modern plaques can balance things out?
Despite all that I was intrigued to see this tweet from the Council recently:
Not least because I’d assumed that Blackstock Road was well outside the borough, but it turns out the eastern side of the street is Hackney and the western side is the badlands of Islington. Which means the site of the new plaque is the furthest Western point in Hackney:
Who Was Gerald Holtom? And what was he doing in Hackney?
There are various conflicting stories about the artwork’s creation but most people seem to agree that Holtom actually designed the logo at his home in Twickenham (and not in Hackney as per the Council tweet above).
It was a composite of the semaphore for the letters N and D (Nuclear Disarmament):
On the evening of 21 February 1958 Holtom presented the logo to a meeting of DAC at the offices of Peace News* at 3 Blackstock Road. The group accepted the logo and it had its first outing at the Aldermaston march on 4-7 April:
Holtom’s logo on the first Aldermaston march, 1958.
Direct Action in Aldermaston
The four day march from Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston attracted several thousands.
It’s worth noting that DAC have been described as the “direct action wing” the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (which had also formed in 1957) with some overlap in membership. Alan Lovell describes how DAC’s work in Aldermaston did not stop with the march:
Some months after the march, the Committee returned to Aldermaston for an eight-week picket. The aim of the picket was to make people in the area aware of what was happening at the Aldermaston establishment, to get trade unions to black work on the establishment, and to get individual workers to leave the place.
During the eight weeks, the Committee visited trade unions, distributed leaflets and held factory gate meetings, and canvassed in the surrounding villages. As a result of these activities, five people have actually stopped work at Aldermaston ; three men who were going to apply for work at the base changed their minds ; and five lorry drivers said that they would not drive any more loads to the base.
The pickets were well received by the workers — when a new leaflet was produced the workers often stopped to ask for a copy.
DAC wound up in 1961, with most of its members getting involved with the larger Committee of 100. CND took over the organisation of the Aldermaston marches from 1959. Both of these organisations also adopted Holtom’s logo, which is now globally recognised as a symbol of peace and nuclear disarmament.
The first clip below shows some of Holtom’s original artwork and includes an interview with his daughter, Anna Scott:
The plaque in place
The campaign to get a plaque on Blackstock Road originates with this very readable article by Guardian journalist Ian Jack in 2015:
As it says, the logo has proliferated so much because Holtom did not wish it to be trademarked or copyrighted.
I wasn’t able to make the plaque unveiling last weekend due to a hangover and the fact that it was absolutely pissing it down with rain. It is worth having a look for if you are passing, but you will need better eyesight than me if you want to actually read it…
NB: There is a load of guff on the internet about the symbol being anti-christian or satanic because it is supposedly either an upside down broken cross or an inverted Algiz rune, which symbolises death. As it says above, Holtom combined the semaphore letters N and D to create the logo. In a number of (non-bonkers) accounts he is described as being a Christian himself, and had originally considered using the christian cross as part of the logo (presumably the right way up!).
*Peace News was based at Blackstock Road from 1948 to 1958. It shared premises with Housmans Books which was then primarily a mailorder operation. In 1959 both organisations moved to 5 Caledonian Road where the excellent (and fully endorsed by me) Housmans Bookshop is still based today.
The National Front and its several disputatious progeny fought a minimal election campaign in the May 1981 County Council and Greater London Council elections […]
A further [NF] splinter group labeling itself “Enoch Powell Is Right” fought the three seats of the Borough of Hackney and also Stepney and Poplar. At least two of these four candidates had fought seats for the NF in the 1977 GLC and 1978 borough elections […]
The four “Enoch Powell Is Right” candidates averaged 2.6% [of the vote].
from: Racial Exclusionism and the City: The Urban Support of the National Front
by Christopher T. Husbands (Routledge, 1983)
You can see from the results below that the Enoch Powell Is Right (EPR) candidates actually stood against the National Front (NF) ones, splitting the fascist vote cleanly in two:
Robin May went on to form the British National Party with John Tyndal in 1982.
Mr. Pike To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what was the cost to local authorities of dealing with squatters in the last 12 months for which figures are available.
Mr. Maclean I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that this information is not recorded centrally and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost.
Mr. Pike To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what estimates he has as to the number of squatters there are currently in England; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Maclean The nature of squatting makes it impossible to assess the number of squatters with any degree of accuracy, but estimates as to the total number of people squatting in England and Wales generally range between 30,000 and 50,000. More precise information is, however, available about the number of local authority dwellings under unauthorised occupation: on 1 April 1993 there were 2,963 local authority dwellings so occupied, of which 88 per cent. were in inner London: Hackney—1,152; Lambeth—327; Tower Hamlets—232; Camden—153; and Islington—135—being among the areas worst affected.
David Maclean is a Tory who campaigned vigorously for fox hunting, and against the Freedom of Information Act applying to Parliament. Oh, and for keeping MP’s expenses secret, which would have meant we never knew about his tax-payer funded flat screen TV and quad bike). He stepped down as an MP in 2010 and was made a life peer shortly afterwards.
Peter Pike was the Labour MP for Burnley from 1983-2005. It’s unclear what he had against squatters, but I’ve not been able to find any expenses scandal linked to him.
Another source estimated a total of 3,500 squatted properties in Hackney in the late 80s / early 90s. (i.e including council property and other types).
It’s probably worth pointing out that the high point of squatting in Hackney would have been the mid 1980s. Any more statistics welcome.