It has emerged that shortly after the community clean-up of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, Oliver Dowden (Her Majesties HM Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) wrote to the Museum of the Home to say:
“You play a crucial role in conserving our heritage assets, caring for our national collections, providing access to knowledge and leading efforts to offer cultural education to all.
“I am aware that the issues of contested heritage provoke strongly held views, and that right now these issues will be in the forefront of your minds. I therefore wanted to share with you the government’s position on these issues.
“The government believes that it is always legitimate to examine and debate Britain’s history, but that removing statues, artwork and other historical objects is not the right approach.
“Confronting our past may be difficult at times but, as the prime minister has stated, we cannot pretend to have a different history. Historical objects were created by previous generations, who often had different perspectives and different understandings of right and wrong.”
“As a government-funded organisation,I would expect you to be mindful of the above approach, which has been agreed with Historic England. If you plan to make any statements or actions in relation to this issue, please contact DCMS in advance of doing so.”
The reference to funding can only be seen as a not-so-veiled threat in the current climate.
Dowden’s minsterial duties include appointing three of the Board members at the Museum of the Home and its Chair.
He is MP for well-to-do Hertsmere in Hertfordshire. According to They Work For You, he has “Generally voted against laws to promote equality and human rights”. Dowden’s interference in Hackney is unwelcome.
A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport backed their minister:
“Whilst it is always legitimate to examine Britain’s history, removing statues, artwork and other historical objects is not the right approach. Instead, we should aim to use heritage to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.”
“Publicly funded museums must not remove statues that form part of a listed building or other heritage objects in their care for political or campaigning purposes. They must be seen to be acting impartially, in line with their publicly funded status.”
“Impartiality” is great cloak here for keeping everything the same forever – which is I guess the definition of “conservative”. But there are no plans to reintroduce statues of Jimmy Savile, oddly.
But yes, we will continue to educate people about Britain’s history. And perhaps create some history ourselves in doing so, as the people of Bristol have shown.
Hackney Citizen approached Ligali’s Toyin Agbetu for his charateristically spot on comment:
“As I read the communications between the Geffrye and government, it revealed that the culture minister Oliver Dowden was more concerned with preserving a monument that literally celebrates the history of Britain’s slaving past than developing assets that accurately reflect the reality of British society and culture as it exists today.
“It’s a backward-looking form of bourgeois cultural purism normally practiced by racists who feel threatened by the call for progressive change made by movements like Black Lives Matter.
“I interpret the statement, which explicitly highlights the fact that the Geffrye as a government-funded organisation is expected to be mindful of choosing to remove the statue, as a threat. The instruction telling the Geffrye staff to contact the government first if they go against its dictates was chilling.”
Others including Diane Abbot have been similarly outspoken:
Still no comment from Meg Hillier, the MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch where the Museum is based though?
The museum is yet to announce a reopening date (September had been mooted). There is talk of “further reflection” by the Board. But talk and reflection are not enough.
The reopening of The Museum of the Home will be an excellent opportunity to “educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.” And if the museum will not do that, then the community will.
The Museum of the Home has gone very quiet since announcing last week that it would defy public feeling and keep its memorial to slave-trader Robert Geffrye. Its usually very responsive Twitter account has not posted anything since 31st July. They haven’t answered my questions.
Alongside narky radical historians and the usual lefties, the museum’s decision has been condemned by the Mayor of Hackney, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington Diane Abbott as well as several local councillors. (I have not yet seen any comment from Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch?)
I was also very pleased to see this statement from artist Maria Fusco who was commissioned by the museum to produce an artwork for its reopening.:
On Wednesday the Board of Trustees of the museum wrote to me with the outcome of the consultation:
Thank you for taking part in the consultation about the future of the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye at the Museum of the Home.
Alongside many other cultural organisations across the UK, we have a responsibility to act against injustice, and this includes acknowledging the legacy of colonialism and slavery within our history.
The statue of Sir Robert Geffrye on our building is a symbol of the historic connection the Museum buildings have to an English merchant whose wealth was partly derived from the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans. Geffrye donated the funds to build the almshouses in which the Museum is housed.
Following a process of reflection, debate and research, and a consultation conducted in partnership with Hackney Council, the Board of Trustees of the Museum has taken the decision not to remove the statue from the Museum’s buildings.
The Board believes that the Museum should respond to the issues raised by this debate by continuing with its vision of change at a fundamental level, by diversifying the Museum’s workforce, creative partners, content and programming to become more representative and inclusive.
The Board feels that the Museum should reinterpret and contextualise the statue where it is to create a powerful platform for debate about the connection between the buildings and transatlantic slavery.
The Museum has a responsibility to reflect and debate history accurately and in doing so to confront, challenge and learn from the uncomfortable truths of the origins of the Museum buildings.
Many people took time to share their views in the public consultation. Overall, the response was in favour of removing the statue. However, feedback showed that what to do with the statue is a complex debate, full of nuance and different opinions.
The Board has taken the view that the important issues raised should be addressed through ongoing structural and cultural change, along with better interpretation and conversation around the statue.
When the Museum of the Home reopens – as a place to reveal and rethink the ways we live in order to live better together – we will also be addressing, in our galleries and programming, the connections between the British home and exploitative trade, value systems and physical objects, both historically and today.
We are committed to continuing to develop our programming and policies on anti-racism and equity to create greater diversity and representation at the Museum.
The Board has chosen to ignore the wishes of local residents and has instead opted for the tiresome conservative position that having a memorial to a racist on prominent display is a good thing to stimulate a conversation about history.
The Museum’s website now also includes, incredibly, a statement in support of Black Lives Matter:
Black Lives Matter
We strongly believe that museums should not be neutral. As a sector we have a responsibility to be inclusive and accessible.
We are committed to anti-racism and equity, and to working harder to make our organisation more representative.
We will learn from history and ensure our staff, programme and collection tell diverse stories and represent Black voices, artists, visitors and communities.
BLM has been consistent in calling for these types of statues to be taken down. Not taking the statue down is against the aims of BLM. It is not “neutral” – it is against Black Lives Matter.
The Board’s decision is so wrongheaded that ITV News has weighed in to make them look stupid:
In that clip Mayor Phil suggests that the Board are “out of touch” and Jermain Jackman (Hackney born and bred winner of The Voice UK) is clear about his anger at the decision.
Former councillor, writer and general comrade Patrick Vernon has called for a boycott (and he is right!):
From that account I discovered that the first protest against the decision took place yesterday:
I think that the Board have groslly underestimated the strength of feeling about this in the community and will regret their decision.
My questions for the Board are:
The Museum’s Director has stated previously that “Homes should be welcoming places of shelter and security, love and comfort. This is what we want our museum to represent We know that for many the statue of Robert Geffrye on our building represents abuse, oppression and the history of thousands of enslaved people torn from their homes and families and forced to work in appalling conditions.” Is this view shared by the Board? Is this still the view of the Director?
Why was it the right to change the name of the museum from The Geffrye Museum of the Home to The Museum of the Home – but it is not right to remove the memorial statue to Robert Geffrye?
How successful do you think you will be in “diversifying the Museum’s workforce, creative partners, content and programming to become more representative and inclusive.” when there is a massive statue of a racist slave-owner looming over the grounds? Why should the museum’s workforce have to face that every day?
Given that none of the Board members are black, was your decision to retain the racist statue against residents’ wishes discussed by the museum’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group?
In the ITV News clip above, the Mayor of Hackney suggests that the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport may have influenced the Board’s decision. Is this true and if so what was their input?
You say on your website that “The feedback from the consultation was considered alongside other information when the Board discussed the future of the statue.” What was this “other information”?
When will you be removing the statue of Robert Geffrye?
The usual update of recent radical Hackney films, books, campaigns and other things that have caught my eye over the last month…
Above is a lovely life-affirming film of John Rogers‘ walk from Hackney marshes to Stoke Newington earlier this year. John is the author of The Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City and worked with Iain Sinclair on his London Overground film. The walk includes his compelling commentary about the areas he is navigating and his Youtube channel has a bunch of great films to check out.
This month I have also been enjoying two beautifully produced publications from Rendezvous Projects:
Lightboxes and Lettering: Printing Industry Heritage in East London looks at the premises, processes and people who printed all sorts of things in Hackney, Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Clerkenwell. There are excellent chapters on radical and community presses (inlcuding Hackney’s Lenthal Road and Calverts) as well as a look at the changing gender roles in the industry. More generally the book is an intriguing overview of the changing face of work in East London.
Sweet Harmony: Mapping Waltham Forest’s dance radio stations, record shops & venues, 1989-1994 is obviousy less focussed on Hackney, but should be of interest to ravers old and new. Many of the pirate stations covered will have had listeners in Hackney and the Dungeons venue on Lea Bridge Road was the site of many a messy night for Hackneyites.
Both publications include a tonne of quotes from people and are lavishly illustrated wth maps, photos, graphics etc. You can order them here.
The Happy Man Tree on Lordship Road is under threat of destruction by property developer Berkeley Homes. The tree appears on the Ordinance Survey map of the area from 1870 and so is at least 150 years old.
As the community campaign to save it points out:
This beautiful London plane tree grows on the public pavement on the North End of Lordship Road on Woodberry grove London N4.
It has survived a century and a half of building development, two world wars, road widening schemes with the arrival of the motor car and, so far, Berkeley Homes. But now, in this latest intervention, this majestic and much – loved tree has been condemned to be cut down by Berkeley homes & Hackney Council.
There is an alternative plan.
Viable alternative plans developed with local people would have allowed the development to go ahead whilst keeping the tree. These were rejected by Berkeley Homes as either too expensive or too complicated.
I’d certainly recommend a visit to the tree and a conversation with the campaigners – or a visit to https://www.thehappymantree.org/ where you can add your name to the petition and find out other ways give your support.
There is currently a petition, a legal challenge and perhaps the prosect of more direct action orientated protest, judging by the nice tree house.
Alongside the generalised anti-racism of the Black Lives Matter protests, it has been great to see specific demands emerge. Some of these have been very practical, such as the removal of colonial or racist statues or support for campaigns around deaths in custody such as the United Friends and Family Campaign. Others, such as defunding the police, would appear on the surface to be much more idealistic or longterm.
For some people, challenging the role of the police is strictly off-limits. A token reform here and there, alongside a rabid competition to give the cops as much money as possible, is what mainstream political debate looks like in the UK in the 2020s. But a growing number of people are not satisfied by that. Here is a handy four minute introduction:
Defunding the police is not a new demand and perhaps previous campaigns can inform the current debate.
In February 1983, Hackney Council’s Police Committee resolved to withold the Council’s £4 million donaton towards the cost of the Metropolitan Police – “the precept”. This was put to a full meeting of the Council on 23rd of February which adopted the following motion:
That the Council take whatever steps are open to it to withold the payment of the police precept both as an expression of anger at the state of policing in Hackney and with a view to bringing home to the Government the community demands for an independent inquiry into policing in Hackney.
Quoted in Policing in Hackney 1945-1984
Hackney People’s Press (#87 Feb 1983) quoted Councillor Patrick Kodikara:
“30 per cent of the ratepayers of Hackney are black. Why should the Council pay the police to practise repression on us?”
The motion was passed – with all of the Labour and Liberal councillors voting in favour – and all of the Conservative councillors voting against.
The next issue of Hackney Peoples Press (#88 March 1983) was a bit more cynical:
“The Council’s statement of intent not to pay the precept of £4 million this year is just a gesture. The law does not allow them to withold the money, and, this year at least, they are not going to break the law. But by making the gesture they are indicating that they are paying up under protest, and are joining other London boroughs who have already reached the same conclusion: they pay over ratepayers money each year to the police yet London is unique in the country in not having an elected police authority”
And sure enough, the Council was told by its legal advisers in March that it could not legally withold the money and the precept was paid – I assume in time for the next financial year in April 1983.
The Policing in Hackney book mentions the Council’s decision generating a great deal of media attention, which I’ve not yet been able to track down, but imagine was suitably unsupportive and outraged.
This was all spun by Hackney Central MP Clinton Davis in Parliament:
“My own local authority may be very frustrated—sometimes with justification—by some of the actions, or the inaction, of the local police. The suggestion of the withdrawal of the police precept is, however, an empty but unacceptable gesture which increases the anxiety of many of my constituents—particularly the elderly—that the police are suddenly to be withdrawn. But of course that will not happen.
When I spoke to Councillor [Brynley] Heaven, the chairman of the police liaison committee, he readily agreed that it would not happen. It is a gesture—a vote of no confidence in the police—but I do not believe that such a gesture is justified by the circumstances. If we are to make constructive criticisms about the police, as sometimes we must and as I do today, it does not add to the authority of those who support such criticism to join in every meaningless gesture and every attack on the police.”
Two years later, Hackney Council would verge closer to breaking the law when it refused to set a “rate” (essentially the equivalent of Council Tax now) in response to the Thatcher government’s efforts to restrict local government spending.
This incident of almost defunding the police did not emerge spontaneously from a “loony left” council with nothing better to do. It was the culmination of years of terrible policing resulting in a number of community campaigns…
Background to the motion to defund the police
(This timeline covers the most significant events. Examples of the much more common day to day police corruption and harassment are covered in Chapter 8 of Policing In Hackney).
December 1978: Black teenager Michael Ferreira is stabbed during a fight with white teenagers in Stoke Newington. His friends take him to the nearby police station, where the cops seem more interested in questioning them than assisting Michael, who dies of his wounds before reaching hospital.
24th April 1979: Hackney resident Blair Peach is killed during a protest against the National Front in Southall. 14 witnesses saw him being hit on the head by a policeman. It was generally understood then, and is widely believed now, that Peach was killed by an officer from the notorious Special Patrol Group. The SPG’s lockers were searched as part of the investigation into the death, uncovering non-police issue truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather cosh. One officer was found in possession of a collection of Nazi regalia.
The failure of the police to properly investigate the murder of Blair Peach – and their general harassment of youth, led Hackney Teachers’ Association to adopt a policy of non-cooperation with the police. This is documented in the excellent Police Out of School which is available in full on elsewhere on this site.
November 1979: A conference of anti-racist groups in Hackney calls for the repeal of the “sus” laws that allow police to stop and search anyone they are suspicious of. In 1977 60% of “sus” arrests in Hackney were of black people – who made up 11% of the borough.
February 1980: Five units of the Special Patrol Group began to operate in Hackney with no consultation. When the Leader of the Council criticised the police for this, Commander Mitchell responded by saying “I don’t feel obliged to tell anyone about my policing activities”.
July 1981:Riot in Dalston. Searchlight magazine blamed Commander Mitchell’s hardline policies for the incident.
Also in 1981: Lewisham Council threatened not to pay the police precept.
December 1981: Newton Rose falsely convicted for the murder of Anthony Donnelly, a Clapton resident with National Front connections. A successful campaign results in Rose being freed in 1982 becaue of a “grave material irregularity” in the trial.
April 1982: David and Lucille White, an elderly black couple, are awarded £51,000 damages for “a catalogue of violent and inhuman treatment” by Stoke Newington police.
July 1982: First meeting of Hackney Council’s new Police Committee, set up to consider and monitor policing in the borough – and make the police more responsive to local needs. The committee replaced an informal police liaison group which met in private and alternated its chair between the police and the council. The committee’s meetings were public and chaired by its members. A Support Unit was also established which monitored crime and policing and published reports critical of police powers.
12 January 1983: Death of Colin Roach by gunshot in the lobby of Stoke Newington police station.
Roach’s parents are treated appallingly by the police. Demonstrations organised by the Roach Family Support Commttee (RSFC) outside the police station result in numerous protestors, including Colin’s father, being arrested.
Ernie Roberts, Hackney MP, made a statement on the public’s concern about the breakdown of community/police relations as well as his support for a public inquiry into the death of Colin Roach. The Greater London Council funded the Roach campaign to the tune of £1,500 shortly afterwards. There was outrage in the press at this use of public money to fund what they saw as “cash to fight the police” and “fostering discontent among black people”.
February 18 1983: Colin Roach’sfuneral.
RFSC instigates its “break links campaign” and writes to all Hackney Councillors asking them to:
vote to withold the police precept
hold a vote of no confidence in Stoke Newington police
agree to break all links with the police unless and until an independent public inquiry into the death of Colin Roach was held.
Hackney social services workers put pressure on thier union – Hackney NALGO, which passes resolution calling on members to “break links” with the police.
Meanwhile, slightly east of Hackney:
“Tower Hamlets Council is to be asked on Tuesday to follow the Hackney Council example and consider witholding the Metropolitan Police rate precept. The Newham Monitoring Project is to call upon the local council to do the same unless an independent inquiry into Forest Gate police station in Newham is set up.
Mr Unmesh Desair, the project’s full time worker, yesterday described the station as a “torture chamber”.
The Times, February 24, 1983
Afer the fuss about non-payment of the precept had died down, other aspects of the campaign were still live issues.
In May 1983 Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Ronald Brown, bemoaned the continuation of the “break links” campaign in Parliament, singling out Hackney Council for Racial Equality:
Since 10 January, the new police commander has tried desperately to establish contact between the police and that organisation. Recognising the complaints about the police in London, particularly in Hackney, as well as the difficulties in Hackney as a result of the tragedy that occurred, he has endeavoured to re-establish a relationship with the community. He has approached every group in an attempt to get a dialogue going.
What kind of response did he get from the Council for Racial Equality? In a letter of 21 February it said: I am writing on behalf of Hackney Council for Racial Equality Executive”— not the council, but the executive— who have asked that you give instructions that the local home beat officers covering the HCRE Mare Street office, the HCRE Family Centre, Rectory Road, no longer call”— that phase is underlined— at either of these offices unless HCRE gives a specific call to the police.I trust this will be acted on with dispatch. That was signed by the community relations officer. That destroyed the relationship between the beat policemen and the community in the two areas. By common consent, that relationship had proved valuable. That one letter wiped out that relationship.”
The publication of Police out of School in 1985 generated a further furore and also a PR campaign from the police. The campaign and police response are covered in this great news report from the time:
Calls to defund the police in the 1980s need to be seen as the tip of the iceberg of wider community resistance. This made it much harder to dismiss the idea of defunding as “gesture politics”.
In Hackney, the antagonism between the police and community only intensified after this, with corruption at Stoke Newington police station expanding to include further deaths in custody and police officers getting involved with drug dealing, amongst other crimes. In the 1990s this would be met head on by Hackney Community Defence Association.
Total council tax donations to Greater London Authority for the year 2020/2021: £1,010,907,032.68
Amount of this which goes to Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime: £767,054,360.26
So that’s about 75% of the total.
Hackney’s donation to the GLA would seem to be £24,701,359.02
75% of that is roughly £18 million.
(A purely inflationary rise from the £4m in 1983 to now would be £11.59m, but you would also need to factor in the expanding population of Hackney in that time – according to Wikipedia it was 179,536 in 1981 and 280,900 in 2020 which is an increase of 56%.)
A question worth asking is: would spending this £18 million of our money on other things be better at reducing crime and harm?
Newington Green Meeting House published a short video about Anna Laetitia Barbauld to celebrate her birthday on 20th June:
They have also published a calendar of forthcoming online events, including an “Alternative Statue Tour” on 7th July which takes in some of the Borough’s more progressive residents – old and new -that might be good subjects for future statues. This is followed on 21st July by an event on the Meeting House’s roots in Unitarianism and its connection with dissenters.
Horrid Hackney is a new site by Lucy Madison that promises “a new blog entry every day”. Which sounds exhausting. Entries posted already include some overlap with topics covered here, such as the IRA “bomb factory” on Milton Road, the 43 Group duffing up fascists in Dalston and the Angry Brigade arrests in Stoke Newington. Indeed, the site’s post on the 43 Group coincidentally includes exactly the same video interviews as our one from 2018.
The difference between “horrid” and “radical” is that Lucy’s site includes a lot more about grisly crimes, their victims and perpetrators. Generally these entries are pretty good, but I guess there is a risk of sensationalising murders and murderers and flattening all kinds of activity into an amorphous “extreme” history. It’s unclear, for example, why Lucy feels the 43 Group were “horrid” rather than heroic..
There is a dispute at the Rio Cinema with the Save The Rio group accusing the Board of pursuing unnecessary restructuring amongst other issues. The group has proposed an alternative temporary Board to be convened before an AGM can be called at which members would vote for a new Board. Members of the Rio are being asked to thrash this out via proxy voting. There is a petition for non-members.
Finally our south London comrades at History is Made at Night posted this video of Luton’s Exodus Collective running a soundsystem on Hackney Marshes as part of a larger free festival in 1998. I assume I was at this, but my memories of that summer are a bit foggy for reasons that are probably best not speculated about…
In our last post, we identified Robert Geffrye as one of three people who are memorialised in Hackney who profited significantly from the slave trade.
Last year the museum began the process of removing Geffrye from its name, which is encouraging as is this statement:
Homes should be welcoming places of shelter and security, love and comfort. This is what we want our museum to represent.
We know that for many the statue of Robert Geffrye on our building represents abuse, oppression and the history of thousands of enslaved people torn from their homes and families and forced to work in appalling conditions.
Sonia Solicari, Director of Museum of the Home
The short duration of the consultation suggests that they are not expecting much controversy about this, but I would urge people to complete it all the same. It’s a five minute job and you never know if there will be some sort of rabid right wing “write in campaign” in the current climate.
The Board of the museum will make a decision about whether or not to keep the statue in place in late July. The museum itself is closed because of the Coronvirus lockdown but hopes to open later this year. They have some great online content for people in the meantime.
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…
The building in question was 27 Stamford Hill, which is now a posh nursery. It caught fire in the early hours of Wednesday 3rd June 1987, eight days before the general election.
The blaze severely damaged the three storey building used by Hackney North and Stoke Newington Conservative Association.
The fire started at at about 3 o’clock this morning and completely wrecked the second floor and the roof. Scotland Yard say traces of petrol were found on an internal staircase leading to the basement. Fire investigation officers are now sifting through the debris for more clues.
The Conservatives say valuable computer equipment was lost as well as 45,000 letters containing election literature that was being sent out to voters. They say they have received threats before.
Thames News – transcript of clip above. Reporter Christopher Rainbow
Chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit arrived later that day for a press conference outside the building. He remarked on the wider context of anti-Tory violence during the campaign:
Not far from the gutted building in Stoke Newington is a billboard poster which someone has tried to burn down – and four vans displaying Tory posters were set alight near Vauxhall bridge four days ago.
Inspector Peter Turner went on:
A mob of youths damaged cars bearing Conservative stickers outside Stoke Newington Assembly Hall in nearby Church Street earlier in the evening. But we are not linking the two attacks at the moment.
The Gazette also noted that the Fire Brigade had evacuated women and children from the council-run hostel for single mothers next door.
2. Who was Oliver Letwin and how did he end up in Hackney?
Letwin was born in London in 1956. His parents were conservative academics. He went to Eton and then Cambridge University. After a few years of academia, he joined Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit in 1983.
It was Letwin who recommended that the hated Poll Tax be road-tested on Scotland before being inflicted on the rest of the population. (Hackney had its own Poll Tax Riot in 1990 and was number one for non-payment at one point.)
In 1985 he stated (in private correspondence only recently released under the 30 year rule) that the Broadwater Farm riot happened, not because of endemic police racism and poverty, but because of “individual… bad moral attitudes” – and that this was the reason black people were apparently more likely to riot than white people. Therefore these areas should not be invested in as this would “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops” and black “entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade.”. He has since apologised for this.
I’ve not been able to find out how Oliver Letwin came to be selected as a Conservative Party candidate in 1987. He mentions in his autobiography that he left Downing Street the day he was selected, but he doesn’t say how that happened. What had Letwin done to piss people off so much that he was given one of the unsafest constituencies in England? Journalist Terry Coleman followed him around on the campaign trail: “In the streets a few people yelled at Mr Letwin to fuck off”. The Independent mentions that “he was chased down the street by a knifeman“.
3. What about the election?
Terry Coleman’s book Thatchers Britain is a travelogue covering the 1987 election. The chapter on Hackney is interesting for a number of reasons, but one of them is that Letwin’s voting base featured two distinct demographics. The first were orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill (where Hackney’s sole Conservative councillors are today). The second were people who would usually vote Labour but weren’t going to this time because of the party’s new candidate – Diane Abbott: “‘You see the colour of my face?’, said one elderly white man. ‘That’s where I’ll be voting'”.
Abbott and the SDP-Liberal Alliance candidate both condemned the arson attack in the HackneyGazette. These two clips show that a few days after the fire there was also vandalism against the Labour Party HQ and that of… Red Front.
The upper clip includes a classic Letwin gaffe: “I’m afraid it’s a very unpleasant place” [awkward pause] “to be campaigning”.
(Lefty trainspotter aside – Red Front was a brief electoral alliance between the middle class academics of the Revolutionary Communist Party and ultra-workerist anti-fascists Red Action. There is an excellent piece about Red Front at New Historical Express. Red Action have cropped up here previously because one of their members who lived in Stoke Newington was convicted for the 1993 IRA bomb attack on Harrods.)
The outcome of the 1987 election in Hackney North and Stoke Newington was definitive. Diane Abbott won with a 7,678 majority. She therefore became the first black woman to be elected to House of Commons and has remained in post ever since. Red Front got 228 votes.
4. So Whodunnit? (aka Wild Speculation)
As far as I’m aware nobody was ever charged with setting the fire, which has lead to some imaginative theories about the identity and motivation of the culprit.
Norman Tebbit was first out of the starting blocks at the press conference in front of the smouldering ruins:
One can only assume if it is arson it was an outrage perpetrated by the extreme Left. I don’t know whether by members of theLabour Party, or the SWP (Socialist Workers Party), or anything else. But what I do know is that all of us in democratic parties would deplore this sort of thing. I’m sure Mr Kinnock would deplore this extremely vigorously. I recollect his vigorous denunciation of violence during the coal strike.
Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: a journey through the promised lands (Bantam, 1987)
But there were much more dramatic suspects to point the finger at:
There was no real evidence of who did it. But just down the road, Anarchist posters were pasted on the walls. One said “Never Trust A Politician. They Always Lie”. Another, which showed a Rolls Royce being bashed in, said “Let’s Kick Out The Tories? Let’s Kick Them In”.
Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: A Journey through the Promised Lands (Bantam, 1987)
It’s undeniable that there was a huge counterculture of squatting and anarchist and animal liberation activism in Hackney throughout the 1980s. The account of the fly-posters seems real and people I have met reminisce fondly of consistent low level acts of violent subversion against Barclays Bank (hated for its investment in Apartheid South Africa), butchers’ shops etc. But glueing locks and a bit of fly-posting is several notches down from an arson attack on a major political party during an election, you’d think?
Letwin himself doesn’t hold back from speculating about the culprits in his autobiography:
As I came the next morning to the point on the road outside the headquarters, I could see that there was something wrong. Gradually, I focused on the fact that what was wrong was the headquarters building itself. Not to put too fine a point on it, the building wasn’t there any more. It- and all the hand-addressed election manifestoes within – had been burned to the ground.
It was considered to be a case of arson, and it seemed at least possible that whoever had done it might have been associated with, or perhaps inspired by, a now defunct organisation known as Class War. Class War (though not directly participating in the election on the grounds that elections were bourgeois conspiracies) had been campaigning actively under the perspicuous slogan “We will bomb, blast and burn every bourgeois out of Hackney”.
Oliver Letwin – Hearts and Minds: The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present (Biteback Publishing, 2017)
It’s also undeniable that Class War were all over Hackney in 1987. Indeed, the edition of the Hackney Gazette which has the fire as its cover story also features, coincidentally, a full page article on Class War and its anti-yuppie campaign. Which itself raises an interesting issue with Letwin’s accusations above.
The language in Letwin’s quoted Class War slogan is a bit off – and I have not been able to find a source for it other than his book. Class War was infamous for its “tabloid” approach to propaganda and its unlikely that they would have used the word “bourgeois” – directing their bile instead at yuppies, cops and the rich. Similarly “bomb, blast and burn” seems like an incitement to individual terror that was out of step with the organisation’s fetishism for collective working class violence (like rioting) – and their understandable desire not to get nicked for incitement.
Also, oddly for anarchists, Class War did actually stand a candidate in the 1988 Kensington by-election – and more recently put up seven candidates in the 2015 general election.
I remain unconvinced that “people associated with” Class War in particular, or non-specific anarchists in general, burned down the Hackney Tory HQ in 1987. I think that’s a bit of neat scapegoating and misjudges the often wide gap between insurrectionary propaganda and actual anarchist deeds. Mind you, I doubt there were many anarchists who were upset by it at the time.
Just as plausible non-anarchist options:
Far right? Letwin is Jewish and as we have seen, ten years earlier fascists were trying to burn down Centerprise.
Disgruntled party activist? Being a Hackney Tory must bring its own tensions and internal disputes and who I am to discount an “inside job”?
Criminal/insurance? The front cover headline of the Hackney Gazette the week after was “Man Dies In Shop Blaze” which the paper feels could have been part of “a string of arson attacks” on empty shop properties in Dalston.
One of the countless victims of eight years of Thatcherism? The circle of suspicion would be quite wide in an increasingly impoverished borough, where Tories are told to fuck off in street or chased by knife-wielding assailants.
While this blog has hibernated, others have been busy…
Rio Cinema Archiveis an Instagram feed that features scans of photographs from a community project based at the cinema in the 1980s. It’s a fantastic resource that shows Hackney in all its glorious colours and includes documentation of number of protests:
The scanning is being done by friend of this site Alan Denney and is an ongoing project – at the time of writing just under 700 photos have been posted. There is an article from the Hackney Gazette about the project here.
Tamara Stoll’s Ridley Road Marketis a lavish 248 page hardback book featuring archival and contemporary photographs.
“Ridley Road market is where the world meets. No one has captured its vibrancy and humanity better than Tamara Stoll. Her book is now the definitive record of one of the most historic and colourful street markets of London, if not the world.”
Ken Worpole, writer, social historian and Hackney resident since 1969
On a related note, Verso have published We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-War Britain by Daniel Sonabend. This is a very welcome account of the story of the Jewish ex-servicemen who fought British fascists on the streets of London after World War Two. It widens the scope of the Maurice Beckman’s seminal The 43 Group: Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism that Centerprise published in the 1990s. (Which remains essential and was the first book on the radical history of Hackney that I read).
Sonabend has done a great job of talking to other surviving members of the 43 Group who (understandably) sometimes had slightly different recollections to Beckman. There is a whole chapter of the book given over to 1947’s “The Battle of Ridley Road” in which The 43 Group (and Communist Party of Great Britain) fought physically with the fascist League of Ex-Servicemen for speaking pitches on Ridley Road over several weeks.
You can hear the author discuss the book and his research in this episode of the thoroughly recommended 12 Rules For What anti-fascist podcast:
Ken Worpole has kindly alerted me to the publication of A New World In Essex: The Rise and Fall of the Purleigh Brotherhood Colony 1896-1903 by Victor Gray:
“A story of disappointed idealism set in late-Victorian rural Essex where a group of Christian Socialists from Croydon, inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy, went ‘back to the land’ to create a Utopian colony. This detailed study of an influential experiment in community living tracks their struggle to survive and the reasons for its ultimate failure.”
Ken is also interested in any information that might confirm that Kenworthy Road in Homerton is named after J.C. Kenworthy (as am I – now that I know about it!)
You can find our more about A New World In Essex – and order a copy – from Campanula Books.
Finally, I have failed to get to the Hackney’s Got Style: Celebrating the History and Impact of African and Caribbean Fashion and Hair exhibition at Hackney Museum so am relieved that it has now been extended to Saturday 21st March. Free entry, looks very cool, be rude not to:
I also have a bunch of unfinished posts sitting here that hopefully will get done… sometime.