“Most Awful Place in Britain”: Hackney 1982

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breaker’s Yard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caribbean House, Hoxton 1976-1988

Caribbean House postcard

Caribbean House postcard

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I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of Caribbean House prior to watching the Somewhere In Hackney film from 1980 courtesy of the British Film Institute. That film largely concerns itself with Free Form Arts Trust, who decorated the front of the building (see the section from 6:45-8:00 minutes), so I was curious about what went on inside.

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There’s not a huge amount of information about Caribbean House available online, so this post is mainly based on a book published in 1985 by its founder, Rev Dr Ashton Gibson:

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Ashton Gibson – a black Robin Hood?

Gibson was born in Barbados in 1927. By his own account he was “barely able to speak” when he began school at the age of eight and didn’t do particularly well educationally until his father moved him to a fee-paying “prep” school, where he excelled. After school he worked in a variety of different jobs, (teacher, newspaper sub-editor) as well as embracing Catholicism and committing unspecified “anti-social acts”. In 1952 at the age of 25 Ashton’s mother paid for his passage to England to keep him out of trouble.

Like most Caribbean immigrants of this era, Ashton was forced to take up jobs that were more menial than those he done in his home country. He worked as a kitchen hand, a driver and an office cleaner, using his spare time to train as an accountant. The racism of 1950s England eventually got to him. He began to hear voices.

God was apparently speaking to Ashton and informing him that “the Church had money enough to solve the problems caused by poverty among his people”. He began what can only be described as a campaign of radical wealth redistribution, initially by going from church to church and pleading poverty. The resultant funds were then donated to organisations dedicated to the welfare of West Indian immigrants like himself. In the book, Ashton is at pains to say that none of the money he acquired went into his own pocket.

Nevertheless, the authorities took an interest in him. After a couple of referrals for psychiatric treatment Ashton was eventually sentenced to two years in prison for obtaining money by false pretenses. He shared a cell with a safe cracker, and perhaps inevitably put his newly acquired skills to use on release. Church safes up and down the country were relieved of their contents, although once again Ashton states forcefully that any money obviously set aside for charities was untouched and that he never used the loot for his own gain.

After further brushes with authority, Ashton became involved with slightly more conventional community work – volunteering at the Black House set up by Michael X and the Racial Action Adjustment Society (RAAS) on Holloway Road, then launching the Melting Pot Foundation in Brixton (“with £30,000 of his own money”) – a garment factory aimed at giving West Indians work opportunities/experience. The Melting Pot also branched out into finding places to live for homeless black youth.

The book makes it clear that Ashton’s own upbringing and experience of the the alienation brought on by a racist society and education system inspired him to try and improve the lot of black people in the UK.

Westindian Concern Ltd

Gibson resigned from the Melting Pot Foundation when it became more established, receiving funding from Lambeth Council and support from the wider voluntary sector. He was paid off to the tune of £20,000 and used this to set up a company called Westindian Concern. The launch was held in a church in the City of London on 22 July 1975. The emphasis was on black (or West Indian) self-help – a black-run charity which encouraged black people to develop the skills and networks they needed to survive in the UK. Various locations were sought for premises before the right one was found:

“Three derelict buildings were found near New North Road on the borders of Islington, Hackney Boroughs in Hoxton, North London. The three terraced houses, 76-80 Bridport Place, were all adjacent to one another, making conversion into a single unit relatively simple. But the overwhelming advantage to these premises, dwarfing the many problems raised by their unpromising condition, was that they were cut off from the residential area. This meant that the organisation stood infinitely more chance of succeeding in its long term aims, which naturally included acceptance in the local community. In particular there were no neighbours to complain of noise when social or recreational activities took place. As an added bonus, unimpeded view across Shoreditch Park afforded some pleasure to the eye in a heavily built up and neglected area. The London Borough of Hackney, to whom the property belonged, was persuaded to make a gesture to its large Westindian population; a five year lease was granted to Westindian Concern for the proposed community centre and hostel.”

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Caribbean House

After extensive renovation work, undertaken by people from the black church movement, the centre opened during Easter 1976.

Initial problems included funding issues and an article in Private Eye suggesting that Ashton Gibson was using the centre for his own financial gain. More seriously, a fire broke out in the building, gutting 78 and 80 Bridport Place. Arson was suspected, with reasonable suspicion being leveled at supporters of the National Front, which had a lot of support in the area at the time and would open its headquarters in nearby Great Eastern Street in 1978.

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Repairs were made and funding issues resolved. Activities and work undertaken at Caribbean House included:

  • A children’s hostel
  • A family-centred child care service, with emphasis on the reconciliation of children with their parents where there had previously been conflict
  • A social club for the elderly
  • An Education Unit, helping children with school work – as well as courses for social workers, teachers, probation officers to assist them in better understanding of issues faced by black people.
  • Career advice, and a job-finding scheme
  • A food co-op
  • Music workshops
  • Cricket and dominoes teams
  • Westindian Voice – a newspaper (which admittedly only lasted for 7 months)

Bazil Meade gives a flavour of what Caribbean House was like in his book when describing rehearsals of the London Community Gospel Choir there:

“Soon our rehearsals became like mini-concerts themselves. Caribbean House was a busy place where people came to socialise with their friends. When they heard us rehearsing they would wander into the hall to listen, and before long the hall was full and people were spilling out of the doors, clapping and singing along…”

(from Bazil Meade & Jan Greenough: A Boy, A Journey, A Dream. Monarch Books, 2011. P111)

Policing and “Homeward Bound”

Ashton Gibson gave evidence on behalf of Caribbean House and Westindian Concern to the Scarman Inquiry which was set up after the Brixton riots of 1981. His submission is reproduced in the book. He stops quite a way short of saying that the riots were an understandable reaction to a racist society in general and the institutional racism of the police in particular. Instead he sees prejudice developing as a result of two well meaning groups of people who happen to originate from cultures that do not quite understand each other.

Indeed, most of Gibson’s criticism is leveled at the black community. “Badly run late-night clubs” attended by teenagers are singled out as a source of inter-generational conflict and the breakdown of families.  The “black leadership” in Brixton is criticised as being “very poor… Few of the leaders of those organisations funded and supported by the authorities have any grasp of the problems besetting this area.”

To put things in context, It is worth bearing in mind that the police in Hackney were widely viewed as being intensely racist at this time. Hackney Black People’s Organisation had been set up in 1978 as a result of racist violence and policing, specifically the death of Michael Ferreira. (Ferreira was a black teenager who was stabbed by National Front sympathisers in Stoke Newington. He was taken by friends to Stoke Newington Police Station where he was then questioned by the police about the incident rather than receiving medical assistance. Michael eventually died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.) The tensions between the community and the police would increase throughout the eighties with the killing of Colin Roach inside Stoke Newington police station being just one notable flashpoint.

Ashton Gibson receiving a cheque in 1984 from the Police Property Act Fund via Hackney Mayoress Bella Callaghan

Ashton Gibson receiving a cheque in 1984 from the Police Property Act Fund via Hackney Mayoress Bella Callaghan

Six months after the 1981 Brixton riots, Caribbean House launched its “Homeward Bound Fund”, “to enable Westindians with little hope of adjusting to life in Britain to be resettled in in the Caribbean or other region of their choice”. The fund was severely criticised by Hackney Council for Racial Equality, Darcus Howe (then of the Race Today collective) and even Melting Pot, the organisation in Brixton which Gibson had set up. Essentially the critics felt that the fund was a capitulation to the right wing press and “send them back” racists like the National Front and Enoch Powell.

There are some lengthy rebuttals to these criticisms by Ashton Gibson in the book. He suggests that the fund was a purely humanitarian venture that was intended to help Caribbean families who were “at breaking point”. Its critics are portrayed as “White Liberals and their Black lackeys in the Race Relations Industry”. The fund was abandoned shortly after its launch, having amassed £2,000.

The criticism of the fund also included various people demanding that funding for Caribbean House be reviewed. Although it is unclear how successful this lobbying was, it does seems that there were some real difficulties with resources when A Light In The Dark Tunnel was published in 1985. The book concludes with an appeal for funds which notes that the Greater London Council (GLC) was to be abolished in 1986 along with its extensive funding of a huge array of community groups (the London Irish Women’s Centre in Stoke Newington would be just one other example). Coupled with this, other sources of funding from local government were due to expire.

Ashton Gibson seems to have been very talented at courting those in positions of influence and power – the book includes numerous testimonials from politicians, bishops and members of the House of Lords. Unfortunately this did not prove to be enough to sustain his organisations through funding cut backs.

I’ve not been able to find much material about the dissolution of Caribbean House. This Youtube clip suggests that it managed to survive its problems with funding until 1988:

The clip also has some great footage of the interior of Caribbean House. However the comment below is slightly ominous:

THAMES NEWS 6.9.88.CARIBBEAN HOUSE,HACKNEY IS IN DEBT; DR. ASHTON GIBSON,WHO RUNS THE HOUSE,IS ACCUSED OF STEALING THE CHARITY MONEY TO RUN THE HOUSE FOR A HOTEL IN BARBADOS._x000D_

 

Bridport Place now

Bridport Place today

Westindian Concern was wound up as a company in October 1988. King Bee Music Academy were based at 76-80 Bridport Place from 1988 “to provide the urban youth of Hackney with the belief and knowledge that music builds self-confidence, and encourages people to play a positive role in their community… “

The building was listed as “an empty commercial property” by Hackney Council in 2011. And seems to have been sold for £2,861,000 in 2012 (BBC PDF linked from this story). It looks like it was divided up into 8 flats later that year. And the company doing the conversion was busted for health and safety offences in 2014.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into the nitty gritty of the funding, administration, or legacy of Caribbean House. Whilst I only have the rather uncritical book which is co-authored by Rev Dr Gibson to go on, I will say that trying to provide essential support and resources for marginalised people in a prejudiced society is a noble aim. I’m sure large numbers of people were helped by the work of Ashton Gibson and the many others who organised and contributed to the activities at Caribbean House.

There are echoes of the controversies about funding, administration and the relationship with the state in the recent furore about Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company.

If you have any memories of Caribbean House, feel free to leave a comment below, or get in touch.

Mary Wollstonecraft in Hackney

Sunday’s radical history walk around Newington Green was an excellent afternoon out – and very well attended, with over 50 people.

Past Tense have a map of radical Newington Green available (scroll about three quarters down the page). They are also now on Facebook, so “like” their page if you are interested in future walks.

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The walk reminded me that I have failed to write anything about 18th Century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft on this site.

Wollstonecraft is best known for her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which is often claimed to be the first major feminist work in the English language. She has a couple of significant connections to Hackney:

Mary’s family briefly moved to Hoxton in 1774, when she would have been about 15 years old.

In 1784 she opened a boarding school for girls in Newington Green along with her sister Eliza and friend Fanny Blood. She also attended the Green’s radical Unitarian Church (which is still there) and befriended its minister Dr Richard Price. The freethinking community of Newington Green at that time meant that Mary was also able to debate with people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestley.

Newington Green was also where Mary started her career as a writer.

The Mary on the Green Campaign is fundraising for a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft to be built and placed in Newington Green.

It was argued persuasively on the walk that Wollstonecraft was written out of feminist history in the 19th Century because of her supposed immoral behaviour, including having children out of wedlock, having affairs etc. London is generally lacking in statues of women, too.

In the meantime there is a less traditional memorial to her on the outside wall of the Unitarian chapel by local artist Stewy:

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Radical Hackney after World War One

Some interesting press articles reproduced over at Anterotesis blog. Both are about people resisting austerity after the first world war: by squatting municipal buildings and via a rent strike in Shoreditch:

http://anterotesis.com/wordpress/2013/09/radical-hackney-after-world-war-one/

In related news there will be a free school on the radical history of World War One on Sunday 18th May at Mayday Rooms, 88 Fleet Street.

A Radical History of Hackney Parks

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“The Park is called the People’s Park
And all the walks are theirs
And strolling through the flowery paths
They breathe exotic airs,
South Kensington, let it remain
Among the Upper Ten.
East London, with useful things,
Be left with working men.

The rich should ponder on the fact
Tis labour has built it up
A mountain of prodigious wealth
And filled the golden cup.
And surely workers who have toiled
Are worthy to behold
Some portion of the treasures won
And ribs of shining gold.”

An ode to Victoria Park, 1872
(from Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park)

The text below was originally published as a pamphlet, bashed out for the Radical History Network meeting on “Community Empowerment and Open Green Spaces”, July 10th 2013. (I have a couple of the pamphlets left – drop me an email if you want one.)

It’s full of holes, a work in progress. Get in touch with additions, criticisms, comments.

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1275 The area that is now London Fields was recorded as common pastureland adjoining Cambridge Heath. In 1540 the name London Field is found recorded as a separate item consisting of around 100 acres in changing ownership of land. London Field was one of the many “commonable lands” of Hackney where the commoners of the parish could graze their livestock on the fields from Lammas Day (Anglo Saxon for bread mass), August 1st, celebrating the first loaf after the crops had been harvested, to Lady Day, March 25th. This arrangement was known as Lammas Rights and was protected by law. (from here)

1700s In the Marshes towards Hackney Wick were low public houses, the haunt of highwaymen. Dick Turpin was a constant guest at the “White House” or “Tyler’s Ferry” and few police-officers were bold enough to approach the spot.

1750 onwards Clissold House (originally named Paradise House) was built, in the latter half of the 18th century, for Jonathan Hoare, a City merchant, Quaker, philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner. (His brother Samuel was one of the founders of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.). The grounds of the house went on to become Clissold Park.

1793 Big open-air demonstration on Hackney Downs, in support of the revolutionary gains in France. The tutors Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Gilbert Wakefield organised lectures on the French Revolution at the New College, a non-conformist academy (“by-word for revolutionary opinion”) at Lower Clapton.

1840 Abney Park Cemetery opens as the first fully non-denominational burial ground in Europe (where anyone could be buried, but especially non-conformists, dissenters etc). Many anti-slavery campaigners are buried there.

1845 Victoria Park is opened following a petition by 30,000 local people to Queen Victoria. “There was no bathing pool provided and local youths were in the habit of bathing – naked! – in the adjacent Regent’s Canal.  Attempts to police such shocking behaviour were unavailing and within a few years a pool was provided in the park itself.” – Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park

1848 Chartists meet at Bonners Park (near Victoria Park) to march on Parliament.

1860s Hackney Downs open space (originally common land) preserved as parkland as a result of pressure by the Commons Preservation Society.

1866 Widespread pickets and demonstrations for universal male suffrage as advocated by the Reform League during summer. After disorder at Hyde Park the Tory government banned all protest meetings throughout London. The ban was widely ignored; a huge “illegal” rally took place in Victoria Park.

1872 180 acres in Hackney are preserved as public open space and protected from the encroachment of development. Including Clapton Common and Cockhanger Green (now boringly called Stoke Newington Common).

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In the 1880s the grounds of Clissold House and the adjacent Newington Common were threatened with development, and two prominent campaigners, Joseph Beck of The City of London and John Runtz of The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) persuaded the Board of MBW to buy the land and create a public park. (from Clissold Park User Group, as was the image above)

1885 William Morris speaks at Victoria Park:

The political culture of the day was not simply confined to the clubs and indoor meeting places. The open-air meeting, whether in the park, or on the street corner, remained the principal forum for addressing the uninitiated, convincing the unconvinced, spreading the word. William Morris was one of the mast well known public speakers for socialism of the period, and visited Hackney often. There is a fine portrait of him speaking to a crowd in Victoria Park in 1885 in Tom Mann’s Memoirs:

He was a picture on an open air platform. The day was fine, the branches of the tree under which he was speaking spread far over the speaker. Getting him well in view, the thought came, and has always recurred as I think of that first sight of Morris – “Bluff King Hal”. I did not give careful attention to what he was saying, for I was chiefly concerned to get the picture of him in my mind, and then to watch the faces of the audience to see how they were impressed…. Nine-tenths were giving careful attention, but on the fringe of the crowd were some who had just accidentally arrived, being out for a walk, and having unwittingly come upon the meeting. These stragglers were making such remarks as: ‘Oh, this is the share-and-share-alike crowd’; ‘Poverty, eh, he looks all right, don’t he?’ But the audience were not to be distracted by attempts at ribaldry: and as Morris stepped off the improvised platform, they gave a fine hearty hand-clapping which showed real appreciation.

(From Hackney Propaganda: Working Class Club Life and Politics in Hackney 1870-1900)

1887 Free speech demo in Victoria Park in March.

1889 Clissold Park was opened by the newly formed London County Council (LCC). The two ponds in the park are named the Beckmere and the Runtzmere in honour of the two principal founders.

1926 Victoria Park is the site for some enthusiastic speeches in support of the General Strike. The park is closed briefly to the public during the strike when the army is stationed there – for reasons which seem to be unclear.

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1930s Hackney Red Radio (a branch of the Workers Theatre Movement) perform agit prop and pro-working class skits and plays. The group performs in parks, streets etc, including London Fields, where they are pelted with over-ripe tomatoes by an unappreciative audience on one occasion.

“We are Red Radio,
Workers’ Red Radio,
We Show you how you’re robbed and bled;
The old world’s crashing,
Let’s help to smash it
And build a workers’ world instead.”

1936 British Union of Fascists holds regular rallies in Victoria Park including clashes with anti-fascists. Also a large anti-fascist meeting in July organised by the Trades Councils of North and East London: “A mile long procession headed by a brass band culminated in a large public meeting which declared its unalterable opposition to fascism and to the war which it would inevitably lead.” Fascists attempt to march through East London in October for another Victoria Park rally, but are prevented from doing so by anti-fascists: The Battle of Cable Street. They did not pass.

1939 Trenches are dug in Hackney Downs, Victoria Park and other open spaces at the outset of the 2nd World War.

(There is a bit of gap here! Can you help fill it? What happened between the 1930s and the 1970s?)

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1978 80,000 attend huge Anti-Nazi League concert in Victoria Park (apparently the stage was in Hackney but the audience was in Tower Hamlets!).

1980s Three GLC-organised festivals in Victoria Park. Two are themed around peace / against nuclear weapons – including one on Hiroshima Day, 6 August 1983.

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1981 Funk The Wedding concert takes place in Clissold Park on the day of the marriage of Charles and Di. (from History Is Made At Night, as is the image above)

1983 Clissold Park Free Festival, August?! (mentioned here, any further info welcome)

1990s The demolition of London Fields Lido is resisted by the people of Hackney, including standing in front of the bulldozers. Local people led campaigns to reopen the Lido and cleared away vegetation. The children’s paddling pool which was closed in 1999, was reopened by local people for summer seasons. In 1998 the Lido was squatted for housing, a café and communal events. In August 1998 there was the Carnival of the Dispossessed, a benefit for Reclaim The Streets. The Lido was squatted for a second time 2002-2005. (From Past Tense)

1990 Hackney residents burn Poll Tax bills in Clissold Park.

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1991 Anti-Fascist Action sponsor Unity Carnival on Hackney Downs:

“AFA had surprised everyone by organising the biggest anti-fascist event for over a decade, drawing 10,000 people to the Unity Carnival on Hackney Downs. Supported by a wide range of organisations, from the Hackney Joint Shop Stewards Committee, to the Fire Brigade Union, the Carnival programme again drew attention to rising levels of race attacks and urged people to become pro-active: ‘We have organised today’s event to draw attention to the growing number of racist attacks especially in east London. The fact that some sections of the community virtually live under siege is unacceptable and we hope you are prepared to do more than just come to this symbolic show of unity. Support the activities on the back of this programme to get organised and do something to stop racist attacks.'”

Sean Birchall – Beating The Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action (Freedom, 2010) p250

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1994 Hackney Homeless Festival, Clissold Park – 30,000 people. Clashes with police afterwards. (image by Jamie from tribe.net)

1996 Hackney Anarchy Week, a ten day festival including a punks’ picnic and 3-sided football match in Clissold Park.

2007 After much resistance and protest, the Manor Garden Allotments (near Hackney Wick, but apparently not technically in Hackney!) are demolished to make way for the Olympics. Similar struggles take place on Hackney Marshes (where football pitches are closed to make way for a coach park)

2012 A small “Occupy London” camp sets up briefly in Haggerston Park.

Sources/Acknowledgements

http://www.londonfieldsusergroup.org.uk/

http://www.clissoldpark.com/park-history/

Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park

Barry Burke and Ken Worpole – Hackney Propaganda: Working Class Club Life and Politics in Hackney 1870-1900 (Centerprise, 1980) (William Morris)

Barry Burke – Rebels With A Cause: The History of Hackney Trades Council (Centerprise. 1975)

History Is Made At Night (Funk The Royal Wedding)

Past Tense (London Fields Lido)

Getting Involved

Hackney Council’s list of Park User Groups.

Further Reading: Modern

The Rise of the Friends Groups Movements, by Dave Morris

Finsbury Park: A History of Community Empowerment, by Hugh – Friends of Finsbury Park

The Community-Led Transformation of Lordship Rec, by Friends of Lordship Rec

Further Reading: Older

Down With The Fences: Battles For The Commons In South London, by Past Tense

Subversive of Public Decency: Open Space In North / North East London: radical crowds, immorality, and struggles over enclosure, by Past Tense (not online yet)

FILM: The Strange Death of Harry Stanley

Harry Stanley 1953-1999

Harry Stanley 1953-1999

On 22nd September 1999, Harry Stanley was fatally shot by police in South Hackney. A short film about his death has just been made available on Youtube:

Facebook page for the film

Coverage of the film in the Hackney Gazette

INQUEST’s briefing on the death of Harry Stanley [pdf]

Harry Stanley Wikipedia page

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Harry Stanley’s widow Irene and other friends and family organised as the Justice for Harry Stanley campaign.

The campaign succeeded in getting the initial inquest’s “open verdict” overturned. In November 2004 a new jury returned a verdict of “unlawful killing”.

The two officers who shot Harry Stanley were then suspended from duty. This resulted in a protest from fellow armed Metropolitan Police officers, 120 of whom handed in their gun permits. This lead to a “a review of procedures for suspending officers” concluding that the two officers could return to work, although on for “non-operational duties”.

In May 2005 the verdict of “unlawful killing” was itself overturned in the High Court, reinstating the original “open verdict”.

The two officers were arrested and interviewed, but in October 2005 the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to press charges because there was insufficient evidence to contradict the officers’ claims that they were acting in self-defence.

The investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission also recommended that no further disciplinary action be taken against the two officers, but was critical of the way that they had conferred in the process of making their notes about the shooting. Indeed the IPCC recommended that police officers should give video recorded statements immediately after events rather than making their own notes in collaboration with others.

Stanley-Campaign-Statement-9th-February-2006 [pdf]

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Interview from Class War issue 81, Summer 2001:

JUSTICE FOR HARRY STANLEY

On 22 September 1999 a middle-aged Scottish man, Harry Stanley, was shot dead by the police in east London, a short distance from his home. He was unarmed, and his shooting caused considerable anger locally. Class War spoke to a friend of Harry’s who has been involved in the campaign to obtain justice for both Harry and the Stanley family.

Can you tell us the circumstances of how Harry Stanley died?
Harry, not long out of hospital after having a tumour removed was returning from his brother’s house with the now famous table leg. He stopped for a drink in the Alexandra pub. When he left somebody phoned the police to say an Irish man had left the pub with a sawn off shot gun. Harry is then challenged by the cops and shot once in the hand and once in the head.

Although this took place less than 100 yards from his home it took 18 hours for the police to inform his family, even though he had clear identification on him. A postmortem was carried out without the consent of the family, which is illegal.

What have your relations been like with the Metropolitan Police since the shooting? Have they offered an apology and compensation?
Our relations have been hostile. No apology or compensation has been offered, whilst the officers concerned remain unnamed and on the beat.

At one stage letters strongly criticising the campaign started appearing in the local media. What was all that about?
A bloke called Yasmin Fyas had been slagging off the campaign in the Hackney Gazette letters page. No one called Yasmin Fyas lives at the address given – the campaign believes the police were using this as an alias to slag us off.

Has there been a lot of support from local people?
Yes all the demonstrations we have organised have been well attended and with ‘real people’ from Hackney, not just the usual leftie types.

What are your objectives? What can be achieved in that for any conviction to occur the police will not only have to investigate but charge and then get a conviction of fellow officers?
We have three main demands:

  1. A fully independent public enquiry
  2. The police officers responsible sacked and charged with murder
  3. Armed Response Units taken off the streets of Britain

If the campaign is strong enough it is possible to get charges laid – other campaigns like the Jim Ashley campaign show this.

Twenty years ago if something like this had happened there would have been a riot. Do you think the working class has now accepted police violence to a certain extent?
The police had phoned Diane Abbot MP before they even told the family. That shows they were scared of the community response. People think everybody kicked off all the time in the 1980s but that was not always the case.

Given that this is one case amongst many historically – is it worth putting pressure on people with power because they have never shown any indication of changing for the better? Don’t you think an eye for an eye is a principle response?
We need to fight for justice and to expose the system like the Stephen Lawrence case did. Revenge would not work – if they lose one cop they just replace them with another.

Are there any similarities between the police’s role in say industrial disputes and their wider role in working class areas of the big cities?
Yes there is. If you look at the way drugs raids are used to put on a show of the police’s force in working class areas. They could easily go off to rich areas and arrest people with cocaine, instead of teenagers with a bit of dope.

If what the police are about is discipline and oppression, surely we should be opposing their very existence?
Yeah, but not everybody in the campaign would agree – especially the Vicar from Bethnal Green!

What support have you had from the families of other people killed or framed by the police?
Loads! I can list the names Paddy Hill, Delroy Lindo, the [Roger] Sylvester family, Christopher Alder. The list could go on and on.

What advice would you give to other families who go through this type of terrible trauma?
The best way to get over it is to fight and organise. Link with other campaigns but make sure you involve the unions to get money!

Nearly two years down the line – where does the campaign go next?
Legally a Judicial Review of the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to prosecute the officers concerned. Harry’s family are going on a national speaking tour with with other families campaigning for justice. This will lead up to a huge demonstration in October/November time. We don’t want to give too many details away right now but it will be lively!

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“Not A Thing Was Moving” – Hackney and the 1926 General Strike

Hetty Bower

“Not an hour on the day, not a penny off the pay”

There’s a fantastic brief video interview with 106-year-old Hackney resident Hetty Bower at the BBC site, which is as good a place to start as any:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17609400

Here’s some biographical information about Hetty from the Time Of Their Lives site:

Not everyone develops their undying love of music sitting under the family’s mahogany dining table during air raids.  Not everyone goes on to become an indefatigable peace campaigner, marching against nuclear weapons, the Iraq wars and Israel’s attacks on Gaza at the age of 103.  Hetty Bower is not everyone.
Hetty was born in Dalston, London in 1905. During World War I air raids, the voice of Caruso singing arias from Pagliacci rang out from the giant horn of the ‘His Master’s Voice’ gramophone to drown the noise of anti-aircraft guns. Sometimes the family sheltering beneath the solid table sang along.  Hetty’s eldest sister – a strong influence later, introduced symphonies into the musical mix.  Hetty was hooked.

Since the interview above, Hetty has celebrated her 107th birthday and is now one of the oldest people in the UK. Proof of the restorative power of a life of struggle I guess!

What was the General Strike?

I’m stealing and modifying this introduction from Past Tense’s excellent text on the General Strike in Southwark:

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of workers taking action themselves without them…

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off. Since then the General Strike has entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain. […]

The General Strike was of course a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages and conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

The accounts here […] fail to analyse at all WHY the General Strike failed, despite the powerful unity of the working class nationally and locally. The TUC leaders sold out the Strike, but despite their anger, support for the miners and resentment towards the TUC, neither the Councils of Action, the Trades Councils, the militant left, nor the insurgent workers they claimed to represent, significantly broke out of the official structures, to either broaden the Strike while it was on or to continue it after it had been called off.

[…] When the union leaders called the strike off, millions of workers, after an initial upsurge, obeyed, whatever their feelings. Workers told not to strike or to go back to work even before the Strike ended, did as they were told. And the Communist Party of Great Britain […] made little attempt to challenge the TUC running of events in fact calling for “All power to the General Council.”

Thousands of working people fought the cops and scabs for nine days, all over the country. But only by breaking out of TUC control and extending the struggle on their own behalf could the outcome have been any different.

What happened in Hackney?

hackneytcbook

The following text is taken from Rebels With A Cause: The History of Hackney Trades Council 1900-1975 by Barry Burke (Hackney Trades Council and the Hackney Workers’ Educational Association, 1975):

When the strike was declared in May 1926, the Hackney Council of Action took over a local boxing hall, the Manor Hall in Kenmure Road [I think at number 16], as the headquarters and ran the strike from there. Throughout the duration of the strike the Council of Action was in continuous session organising the strike locally. Reports were arriving all the time from various parts of the borough and the place took on the character of a nerve centre.

Not everyone was called out on strike at once and there were others such as local tradesmen who were exempted by the TUC. These tradesmen had to present themselves to the Council of Action, give their reasons for wanting to carry on their business, and if the Council were satisfied they were given a permit and a sticker to be put on their vans. It stated “BY PERMISSION OF THE TUC” and the strikers had great satisfaction sticking these on.

Public meetings were held all over the borough, particularly around the Mare Street area and Kingsland Road, the two main thoroughfares that cut through the borough and in Victoria Park.

Police intimidation was always a problem for the strikers and it was in Kingsland Road that this manifested itself in an untypical but frightening confrontation on Wednesday 5th May. One eye-witness recalls:

“The whole area was a seething mass of frightened but nevertheless belligerent people. The roads and pavement were jammed, horse vans, lorries and ‘black’ transport were being manhandled; police were there in force and I suppose that for a time things could have been described as desperate.

The crucial point came when a fresh force of police arrived on the outskirts and I heard an officer call out ‘Charge the bastards. Use everything you’ve got’. And they did. I saw men, women and even youngsters knocked over and out like ninepins. Shades of Peterloo. If they had been armed, apart from their truncheons and boots, Kingsland Road would have gone down in history as an even greater massacre.”

The police carried out baton charges in other parts of Hackney on the same day and the St John’s Ambulance men set up a casualty station in Kingsland Road a day or so afterwards.

Mounted police escort vehicle during the General Strike in London, 1926

Mounted police escort vehicle during the General Strike in London, 1926

Mare Street Tram Depot, now Clapton Bus Garage [and now presumably the Bus Garage at the bottom of the Narrow Way?] was to be the scene of further incident on that same Wednesday. The men had all joined the strike on the first day along with the other transport workers and the depot was empty. Even the canteen staff had gone home and all that was left was the picket line outside. Suddenly, under military escort, along came a crowd of ‘patriotic volunteers’ to start up a tram service.

The picket line was not big enough to stop them entering the depot but by the time this was done, word had reached Harry Lee and his Council of Action round the corner in Kenmure Road. Within minutes the area outside was packed with strikers. Their attitude was that the ‘blacklegs’ may have got in but they were not going to let them out!

All day the crowd stayed outside and not a tram moved. As evening approached, the poor unfortunates trapped in the tram depot realised that their stomachs were complaining. None of them had brought food in with them and the canteen staff were not working so they just had to stay hungry.

A few attempts to escape were made but were unsuccessful and about midnight, the Manor Hall received a visit from the local police superintendent. He asked in the most polite way for the Council of Action to assist him. The reply from Harry Lee was less polite.

During the early hours of Thursday morning, a few did escape from the depot but were chased all the way down Mare Street, past Well Street to the Triangle where they were finally caught. Unfortunately, at this spot stood a horse trough full of water, so that it was a number of very bedraggled and hungry ‘blacklegs’ who made their way home that day. No further attempts were made to take any trams out from that particular depot.

Strikebreaking was enthusiastically encouraged by Hackney Borough Council, now no longer in Labour hands. Right from the start they issued a notice calling for volunteers to man essential services. An office was opened in the public library opposite the Town Hall where strikebreakers could sign on and this was kept open from 9am to 8pm. The Council at that time did not have a single Labour member on it and was comprised of 100% Municipal Reformers (Tories and Liberals who stood together on an anti-socialist ticket).

It is interesting to compare Hackney Council’s attitude to those of Shoredtich and Bethnal Green, two neighbouring boroughs. In both of these, Labour Borough Councils were in office and the respective strike headquarters there were in the Town Halls themselves!

In Hackney, the Council met on the Thursday and set up a special sub-committee to discharge any emergency functions that were needed. A squad of Special Constables was established for the protection of municipal buildings, one of those was the Mayor’s son who was ‘just down from Oxford’ and was on duty at the Town Hall.

The Hackney Gazette, the local newspaper, did not appear in its usual format as the printers had joined the strike. Instead the editor brought out a single sheet; which makes interesting reading, especially the bulletin brought out on the second Monday of the strike (10th May). With the headline MILITARY ARRIVE AT HACKNEY, it went on to state that:

“Victoria Park has been closed to the public. In the early hours of Saturday morning, residents in the locality were disturbed by the rumble of heavy motor lorries and afterwards found that military tents had been pitched near the bandstand… We understand that detachments of the East Lancashire Fusiliers, a Guards Regiment and the Middlesex Regiment have encamped in the park… another body of Regulars is stationed in the vicinity of the Marshes at Hackney Wick.”

Whether this was meant to frighten the strikers or not is not clear but it certainly had no effect on the numbers out on strike in the borough. Despite scares and rumours about people drifting back to work, the number of people on strike in the second week was more than had come out at the beginning on the 3rd of May. All the large factories in the borough had pickets outside them – Bergers Paint Factory in Hackney Wick, Polikoff Ltd., a clothing firm at Well Street and Zinkens Furniture manufacturers in Mare Street were three of the largest.

Nothing moves without our permission

Nothing moves without our permission

All public utilities were either closed or being run rather badly by amateurs. The Hackney Gazette once again reported that three boys of the Clove Club (the Hackney Downs School ‘Old Boys’) were driving a train between Liverpool Street and Chingford and that one of the volunteers at the Council’s Dust Destructor was a parson who was busy shovelling refuse into the hoppers. That probably explains why the Council ended their meeting on the Thursday with the Lords Prayer!

The end of the General Strike came suddenly on Wednesday 12th May, with most strikers in a buoyant and confident mood. The TUC leaders, fearing what they had unleashed, went cap in hand and unconditionally surrendered to Baldwin at 10 Downing Street.

When the news came through to the Strike HQ at Kenmure Road, the first reaction was one of disbelief. Notice were put up advising strikers not to pay attention to what they called ‘BBC Bluff’, but when the official notice of a return to work was given to them during the afternoon, their first reaction was that the strike must have been successful. The Hackney Gazette reported that

“it was publicly alleged that the miners were going back to work without any reduction of wages. There were shouts of ‘We’ve won!’ and cheers, while a section of the crowd began to sing The Red Flag”.

However, as soon as the truth filtered through to them the reaction according to one participant was “bloody murder”. Julius Jacobs who was active in Hackney during the General Strike remembers that ‘The Bastards’ was the most favourable epithet applied to the General Council of the TUC:

“Everybody’s face dropped a mile because they had all been so enthusiastic. It was really working and victory seemed to be absolutely on the plate.”

However, the strikers were still in a militant mood unlike their leaders. That evening, a huge march took place. Several thousands of strikers took part in a march from the Manor Hall in Kenmure Road down Mare Street and Well Street to Hackney Wick and Homerton ending up in a mass meeting outside the Hackney Electricity Works at the end of Millfields Road. A drum and fife band accompanied the marchers and it was led by two men with a large banner. Before the arrival of the marchers, police were rushed up to the Works in a lorry which was driven at great speed through the crowd by one of the Special Constables and as the gates were opened for it, a number of soldiers in field uniform and wearing steel helmets were seen inside. The march was so long that after having a mass meeting by the head of the marchers, the speakers had to go to the back of the march which stretched for about a third of a mile and hold another one.

The return to work was orderly and in most cases without incident. A certain amount of victimisation of militants took place but no more than anywhere else.

See also: