The Workers’ Circle – fighting anti-semitism in Hackney

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Flyer for 1949 Workers’ Circle meeting in Stoke Newington, courtesy of Hackney Archives.

I’ve been a bit negligent in documenting Jewish radicalism in Hackney so far. The reason for this that there is so much of it that it’s a slightly intimidating prospect.

One of the first books I ever read about the radical history of Hackney was Morris Beckman’s superb The 43 Group: The Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism (Centerprise, 1993). Doing a blog post about the 43 Group seems pretty redundant when Beckman’s book is such an amazing combination of social history, good humour – and Blackshirt Fascists getting righteously duffed up. It’s recently been republished, so you really should be reading that instead of this.

On a similar note, even listing radical Jewish people who have been active in Hackney is fraught with problems as I’m sure I’d leave someone out. And the nature of radical politics is that many of the people I have in mind have wildly divergent politics anyway – “Jewish radicalism” isn’t just one thing.

Let’s just start by saying that there is a continuous line of radical Jews in East London from at least the formation of the Hebrew Socialist Union in 1876 right up to Jewdas today. I say “East London” because Jews were generally concentrated around the industrial heartland of Tower Hamlets in the 1870s. Moving out to the leafy suburbs of Hackney became fashionable (and economically viable) between the wars.

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Nevertheless, radicals like Rudolf Rocker lived in Shoreditch in 1896 whilst editing the Jewish Anarchist paper Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend). And we know that fellow Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman attended fundraisers for the paper in the East End too. (She properly disses Eastenders for all being drunkards in her autobiography Living My Life though).

The paper eventually gained a circulation of 5,000 copies. There is more on Arbeter Fraint at the excellent London Rebel History Calendar site by our comrades Past Tense.

Arbeter Fraint activists Arthur Hillman and Nathan Wiener were also involved with setting up the Workers’ Circle Friendly Society.

This superb article by David Rosenberg describes the energetic atmosphere of early Jewish radicalism in London. It includes the following about the establishment of the Workers’ Circle in 1909:

[Morris Mindel] chaired a group including anarchists and socialists that established the Circle. While unions fought for better conditions in individual workplaces, the Circle organised joint activities across occupations to strengthen secular Jewish working class life and culture in the East End.

Other friendly societies at the time were often boosted by an initial injection of philanthropic money, but the Circle stuck firmly to its principles of doing everything from its own resources and from the bottom up. It collected weekly subscriptions from members to fund its initiatives. Its most basic economic role was providing benefits for members facing great hardship. Those who were long-term unemployed through illness could draw benefits. Those suffering bereavements could arrange secular Jewish burials through the society.

It established a building fund and in 1924 purchased a large building in Whitechapel known as Circle House which had two halls, a library and several meeting rooms.  On Thursday nights, two sympathetic law graduates provided a free legal advice surgery. The Circle’s “propaganda committee” set up a series of Friday night lectures. On Sunday nights it offered concerts and Yiddish theatre performances.

In the late 1920s young Polish Jewish immigrants colonised a top floor room to establish the Progressive Youth Circle, which used Yiddish as the medium for discussion on women’s rights, free love, communism and Zionism. They invited trade unionists and political activists to speak to them, studied left wing writers, and developed Proltet an agitprop Yiddish workers’ theatre group.

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Circle House at Alie Street, Whitechapel . From Joe Jacobs’ Out of the Ghetto

Jack Shapiro recalls that the Workers’ Circle was “full of a vast variety of militants fresh out of the revolutionary parties in their own countries [whose] militancy and keenness to keep the struggle alive was an important inspiration to young people such as myself.” 

Joe Jacobs gives a flavour of the day to day activities of the Circle in his autobiography Out of the Ghetto: My Youth in the East End – Communism and Fascism 1913-1939 (another book everyone should read):

There was the Workers’ Circle, “Circle House”, in Alie Street, a hive of working class activity. This was a Jewish organisation organised on the basis of a friendly society with all sorts of mutual aid activities. Many of the leading lights had tried to bring a little of the ‘old country’ into their lives. They were former ‘Bundists’ from Poland, Anarchists and Libertarians from all parts, Socialists and Freethinkers. Every shade of Russian and European Labour thought and action were represented here. In addition there were Zionists and other purely Jewish organisations. There was a very good bar – no alcohol, but good food, continental style, Jewish of course. Chess and draughts as well as the inevitable dominoes were played for hours on end.

The National Archives notes that the Workers Circle began partly because its founders “did not find existing Jewish friendly societies suitable, because of their religious and class bias.” Morris Mindel’s son Mick later mentioned that the Circle’s rules and regulations “caused quite a stir among bourgeois friendly societies, especially the declaration that we welcomed women to free membership”.

Indeed, in this short lecture, a Mr Pearce recalls that many of the working class audience at Workers Circle concerts didn’t quite know how to behave properly:

The second half of Pearce’s lecture covers the discussions around how Jewish groups should respond to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. He mentions a delegation from the Workers’ Circle visiting the Board of Deputies to discuss setting up Jewish self-defence organisations. And being rebuffed. Undeterred, the delegates worked with other radical groups to set up the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism. All seven members of the first executive committee of the Council were Workers’ Circle members.

The Council organised opposition to a British Union of Fascists march through the East End on October 4th 1936 which became the infamous Battle of Cable Street. Joe Jacobs notes that people who required legal assistance after Cable Street were instructed to go to Room 5 of Circle House.

Pearce also states in his lecture that Workers’ Circle members volunteered to fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War, some being killed as part of the conflict. In her dissertation on East End Jews in Politics, Elaine Rosa Smith mentions that the Workers’ Circle was involved with fundraising for anti-fascists in Spain and subsequently aid for Jewish child victims of Nazism in Poland.

Circle House in Alie Street was bombed during the 2nd World War.

David Renton’s Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s gives some clues about the continuing work of the Circle after the war in 1947:

In London, the Workers’ Circle concentrated on putting pressure on the London City Council not to let halls to fascists, and the Circle also called a large anti-fascist public meeting in Shoreditch Town Hall. Although the Circle was active it was not complacent. Members of the Workers’ Circle criticised the Circle itself and other Jewish organisations for not doing enough. As M.D. Rayner commented, “At the fascist meetings at Hackney, Bethnal Green etc., individual Jews were present, and they were vocal and otherwise active, but the communal organisations and leadership had fallen down.”

The National Archives notes a general decline in Circle mutual aid activity after the war:

In its heyday there were about 3,000 members paying 2s. 6d per week for which they got 30 shillings a week when sick, £5 towards cost of seeing specialist and grant to buy false teeth and glasses. [1] […]

The Second World War saw another decline in membership, destruction of the Alie Street hall and considerable damage to the rest of the premises. The formation of the NHS also reduced the incentive for membership.

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After the war Circle House was sold and the organisation moved to 13 Sylvester Path, Hackney, in 1956. Membership continued to decline, with branch mergers, though post-war activity included an exhibition on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and support for the the state of Israel.

It’s clear from the “how to fight anti-semitism” flyer at the top of this post and the Renton quote above that the Circle had been active in Hackney and Stoke Newington prior to its HQ moving here, so I think we need to up our game in documenting its activities in the Borough. (If you have anything to add to this piece, leave a comment!).

The Sylvester Path premises were shared by the London Jewish Bakers’ Union. There’s a short clip about them and their banner on Youtube courtesy of the Jewish Museum:

Two members of the Workers’ Circle went on to be Mayors of Hackney:

Sam Cohen (former Workers’ Circle Chairman) became Mayor of Stoke Newington in 1959 and Mayor of Hackney in 1978.

He seems to have fared better than Solomon Lever who was Mayor of Hackney from 1951 to 1952. Solomon was the acting general secretary of the Workers’ Circle in 1959 when he was tragically and brutally killed as part of a robbery of its premises at 13 Sylvester Path.

The Workers’ Circle closed down shortly after its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1985.

Fighting Sus: Resisting and Repealing Stop and Search 1970-81

On The Record concluded an excellent oral history project about Centerprise this year with the publication of a superb book, audio tour and other resources.

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They now have a new project on the notorious “Sus Laws” which empowered police officers to stop and search people purely on the grounds of “suspicion”. The effects of this at a time when the police were institutionally and endemically racist should be fairly obvious. The Sus Laws were infamously used to search 1000 black youth in Brixton as part of “Operation Swamp” in April 1981, triggering the Brixton riots…

On the Record is recruiting a freelance Youth Coordinator for their exciting new project Fighting Sus: Resisting and Repealing Stop and Search 1970-81. We are looking for someone with experience of both youth work and drama production.

Download the application documents here and read the project’s press release here.

Please send queries and applications to us at info(at)on-the-record.org.uk

They are also interested in hearing from you if you are:

– A 16-25 year-old interested in taking part
– Over 25 years-old with memories of the ‘sus’ era
– A theatre, school or community group interested in hosting or helping with the performance.

The press release (linked above and well worth read) starts with a poem from Hackney / Antiguan poet Hugh Boatswain:

‘Hey boy, what have you just done?’
‘Me officer – nat a ting.’
‘Why you running then?
‘Late sa’, gotta meet de dartah?’
‘Sorry son, going to have to take you in,
lots of crimes in this area
come on down to the station for questioning.’
Nex’ morning black boy come from station,
No bookings, no charges, just a heap full of bruises.’

The Sus Laws were also covered by Boatswain’s fellow poet Linton Kwesi Johnson:

Hackney Gazette story on the Colin Roach Centre

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Link to Gazette feature.

Good to see our main local paper covering some radical history and mentioning current struggles around spycops. Hackney Community Defence Association and the Hackney Trades Union Support Unit were both based at the Colin Roach Centre.

 

 

7th December: Daniel Rachel and Ken Worpole on Rock Against Racism

This just in from The Broadway Bookshop, 6 Broadway Market…

WALLS COME TUMBLING DOWN:
A TALK with DANIEL RACHEL
in conversation with KEN WORPOLE
Wednesday 7 December 2016 at 7 p.m.

We are delighted to announce that Daniel Rachel will be appearing at the shop on Wednesday 7 December to read and talk about his new book WALLS COME TUMBLING DOWN (published by Picador).

Daniel’s remarkable oral history – which brilliantly captures the mood on the streets of British cities before and after the epoch-changing rise of Rock Against Racism – will be introduced by writer Ken Worpole, who remembers when Hackney’s streets were on the front line.

Tickets £3 (includes glass of wine). For booking please RSVP: books@broadwaybookshophackney.com or call 020 7241 1626. For further information please see below.

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About the book:In August 1976, Eric Clapton made an inflammatory speech in support of Enoch Powell and ‘black’ repatriation, sparking an anti-racism campaign that would soon radicalise an entire generation. The following sixteen years saw politics and pop music come together as never before to challenge racism, gender inequality and social and class divisions. For the first time in UK history, musicians became instigators of social change; and their political persuasion as important as the songs they sang.

Through the voices of campaigners, musicians, artists and politicians, Daniel Rachel charts this extraordinary and pivotal period between 1976 and 1992, following the rise and fall of three key movements of the time: Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, and Red Wedge, revealing how they both shaped, and were shaped by, the music of a generation.

Consisting of new and exclusive in-depth conversations with over 100 contributors, including Pauline Black, Billy Bragg, Jerry Dammers, Phill Jupitus, Neil Kinnock, Linton Kwesi-Johnson, Tom Robinson, Clare Short, Tracey Thorn and many more, Walls Come Tumbling Down is a fascinating, polyphonic and authoritative account of those crucial sixteen years in Britain’s history, from the acclaimed writer of Isle of Noises.

Walls Come Tumbling Down also features more than 150 images – many rare or previously unpublished – from some of the greatest names in photography, including Adrian Boot, Chalkie Davies, Jill Furmanovsky, Syd Shelton, Pennie Smith, Steve Rapport and Virginia Turbett.

“We were trying to change the world in our tiny way by stopping the rise of fascism amongst youth with the power of music.” – Red Saunders, founder of Rock Against Racism.

‘An amazing oral history’ Billy Bragg

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Daniel Rachel wrote his first song when he was sixteen and was the lead-singer in Rachels Basement. He was first eligible to vote in the 1992 General Election and now lives in north London with his partner and three children. Daniel is the author of Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters – a Guardian and NME Book of the Year – also published by Picador, and a regular guest contributor on BBC Radio 5.

www.danielrachel.com

Ken Worpole is a writer and social historian, whose work includes many books on architecture, landscape and public policy. He is married to photographer Larraine Worpole with whom he has collaborated on book projects internationally, as well as in Hackney, London, where they have lived and worked since 1969.

Ken is Emeritus Professor, Cities Institute London Metropolitan University, and has served on the UK government’s Urban Green Spaces Task Force, on the Expert Panel of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and as an adviser to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.

www.worpole.net

RaHN meeting: Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Suffragettes and Ireland

Next meeting of the Radical History Network of North East London

Wednesday 29th June 7.30 p.m., Wood Green Social Club

In October 1912 Sylvia Pankhurst climbed onto a wooden platform outside an old baker’s shop on Bow Road, and painted the words ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’ in golden letters above the door. What began as a simple recruitment drive for the Women’s Social and Political Union soon sparked a rebellion in the suffragette ranks, and launched a mass movement for equality in the East End.

Our meeting will look at Sylvia Pankhurst’s life and legacy – both in London and internationally.

Speakers

Sarah Jackson is co-author of ‘Voices From History: East London Suffragettes’ and co-founder of the East End Women’s Museum – www.eastendwomensmuseum.org

Geoffrey Bell is the author of the recently published ‘Hesitant Comrades – The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement’, described by one reviewer as “a fine example of politically committed scholarship”, and by another as “this fascinating book”. Bell has also written a recent article in ‘History Ireland’ on Sylvia Pankhurst and Ireland’s 1916 Rising and its aftermath.

Plus discussion:

  • How does this history connect with campaigns today?
  • If everyone loves the suffragettes, why are women still struggling for equality?

Wednesday 29th June 7.30 pm
Wood Green Social Club, 3 Stuart Crescent, London N22 5NJ
(Off the High Rd, near Wood Green tube and buses 329/121/141)

http://radicalhistorynetwork.blogspot.co.uk/

Free to attend, all welcome.

Stoke Newington Suffragettes

I’m very grateful to the History of Stokey twitter feed for posting these two images. (I’ll even let them off calling it “Stokey”).

First of all an amazing poster for a meeting in 1906:

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The space the meeting was held in is still used by the Library for exhibitions and events.

Millicent (or Mrs Henry) Fawcett and her husband have been mentioned in a previous post about Hackney Suffragettes and the 1866 petition.

Also an image of Suffragettes outside Stoke Newington station in 1899:

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Any further pointers or information about the women’s suffrage movement in Hackney, Stoke Newington or Shoreditch would be gratefully received.

Hackney Gutter Press issue 3, June 1972

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Issue 3 included a cover story about some Irish republicans being arrested in Hackney, extradited to Belfast for interrogation and then returned to London where they were charged with possession of arms and ammunition. After the four had been in prison on remand for eight months, the charges were dropped as it turned out they had been fitted up by a special branch spy cop.

Also:

A one page article on the the beginning of the trial of the Stoke Newington 8. Apparently there were 137 other “Angry Brigade” suspects.

A report back from a meeting of “between two and three hundred women… at the London College of Furniture in Commercial Street in Stepney”. Topics included wages for housework, campaigns to get better wages for cleaners, abortion, contraception, housing struggles.

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“If he dies it will save us the expense” – apparently the words used by social security staff in response to a campaign to get a 74 year old man some essentials like a dressing gown in readiness for a hospital visit. You can read the full text of the article above.

Kick The Bastards Out – on dole snoopers.

Black Tenants Fight Back – on racist attacks against black families on Haggerston Estate, and a call for white tenants to show solidarity.

Squatting:

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The Story of One Man’s House“Hackney, it seems, has become the centre of interest for the mobile middle class. As everyone who has walked along the streets of the area in the last few months is aware, houses in Hackney have become the latest in fashion. The news has even got as far as the pages of the ‘Sunday Times’ who ran a story in the Magazine several weeks ago in which Stoke Newington, Hackney and Dalston were named as areas that are likely to become fashionable in the next few years. This is even more amazing in that the area has not got a single tube line going through the area, and if the GLC and British Rail have their way there will be one more motorway and one less rail line. The area is however beside the fashionable Islington and it is in direct line between the West End and the proposed new airport.”

The article goes to relate the story of someone trying to purchase a house on their road for £3,400 but getting gazumped by a developer who gives it a lick of paint and puts it back on the market for £13,000. Google says the same house is currently valued at £600,000…

Dockers and Containers – on the dockers’ strike and continuing picket of the Midland Cold Storage co, Waterden Lane (Hackney Wick, now slap bang in the Olympic Park).

Also poems, details of folk clubs, letters (including one of the Grosvenor Avenue arrestees referred to in the previous issue, who got a one year suspended sentence), small ads, an appeal for more people to get involved with laying out and distributing the paper.