Monday, 20 May 2019

REBEL FOOTPRINTS - a guide to uncovering London’s radical history by David Rosenberg

REBEL FOOTPRINTS -  a guide to uncovering London’s radical history by David Rosenberg

Pluto Press

Visiting London or you’re one of its residents? This second edition of an excellent book contains eleven walks, none too strenuous, each beautifully illustrated with a map and guide, around sites where radicals fought, successfully and not, to create a democratic, poverty ridden, classless society of equals. 

The walks cover the areas around Clerkenwell Green, Bow, Spitalfields, Bloomsbury, Battersea, Cable Street/Long Lane, Bermondsey, Westminster, Poplar, Fleet Street and Bethnal Green/Shoreditch.

The latter two are new walks and I was particularly drawn to the latter as it is an area I know reasonably well from living in North East London between 1988 to 2000. Fighting for decent, affordable housing has a long tradition in Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. There was no legislation governing the standard or quantity of housing for the working classes until the 1850s and even then new laws only laid down stipulations about sanitation standards in lodging or ‘doss-houses.’ 

When bread riots broke out in 1861 the author John Hollingshead wrote a series of articles focusing on living conditions in which dozens of families were crushed into dilapidated accommodation. Almost three decades later Bethnal Green’s medical officer, George Paddock Bate, estimated that 45% of houses could not be made fit for human habitation. 

In the 1880s political reformers created the London Municipal Reform League and their efforts bore fruit when the London County Council (LCC) was set up in 1889 and the following year a Housing Act ‘empowered a progressive alliance of LCC liberals, labourites and socialists to embark on council-housing projects.’ Slums were cleared and as new buildings were constructed a new group was formed in the LCC architects’ department the ‘Housing of the Working Classes Branch.’ Architectural means were used to change lives. Many of these houses still exist. Some of those who benefitted were immigrant Jews, many artisans, who faced discrimination in seeking employment and private housing to rent. 

In the first decade of the twentieth century Jews formed 50 per cent of tenants on the Boundary estate and many children had very happy memories of their childhood. In the 1930s the Communist Party helped create a tenants league that successfully won a maximum scale of rents, official recognition of the Tenants’ Association and an understanding that necessary repairs would be carried out on a regular basis. Tenants fought off an attempt by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts to distort their activities. 

The walk for this chapter starts at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch High Street E1 6JN. It contains ten distinct landmarks including Brick Lane and Columbia Road flower market.

My favourite chapter is Coming in from the Cold: Immigrant Agitators and Radicals in Spitalfields where the walk includes a) Whitechapel Art Gallery that when it opened in 1892 became known as the ‘People’s University of the East End’ b) Angel Alley, home of the anarchist Freedom Bookshop, now over 130 years old, c) Wentworth Street, home of Sarah Wesker who led strikes in many east London trouser factories throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

The book also details many plaques and as the organiser of the Unite Rebel Road project I am aware that the number of plaques on it from London is a lot less than should be the case. 

As such if anyone can get me photos of those such as those to rebellious MP Robert Waithman in Dorset Rise in Farringdon, Liberal MP Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, in Roseberry Avenue near Finsbury Old Town Hall and to Bertrand Russell in Bury Place near to Bloomsbury Way that would be appreciated. 

Sone of the other plaques and statues that are listed within Rebel Footprints and that I need to include on Rebel Road are :-

  1. Fenner Brockway statue in Red Lion Square 
  2. John Howard - 23 Great Ormond Street
  3. John Archer - 214 Battersea Park Road
  4. Eleanor Rathbone MP - Tufton Street 
  5. Emmeline Pankhurst statue - Victoria Gardens 
  6. Millicent Fawcett statue - Parliament Square 
  7. Mural of Sylvia Pankhurst and local suffragette activity on side of Lord Morpeth pub on Old Ford Road 
  8. George Lansbury at 39 Bow Road 
  9. East End volunteers who went to fight against fascism in Spain - St George’s Town Hall 

The final paragraph in the book, which contains a general appeal for more public illustrations to highlight London’s rebellious past, is correct when it states, ’London remains a vibrant and rebellious city, and we should honour those who had the courage, conviction and determination to blaze the trail.’ Time to get some walking shoes out, keep fit and educate yourself at the same time. Enjoy. 

Stop press 

6pm on Thursday 17 October at Unite HQ, Theobald’s Road, Holborn - first meeting to organise to erect a plaque and mount an exhibition to remember the life of Micky Fenn, docker, trade unionist, socialist and anti fascist. 

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