Rebel footprints

  Rebel footprints
Screenshot 2019-05-24 at 15.58.18.png

“MURDER! Workmen, slums, from which robber landlords exact monstrous rents, was stopped. You have paid in rent the value over and over again of the rotten dens in which you are forced to dwell.

Government has failed to help you. The time has come to help yourselves. Pay no rent to land-thieves and house-farmers who flourish and grow fat on your misery, starvation and degradation.”

This stirring call to action was produced as a leaflet for the “No Rent Campaign” in the 1880s by Charles Mowbray, a tailor, printer and close associate of William Morris and Eleanor Marx. It is shocking how current its central themes remain in the poorest inner-city areas of today’s Tory Britain, where evictions and homelessness increase at alarming rates.

Born near Durham, Mowbray moved to London aged 22. He lived with his wife Mary, daughter of an exiled Paris communard, and their children in a one-room home in Bethnal Green’s Old Nichol slum, in London’s East End. More than 5,700 people lived there, crammed into barely 650 houses in 20 narrow streets and alleys. His story features in one of two new chapters in my second edition of Rebel Footprints: A guide to uncovering London’s radical history, published last month by Pluto Press.

Mowbray graces several radical groups in that period. He was active in the Labour Emancipation League, which split from the Stratford Radical and Dialectical Club, and spread its messages at free speech pitches in Mile End, Hackney and Clerkenwell Green. He worked with William Morris and Eleanor Marx on the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal. With his tailoring background, he also joined the 16-strong strike committee which in 1889 won immigrant Jewish sweatshop workers a 12-hour day instead of a 14-18 hour day.

But housing was his particular passion. He and another Old Nichol resident, Frank Kitz, occupied a vacant floor there and established a collective print workshop publishing radical materials. Kitz recalls how their supplies were frequently supplemented by “involuntary contributions from printing firms where some of our members were employed… a well known firm of government printers furnished us with some excellent ink, paper and other requisites for printing our revolutionary manifestos”.

The property’s owner began to extract rent from them. When the collective eventually vacated, owing rent, they left their landlord a message on the paving stone they used as a marking-up stone and ink slab. They said that this stone was akin to a landlord’s heart.

Mowbray died in 1910, too early to see his desire for a successful housing campaign locally come to fruition. Towards the end of that new chapter, though, I record a successful rent strike from 1938 at Quinn Square, a six-storey block comprising 246 flats in Bethnal Green. It was led by a tenants’ committee, supported by local communist, Labour and trade union activists. Elsewhere in the book I describe the parallel successes of the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League where key roles were played by a Labour supporter, Father John Groser, and the communist, Phil Piratin.

The Old Nichol was demolished and its residents dispersed in the first major slum clearance undertaken by the London County Council (LCC) in the early 1890s. Compensation was paid to the landowners, none to the renters. By 1900, when the LCC’s magnificent Boundary Estate opened, more than 5,000 East Enders, including new immigrants, were accommodated there but very few were former Old Nichol residents. Most flats on the new estate had two rooms, and though they housed skilled workers, the flats were beyond the means of those more used to paying rent for one-room accommodation.

Today, many estates which once belonged to local councils have passed into the hands of housing associations, committed formally to housing lower income families, but under current economic pressures some associations are behaving like the worst private landlords they once protected families from.

Jeremy Corbyn, who has stated that, if he became Prime Minister he would want to be judged on what he has done to end homelessness, was a guest speaker at the launch of the new edition of my book. He stressed how important it is to know our histories and draw on them in our campaigns today.

The second new chapter focuses on the Fleet Street precinct, home of radical pamphleteers writing incendiary words, as well as the bastions of the right wing press writing theirs. I highlight Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker with a shop on Fleet Street who helped form an organisation that campaigned for democratic rights for all in the repressive period of the 1790s, when the ruling classes were trembling from the French Revolution.

Hardy’s innocuous sounding group - the London Corresponding Society (LCS) - made enough of an impact to be denounced as “pickpockets, seditionists, modern reformers, housebreakers and revolutionists”. As today, the government could rely on friendly newspapers to ridicule LCS leaders through cartoons and incite violence against them.

You may conclude that nothing has changed. But it has. The book celebrates struggles that won significant victories and changed lives in many arenas. Several of these victories proved ephemeral, but if we learn anything from this history, it is that real sustainable change must be fought for and defended constantly.

  • Rebel Footprints (second edition), by David Rosenberg, is published by Pluto Press.

is a member of Islington North Labour Party, a co-founder of Jews for Jeremy Facebook page, and active in the Jewish Socialists’ Group