A People’s History of London is a fascinating insight into radical events through two thousand years of London history, finds Ralph Graham-Leigh
Lindsey German and John Rees, A People’s History of London (Verso 2012), x, 310pp.
This book is a detailed, scholarly work on the history of radical political events in London. It covers well-known events and movements in London’s history, such as the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers and the Chartists, but also less familiar episodes such as William Longbeard’s twelfth-century rebellion, and the direct-action campaign for opening tube stations as bomb shelters during the Blitz. The book is engaging, well-written and enlightening on both familiar and unknown events alike, and includes some original research.
It is very much written as a history, not as a polemic. Although it is clear that the authors sympathise with many of the ideas of the radicals they describe, the reader would not necessarily realise the authors are prominent revolutionary socialists rather than simply left-wing historians. After a brief introduction which seeks to tie together the themes, the book has a chronological structure covering the Roman founding of London until 2012. Each chapter is made up of detailed analysis and description of radical events occurring in the period, with bridging sections explaining general developments.
The book focuses on specific radical events, and is at its best when describing them. The descriptions of the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers and the direct action campaign for improved bomb shelters during the Blitz stand out in particular. There is extensive use of and discussion of primary sources, particularly in the medieval chapter. The book is full of interesting facts and details; the origin of the word ‘London’ is from the Celtic ‘Llyn Din’, meaning the city of the lake; the first significant interaction the native Britons had with London was when they sacked it; the Home Guard - normally associated with nostalgic conservative views thanks to the 1970s TV sitcom Dad’s Army - was actually started by a Communist and was based on a Spanish anarchist militia, much to Government disapproval. There is also excellent analysis of the specific periods and events which are examined in detail, as well as some concise analysis, for example the three English Civil Wars are wonderfully summed up in a couple of sentences.
The book charts radical political events from various medieval rebellions and dissent against feudal structures; William Longbeard’s, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Lollards and Cade’s Rebellion, through the revolutionary upheavals of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth period which ended in the defeat of the Levellers and the eventual restoration of the monarchy. It describes the eighteenth-century Wilkesian ‘mob’ and the repression resulting from fear of the French Revolution. The book details the rise of Chartism, the first mass working-class political movement with a significant base in London, and traces the role of trade unions up to the rise of the New Unionism in the 1880s. Trade union leaderships could also act, however, as a brake on working class action, most decisively in 1920 when union leaders chose defeat over revolution, foreshadowing the failure of the subsequent General Strike; incidentally the book’s description of the meeting between key union leaders and Lloyd George well illuminates the latter’s reputation as a brilliant political operator.
Chapters covering the late nineteenth and early twentieth century also detail the interaction London radicals had with international events, such as popular support for Mazzini and Garibaldi, the role pro-Union opinion in London played in preventing British intervention on the Confederate side in the American Civil War, and the effect London had on Marx, Engels and Lenin. The suffragettes, anti-fascism and intervention in the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s are covered. There is a fascinating account of a successful direct action campaign for improved bomb shelters during the Blitz; as a result of civil disobedience and mass occupations, tube stations were opened as public shelters for the latter part of the war. The post-1945 chapters cover key issues such as immigration, the liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, the Thatcher years of print-union-busting and poll tax riots, and end with an analysis of demographic changes and the impact of ‘regeneration’ in East London.
Although the book gives a comprehensive view of radical events, themes and activities throughout London’s history, the decision to pack as much detail as possible into the description of each radical event means there is reduced space for explaining or analysing the general context in which those events occur, so the book can feel like a series of interesting and well-described but loosely-connected events rather than an analytical history of London radical politics. For example, the focus on specific events means that periods are not given anything like equal weight. There is very little coverage of the period between Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 and the Long Parliament of 1640. Also, the bridging sections between specific events can be very short and sometimes superficial. This is fine when the reader is reasonably familiar with English political and social history in the period being covered, but for less well-known periods (such as the eighteenth century in this reader’s case), it can feel as if the radical events being described are happening in a vacuum.
There is also no separate conclusion; instead the introduction doubles as a conclusion, so it is worth re-reading the introduction after finishing the book. The book is slightly misnamed, as it is not a general history of social development in London or the way ordinary people lived their lives throughout London history. However, this is reasonably clear from the back cover.
Despite these minor concerns, the book is full of interesting, well-researched detail, providing a fascinating insight into radical events throughout two thousand years of London history.
Extracts on Counterfire from the introduction of A People’s History of London: