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In the first extract from A People's History of London, Lindsey German and John Rees explain that the recent Occupy camp outside St Paul's Cathedral lies in a long line of Londoners' gatherings and protests in that very place, stretching back centuries

Lindsey German and John Rees, A People's History of London (Verso 2012), 310pp.

J‏oshua Virasami is twenty-one years old, black, and ‘born and bred’ a Londoner. He grew up in West London and, like most of his fellow students, was working to pay his way through college. His job was in Costa Coffee at Heston motorway service station on the M4. But on 15 October 2011 Josh wasn’t at work or college. He was in one of the oldest parts of his home city, the original site of the Roman Temple to Diana, the churchyard at St Paul’s Cathedral. He was about to have a remarkable day.

Josh and some thousands of others were at St Paul’s because it was the advertised starting point for a demonstration. The protestors intended to occupy the London Stock Exchange – hence the name ‘Occupy LSX’. But the police prevented them from doing so, and in the game of cat and mouse that followed through the streets of the City of London the demonstrators took their last stand back where they started: on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. There an impromptu rally took place and a tent city began to take shape. [1] The protest grabbed the attention of the media, partly because it was one of many similar protests in eighty countries around the world, partly because it sparked a political crisis in the Church of England over whether the permanent protest camp that sprang up around the Cathedral should be forcibly removed. Not all of Josh’s fellow protestors will have been aware of it as they struggled to resist the attempts by the police to remove them that evening, but many other radicals over many centuries had stood where they now stood.

In the stillness of that night at St Paul’s, after the tents were erected, it was possible to imagine that the tolling of the bell was not that of the modern Cathedral but the sound of the Great Bell of the Jesus Tower, a free-standing bell tower in the courtyard of the medieval Cathedral, summoning the citizens of London to the one of the thrice yearly folkmoots at St Paul’s Cross, the open-air pulpit. Attendance was compulsory until the fourteenth century and here papal bulls, news of military victories or royal marriages, excommunications and proclamations were read out. News of the victory of Agincourt was read on the Cathedral steps. William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible was burnt here, so were the works of Martin Luther. Martyred Bishops Ridley and Latimer preached here. St Paul’s Cross was only removed by order of Parliament in 1643 during the English Revolution.

Josh’s seventeenth-century precursors, the apprentices of the City of London, were at the heart of the mass mobilizations that made the English Revolution. The ‘apron youths’, as the Leveller leader John Lilburne called them, would swarm St Paul’s Churchyard. They were looking for print. By the time of the English Revolution St Paul’s churchyard was a hive of political radicalism, the very centre of the printing industry. The houses around the Churchyard contained stationers’ premises, including printing presses. Booths around the Cathedral itself sold the pamphlets and newsbooks that were pouring from the presses in unprecedented numbers. The printed declarations of the Agitators in the New Model Army could be bought here. So could the pamphlets of the Levellers. So could the revolutionary works of John Milton, resident around the corner in Aldersgate Street. The nave of the Cathedral was used as a cavalry barracks for Cromwell’s army, and the statues of Charles I and his father, which had stood in Inigo Jones’s portico, were destroyed by troopers. The Levellers had particular reason to remember St Paul’s Churchyard: one of their heroes, Robert Lockyer, was executed by a firing squad of musketeers for mutiny there in 1649.

It is unlikely that one of the actors in the drama of the Occupy movement, Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser, was not aware of this history. Long before he resigned as a result of his defence of the Occupy movement’s right to remain outside St Paul’s he was based in St Mary’s Putney, the venue for the great ‘Putney debates’ in which the Levellers and their allies in the New Model Army confronted Cromwell over the future direction of the revolution in 1647. He remains a supporter of the Leveller Association.

In the late 1830s the first great working-class movement, the Chartists, adopted an unusual agitational strategy: mass attendance at Sunday sermons. St Paul’s Cathedral was one of their targets. On Sunday 11 August 1839, some 500 Chartists assembled in West Smithfield and marched to St Paul’s. They wore, as protestors still do today, ribbons in their buttonholes to show support for the cause. At first they refused to take off their hats as they entered the Church but ‘after some remonstrance from the Vergers, they submitted’. [2]

Not all protests at St Paul’s have been as peaceful as the Chartists or the Occupy movement. In 1913 the Suffragettes planted a bomb under the bishop’s throne in the Cathedral. It failed to explode because the clockwork arming mechanism had been wound in the wrong direction. The Morning Post for 8 May 1913 reported that ‘there is no doubt in the minds of the authorities that the contrivance was designed and placed there by someoneassociated with the militant Suffragist movement’, since it was ‘carefully wrapped in brown paper and in part of the recent issue of the militant newspaper The Suffragette’. In the light of this careful police work there was, of course, outrage. The bishop of London preached a sermon in which he gave ‘our thanks to Almighty God for taking care of His own Cathedral (cries of “Amen”) against the machinations of some miscreant who tried to wreck it last night . . . it was only an accident that the lever was turned by mistake to the right instead of the left . . . and therefore, we know that those who set themselves to do the Devil’s work often even cannot do that right.’

An unusual amount of London’s history has happened in and around St Paul’s. But there is barely a street in inner London that cannot tell at least one tale like this. Here we set out to capture just some of this past. Partly we try to do this through describing the social circumstances of the poor and the working class in London down the centuries. But this is not in the first instance a social history; it is mainly the story of London as a theatre of political activism, told, as much as is possible, with a focus on the lives, actions and words of the actors themselves. Why does London have such a history of radicalism?


[1] Joshua Virasami to John Rees, personal communication.

[2] J. Ashton, Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria’s Reign (Bremen, 2010), p. 107.

John Rees and Lindsey German will be discussing London's radical history at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, which takes place over the weekend of Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd June.

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