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In the second extract from A People's History of London, Lindsey German and John Rees explain why London has such a vibrant history of radicalism

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

The things that make London a centre of wealth and power have also made it a centre of dissent and radicalism. As the home of national government, London is the focal point for protest. This has made London politics peculiarly volatile. In Roman times London was a seat of imperial government and from then on, with the exception of the Saxon period, it has been the site from which the national and international power of the nation’s ruling classes has been projected. Any seat of government and power will dictate much of the political discourse in the city. As a result the city’s churches and chapels, mosques and synagogues, coffee houses, taverns, meeting halls, parks and squares have all acted as hotbeds of dissent.

Controlling a city the size of London requires a high degree of repression and regulation. The historian E. P. Thompson describes how by the late eighteenth century ‘the British people were noted throughout Europe for their turbulence, and the people of London astonished foreign visitors by their lack of deference’.[3] Those who controlled the wealth and power of the city ensured that those who did not were aware of the penalties for infringement of legal codes. Repression was met by resistance.[4] Prisons loomed large in the popular imagination, especially Newgate (which met the same fate at a similar time to the Paris Bastille, but with rather different political consequences). It was very easy to get into prison if you were poor, and pretty easy to be hanged. ‘In the years between the Restoration and the death of George III the number of capital offences was increased by about 190... no less than sixty-three of these were added in the years 1760–1810.’[5] By the mid nineteenth century there were the beginnings of a modern police force, aimed at preventing at least some crime from taking place, and centrally involved with the protection of property. Their role, and that of the law more generally, seems to have remained constant from that time on – up to and including the student protests of 2010 and the London riots of 2011.

London government is not only the national government, however. London politics has long had a peculiarity that no other city in England can boast: the City’s own local government exists alongside the national government. And London local government is not just any local government. The modern all-London authority rules the richest and most populous city in the nation. The older government of the City of London, roughly the ‘square mile’ of the modern financial centre, arose from the elders of the city that King Alfred established when he repopulated the area within the old Roman walls. This ‘council’ developed into the medieval City administration which came to represent the commercial interests of the traders and manufacturers of the area, chiefly the interests of the richest of them. City government was not, even at the very beginning, all of London’s government. It did not exercise power outside the City walls. Westminster, growing from 1066 as the centre of national government, was obviously beyond its power. So too was Southwark, facing it on the south bank of the Thames just across London Bridge. And the areas which grew up beyond the walls, the Tower Hamlets in the east, the ribbon development along the Strand towards Charing Cross and Westminster to the west, were also beyond City jurisdiction. Even within the walls, the City authorities had powers over some aspects of life but not others – and where City ‘liberties’ began and ended was a matter of repeated conflict with the Crown and the national government.

This relationship between Crown and City was not always contentious; quite often they needed each other. Monarchs needed City money, and the City needed a stable and effective national government that could control the environment in which money was made from trade, manufacture and commerce. But if the City was never really democratic in the modern sense it did at least, for long periods, have a more representative structure than the national state. And when conflicts over City rights and liberties did erupt with the Crown, wider social forces might find themselves with the political space to mount a more serious challenge to the status quo, both in the City itself and in the nation as a whole. Such was the case in the revolt of William Longbeard, in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, during the English Revolution and in the Wilkesite reform movement of the eighteenth century.

Once the franchise widened in 1832, the site of struggle between Londoners and government changed. The creation of the London County Council in 1889 (which still excluded London counties such as Middlesex and Essex) and the rise of borough councils meant that conflict between local government and national administration took on a popular form that was impossible when the City was the main repository of local power in the capital. The successor to the LCC, the Greater London Council, became the focus for one of the great contests between central government and London authority in the 1980s. Ken Livingstone’s Labour administration’s confrontation with the Thatcher government led in 1986 to the Tories completely abolishing any London-wide local government – probably the greatest single destruction of London’s local government since Edward I humiliated the City in the late thirteenth century. Only in 2000 was the Greater London Authority, with its elected mayor and assembly, established by referendum as a new all-London authority, although with fewer powers than its predecessor.

A working city

London does more than many capitals: it combines a centre of national and local government with a financial centre, a port, and a vast retail and entertainment hub. Goods were imported and exported from Roman times, and work grew up around related trades. For most of its history London has been pre-eminently an international port: within living memory many of its jobs were still connected with the river, the realm of dockers, stevedores, lightermen, warehousemen, shipbuilders and seafarers.

In addition, the streets of the city of London and many of its old buildings reflect its trading origins in the profusion of drapers, fishmongers, ironmongers, butchers, bookbinders, cordwainers, candlemakers, tailors, carpenters. Before the industrial revolution, London was a city of buyers and sellers, of workers in the ‘trades’. Nevertheless, the artisans were highly protective of their trades and employed apprentices who usually lived in the masters’ houses for long years until they had learned the skills. From the English Revolution the artisans and more especially their apprentices played a prominent role in London organization and politics. Time and again, carpenters, shoemakers and tailors took the lead in political organization. Francis Place, the great figure of the eighteenth-century reform movement, was a tailor in the Charing Cross Road. Thomas Hardy, one of the founders of Chartism, was a boot-maker in Piccadilly. The Spitalfields silk-weavers and their apprentices ‘had long been noted for their antiauthoritarian turbulence’.[6]

The Industrial Revolution and the subsequent development of an industrial working class took place for the most part away from London. But while the workshop of the world developed outside the capital, its goods had to be traded on an unprecedented scale. These goods helped to create the financial wealth of London, to expand its port and to give impetus to the railway building which so transformed London’s geography. London was a huge importer city, gathering in from the empire an increasing array of goods. The port offered a particularly dramatic spectacle. The young Friedrich Engels wrote in the 1840s:

I know nothing more imposing than the view which the Thames offers during the ascent from the sea to London Bridge. The masses of buildings, the wharves on both sides, especially from Woolwich upwards, the countless ships along both shores, crowding ever closer and closer together, until, at last, only a narrow passage remains in the middle of the river, a passage through which hundreds of steamers shoot by one another; all this is so vast, so impressive, that a man cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England’s greatness before he sets foot upon English soil.[7]

By 1880, as the author of early tourist guides, Fritz Baedeker, said: ‘Nothing will convey to the stranger a better idea of the vast activity and stupendous wealth of London than a visit to the warehouses, filled to overflowing with interminable stores of every kind of foreign and colonial products.’[8]

London’s port was a cradle of radicalism and dissent. The vast number of jobs created on and around the river, the centrality of the docks to commercial life, and the huge mixture of races and cultures which came to London on ships from across the world, all contributed to a consciousness formed by living in the city itself. The East End of London, formed out of the docks and their industrial hinterland, peopled by immigrants both from within the rest of Britain and from China, Russia, Germany and Ireland, has a special place in that history. Time after time the Tower Hamlets such as Limehouse and Stepney feature in the history of London: the Levellers organized here in Wapping, the biggest strike waves in London were here, Communist and left-wing MPs were elected here. The river was the boundary of other radical areas: Southwark and Lambeth to the south, and further upstream Battersea, a notorious site of industrial radicalism.

While London workplaces were often small, they could still be organized. The London tailors struck in 1889, linking up West Enders with their East End counterparts. The dock strikes of 1889 and 1911 brought together workers from different firms and across trades. The bus workers of the 1930s organized across the whole city’s workforce, as do the tube workers in the twenty-first century. The gas workers unionized the big gas employers throughout the East End and westwards to areas such as Battersea in 1889. The newspaper printers organized in and around Fleet Street – this concentrated handful of streets contained as many printing works and as much machinery as factories in many industrial towns.

Out of this organization came ideas of collective change to achieve greater social and political equality. The early shoots of ideas about equality for all, audacious notions of free love, and protests against property first surfaced in the English Revolution. William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Blake returned to them during the French Revolution, and the ideas of utopianism took hold in London in the 1820s and 30s. It was only late in the nineteenth century, in the early 1880s, that socialism was properly reborn. While the socialists played a big part in free-speech agitation against the police and in organizing the unemployed, the real success of socialists and radicals came with the fight for the new unions. All the major strikes centrally involved political figures – the radical journalist Annie Besant in the match girls’ strike which began the strike wave in Bow in 1888, John Burns, Will Thorne and Tom Mann in the dockers’ action, Eleanor Marx with the gas workers and other major disputes of 1889. The battle for the new unions in 1888–89 was much stronger and more powerful in London than anywhere else in the country. The strikes of the unskilled London workers in those years wrote a new page of working-class history, and their organization led to the establishment of the two main general workers’ unions, which today are the GMB and Unite. A sign of the success of the movement was the election of the Scottish socialist Keir Hardie as MP for West Ham. John Burns was also elected for Battersea in 1892.

Women have become an increasingly visible part of left-wing, working-class politics in London. Even at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, the importance of London for the ‘new woman’ – educated, self-reliant and emancipated – was becoming clear. The big city gave young women the space and freedom to develop away from family or the confines of village or small-town life. This privilege was initially felt only by middle-class women, but increasingly at least some working-class women who were branching into white-collar work gained some of this benefit. Single women benefited from London’s public spaces – not just shopping streets, parks and gardens, libraries and public halls, but public transport, especially the Underground, which gave women opportunities for social interaction unknown by previous generations. Women trained as typists, schoolteachers and clerks. Women today are a growing part of the London working class; it is impossible to study the working class without seeing women.

What the working class looks like today is very different and London probably has the most varied working class in terms of race and nationality of anywhere in the world. The generations of Afro-Caribbeans and Asians who played such a big part in building unions in transport, health and the manufacturing industries such as Ford have been joined by militants from across the world – and most of the overt barriers to entering certain trades have broken down (although invisible and institutional barriers still remain). Successive generations have asserted their right to live and work in Britain and to be treated equally; in a sense, the riots of 1981 marked the young black working class demanding an end to racism and to be accepted as part of society. While divisions of race, nationality and gender remain real and can sometimes be exacerbated, the common experience of class in London is a powerful countervailing factor.


[3] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1982), p. 66.

[4] See Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, pp. 64–6. Also in general see P. Linebaugh, The London Hanged (London, 1991); C. Hill, Liberty against the Law (London, 1996).

[5] Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, p. 65.

[6] Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, p. 75.

[7] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Moscow, 1973), p. 63.

[8] Quoted in A. Briggs, Victorian Cities (London, 1963), p. 318.

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