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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Call out the instigators: some of Clapham's radicals remembered

Clapham and radical: a pairing of words that you really wouldn't expect to hear these days. Could there really be anything radical about this yuppy-infested, vomit-splattered playground for the wealthy rugger-buggers of south west London?

Well, yes. Even as recently as 30 years ago the place still had a slightly louche reputation, and was home to a motley collection of squatters, freethinkers, progressive writers, and hard-left politicos.

Most of them are now gone, dead or driven out by wave after wave of property-hungry bankers and their ilk, not to mention a distinctly un-cooperative council.

So a talk on Clapham's Radical and Mutual Past, given at Clapham Library this week as part of the Lambeth Heritage Festival, seemed to be something not to miss. An essential corrective to popular impressions of this now universally derided posh boozers' borough. As we were to learn, many of Clapham's early radicals wouldn't touch the booze at all.

At 7pm a small audience assembled at bottom of the pit that is the new Clapham Library. The talk was to be given by the well-known local historian Sean Creighton, with assistance from Lambeth Archive's Jon Newman.

What followed was essentially a chronological account of the many and various political activists, trade unionists, reformers, writers and others who had lived in or worked in the Clapham - Battersea area, from the early 19th to the mid-20th centuries.

The lecture started with a big name - Annie Besant, the influential early feminist, secularist and
Social reformer Annie Besant was born
in Clapham in 1874 - but moved to leafy
Gipsy Hill later in life.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
advocate of social justice who is perhaps best known for her role in the matchwomen's strike at the Bryant & May factory in 1888. Annie Besant was born in Clapham, but she only lived there up to the age of 5, so her inclusion in this talk was slightly questionable. Her Blue Plaque is on a house in Gipsy Hill, where she lived in her 20s.

Nevertheless her name and her work chimed with many of the other radicals mentioned in this exhaustive tour through Clapham's past. Mr Creighton has previously written extensively on Battersea, Wandsworth and Nine Elms. As became clear in this talk, much of Clapham's activism was inextricably linked with the more densely-populated working class areas around the railway works of Nine Elms and Clapham Junction, and the industrial riverside of Battersea.

But not all of it. Some radicalism originated from on high, from religious sects. Mr Creighton gave an early namecheck to the abolitionists who are perhaps this area's most famous "radicals" - although as became very clear, Wilberforce and his colleagues in the Clapham Sect were radical only in this respect: they wanted to abolish slavery, but they also wanted to maintain the status quo in British society.

Moreover, as was pointed out, they shared the already wealthy area with many of their supposed enemies - slaveowners favoured the large villas that lined the edges of Clapham Common. Then as now it was a place for the exceedingly wealthy to live in conspicuous luxury; and apart form the issue of slavery, they shared many of the same attitudes and worshipped at the same churches.

The next part of the lecture looked at the growth of radicalism nationally in response to the repressive Acts of Parliament in the late Napoleonic era, the suppression of large public meetings, sedition and attacks on  the radical press.  Mr Creighton discovered that around 80 Clapham residents subscribed to the radical publication, The Prompter.

The area was also played a part in the growth of the Friendly Societies, Benefit Societies and Union Societies. Interesting that these people originally met in pubs - The Plough and The Sun Inn in Clapham old town, back in 1824, as well as the Tim Bobbin. Hence the continuing presence of trade union offices in Clapham Old Town, or - as in the case of the present day construction workers union UCATT, in nearby Abbeville Road.

Another pub, the Duke of York in Lark Hall Lane, hosted the local branch of the London Working Men's Association, which played a big part in Chartist movement of the 1830s and 40s. The role of Clapham's pubs in political activism was traced right through to the creation of London's only Union-owned pub, The Bread and Roses in Clapham Manor Street, by the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council, a direct descendant of these earlier workers' associations.

All of this was fascinating stuff and entirely new to me at least: you have to take your hat off to Sean Creighton for the thoroughness of his research. I particularly enjoyed his take on the "Clarions" movement of the 1900s, which was taken up with great enthusiasm in this area. The underlying idea he said, was "to make politics less boring" - and that efforts had to be made to re-engage the average working man or woman.

What better way to do this than to combine politics with the latest and most fashionable craze of the 1900s, cycling? Apparently large groups of Clapham and Battersea socialist cyclists took off on weekend rides into the Surrey lanes to spread the word amongst the reportedly rather apathetic rural workers.

The area was also home to one of the first Co-op shops, in the Wandsworth Road, set up by the London and South West Railwaymens's Co-operative Society.

The area also had a big Irish population, linked, as in Camden Town, to the railways that cut huge
The great Irish poet W B Yeats lectured on
nationality and literature at the Clapham
branch of the Irish National League in 1892.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
swathes through the area. This was perhaps the reason for an appearance in 1892 of  the great Irish nationalist poet, W B Yeats, to speak at a Clapham Reform Club meeting which formally established the Irish Literary Society. A few days later he was back to talk about "nationality and literature" at the Clapham branch of the Irish National League.

This was just one of dozens of fascinating nuggets that emerged during Sean Creighton's hour-long talk. There were certain themes echoing through the decades of this area's working class history. It seemed to have the right combination of working class men and women on the one hand, and various radicals and firebrands from other parts of the country who settled here for a while, and catalysed change.

The British Socialist Party had some roots in the area, and this later became the Communist Party of Great Britain. Much later on and many splits later a revolutionary communist party offshoot, the Socialist Labour League, which later became the WRP,  famously had its HQ in Clapham, with the Redgraves as their most high profile supporters and members. Mr Creighton chose, perhaps wisely, not to cover this sadly scandalous last gasp of radical politics in the area.

Instead he ended on a possibly even stranger note - the story of last Labour MP for Clapham before the constituencies merged, Margaret McKay. She was a rebel and a true radical who flung herself into the great causes of the day, and had especial interest in the Middle East situation. She once built a replica of a Palestinian refugee camp in Trafalgar Square, much to the horror of her Labour cabinet colleagues. She was by all accounts an amazing woman with an incredible back-story (organising the Bradford worker's hunger march in 1929, meeting leading Soviets on her visits to Russia as a young communist in the 30s, among much else.)

Her reign in Clapham began in 1964, with Wilson and Labour on the ascendant, and ended in 1970, when everything was beginning to go wrong. It was also the beginning of a decade when Clapham once again became fashionable, and a new waves of younger, more leftist middle class types flooded in.

It was also an era of squatting, rent strikes, sit-ins, punk music and rebellious youth, plus the frictions of relations between black youth and the police. Another local character summed that last problem up in his inimitable style in the song Police Officer. Stockwell boy turned UK Reggae star Smiley Culture could also claim to be a bit of a radical in a cultural sense. You could say it's more of a Brixton story than a Clapham story - but as any historian knows, the two areas are umbilically linked.  And, by sweet coincidence,  Smiley is the subject of the next talk at Clapham Library, when author Asher Senator speaks about his book Smiley and Me on October 21. Be there - why not?!

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