How Hyde ‘Spymasters’ looked for Commies on BBC Children’s Hour

By Derek Pattison

Salford born folk singer and song- writer Ewan MacColl is remembered today more for his music than his agit-prop plays. But it was his political activities before the last war and his membership of the Communist Party that led to MI5 opening a file on him in the 1930s and why they kept him, and his friends, under close surveillance.

Secret service papers released by the national archives, now in Ashton-under-Lyne central library, offer a clue into how British intelligence (MI5) spied on working-class folk singer Ewan MacColl and his wife playwright, Joan Littlewood, who lived at Oak Cottage on Higham Lane, Hyde, Cheshire, during World War II.

MI5 opened a file on James Henry Miller (MacColl’s real name) in the early 1930s when he was living in Salford. As an active Communist Party member, he had been involved in the unemployed workers’ campaigns and in the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire. Before enlisting in the army in July 1940, he had written for the radio programme Children’s Hour.

In Joan Littlewood’s autobiography, she writes: “Jimmie was registered at the Labour Exchange as a motor mechanic, but he did better busking, singing Hebridean songs to cinema queues. Someone drew Archie Harding’s attention to him and from that time on he appeared in the North Region’s features (BBC) whenever a ‘proletarian’ voice was needed.”

As a BBC presenter for Children’s Hour and Communist Party member, Littlewood also came under the watch of MI5. A letter in the file, marked ‘SECRET’ (dated March 1939) and sent to W.H. Smith Esq., the Chief Constable for Hyde, tells him that Miller – known to the writer to be a Communist Party member – had taken a house in Hyde. The letter informs him that Miller works for the BBC in Manchester and that his wife, Joan Miller – another communist – broadcasts under the name ‘Joan Littlewood’ and is “said to be ‘Aunty Muriel’ of Children’s Hour.” The writer Sir Vernon Kell ended by asking the Chief Constable for Miller’s address and asked if Miller followed any other profession other than broadcasting.

Colonel Sir Vernon Kell, also known as ‘K’, was the head of MI5. An officer of the old school, Kell had served in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and was appointed first director of MI5 in 1909.

‘Communist looking Jews’

Writing about the spy Kim Philby, Seale & McConville say that Kell was the ‘antithesis of the terror-wielding secret police chief of public imagination’. As a public servant, he was renowned for his sense of duty, tact and discretion and ‘used his wide powers with notable restraint.’ By all accounts, MI5 in 1940 was an antiquated organisation led by middle-aged men who, while adept at keeping so-called subversives under surveillance, had little understanding of the ideas that motivated communists of Philby’s generation.

At the outbreak of World War II, it seems that under Kell’s leadership, MI5 was unable to cope with the mass of information about German agents in Britain and the ‘spy-mania’ that was a feature of British life at the time. Consequently, Kell was retired by Winston Churchill in 1941.

A letter in the file concerning Joan Littlewood is signed Major Maxwell Knight. Charles Maxwell Knight held right-wing views and after his Royal Navy service he worked for the Economic League. In 1924, he joined the British Fascisti, an organisation set up to counter the power of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions. This body put him in charge of compiling dossiers on ‘political subversives’, counter espionage, and establishing fascist cells in the trade union movement. In 1925, Kell recruited Knight to work for MI5.

A report in the file by Inspector J.E. Robinson, also marked ‘SECRET’ and dated April 1939’ tells the Chief Constable of Hyde that Miller lives with his parents and wife at Oak Cottage. Explaining that the BBC does not permanently employ Miller, the Inspector adds:

“He (Miller) does not appear to follow any fixed occupation beyond writing articles for such periodicals as may care to publish them. I understand that such publications are rare.”

He concludes by saying Miller and Littlewood seem to have no known association with communists in Hyde, but “at weekends, and more particularly when Miller’s parents are away from home, a number of young men who have the appearance of communist Jews are known to visit Oak Cottage. It is thought they come from Manchester.

In September 1939 there is more correspondence between Kell and the Chief Constables of Hyde, Ashton-under-Lyne and Cheshire. It seems Miller and other communist suspects had got work at Messrs Kenyon Ltd in Dukinfield.

Writing to the Hyde Chief Constable, Kell asks about William Redmond Morres Belcher – a worker at Kenyon’s – who, he says, has fought in Spain in the International Brigades. Admitting that he has no proof that Belcher is a Communist Party member, he adds: “his sympathies are very much to the left.” Naming three more workers at Kenyon’s: W.Sharples, R.C.Dyson and Miss B. Nash, he again admits he has no proof they are communists, but “Sharples may be identical with a man of that name who visited the USSR in August 1932.” The Chief Constable is asked to “make some inquiries…and let me know what you discover.”

The employment of Miller and his associates at Kenyon’s in Dukinfield did cause MI5 some anxiety as the firm had government contracts. It was feared the group might foment industrial unrest and in a letter dated September 1939, to Major J. Becke, Chief Constable of Cheshire, Colonel Kell wrote:

“I agree with you that the employment of these men at Messrs Kenyon’s appears to be most unusual and would be grateful if you would let me have any further information which may come to your knowledge.”

Special Branch Surveillance

Belcher, a mechanical engineer, had been employed to fit blinds to comply with government lighting restrictions. He then used his influence to get jobs for his friends without consulting the Directors. A memo dated September 1939, says:

“Messrs Kenyon’s are anxious as to whether Belcher and his associates have any connection with the IRA. I told him (Percy Kenyon), I was unable to give him any information as regards that.”

A Special Branch agent report, dated October 1939, to the Hyde Chief Constable, says that Belcher, his wife Aileen, Robert Dyson, William Sharples and Miss Beryl Nash, had all been resident at Oak Cottage while that house was under surveillance.

This report says they were all active Communist Party members and members of the ‘Theatre Union, an agitprop drama group that toured industrial areas of Britain’. This agent says:

“I have been able to listen to their conversations during the evening at Oak Cottage but I have not heard anything regarding communism or other political views.”

He informs the Chief Constable that Miller is a communist “with very extreme views and I think that special attention should be given to him.”

Apart from surveillance of this kind by Special Branch agents, the file has details of telephone taps and of intercepted letters. A memo, dated September 1943, to Colonel Allan of the GPO states: “Would you kindly let me have a return of correspondence for the next two weeks on the following address – Oak Cottage, Higham Lane, Hyde, Cheshire.”

Other memos show that bodies such as the Central National Registration Office and Passport Office were supplying information to MI5. Frequently, people who knew Miller and Littlewood, were contacted directly by the police or vice versa.

Alison Bayley, who’d been at RADA (drama school) with Littlewood, stopped Littlewood in the street one day and asked her if she’d time for a coffee. Littlewood describes this meeting in her autobiography: “I hadn’t seen her since joining ‘Theatre of Action’. ’Old times Chat?’ I asked.” Alison Bayley then told Littlewood: “I’ve denounced you to the Police. About you being a communist.” Though Littlewood assured her that the police already knew she was a Communist Party member, Bayley told her: “I felt I had to tell them, Littlewood.”

Blacklisted by the BBC

One irate middle-class father from Withington wrote to the police in May 1940, demanding that the Millers be sacked from the BBC and interned. His 18-year-old son (Graham Banks) a “fine specimen of English boyhood with good morals and ideals and a brilliant future” had, he explained, fallen into the clutches of the Millers who had induced him to leave home. Mr Banks added: “His poor mother is frantic with grief and if it should be within your province to either return him to us or else to intern him along with the others taking part in these pernicious plays, I hope you will do so.”

MI5 intervention led to the BBC blacklisting Miller and Littlewood. Littlewood had already been banned from working in Sheffield because she’d broadcast criticism of local housing conditions. Other memos reveal links between MI5 agents and BBC staff. In a memo, dated October 1939, a MI5 officer says: “I do not understand why the BBC continues to use them. Could they be warned to drop them if other people are available?”

Another memo states: “We asked the BBC to hold them (the programme) up while we obtained this file and unfortunately their (the Millers’) programme for the 11th October 1939 was about to be cancelled. Mr. Nicholls (Controller of Programmes), informed me that there was a possibility that the Manchester Guardian would publicise the matter and questions would be asked in the House of Commons. I said I would raise no objections to the broadcast of 11/10/39 but would get in touch with the BBC again.”

Though the BBC had announced in March 1941 that persons who had taken part in public agitation against the war effort would not be allowed access to the microphone, the BBC stated:“Beyond this one limit the Corporation is jealous to preserve British broadcasting as an instrument of freedom and democracy.”

The real reason for the ban on Miller and Littlewood is made clear in a memo dated April 1941 from Mr. Coatman, North Regional Director for the BBC. He points out that Mrs. Miller (Littlewood) and her husband were not only well known communists but were active communists. Mr. Coatman says:

“It must be remembered that Miss Littlewood and her husband were concerned chiefly with programmes in which they were brought into continuous and intimate contact with large numbers of working class people all over the North Region. Clearly I could not allow people like this to have use of the microphone or be prominently identified with the BBC. I therefore urge that the ban on Miss Littlewood as a broadcaster be allowed to stand.”

In her autobiography, Joan Littlewood says that following the BBC ban, Miller and herself wrote to L.C. Knight of the National Council of Civil Liberties who promised to investigate but never contacted them again. She writes: “We offered our story to the newspapers they didn’t publish it, not even the Daily Worker.”

After being called up in July 1940, Private James H. Miller was placed on the ‘Special Observation List’ “to see whether he is trying to carry on propaganda.” He was declared a deserter on 18th December 1940 and remained AWOL for the rest of the war. In this period he changed his name to Ewan MacColl. Military reports suggest he was popular with his fellow soldiers and exerted influence over them owing to his greater intelligence. He was a member of the Regimental Concert Party and produced ‘several songs and skits’. One of his songs was a particular favourite with the men:

“The medical inspection boy’s is just a bleedin’ farce. He gropes around your penis and noses up your arse. For even a Private’s privates, enjoy no privacy, you sacrifice all that to save democracy. Oh, I was browned off, browned off, as could be.”

While the song was popular with the ordinary soldiers it seems the military top brass had their suspicions. A note in the file says the song was of the normal barrack room type and didn’t appear to his CO to be subversive but “he is now inclined to think that it was rather subtle propaganda, the theme being generally disparaging to life as a private soldier and enlarging upon the fact that the discipline and alleged discomforts, to which he is subjected, although nominally in the cause of democracy, were really for the benefit of some supposedly superior class.”

MI5 and Censorship

After the war, Miller was arrested for desertion. He spent the first night of his captivity in Middlesbrough police station and was then taken to an army detention barracks at Northallerton. Later he was transferred to the Northfield Military Hospital in Birmingham where he was diagnosed as suffering from epilepsy. A psychiatrist diagnosed him to have a ‘paranoid personality with strong oedipal tendencies.’ The result of his psychiatric report led to the cancellation of his court martial on medical grounds and he was discharged from the army.

In her autobiography ‘Joan’s Book’, Littlewood speaks openly about being blacklisted by the BBC and about MacColl’s (Miller’s) desertion. She says he changed his name to MacColl ‘as a precaution’ while on the run as a deserter. However, none of this is mentioned in MacColl’s autobiography (Journeyman), which contains many gaps and omissions about his life.

Both Littlewood and MacColl played a cat and mouse game with the authorities. They were certainly aware the police were reading their letters: “Jimmie wrote to me every day, mostly jokes and nostalgia. So were mine to him. It must have been disappointing for the police who were opening them all.” They knew the police were keeping tabs on them, because so many of their friends and acquaintances were approached by the police.

Nothing can be found in the MI5 file to suggest Littlewood and MacColl were in the pay of Moscow (Nazi Germany and the USSR were allies from 1939 to June 1941). Yet a memo, dated April 1942, shows Littlewood had contact with Emile Burns, who was boss of propaganda at the Communist Party Headquarters in London.

Clearly, MI5 monitored their theatrical work and activities because they feared that as proselytising communists, their work could influence and politicise the working-classes. One of their plays, ‘Last Edition’, performed by the Theatre Union, was described as ‘thinly veiled’ communist propaganda’ and MI5 boss Colonel Kell used his influence to urge local councils to refuse them performance licenses in the same way as MI5 prevented them working for the BBC.

Joan Littlewood died in September 2002, aged 87. She has been described as a ‘subversive genius’ who broke the mould of British drama. She was best known for her work ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ and for establishing, with others, the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in East London. Ewan MacColl died in 1989 aged 74. He is now remembered more as a songwriter than an agit-prop playwright. His songs include ‘Dirty Old Town’, the ‘Manchester Rambler’ and ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ made famous by the singer Roberta Flack in the 1970s.

This article was originally published in Northern Voices issue 7, 2007

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Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy: Manchester’s Free Love Advocate and Secular Feminist

As an advocate of ‘free love’, a pacifist and more controversially a secularist, the Victorian feminist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy did not exactly lead a conventional life. Born in Eccles in 1833 and self-educated, she went on to become a significant pioneer of the British women’s emancipation movement. She was at the heart of almost every Victorian feminist campaign ranging from the demand for better education, the right to vote and the rights of prostitutes to the sensitive issue of marital rape.

Unfortunately, her rather forthright nature as well as the scandal surrounding her pregnancy out of wedlock meant that she was marginalised in official histories. In accounts by the Pankhurst family, she is unfairly portrayed as a bad mother, a scandalous ‘free love’ secularist; her partner Ben Elmy is painted as a cruel and unfaithful man. Maureen Wright, who teaches history at the University of Portsmouth, wanted to challenge that misrepresentation with a more balanced look at Wolstenholme-Elmy’s life.

In her book Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman, Wright portrays the complex and also contradictory nature of her subject. The book is broken down into eight chapters which chart Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy’s life from her birth to her death at the age of 84 in March 1918 – just days after hearing the good news that women had been granted the right to vote. Arwa Aburawa interviewed Maureen Wright for Manchester Radical History.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was born in Eccles, Salford in December 1833. Can you tell a little about her early experiences and how they help shape her activism around education and universal suffrage?

Maureen Wright: Although born in Eccles, Elizabeth’s father Joseph Wolstenholme was an Independent Methodist Minister and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard and Mary Clarke of Roe Green, Salford. By the time Miss Wolstenholme was 12 she had lost both her parents. Her mother had died when she was little more than a week old and her father died in 1845. At that time Elizabeth and her brother, Joseph Jnr., became the wards of their maternal Uncle, George Clarke of Worsley. While Joseph Jnr, aged 17, became a student of mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, Elizabeth’s two years of secondary education drew to a close when she was just 16, her Uncle having declared that by then she had ‘learnt everything it was necessary for a woman to know’.

But Elizabeth defied her guardian and studied privately, preparing herself to be a governess and, latterly, headmistress of her own girls’ school. She had no desire to remain in the domestic realm. She placed her commitment to feminism from the moment when, acting as a bridesmaid aged 17, she fully realised what marriage meant for women – a “lifelong sentence of pauperism and dependence” with no control over their actions or autonomy over their own bodies.

Elizabeth’s political commitment was to liberal ideals. She was brought up in the environment of the ‘Manchester Radicals’ – namely the group of Quaker-inspired activists gathered around Richard Cobden and John Bright and others who had led the anti-Corn Law movement in the city. She believed wholeheartedly in the rights of the individual. For her, votes for women was a simple matter of women receiving the vote ‘on the same terms as it is, or shall be, granted to men’ – for it must be remembered that, at this time, it was property, not individuality, that enabled men to claim citizenship. When she placed her signature on the petition for women’s suffrage in 1866 Elizabeth was asking not for special treatment for women, but equal treatment or “justice”.

Although Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was part of a quite a small groups of women emancipators working in the nineteenth century, she never really got much recognition for her work. Why do you think that was?

Two of the earliest significant histories of British women’s suffragism were written by Ray Strachey and E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Strachey’s book, The Cause, (1928) told the story from the point of view of the ‘constitutional’ suffragists – those women who did not support the militancy of the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Wolstenholme Elmy’s opinion of these activists was not always complimentary as she believed that their commitment to ‘the cause’ was not total. Many were content, she believed, “to give their name” to the movement without engaging sacrificially to its work. Elizabeth’s somewhat scandalous private life caused her to be criticised by many among this more conservative group, and thus she received only a couple of mentions in Strachey’s work.

The other significant book, The Suffragette Movement, (1931) was written by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, Sylvia. While Pankhurst did acknowledge Elizabeth’s significant contribution to the early years of women’s suffragism from the 1860s, she clearly wanted to place her mother and her father (the “Red Doctor”, socialist lawyer Richard Marsden Pankhurst) in the premier roles. Elizabeth was, therefore, marginalised and damned with faint praise as an overworked woman and an ‘instrument in the grasp of progress’ – her small physical frame likened to that of a ‘Jenny Wren’. Subsequent scholars failed to realise her significance to the movement until the 1980s when revisionist scholars began to uncover the extent of her contribution. My biography is the first full-length narrative of Elizabeth’s life, some 30 years after the first call was made for it to be written!

Elizabeth’s early passion was education for women. Tell us a little about how that emerged and the role Manchester played in her development as a campaigner.

When Elizabeth returned to Worsley in 1854 from undertaking two years work as a governess in Bedfordshire it was to inherit a ‘small capital’ on her 21st birthday. Her guardian, who, remember, had advised her against undertaking higher education herself, now suggested that she invest her money in the establishment of a boarding school for middle-class girls. Elizabeth established precisely such a school, at The Grange in Boothstown Road, which catered for between 12-16 teenage pupils. In the spring of 1867 she moved her school to Moody Hall, a substantial Georgian residence in the town of Congleton where she continued in her role of Headmistress for another 4 years. Before her move to Cheshire Elizabeth founded the Manchester Schoolmistresses Association in 1865, and her pupils were among the first to sit the Cambridge Local Examination.

In 1866, Elizabeth had travelled to London to testify before the Royal Commission into Education – known as the Taunton Commission. She was one of the first women in the country to undertake such a role, but did not appear at all daunted at the prospect. If one reads the transcript of her evidence, it’s obvious that her answers were given in a clear and direct manner. As she tells of her work at The Grange, it’s clear too that the curriculum she taught was not one only of female “accomplishments” (such as singing, dancing and drawing) but included political economy, mathematics and other skills thought to be to ‘masculine’ in nature for a girls’ school. Elizabeth sought to fit her girls for not only the world of marriage and motherhood, but for the world of work, and many of them went on to become Headmistresses of schools.

It became increasingly difficult, however, at this time for Elizabeth to continue her career. This was because she was turning against the Christian faith – the teaching of which was, of course, a core element in the Victorian curriculum. The loss of her faith caused Elizabeth deep personal pain and unhappiness and ultimately she couldn’t force herself against her conscience to teach something in which she no longer believed. Thus she abandoned Moody Hall for a new life as the first professional employee of the women’s emancipation movement.

From around 1870, EWE’s role as a feminist took precedence over her vocation in education. What were the major campaigns she worked on and what long-term influence did she have?

Before her move to Congleton, Elizabeth had been active in many areas of female emancipation in Manchester. These included: The Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Branch of the Society for the Employment of Women and the Northern Counties League for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. She was a founder member of the Married Women’s Property Committee (MWPC), established in the winter of 1867/8 to campaign for the rights of women in marriage. She was to be its Secretary until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act, 1882. In addition, she was an Executive Committee member of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA) from 1870.

Her paid work however (from 1871-74) was as Secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights (VADPR). She was based in London and she termed her work as being as a ‘scrutinizer’ of parliamentary practice – for which her salary was the princely sum of £300 per annum. So effective a political lobbyist did she prove that MPs gave her a nickname – the ‘parliamentary watch-dog’ – and, upon seeing her tiny figure approaching them along the corridors of power, many of the country’s greatest would quake in fear. Elizabeth’s tenacity shines through here. She was a life-long advocate of “small government”, in which the individual’s personal right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ should be as free from government intervention as possible.

The ‘New’ Liberalism of the late-nineteenth century, with its increased emphasis on regulating public behaviour through legislation, was anathema to her. Elizabeth worked tirelessly and travelled extensively to promote the organisation’s objective of an equal right to live in a just society. She published copious reports, minutes, pamphlets and articles and Elizabeth continued her labours in other areas. She was, for example, a Committee member of the Central Committee of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage and remained strongly committed to the work of both the LNA and the MWPC. In fact, one begins to wonder how she ever found enough hours in her day!

One radical aspect of Elizabeth WE is that she was secularist and an advocate of ‘free love’. This was quite hard for many of her colleagues to deal with and was particularly problematic when she got pregnant. Was she perceived as too radical in some ways?

It was when Elizabeth was headmistress of Moody Hall School in Congleton she met the man who would become her life-long companion. Benjamin Elmy was from a Suffolk family, he owned three silk-crepe mills in Congleton but his avowed secularism was always a matter of concern for the town’s civic leaders. One of the most divisive issues was the charge that secularists advocated ‘free love’ (living together un-wed), something which undermined the rigid moral structures of mid-Victorian society.

The couple undertook a ‘commitment’ ceremony in the spring of 1874, making solemn vows to one another before witnesses. But when this and Elizabeth’s subsequent pregnancy became known more widely, there was general outrage and condemnation within their circle of friends. Despite her expressed wish that her marriage (with took place under some duress in October 1874 in London) should have no effect upon her work for women, the opposite was true and the couple were forced to retire from public life for a short period. Elizabeth did however continue her Secretary’s role with the MWPC, working ‘underground’ and unacknowledged in the organisation’s reports for another six years – until her ‘rehabilitation’ in 1880.

Those of Elizabeth’s colleagues who knew of her secularism were prepared to turn a ‘blind eye’ to it before her pregnancy – one reason being that they knew her work was exemplary and her shoes would be difficult to fill. However, the immanent arrival of her son Frank proved to be the catalyst that changed attitudes towards her.

Lydia Becker (a close friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s since 1867) demanded at one meeting that the Registers at Kensington be searched to confirm that the October wedding had taken place. Another close friend since 1866, the physically frail Josephine Butler, recorded in a letter from her sickbed that she wished she had ‘never heard of such people as the Elmys’. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, never especially close to Elizabeth, chastised her with the fact that she had brought the women’s movement into disrepute. For Elizabeth the hurt of their rejection of friends was so great that she retired to Congleton for the birth ‘wishing never to be spoken of again’. Obviously, her resolve on this matter did not last long.

Although Elizabeth WE preferred to work outside party politics (apart from her support for the Independent Labour Party), there were political movements and figures which influenced her. Could you talk us through the main players which informed her political consciousness?

Elizabeth believed that party politics ‘ruined work’, as it caused divisions and factionalism where there should be a united desire to improve life for all. The bedrock of this belief, I believe, came from the Quaker influences of her early life. She was a lifelong pacifist, a cause to which she held true even throughout the jingoism of the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. The family refused, in 1902, to join in the celebrations in Congleton Park after peace was restored and although there are no first-hand sources to confirm or deny this, I feel sure Elizabeth’s reaction to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 would have been one of complete horror.

Though of radical-Liberal heritage, Elizabeth found William E. Gladstone, three times PM of the United Kingdom, a trial. She believed he was the biggest stumbling block to women’s freedom, as he was known to use his veto as Prime Minister to prevent the passage of women’s suffrage bills through parliament. Elizabeth herself became a member of the Manchester Central Branch of the ILP in 1905 but her commitment to socialism in its strictest sense was never total, unlike that of her husband, who she wrote of as being an ‘ardent socialist’ until his death in March 1906.

The truth about Elizabeth’s politics is that she was, first and last, a humanitarian and she was not above using any party-political machinery she could to promote her work. As secretary of the Women’s Emancipation Union from 1891-99 she had as much contact with the labour movement’s Women’s Co-operative Guild and Trades’ Unions as she did with the Conservative’s Primrose Dames, using these and many other organisations to promote feminist views and propaganda.

The decision in 1909 to force feed the militants of the WSPU was seen by Elizabeth as ‘state torture’ – even though she condemned the actions of the women themselves, which grew increasingly more violent after 1912. She berated them for their antics of window smashing, axe throwing and arson for, she wrote, “how could they be certain not to hurt the innocent?” From that moment on (and bear in mind she was almost 80 years old) she continued her campaigning as a ‘non-militant’ – even leading the NUWSS procession into her home town of Congleton in 1913. By now, as an octogenarian, she had earned the respect even of her former critics.

One of the controversial topics which Elizabeth WE spoke about was marital rape- indeed she was the first woman to speak on the issue in a public platform. Why did she feel so strongly about this issue?

Elizabeth’s abhorrence of marital rape became clear in 1880, when she stood on the platform of the London Dialectical Society to declare her desire to see the practice criminalised. Her opposition was in part built on personal reasons and a desire to see a legal inequality quashed.
Wives were often beaten or starved for non-compliance or, as evidence from one notable legal case of 1891 shows, imprisoned against their will. Elizabeth saw the crime of marital rape as one common to women of all classes, and thus a cause of unity. At a moment when even polite society was concerned with the ever-increasing rise in sexually transmitted diseases she found a receptive audience, in some quarters, for her views.

That is not to say her path in this regard was an easy one; far from it, for she found herself apologising to her 1880 audience for speaking, as a woman, on so ‘delicate’ an issue in public. Of all the disadvantages married women faced Elizabeth believed this ‘sex slavery’, as she termed, it to be the worst. For all her efforts, Elizabeth did not see a law passed against it in her lifetime – in fact this did not pass the Statute Book until 1991.

Reading through some of the exchanges and letters of Elizabeth WE it’s clear that whilst she was hard to work with at times, people respected her and her work for the feminist movement deeply. One example of this, is the financial support she received after the death of her husband.

Ben Elmy’s firm was a victim of the textile recession in north-west England in the late-1880s and was sold at a significant loss. After his death, Elizabeth and her son Frank had little more than their house and the £52 a year Frank earned as a local council rate collector. What saved them financially was the assistance of Elizabeth’s colleagues, led by Harriet McIlquham along with Frances Rowe and Louisa Martindale. These women could see beyond the sometimes acerbic exterior to the woman beneath and, to ease her material burdens, established the ‘Grateful Fund’ in the mid-1890s, which provided an income for the Elmys of £1.00 per week. The ‘Grateful Fund’ and, latterly, a Testimonial organised in 1910 by (among others) Lady Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst, provided for her care in the final years of her life.

Sometimes, as Elizabeth’s letters show, the money kept the family from real poverty – although she only accepted it on the grounds that it let her work continue. The reality is that as many as found Elizabeth difficult found her vulnerable, and they loved her with real devotion and commitment, understanding that she worked from pure, selfless motives. Elizabeth’s significant collections of letters and other documents, which form the documentary base for the biography, are wonderful resources and they tell many times of her gratefulness to her benefactors. Often written late at night, after she had completed a full day of domestic and political work, her letters to Harriet McIlquham are full of love and tender concern.

Also, albeit infrequently, they show what one eminent historian has referred to as ‘bile and vitriol’, spiteful commentaries regarding colleagues who, Elizabeth believes, have fallen from the true, selfless, feminist path. Particular targets of criticism include Florence Fenwick Miller, Ursula Bright (sister-in-law of John Bright), Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the leadership of the NUWSS. It is true that some of these letters can be read as being excessively critical of some of her colleagues, but the context in which she wrote them is important – particularly when she was under severe strain following Ben Elmy’s business failure in 1888. The fact that she was herself working over 50 hours a week in the textile mill to try and save its fortunes, plus her ‘normal’ domestic duties and feminist campaigning, perhaps makes her somewhat harsh style a little more understandable.

What do you think is the key aspect of EWE’s legacy?

Simply, her tenacity. Without her single-mindedness and untiring focus, I wonder just how successful Victorian feminists would have been in changing so many of the laws that repressed women in all circumstances of life. Elizabeth was foremost in campaigns which made it possible, for example, for working women to have a right to their own income; for separated wives to have increased rights of access to their children; and for the campaign for the vote to be rooted not in the possession of property but simply on grounds of individual autonomy. She died having achieving much of what she had set out to do. The parliamentary vote had been granted to women over thirty year of age (and to women University graduates) a mere six days before her death.

As I have written in the conclusion to the book, it is satisfying that she died at a moment of triumph in feminist history but she still would not have been content because the issue of ‘sex slavery’ had still not been resolved. Her true legacy though is that she never stalled in her objectives, no matter how ill or tired, no matter what her age or personal circumstances, she put all thoughts of self aside. Her place in history should be, perhaps, as one of England’s greatest humanitarians.

Title: Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman
Author: Maureen Wright
Price: £65.00 (hardback)
Published: 2011
Publisher: Manchester University Press
ISBN: 978-0-7190-8109-5

Article by Arwa Aburawa

The Manchester Mechanics Institute

The Mechanics Institute began with a meeting between William Fairburn, Thomas Hopkins and Richard Roberts, who agreed to each contribute £10 towards the foundation of an Institute to teach young men the application of science to manufacturing and art. Fairburn was a noted engineer, born in Scotland, who had come to Manchester in 1813 where he made mill-machinery before moving into making boilers and ship-building. Roberts was also an engineer, born in Wales, who came to Manchester about 1815 and made his money in manufacturing high precision machine tools and also through inventions such as the self-acting spinning mule. All three men were members of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, at which Hopkins had contributed a number of papers.

Following this initial meeting, a public meeting was held at the Bridgewater Arms public house on High Street on 17 April 1824, chaired by Benjamin Heywood, the banker. Those present resolved to set up an institution to be known as the Manchester Mechanics Institute with the object of delivering lectures on the various sciences and their application to the arts and also to establish a reference and circulating library. Sufficient funds were pledged to allow land to be purchased on Cooper Street, where a building costing £7,000 was put up.

Control of the Institute was firmly in the hands of Manchester’s self-made manufacturing class who firmly rebuffed any suggestions for change from the working people attending the lectures. In March 1829 Rowland Detrosier led a breakaway group who founded their own Institute. Detrosier had been abandoned as a child and brought up in Manchester by Charles Barnes, a member of the Swedenborgian church. He worked as a clerk and also lectured at the Swedenborgian Sunday school. For a time he was connected with the Stockport Bible Christian church.

Although Detrosier moved to London where he lectured and became secretary of the National Political Union, he retained his links with Manchester and on 25 March 1831 he gave a lecture at the New Mechanics Institute which was later published as a pamphlet entitled On the Necessity of an Extension of Moral and Political Instruction among the Working Classes with the assistance of Francis Place, one of his London friends.

Lacking the funds of its wealthy parent, the New Mechanics Institute was based in a joiner’s shop in a timber yard near the top of Brazenose Street. It was run on democratic lines and had a small library. This group of working people appears to have connections with the Owenite movement for they were amongst those who encouraged the Owenites to build the Hall of Science in Campfield. The New Mechanics Institute appears to have lasted ten years and it seems likely that once the Hall of Science was opened they transferred their classes and library to the new building which survived until 1844.

The original Institute held regular classes in music , French and German, nature study, art appreciation and science. In 1837 it was agreed to hold classes for women for, as one of the directors pointed out, “much good would arise from the proper cultivation of their minds”. Victorian notions of the proper place of women were much in evident, however, for their classes included how to make wax flowers and household management. In addition to classes for adults the Institute also ran a school for boys and girls from 1834, which was attended by several hundred pupils.

In August 1847 a meeting was held in the Institute to set up the Lancashire Public School Association with the aim of “promoting a general system of secular education”. At this time there was no state education, only private schools which few could afford. There were religious schools but, of course, these naturally promoted the particular religion they were affiliated to.

The Institute was able to attract well-known personalities including the actors William Macready (famous for his Shakespeare performances) and Fanny Kemble (who was active in the anti-slavery movement) and Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Institute eventually outgrew its original building and a new building was constructed on Princess Street (then called David Street), costing £20,000 which opened in 1857. The architect was John Edward Gregan. It opened with a major exhibition which thousands visited.

In June 1868 the Institute was used for a congress of trade unions, the first such meeting to be held and which annual meeting continues to-day

In 1870 the government passed an Education Act which for the first time made education compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 12, establishing elected School Boards were set to build and run the new schools. This made some of the work of the Mechanics Institute unnecessary as basic provision for children was now under the aegis of the School Board. In September 1883 a Technical School was opened in the building by Oliver Heywood (son of Benjamin, who was continuing his father’s charitable work and whose statue can be seen in Albert Square). It was absorbed into the Manchester education system in 1892.

In 1910 a Day Training College was opened in the building to train teachers properly for there had been complaints for many years of the poor standard of teaching in schools., especially by pupil teachers who often had no formal training at all.

In 1917 another change took place when the building was designated the Municipal High School of Commerce. It ran day and evening classes for those hoping to pursue careers in business and included foreign languages in the curriculum. It moved out of the building in the 1960s.

By the mid 1970s the Institute was in a very bad state of repair although registered as a grade 2 listed building. Concerned trade unionists set up a campaign called MANTUC with the aim of restoring the building and re-opening it but after several years work this was not successful.

Another attempt succeeded some years later when, as the building neared collapse, a Trust was formed with backing from the City Council and the trade unions which restored the building and re-opened it as a trade union centre with meeting rooms, a main hall and a bar. The restoration included a meeting room set out with furniture, wallpaper and portraits in the style of 1868.

In 1990 the National Museum of Labour History moved its labour history archives into the ground floor of the building. (The galleries were in the Pumphouse). The official opening was on 7 May 1990 when the opening address was given by Jack Jones, former general secretary of TGWU and chair of the museum’s Trustees. In his speech he said

“I strongly believe that this gem of a museum is going to prove of great benefit to Manchester and the North of England, because of its special interest to trade unionists, members of the Co-operative movement and activist in the cause of women’s equality and progress will attract visitors from Germany, France, the other European countries and America as well as people from all parts of these islands.One of our prized possessions in Tom Paine’s table on which he wrote important parts of his famous work The rights of man. This writing of his made an enormous contribution to the American revolution and had some influence on the French revolution….

The many colourful and unique items on show to-day and others which we will be exhibiting will, I believe, demonstrate the real history of working people and their efforts to rise out of their poverty. This, I suggest, is much more important and educational than the drearysome recounting or reciting of dates of Kings and Queens and battles of the past.

All of us have a responsibility to cherish and preserve the essentials of historical development. It would be foolish to and indeed criminal to ignore and neglect that responsibility. Instead of respecting our past all too often very many objets of considerable historical value have been wantonly or inadvertently destroyed in the past by trade unions…It surely behoves both sides of industry and citizens generally to assist in avoiding the destruction of significant relics of people’s history.”

In March 2010 the labour history archives were moved out to a new home in the extended People’s History Museum (as the NMLH had by now rebranded itself). The Mechanics Institute remains open for meetings and other functions. For information on facilities offered in this historic building, please visit their website.

Article by Michael Herbert

Gus John and the Moss Side Defence Committee

Gus John lived through the 1980s as a community activist and youth worker in Moss Side, having arrived in the UK from the West Indies in the 1960s. In the aftermath of the 1981 Moss Side riots, he was a key figure in the Moss Side Defence Committee, which assisted with legal support to the youths charged by the police, challenged police violence and attempted to convey to the press and public a different interpretation of the events which had taken place. The committee would later undertake a detailed critique of the Hytner Report, established by the government to investigate the disturbances and their causes. Here Gus recalls his experiences of the times, in an interview carried out by Andrew Bowman just a week before the outbreak of rioting across England’s urban centres in summer 2011.

1981 was the year in which British people of African descent protested against racism and police oppression as never before in modern history. The Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981 brought around 25,000 people onto the streets of London to protest against the massacre of 13 young Africans in a fire, suspected to have been caused by racists, at a birthday party in New Cross in South London. Protesters also attempted to highlight the misconduct of the Metropolitan Police force in their subsequent investigation, the bias of the press, the inadequate response of the government to the tragedy and the generalised racial discrimination in British society. Added to the problem of racial discrimination, the Conservative government’s economic programme was making conditions worse in many poorer communities in inner city areas.
Between April and August that year there was violent urban unrest in St Paul’s in Bristol, Brixton in South London, Toxteth in Liverpool, Moss Side in Manchester, Handsworth in Birmingham, and elsewhere in the country.

Gus, what were conditions like when you arrived in Moss Side?

I arrived in Moss Side on the 1st January 1971, having worked on youth and race in Handsworth in Birmingham for the Runnymede Trust. There was a vibrancy about it, in that people had organised themselves around a campaign to do with housing. The local authority was doing compulsory purchases and knocking down houses which were actually rather sturdy – some of them had fallen into disrepair but structurally they were pretty fine. There were campaigns to save these houses because people were not enamoured with what they had seen in Hulme – these deck access crescent buildings, which were not just an eyesore, they became very dangerous after a while.
But the two things that stuck out for me were, first, a lot of young people coming out of school and being unemployed for a long time. It was taking the average school leaver about six months to find any employment, and some of them simply joined an earlier generation of fathers or siblings who had not worked. The second thing that was obvious was the way in which the police operated within the community – they tended to see black people as exotic … and generally formed the impression that the older people were safe and sound: they shared commonly held values, they were disciplinarians keeping the children under control, and it was really the youth which were at odds with the establishment, and the police as the most visible arm of the establishment.
It is true that at that time many parents didn’t want to see the police having cause to come near their home – it was seen as a massive stigma.  It took a long time for parents to understand, based on their own experience, that your child didn’t have to do something wrong for the police to appear on your doorstep. It wasn’t always that young person’s fault that the police got involved in their lives.
In 1972 I had got some money from the British Council of Churches to set up a hostel for young black people, because they were sleeping on their friends’ floors or sleeping rough in Moss Side, the reason being that their parents had been decanted to places like Sale and Partington, as part of the whole so-called ‘regeneration’ business. And they continued to gravitate back to Moss Side, they would be here until after the last bus left, some of them would be in the night time dives – shebeens as we used to call them – and there was generally a sense of drift and disaffection among them. That made them even more in danger of getting involved with the police.

How similar were things in Moss Side to other areas of the UK you had worked in?

The four issues I just mentioned were present in all inner city areas I had worked in. I had just come from Handsworth, and one of the reasons for the Runnymede Trust commissioning the research I did there was that the Birmingham Evening Mail had run a series of stories called ‘The Angry Suburbs’, and one of them I remember was called ‘Must Harlem come to Birmingham?’ There were issues highlighted in those reports of unrest between black and white people which I have to say were not what I found in Birmingham.
Yes, there were tensions, with some white people feeling that black people were coming in numbers, taking homes etc, but what happened in Birmingham as in other parts of the country, was that the newcomers, black people from the Caribbean especially, were coming to find employment in areas where there was already an established working class, a neglected working class. So the quality of accommodation that local whites had was pretty poor anyway. As is typical of these situations, and not just in this country, the incoming black people were blamed for the squalor that had existed for generations.
So there were nuances, but generally you could identify issues which were common to most of those former industrial towns and cities. Many black children were being sent to schools for the educationally subnormal, not because they were in any way deficient, but because the schooling system refused to believe that those children were coming with a language of their own that was not Standard English.
That early period of 1968-73 was also the time when psychologists were propounding theories of scientific racism – suggesting that the intelligence levels of black people were lower than that of whites for genetic reasons. You had to battle against that gunge, especially as it was being taught in colleges that were training teachers – it really was horrendous.

What kind of police harassment did youngsters face in Moss Side?

I remember the first situation in which I personally intervened after arriving here, the police had stopped a young boy of about 13 cycling along Moss Lane West by the Hyde Brewery for riding his bicycle without lights. They were aggressive, and he was frightened. Rather than calming the situation, they started telling him to “stop being cheeky”, and before long there was a confrontation. As you went up and asked what was going on, they would tell you to “mind your own fucking business” or they would arrest you as well, for “obstructing the police in the course of their duty”.
We became aware of how vicious the police were to young people, so that when an incident like this happened, we would begin to gather, because the community wanted the police to know that we were watching what they were doing. The police became very on edge about that, very intolerant of the idea that anyone would witness what they were doing and question their conduct.
Here in Moss Side, as I had also witnessed in Oxford, Birmingham and London, it was not just happening to young people. Caribbean families, the men in particular, were proud of their cars. To own one was prestigious, and these men worked hard and bought their cars, and they were regularly being stopped by the police, for daring to own a vehicle like that: “Is it yours? Can you prove it is yours? What is your address? What is the proof of your address?” Constant petty harassment! There was a level of crime in these urban centres anyway, petty criminals as well as organised criminals – who were white. That criminality had not contaminated the black community in any measure when I came to Manchester.
Yes, some people got involved in crimes, burglaries etc. I used to teach black history at Wakefield Prison, and I was astounded by the zeal and zest with which prisoners there took to an understanding of black history and its relevance to them. They were interested in what was happening in the United States at the time, as they were about the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, the 1968 Race Relations Act.
I told them about the work that I and others who were members of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination did. How I would pair up with a white person and we would go looking for a room to rent or something. The black person would go in first and typically would have the door slammed in their face: “The room’s gone.” Your mate, the white person, would then go and was told, “It’s five shillings, when are you moving in?”
We did the same in relation to job applications. The black person would present a form with the best qualifications, the white person would present a form with lower qualifications, and the white person would automatically be given the job. We did this research up and down the country, and we were able to present the government with incontrovertible evidence of the extent of visceral racial discrimination, and that caused the Harold Wilson government to enact the 1968 Race Relations Act and establish the Race Relations Board which was the precursor of the Industrial Tribunal.
All those people in Wakefield Prison had what I called arrested growth: very bright people. Some could give you the most horrendous stories about their schooling, and why they dropped out of school. In some cases they had had physical altercations with teachers, and were either expelled from school or never went back.
The fact is, there was not a high degree of engagement in delinquency or criminality among the African-Caribbean population … Now relative to our numbers in the population overall, the highest proportion of people in the prisons and young offender institutions are black people.
Ever since the beginning of the 1960s there has been systemic structural and structured exclusion of black people within the society, and that has got certain consequences. It becomes easy to believe that that is because black people don’t have brains, which of course is complete nonsense. All of that is an important back-story to what people in Manchester were experiencing and grappling with in the 1970s and 1980s.

How active were organised racist groups in Manchester during the 1980s? Groups like the National Front?

Very active. In the year of the disturbances in Moss Side there were running battles between us and the NF. They had the temerity to come and hand out leaflets in Moss Side and Hulme, trying to inflame the passions of white people and encourage them to blame black people for whatever social deprivation they were suffering. What was pleasing about that was that the white community determined that they wanted nothing to do with the NF, and joined political activists such as myself, deciding that they as a white community would not allow the NF to get one inch of space within the white community, and physically booted them out.
So you had the harassment of the police, and then you had the planned collective attacks by white racists – people would be physically attacked, have excrement and firebombs put through their doors, or there would be NF signs put up around the place. That didn’t come from nowhere – the neo-fascists became emboldened by the lead politicians gave…

Such as Enoch Powell?

Yes, such as Enoch Powell, but he could be seen as the extreme end of the spectrum. His problem was that he was open and honest about those matters. It was the people who were passing laws in Parliament, one more draconian piece of immigration legislation than the one before, who were constantly conflating immigration and race relations and holding up the spectre of an alien black force destabilising an assumed settled and cohesive society.
It was like a mantra: “You can’t have good race relations unless you control immigration”.  In other words, if you don’t control immigration, the white population will get fed up that you’re expecting them to be too tolerant of these blacks. Or the black population would start creating mayhem. As a consequence, every year at a certain point, even before the Office for National Statistics published their reports; you would find some newspaper, principally the tabloids such as the Sun and Daily Mail, publishing figures about the number of live births to immigrants. It was all scaremongering, a moral panic about black people, and an insistence on keeping Britain white. And people talked openly about the need to keep Britain white.
You have to situate the 1981 uprisings in that broader context, and if you don’t, you fail to understand the structural relationship between the way black people experience living in the society, and the way they choose to resist.
And the resistance took many forms, it took political forms, it took cultural forms, through music, art, publishing or through soundsystems and travelling discos – people find ways of surviving, and not allowing their essential humanity to be debased, and expressing and affirming their creativity. Cultures of oppression inexorably spawn cultures of resistance.
Given all this background, how surprised were you when the riots broke out? A lot of the press coverage at the time, and now in reflection, talks about the riots being a ‘spontaneous’ event.
It wasn’t a surprise to me nor many other people in Moss Side. It could have happened any time before that July. It could have happened in March that year, when a cache of illegal weapons were found stashed in Moss Side police station. Those weapons were found to be knives, hatchets, coshes, clubs, and a considerable quantity of cannabis was also found.
We were alarmed because we knew the police planted cannabis on unsuspecting citizens, and would then throw the book at them for drug possession. They also used to give cannabis to prostitutes to sell, and if they didn’t comply they would be dragged in for prostituting themselves. Typically, when people got arrested and taken to Moss Side Police Station or Platt Lane Police Station, they were likely to get a good hiding from the police, to reveal the names of others or confess to some crime, or just for being ‘lippy’ and standing up for themselves, whether they did or did not commit a crime.
So it was alarming that this cache was found in the police station. What were the police going to do with them? No sooner did the reports come out than everything disappeared. That was on March 12-13 1981. Ten days earlier, six coach loads of people had left here for London, to go to the biggest march black people here have ever organised, the New Cross Massacre Black People’s Day of Action, on 2 March 1981, following the murder of those 13 young people in that Deptford fire.
That massacre did not take place in Moss Side, but it could well have. That became a metaphor for the experiences that we were having at the hands of the racists and fascists across the country, and the way the police dealt with those things. So the events in July in Moss Side could have happened at any point that year.

Gus, what was the reaction among the press and political elites to the Moss Side riots? The MEN’s recent coverage refers to it as ‘an orgy of violence’ and a ‘spontaneous eruption of hatred’. Is there a sense in which there was, and still is, an attempt to depoliticise what happened?

Yes. And it is for that reason that I do not refer to those disturbances as riots, because that is to devalue and detract from the righteous political component of the whole thing. It was a violent eruption of protest, on the part of principally black people, but lots of white people as well, because they too had experienced for generations lots of vicious, disrespectful oppressive forms of policing.
The coverage in the media of Manchester, Toxteth, Brixton and St Paul’s, was just totally racist. The tabloids have a lot to answer for. They were echoing what senior police officers were saying. They were always eager to claim that it was pure criminality – that it came from nowhere. As if these criminals suddenly drank something and decided to go and create mayhem.
I say about that, as I say about the gangs and knife crime now, I cannot believe, I refuse to believe that black people have some kind of congenital propensity to evil. If you don’t believe that, you have to ask some searching questions about what predisposes people to do this, but that’s too sophisticated for these hacks. They display their prejudices, and in a sense mirroring the bigotry of the people in leadership positions in the country generally.
How did you attempt to get your message out about what was happening when the mainstream press was like this?
There is an invention called the Gestetner. Do you remember it? No? That places us in different age bands! The Gestetner was a domestic printing machine. You typed onto a stencil, and attached it to the machine, turned a lever to make sure ink covered the drum, and then you start rolling off your hundreds of sheets of paper. Political activists of my age were friends of the Gestetner. You always knew which people were very active, because they were always covered in ink!
So, we had meetings, for the Moss Side Defence Committee, we produced masses of leaflets and handed them out door to door, outside cinemas, and indeed outside the magistrate’s court. Picketing and handing them out. And we physically hand-delivered our statements to the news media. Some of them ignored it, some of them printed stuff. On a good day, the MEN wrote respectable articles, on other days, they had some very stupid headlines. There were some good journalists at the MEN though – Paul Horrocks was a good staff reporter, more reflective than the others who just wanted to print rubbish and get a story in the paper.
So that’s what we did: loads of community meetings that were very well attended and we handed these leaflets around. And that was our political practice. We organised and campaigned around education issues, we had anti-deportation campaigns. The man in this community, Anthony Brown, who now is one of the organisers of the Manchester Carnival – he was facing deportation in the 1970s, and we launched a campaign and succeeded in having him stay here.
What kinds of people were getting involved in these protests?
Lets differentiate a bit. The anti-fascist demos drew just about everybody: old and young, black and white, as well as people from the Asian sub continent. There were large groups of women, large groups of young people, the core of whom were political activists who were running organisations or members of organisations, who came together to work in solidarity with us to work towards particular ends.
That was a regular pattern. When we established the Moss Side Defence Committee in 1981, we decided there would be a subcommittee called the ‘Labour Movement and Trade Union Committee’. We tried to visit their meetings to get individual unions to pass resolutions and donate funds to the particular campaign.
For some causes, we had university students unions supporting – materially, and with cash. Some union offices allowed us to run off leaflets, some organised coaches to demonstrations. It became a loose coalition of progressive forces, including the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Particularly in the aftermath of the disturbances, when the police were just dragging people indiscriminately off the streets, we, the Moss Side Defence Committee, met the Haldane Society, and got pretty horrific reports about the how the courts were getting the probations service to write quick reports on individuals – used by the judge before he passed sentence. This was being done in a sausage machine mode, and the people were not getting the personal treatment they needed. It was all aimed at demonstrating to the public that the situation was in hand, and in the firm grasp of the state. As a result of protests, they discontinued this practice.
As far as the disturbances themselves were concerned, there was clearly not a conscious political decision made that this would be a form of resistance that we were going to engage in on this particular night. In any event, people would not do that, because they would be too scared of a Guy Fawkes movement: someone squealing to the police. So it was spontaneous, but attracted people who felt that they had been hard done by for a long time, and that they would take on the police.

On reflection, how successful was Moss Side Defence Committee?

We were moderately successful. Many of the people who were arrested trusted us implicitly to go and assist them in putting their case together, and in getting legal representation. We introduced a way of working with defendants where we ensured that the defendant remained in charge of the case. We took statements from people, saying we don’t care what you have told the police, you can make a statement here not under duress but it has to be truthful, and we will use that statement to organise your defence.
It sent a powerful message to the magistrates, and that was that we as a community are watching the decisions you make. We want to see evidence that you are taking as seriously the submissions of people from Moss Side as you are taking submissions from the police, and we will expose whatever endorsement you as a court give of police malpractices.
We organised ourselves and went to the court. Some of us went and sat in, some were outside giving out leaflets, and that worked pretty well. The only other thing I would say is this. We worked with individuals that had been arrested, and I believe the whole programme would have accelerated quicker if we had worked with other organisations to build a wider body of mass support. There ought to have been many more people on demonstrations outside the court.
It was a politically volatile period, but politically rich in a whole number of ways. I really had hoped that given the careful work we had put into challenging the Hytner Enquiry, boycotting the enquiry and writing a critique of his findings, having all these meetings around the place, picketing the courts every time somebody was on trial, I was rather hoping we might have built a mass movement around all of that, in pursuit of justice and against police brutality and harassment.
But I think people were happy to come together from their organisations as an alliance, which was effectively what the Moss Side Defence Committee was, rather than seeing themselves as integrally part of one collective group, seeking to build a movement of working class people around these issues. And I suppose people got tired: it had been an exhausting few months.
It has always been a regret to me that I personally and others didn’t return to our critique of the Hytner Enquiry and look at it more analytically, making the links to all that stuff I have been sharing with you, to make a more complete story that others today could look at. Young people particularly, should not be encouraged to see the so-called riots in isolation from everything else.

What changed after the disturbances?

Many, if not most young people developed – however temporarily – developed a greater sense of their own power. Many had the feeling that even if the state didn’t sit up and take account of the message they were giving on the street through these disturbances, they had made their presence felt. Not least to James Anderton and his Greater Manchester Police.
The fact that William Whitelaw, Heseltine and Thatcher introduced a range of projects around the place trying to consolidate the black voluntary sector and links with business, with the support of the banks, they gave start up grants for small entrepreneurs.
And then there was a large amount of refurbishment … and the regeneration of the centre radiated outwards towards Hulme and Moss Side, but while there has been a lot of physical regeneration, not as much has been spent on rehabilitating people.
And the demography of the community has changed: large numbers of Somalis coming in, Lebanese as well, even before the Polish started to arrive. There has been a process of constant adaptation to that.
I get a sense though that there is much less community cohesion now than there used to be. I just don’t get a feeling that communities are working together, with a sense of common purpose and a vision of the future. It is not that people are defeated as such – though Thatcherism had a toll on us all God knows – it’s that the climate is not necessarily conducive to civil action or protest, or change coming about through people becoming adamant that the status quo must change.
Maybe people don’t have a sense of their own strength?
Exactly. I tell that to young people all the time, I say, “You have got the capacity to be as organised as the teaching unions are, and within your schools you have got to sit down talk about issues, and find ways to hold the school to account. You don’t have to do it in a belligerent or antagonistic way, but simply to assert your right to comment on and influence the way the community of which you are a part functions.”
Headteachers run a mile when they hear that kind of thing. But I do feel that if all those young black people who are knifing and shooting one another on the streets had had their energies directed into serious political activism, where they consciously attempting to get their voices heard and influence policies on whatever issue it is, there would be such a sense of empowerment of the capacity to get things done and of achievements to be celebrated, people would have neither the time or the stomach for the kind of violence within our communities.

What can reflections on the disturbances tell us in the present? For people who are looking at problems of racism and police violence

Let me preface my answer by saying, I believe the greatest disservice the state does to its population is through the crappy schooling system we have. When you consider that there is such an emphasis on high level exam results, as if that’s the only mark of schools’ effectiveness, the debate about schooling is always about providing labour for the market, Britain’s economic competitiveness, and the extent to which schools and universities are churning people out.
It has nothing to do with giving people the tools to take control of their own lives, equipping people to act collectively to bring about change, and it is certainly nothing to do with understanding the evolution of British social history, such that we can as a society learn from our advances and defeats. That kind of discourse is seen as a throwback to the days of ‘red-led’ protests of the past for lefties. The assumption is that it is not necessary to think in terms of class or the individual up against the state, and that we should be counting our blessings. Meanwhile, stratification within society becomes more entrenched. Those who are poor are not just disenfranchised by lacking wages through which they can live dignified lives; they are also denied the tools by which they can organise in defence of their lives.
People fall prey to an opaque sameness, an assumed consensus in terms of the values we commonly share. Which allows clowns like Cameron to talk about the ‘Big Society’.
It is very important that we understand what led to 1981, and what gives rise to the peaks and troughs as far as the emergence of neo-fascist organisations are concerned. I would not be surprised if in the coming period as European economies begin falling in on themselves you have another upsurge of pan-European fascism.
We need to see ourselves as being in a continuity of struggle, and the struggle is never won until we are living in the kind of social democracies that do not place on a pedestal the market, with all the neo-liberal values that come with it; the rampant individualism, the greed, the abandonment of hope, the abandonment of idealism, the sense that the state has no role in regulating forces within society so those who want to prey on the weak in society have full vent to do that.
It has been taken to extreme lengths in terms of the way schooling is going now: the privatisation of everything that moves. Academies, trusts, and Michael Gove’s assertion that you can open schools all over the place, with no concern about cohesion, no concern about social inclusion.
And in due course all of that must implode upon itself, because it is not just in dictatorships that you find people being oppressed, it happens within so-called democracies as well, and we ignore that at our peril.
I’d like to think in reflecting on 30 years ago we can reflect on what happened since: why did the labour movement that had all these giants, why did it all suddenly get eclipsed? What happened to trade union basic education projects and the workers education movement? What are young people in Moss Side today grounding their sense of identity and purpose? What connection do they have with these lessons of the past? How are they being primed and equipped to make their mark in this present age as each generation has a duty to do?
If anyone tells me that those who are educated will find a way to do that because they have the social capital to do that, I would say that is complete nonsense. Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”. The fact is, schooling is dumbing down people’s sense of history, if not their aspirations as human beings working together to shape a future. I believe the country lost a trick when there was a concentration on building a citizenship curriculum, without concentrating on the need to teach British social history: we need to understand the society, how we have come to be as we are, that rich tradition of fighting for rights. Expanding rights in the society, and with that the responsibilities people have in the present, to build a better future for those coming after them.
I don’t get a sense right now, that there is that level of awareness or political literacy.
I don’t know why people don’t ask the question more regularly, if the centralist tendency within the government is leading to the collapse of local government in safeguarding the rights of citizens, then if what matters to me is how my life in Manchester is regulated by those at the Town Hall, then why should I be concerned about what happens in Whitehall? And yet people in Whitehall feel they have the right to cut off local government and leave people to all kinds of forces without understanding that not everyone has the capacity to engage with the market in that way.
I find it a not very hopeful scenario, and that is why I spend a lot of time trying to connect people with that long sweep of historical struggle, and giving them some tools of analysis so they can better understand what is going on around them.

Article by Andrew Bowman

This article was originally published in The Mule online newspaper in August 2011, and is reproduced by permission of the author.

The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre

Set up in 1999, the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre was named after a Bangladeshi boy murdered in a racially motivated attack in Burnage in 1986. It is a resource centre on everything from the criminal justice system in the United States to the history of the local Pakistani community of Manchester.

Louis Kushnick OBE is the driving force behind the centre and has been involved in race relation issues in Manchester since the late 1960s. It was his personal collection of books, journals, articles and news cuttings that formed the basis of the archive which is located in the University of Manchester campus today. Arwa Aburawa spoke to him about the history of the centre, the projects it has worked on, the changes he has witnessed in the education system and the impact of the recent government cuts on the centre’s future.

Louis Kushnick, who was born in Brooklyn and studied at Yale, came for a one-year scholarship at the University of Manchester in 1963 and decided to stay. Now a retired professor, he has worked as a senior lecturer at the university for forty years, alongside other responsibilities such as chairing the Research Institute for Race Relations and editing the quarterly journal ‘Race Relations Abstracts’. By 1998, he had acquired such a substantial amount of material on race relations issues that it required a separate office to house it.

“It was getting out of hand so the question was well what do we do with it?,” he recalls. “A group of us got together and decided that if we gave all this material to the University of Manchester John Rylands library it would continue to used by academics but that would be it. So what we wanted to do is create some sort of centre that anyone could access.” As there was no money available for a centre, the group approached Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester at the time, to ask for financial assistance. Harris agreed to support the project as it would be located within the university and he hoped it would help encourage a greater diversity of people to attend the university, which had a reputation as a place for white, upper-middle class students.

The group was given a space behind the Blackwell’s bookshop on Oxford Road which had been empty for some time; the rent was paid by the University. Once the premises had been cleaned, the group bought some cheap shelving and started moving books into the archive, categorizing them with the support of MMU postgraduate students.

The Centre Opens & The Macpherson Report

The formal opening of the centre was on February 9th 1999 and in the same week, the Macpherson Report, which identified institutional racism not only in the Metropolitan police but also in the wider criminal justice system, was launched. “I remember that on Radio Manchester that morning, Selina (the oldest daughter of the Ullah family) said that for what it was worth, at least her family got some sort of closure as the boy who killed Ahmed was convicted. She thought the Steven Lawrence family would never get that and she was right.”

When the centre opened there were three people sharing a 0.5 post which was paid for by the University of Manchester. However, the money soon ran out and so the group began looking for more support which they soon found in the Progress Trust, which works to ensure that BME communities in Greater Manchester access urban regeneration funding. The funding allowed the centre to expand its activities beyond its focus on keeping the centre open for visitors, to creating outreach programmes for teachers and working with schools.

Murder and Racism in the Playground

Working in the the education sector, racism in education and the power of anti-racism education are issues close to Kushnick’s heart. It was one of the reasons why he decided to contact the family of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah to ask if they could name the centre in his memory. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah was a 13 year old boy of Bangladeshi origin who went to Burnage High School, where a fair amount of racist bullying went on. In 1986, a fight in the playground broke out and Ahmed came to the aid of some younger Asian boys when a 13-year old white pupil took out a knife, stabbed and killed him.

“The boy [who stabbed Ahmed] himself came from an extremely disturbed background and it was a tragedy all round,” states Kushnick. “but the incident did raise the issue of racism in schools, how whiteness becomes an identity. So we wanted to send a signal and use the material in outreach programmes to teachers in schools with limited resources, a narrow curriculum and encourage an environment where all children could flourish. We wanted to challenge stereotypes that Asians should be doctors or that you don’t expect anything from working class children – we wanted to encourage more inclusive ways of teaching and encourage teachers to expect all their pupils to succeed.”

Breaking Down The Stratified Education System

Armed with funding from the Progress Trust, the Millennium Awards and pro bono support of the University of Manchester (which allowed them to use the premises rent-free and also did their payroll), the centre began to put together materials for teachers.

“At the time, Britain had a highly stratified education system. Working class students were 8 times less likely to pass the 11+ exams than middle class ones,” says Kushnick. “Meanwhile teachers went to school everyday and very few of them woke up thinking ‘another day to mess over some working-class kids, another day to lessen their self-esteem and another day to convince them to have no or very limited aspirations.’ But everyday they went to school thinking that white working class parents didn’t care about education, that girls will go off and work in Woollies for a couple of years, get married and have kids. Meanwhile the lads could get an apprenticeship, settle down, marry the girl who used to work at Woollies and have kids…”

People from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities were also approaching the centre and them asking it about their history in the country and in Manchester. The team quickly realised that whilst they had lots of really great resources on race relations, there was very little primary information or secondary sources when it came to the local level. “The people’s stories about how they came to this country, their experiences, how they created their own religious and housing education, how they dealt with the education of young children – we had very little of that,” remarks Kushnick. The centre decided to tackle both these issues through their outreach work at schools by asking pupils to collect information and stories about their communities. Not only would this help fill a gap in the archive but it would also raise the confidence of BME pupils whilst educating others about the history of the wider BME community.

Collecting Stories from Manchester’s BME Communities

BME pupils interviewed their grandparents and found that some had great aunties who worked in the Land Army in World War Two or family who served in the British Army. The interviews – 144 of them – were transcribed, printed and kept in the archive alongside family photographs and heirlooms. Children from Sikh, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean communities contributed interviews, and four girls from Levenshulme turned these interviews into a book called ‘Strength of Spirit’ which is full of interviews and photos from the Bangladeshi community. The centre also spent a year working with Refugee Action to put together an exhibition and teaching information pack on refugees in Manchester and the hardships they face on their journey to the UK.

Over the years, more and more of the centre’s projects consisted of producing material which would contribute to the archive and also help build a record of the local BME community which was later used for teaching materials, travelling exhibitions and the annual Black History Month. Working with primary schools in Rusholme, Moss Side and Whalley Range, the centre helped to put a book together retelling the story of Olaudah Equiano, an eighteenth-century slave who was freed in London and became one of the leaders campaigning against the slave trade. A book was also published on the life of the former slave Mary Prince (c.1788- death date unknown), who presented her testimony about the horrible conditions endured by the enslaved in the Caribbean, and Noor Inayat Khan who was captured and imprisoned by the Gestapo and was executed at Dachau in 1944. Khan was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the British George Cross in 1949.

Kushnick says that the centre’s future projects will continue to focus on anti-racism education and adding material to the archive. Some of the projects currently underway include school schemes exploring international folk tales as well as a funded initiative looking into the Yemeni community in Salford and documenting its experience. However, the cuts in government funding are worrying for the centre, which will be looking to find new forms of financial support in March 2012. “In this crisis no one is sure how they are going to be affected,” says Kushnick. “Of course we hope everything will be okay and we can keep the centre open but, in all honesty, we have no idea what will happen.”

The Race Relations Archive is located near Manchester Piccadilly station and includes over 8,000 resources available for use by students, practitioners and the general public. For more information and visiting hours see the centre’s website.

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group

The Irish in Britain Representation group was an Irish community group which campaigned nationally across the UK and had an active branch in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s. The organisation campaigned on a wide range of issues including anti-Irish racism, education , culture, rights of women, history, language, civil rights, miscarriages of justice and the war in the North of Ireland. Membership included both those born in Ireland and those born in Britain.

This is the first of two articles collecting memories of those involved in the Manchester branch of the IBRG.

Anti-Irish “Humour”

The Manchester branch took up a number of examples of anti-Irish “humour”, believing that such “jokes” were racist and attacked the self-confidence of the community. In July 1985 the branch wrote a letter of protest to Granada TV about the programme The Comedians, which routinely featured Irish “jokes”. Writing in response to the complaint John Hamp, Head of Light Entertainment, said that no offence had been intended:

“The Comedians reflects the sort of humour to be heard currently in summer shows, theatres and clubs around the country. No joke is intended to be interpreted seriously, and none are delivered in a malicious manner by the comedians. In fact, it’s usually the impossible or unlikely aspect of a joke which gives it humour, whatever the subject. The series employs several Irish comedians as well as comics from other parts of Great Britain. and they tell gags about themselves, their environment and each other – in a friendly and good humoured atmosphere. We feel The Comedians keeps within the accepted limits of humour and know it is enjoyed by a large audience, but regret that you feel cause to complain, and have taken note of your comments”.

In August 1986 IBRG wrote a letter of protest to the Equal Opportunities Commission over an EOC booklet entitled Do Girls Give Themselves a Fair Chance? It included a cartoon in which a young woman bricklayer on a building site is shown as being smarter and more hardworking than two male operatives who are, of course, Irish and are shown speaking in “Oirish”. In reply, the EOC’s Ann Godwin said that she very much regretted it had caused offence and that it would be revised in a new edition.

Travellers

Just before Christmas 1987 eighty DHSS investigators, accompanied by police with dogs, swamped a travellers’ camp in Salford, demanding to see children’s birth certificates. The “visit” occurred in the wake of a local press campaign which alleged that “tinkers” were flooding into the area and defrauding the benefits system. When they read of the case in the press IBRG members visited the site and offered support and practical help to the travellers as well as writing to DHSS and issuing a press release. IBRG said that it was:

“diabolical that people can be treated in this way. Whole families can be left without money at a time when most people are spending too much and eating too much. It is indicative of the way that in which people who are Irish and travellers can be hounded without any criticism of the methods or motives of organisations such as DHSS”.

Conferences

The branch thought it important to bring together Irish people to consider and discuss the issues affecting their lives, believing that it broke down the isolation many Irish people often felt when it comes to talking about issues of identity, injustice, racism and much else.

The branch’s first major conference took place on Saturday 14th November 1987 at Manchester Town Hall and was entitled “Hearts and Minds – The Irish in Britain Today”. Over 140 delegates attended, both as individuals and also representing organisations such as local authorities and North West Arts. The conference was formally opened by the Chair of Manchester City Council, Councillor Eileen Kelly. She was followed by Desmond Greaves, the noted historian and leading member of the Connolly Association, who illuminated the role that emigration has played in the lives of the Irish. This theme came up constantly during the day in the seminars.

Mary Lennon, author of a book on Irish women in Britain, looked at the pattern of Irish women’s emigration to Britain, highlighting the fact that more women than men have emigrated from Ireland and contradicting the stereotype of the Irish emigrant to Britain as being a male building worker. Moy McCrory used her book of short stories The Water’s Edge to comment on the experience of growing up in an Irish working class background in Liverpool. In her seminar on Irish Dimensions in British Education, Mary Hickman underlined the importance of having Irish studies on the curriculum of all British schools and colleges. Micheal ORiabhaigh also focused on Liverpool and commented on some of the profound obstacles that it faced in realising and expressing an Irish identity.

Pat Reynolds took up the theme of identity and anti-Irish racism. He traced the roots of this racism back to the connected history of Britain and Ireland and in this colonial relationship found the basis of present day anti-Irish racism.

IBRG judged the conference to be a great success with many important discussions in the seminars – and outside in the corridors over cigarettes and tea. It gave the Irish from all over the North West an opportunity to meet and discuss common issues. IBRG ensured that half the speakers were women and provided a creche, which was well-used

IBRG’s next conference was held to coincide with twentieth anniversary of British troops going onto the streets of the six counties and was entitled “Justice for Irish People; 20 Years On” and rook place on Saturday 10th June 1989 at Manchester Town Hall.

Another conference entitled “We Are A River Flowing…..”. took place on Saturday 3rd July 1993 at St Brendan’s Irish Centre. It encompassed a day of discussion and debate on the history of the Irish community. The final speaker Mary Nellis (a Sinn Fein councillor from Derry) spoke on Women in the Six Counties: the Struggle Goes On and On, throwing away her prepared speech after a few minutes and speaking off the cuff about her experiences in Derry in a lengthy contribution that gripped and moved the audience.

The future development of the Irish community was the subject of the next conference which was called “Irish Heartbeats” and took place on 16th March 1996 at the Friends Meeting House.

Culture

IBRG members collaborated with Adrian Mealing at Green Room to put on The Hairy Marys on 13th November 1987. The Hairy Marys were a group of talented Irish dancers from London who had tired of some of the traditions that had encrusted Irish traditional dance and used comedy and cabaret in their performance. The programme described them thus: “The HMs are a madcap gang of Irish dancers. These four raucous women dance reels to ragtime and jigs to jazz. For the past five years they have been entertaining audiences up and down the country with their irreverent mixture of traditional Irish dance, music and comedy. They are Maire Clerkin, Hester Goodman, Carmel McAree and Susan Swanton”. On the evening they went down a storm.

IBRG worked with the Green Room again to present Sean O’Neill and Company in a performance entitled Kavanagh of Inniskeen as part of the Irish week on Friday 18th March 1988. The following evening there was live music from The Jacket Potatoes, an Irish trio from London, who played both traditional tunes and a number of political songs about the situation in the North of Ireland.

The next co-promotion with the Green Room was on 16th June 1988 when Trouble & Strife Theatre Company from London performed “Now And At The Hour Of Our Death”, a play written by Sonja Lyndon. The programme notes read as follows: “It is the year 2000 and life has changed dramatically for the people of Northern Ireland. Four Irish women look back twenty years to a time when they each had a dream. Between them there is an unshakeable bond forged from the shared horror of the No Wash protest in Armagh prison in 1980. The vivid performances explore the complex relationship between women and violence and produce a magnificent piece of theatre which will shock, amuse and move.” The play lived up to the pre-publicity, according to those who saw it. Incidentally, the young women performers in the theatre company arrived a day early due to a mix-up and were all accommodated at an IBRG member’s house.

On 16th September 1988 IBRG put on Toss the Feathers at St Brendan’s Irish Centre This was at the height of the TTF mania and hundreds of people turned up. Members recall that the beerstained proceeds from the evening were carried home stuffed into pockets and helped to fund branch activities for many months afterwards.

The Hairy Marys returned to the Green Room on Sunday 19th March 1989 as part of a St Patrick’s Day Celebration, one of the “Family Fundays” being run by the Green Room at this period, running a dance workshop for children who then performed later in the afternoon.

Manchester IBRG initiated the first Irish Film Festival in Manchester in collaboration with the Cornerhouse in 1988. In all there were six seasons at the Cornerhouse between 1988 and 1993. The aim was to celebrate and showcase past and present Irish efforts in this art-form, but also to use it as a way of exploring contemporary social and political issues through the use of associated day-schools and speakers.

IBRG also organised events during the Manchester Festival in 1991 and 1992 under the title Mise Eire. These included history walks, evenings with writers Moy McCrory, Moya Roddy, Clairr O’Connor and Berlie Doherty, music from Banshee, Rattle and Reel, Red Ciel and The Jacket Potatoes, dance by The Hairy Marys, and storytelling.

History

The branch organised a number of events in April 1991 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an anniversary which was virtually ignored by the Irish government, part of the so-called “revisionist” attack on celebrations of past Irish struggle which were supposedly giving aid and sustenance to the armed struggle in the north.

The first event was on Thursday 18th April, an evening entitled Poetry and Songs of the Rising held at St Brendan’s Irish centre. Actor Sean O’Neill, a good friend of Manchester IBRG, read poems by WB Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonough and others, followed by music from local musicians.

On that Friday evening there was a chance to Rock To The Rising at Chorlton Irish Centre. Music was provided by Tradition, one of West Yorkshire’s most popular Irish groups, who brought a coachload of young and enthusiastic supporters over with them and a good time was apparently had by all. Those who had not indulged too heavily the night before joined a history walk at lunchtime around Manchester City Centre.

The final event was on Sunday 21st April at St Brendan’s Irish Centre at which there were videos, music, bookstall, an Irish history quiz and a talk from Kevin Collins, author of The Cultural Conquest of Ireland. To accompany these events Ruth and Edmund Frow of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford put on an Easter Rising exhibition at the library.

There were many celebrations and conferences in 1998 to commemorate the bicentenary of the 1798 Rising. Manchester IBRG organised its own conference which put the Rising squarely in the context of community history and development. This took place on Saturday 20th June 1998 at the Friends Meeting House

Gaelic Language

On Wednesday 5th June 1991 the branch organised a meeting at St Brendan’s Irish Centre to discuss the attack by the Northern Ireland office on Glor na nGael. The meeting was part of a speaking tour of Manchester and London set up by IBRG to highlight the discrimination being exercised by the Northern Ireland Office against the Irish language. Glor na nGael was started in 1982 in response to the growing demand for Irish language nursery schools in the Belfast area to co-ordinate the schools and train their teachers. Patricia Campbell from Glor na nGael spoke at the Manchester meeting, which was followed by a discussion with a number of Irish speakers.

Article by Michael Herbert

Riotous Assembly – 1998-2001?

In the late 1990s open meetings called Riotous Assembly took place in the Yard Theatre in Homes for Change, a housing co-operative in Hulme, South Manchester. The meetings were intended to be spaces where people involved in radical, direct action, anarchist, ecological, autonomous and non-hierarchical organising could meet, celebrate their activities, network future events and actions and educate themselves about a wide range of issues.

This article consists of the edited transcript of a discussion between two individuals, one of whom was involved from the first days of Riotous Assembly and a second who became involved in helping to run the meetings in their later years. They’re not using their real names.

James: Riotous Assembly was born out of that time when the Manchester Earth First! (EF!) meetings were just too big, they were getting 20 or 30 people every fortnight. And some people just said, OK, there’s obviously a need for a networking forum but we don’t want that function to be taken on by the EF! meetings because we want to be getting on with organising ecological actions. So the decision was taken to set up an activist networking forum, and it was the first of that generation of them in this country. The Rebel Alliance in Brighton got a lot of cred and recognition – but we were first! And there had been similar things a decade or so earlier, there was something called Liberty Hall in Liverpool, but they’d fallen away for an activist generation.

Jane: Who picked the name?

James: I remember exactly who came up with the name [names an individual active in anarchist and direct action politics at the time]. Part of it was about the fact that Riotous Assembly was a criminal charge, which we thought was quite funny. But also that it was an assembly, riotous in the sense of both a riot tactic but also in the sense of riotous laughter, so not just a really full-on thing. But also the assembly was a real attempt to create something, the concept of an assembly – something that wasn’t a group in itself, something no one person or group could take control of.

The slightly fatter-than-bookmark fliers we created for it did say something about No Dogma, we were trying to think of ways that it wouldn’t just be a target for the SWP [Socialist Workers’ Party] taking it over, and would be in form if not in name a truly anarchist way of organising. So if it’s an assembly, not a group, the idea was that there’s no power, there’s nothing to take control of, because any group can come along and say we want to organise next month’s meeting, but they’d only be doing the next month.

The format was quite regular in that there would be three parts. The later sections were a kind of review of what had been happening over the last month, actions and campaigns that people had been involved in, partly to update people but also as a small pat on the back, and to use that energy to move onto the final bit which was what was happening in the next month. That was mostly announcements, some of it was ‘this is happening but we need more people’ – so making ourselves accessible. And the first third could be around an issue of that group’s choice, and we tried to encourage people to do it in creative ways. So one time there was a little play and there might be a film but we’d make sure it wasn’t just a film where people became an audience but that there was active discussion afterwards. I think someone did a banner-making workshop and other creative things, or it could just be a speaker and discussion. But we were really hot on that section not squeezing the other two-thirds, because we really didn’t want it just becoming a talking shop.

Jane: What subjects do you remember being covered? I remember a genetics one, a Zapatista one, somebody wanting to talk about Palestine but it getting shouted down on the grounds that it was a nationalist struggle… but although I was involved in quite a lot of them from 1999 or 2000 – booking them and putting some of them on – I can’t remember many of the talks.

James: I think there was stuff about Strangeways and the prison riots there, there was stuff around racial discrimination, stuff on domestic violence, it depended on the group who organised it – the idea was always to publicise it well in advance and use different issues to pull people in… but I can’t remember all the other issues. Someone will have the fliers somewhere.

But I think I was saying before that the concept was really sound and could still work, although the practical issues meant it didn’t work at the time. I think it was partly around the process of creation, in that it came out of an Earth First! meeting and the ideas came out of that, but before it was actually launched there wasn’t another meeting to try and get more ownership from other groups that might want to get involved, and that was partly because we were naïve about it, we’d got an idea that the concept was sound and that that was enough.

We didn’t want this to turn into an SWP front or get taken over or turn into a talk shop, we want it to be there to promote discussion and action and a sense of movement-building, although that term wasn’t used, and connections between people because there were so many people doing stuff around Manchester but not necessarily in touch with each other. So the concept was sound but I don’t think we brought those other groups in early enough, and if we had done an early meeting to sort things out the danger might have been that it would have decided not to do something like that, so even if we’d done it better from a group work and community development angle we might not have ended up with the same result.

Jane: Do you think the venue was a problem? Because those Earth First! meetings were in the town centre, they were very accessible to a wide range of people, whereas being in Hulme cut it off from a lot of people. Obviously Hulme has been a hub for a lot of direct action and radical politics, but obviously for anyone not on the Chorlton bus routes, getting to Hulme means an extra bus journey on top of the one coming into the city centre, and Hulme itself, certainly then, was quite dark and isolated and scary feeling if you didn’t know it.

James: Yes, I remember a couple of the older people from Greater Manchester who would have to get a train in and then a bus out and then a bit of a walk, so they had to be very motivated, and students at that time certainly felt that it was kind of scary and off the student corridor and Oxford Road. But we still had 60 or 80 people turning up monthly, or maybe 30 or 40 later on…

Jane: Certainly my recollection is that by the time I was more involved, by 2000 or 2001, they were often down to a couple of dozen. But when do you think they actually started?

James: I’m not sure, but it was certainly the time that Earth First! meetings moved to the EF! Office in a flat on the Redbricks. Because we decided we’d got these open, accessible Riotous Assembly meetings and we’d got the squat cafes still, and what we needed was for EF! meetings to be about planning action, not fortnightly meetings where every time you’ve got new people coming along who feel a bit excluded because you’re using shorthand terms or hand signals. So they weren’t meant to be totally private, but a bit more private, so if someone specifically wanted to come to an EF! meeting they’d be collected from a pub or a bus stop and brought in, so people were more aware when there was a new person and could make that effort and explain things more clearly…

Jane: So what’s your take on why Riotous Assembly folded?

James: Well, maybe there are more reasons but my top one would be the old ‘beardies,’ by which I mean the old-style anarchists who weren’t all men and didn’t all have beards but largely were and did. They were people who’d spent decades in tiny meetings with each other, shouting across each other, not able to listen to each other, and never getting beyond little circles of Anarchist Federation, Solidarity Federation and little temporary groupings. They knew each other but still couldn’t communicate and were still trying to convince each other of things that they obviously weren’t going to shift each others’ opinions on. And suddenly, they had 60 people to play with and be their audience.

A lot of it was that they didn’t have the social skills to understand their impact. One of them accused EF! of running those Riotous Assemblies, and it often was people who’d done EF! who were putting most time into organising and facilitating them, but actually people from EF! were really aware that they weren’t an EF! forum, it shouldn’t be controlled or dominated by EF!, that EF! discussions didn’t discuss Riotous Assembly because we felt that was undemocratic. But for some of those older people it wasn’t just that they objected to Earth First!, it was that it was a new way of doing things that was actually more anarchist – not that I want to get into a ‘I’m more anarchist than you’ fight – but in terms of collective autonomy and groups being able to create and organise what they wanted, and take direct action together, rather than just talk about it. And using consensus decision making as well, and for some of them it was all a bit new and they had trouble adapting. They would try and block things and accuse people of doing things that they weren’t doing, so each time that happened it would drive some people away.

Equally, I have met people who said afterwards that it was really good that they’d heard these discussions and that there may only have been 6 people talking but they were ideas they’d not heard before and were interested in, so they didn’t mind that they didn’t get to talk. But I tend more to wanting people to participate…

Jane: My memory of some of the ‘beards’ is that not only did they not have some of the social skills, but also what a lot of them wanted to talk about was theory. They weren’t people who were actively doing direct action and largely what they wanted to hold forth on were points of theory, and I remember having the sense that there were 5 people there who had 3 anarchist reading groups between them because they just kept splintering off from each other over points of disagreement… and I think those people were a big problem and drained a lot of energy. But the counter-argument might be that if those meetings had been better facilitated and less hung up on feeling that you have to accommodate everybody, however dysfunctional, then you might have just told some of those people to shut up occasionally and they wouldn’t have been able to drain energy the way they ended up doing.

James: Absolutely, but I think that was partly about ownership, and those people who had the facilitation skills tended to be Earth Firsters who didn’t want to assert control over an assembly that no-one was meant to be asserting control over. So they were caught between a rock and a hard place, that we don’t want to rule these people out and tell them they were impacting on other people and that they should go and talk about it in room with themselves, or with the other 5 people you’ve been talking about it with for 15 years. But we didn’t want to exert that control, and it’s really hard because if one person, and it was just one person, is accusing something like EF! of exerting control, you do everything you can not to make that a reality, although you’re sure it’s not reality, you over-compensate. So you put yourself in a powerless position instead of saying, look, this is the original idea, it was working fine, now it’s not working fine because of some people’s lack of social skills and us not facilitating actively and strongly enough… well, it just imploded.

And it was difficult, because in amongst some of those beardies there were people who were really destructive, like the one who kept accusing EF! of running things, and others like X who was really cool and because of his links with other organisations like Solidarity Federation would turn up every so often with a hundred quid to give to ecological direct action. So there was that personal contact that was brought about through it. And we used to learn about lots of other stuff from some of the older activist generations who used to come to Riotous Assembly but wouldn’t have come to an Earth First! meeting and who had been involved in things like trade union struggles. And it was around the time of the Loombreaker [a local direct action/anarchist newspaper], so there meetings were a really good way of collecting information and finding out about other stuff that was going on…

So I can’t remember how Riotous Assembly actually ended, whether it just petered out or whether someone actually took a decision to end it, but for lots of reasons there just weren’t enough groups stepping up to facilitate the next one…

Jane: My memory of the last ones was that it was a very small group of us that dragged it along towards the end, feeling that we had to go out there and find a speaker and that one of us would have to facilitate it, rather than what it was supposed to be, with groups and campaigns taking one on and sorting out the content and facilitator and publicity and us just having to book the venue…

James: And then it had become something extra that Earth Firsters had had to do with a different hat on, but which then stopped them doing the campaigning that they actually wanted to be doing…

Article by Sarah Irving