Peace and Antiwar activities in 1930s Manchester

In the decade before the outbreak of the Second World War there was extensive campaigning by a number of organisations in Manchester on the issues of peace and opposition to war.

The experience of the slaughter of millions during First World War (“the war to end all wars”) had led many to believe that war was not a solution to international conflict, indeed it might lead to the complete collapse of civilisation. The establishment of the League of Nations after the Paris Conference had appeared to offer hope that new system of international accord might prevent future conflicts. Its aims, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing war through collective security and settling international issues through discussion and arbitration. By 1935 it had 58 members, but not the United States, which refused to join despite the best efforts of President Woodrow Wilson.

Despite some successes, the League was revealed as powerless and ineffectual when countries ignored it and embarked on wars of aggression. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria (then part of China), in 1935 Italy attacked Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia), in 1936 Franco and other generals launched a coup against Spain’s Republican government, aided by Italy and Germany, in 1937 Japan launched a full-scale war against China. In each of these cases the League was unable to act effectively. Coupled with the accession to power of the Nazis in 1933 and their rapid re-armament of Germany, the worsening international situation appeared to portend that another world conflict was inevitable, a prospect many people found almost unbearable when memories of the last war were still so raw.

This public mood was crystallised by what became known as “the King and Country debate” at the Oxford Union on 9 February 1933. A motion stating “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country” was proposed. It was moved by Kenelm Digby, who told the packed chamber that , “It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique. The justification urged for the last war was that it was a war to end war. If that were untrue it was a dastardly lie; if it were true, what justification is there for opposition to this motion tonight?” “. The motion was passed by 275 votes to 15.

The debate and the result caused enormous public controversy and contributed to the emergence of a new peace movement. In 1934 the Peace Pledge Union was founded by Canon Dick Shepherd and attracted tens of thousands of members. The PPU joined with the Women’s Co-operative Guild to promote the wearing of the White Poppy on Remembrance Sunday, which the Guild had started selling in 1933.

A survey conducted in 1934 by the Manchester and District Anti-War Council listed the following organisations in Manchester. Some had been started in response to the Great War, others founded more recently.

Manchester & District Anti-War Council:
This had been formed in 1933 and was a coalition of about fifty mainly working-class and left-wing organisations such as Co-operative Guilds, trade union branches, Labour Parties, ILP, Communists and youth organisations. It carried on regular propaganda work, including public meetings, producing leaflets and posters, contacting the press and holding monthly meetings. On occasions it worked with the Women’s International League and the Society of Friends. The officers were listed as Louise Bell of Daisy Bank, Manchester 10 and Cicely M. Marsh of Granville Road, Fallowfield.

Anti-War Group, Manchester University:
This University society was affiliated to the British Students’ Anti-War council. Student members, which were estimated at about one hundred, pledged themselves not to take part in war and to work actively against wars. The Secretary was P. Chantler.

Fellowship of Reconciliation:
This was an international Christian pacifist society founded in 1914. The Manchester branch was willing to collaborate with any organisation whose views did not conflict with those of FOR. The Secretary was Frank Adey, of Lower Broughton Road.

Manchester & Salford Joint Disarmament Council:
This had been formed in 1931 and was established for the purpose of co-ordinating the work of some thirty local organisations in preparation for the Disarmament conference. This conference was organised by the League of Nations and took place in Geneva from 1932 to 1933. It broke down when Hitler, on coming to power, withdrew Germany from the conference and also from the League of Nations. By 1934 this Council seems to have ceased to function.

League of Nations Union:
This had been established as a national organisation in October 1918 by the merger of the League of Free Nations Association and the League of Nations Society, with the aim of working for the support of the League of Nations amongst the people. Membership in Manchester and near-by districts was claimed to be around 25,000, organised into 72 branches. The LNU issued literature and provided speakers for public meetings and schools. The Secretary was C E Clift and the LNU had an office at 53 Barton Arcade.

Manchester Peace Players:
This drama society was formed to produce Peace Plays only and to perform these plays to churches, Co-operative Societies and Peace organisations. The players had about 25 acting members and 40 supporting members. The secretary was Helen Savage of York Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

No More War Movement:
The NWM was the British branch of the War Resisters International, founded in 1921. Members signed a declaration not to support any war, international or civil, and to work for the establishment of all caused of war, and the establishment of a new social and international order, based on co-operation for the common good. Membership was estimated at about 330. The Secretary was W Bingham, of Stretford Road.

Society of Friends:
The Friends Peace Committee actively sought to bring about a better understanding and co-operation between all peoples and collaborate where possible with other bodies in education for world peace. It issued literature and held public meetings and had been prominent in the activities of the Manchester and Salford Joint Disarmament council. The Secretary was Joseph Pennington, of Chestnut Avenue, Walkden.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom:
On April 28, 1915, despite many obstacles, a group of a thousand women met in an International Congress in The Hague, Netherlands to protest against the First world War. The organisers of the Congress were women who had been active in the International Suffrage Alliance, and who saw the connection between their struggle for equal rights and the struggle for peace.
The Congress led to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The WIL branch in Manchester was active in organising public meetings, providing speakers and protesting against military displays. It had 540 members and the Secretary was Audrey Bullough. They had an office at 1 Princess Street

Peace and anti-war activities

1935

The Manchester Anti-War Council organised an exhibition which took place in the Friends Meeting House between 14-19 January 1935. It was opened by George Sutherland, principal of Dalton Hall, with E C Whitaker in the chair.

The President of the Council was John Jagger, who was a trade unionist, President of the shop workers’ union the NUDAW, and was elected as MP for Manchester Clayton at the general election in November 1935. The exhibition comprised eight sections which looked at the causes, conduct and aftermath of the Great War and how preparations for another war were being made. The exhibition programme included an advert for anti-war literature at Books & Books, 54 Victoria Street.

1937

In July 1937 there was a Manchester & Salford Peace Week organised by an umbrella council, whose Presidents were the Lord Mayors of Manchester and Salford. The Peace Week appears to have been closely connected with the LNU as the Secretary of the council was C E Clift, who was also the Secretary of the LNU. The events included a Peace Exhibition at Central Hall, Oldham Street; a Peace shop on Deansgate (corner of Blackfriars); a Peace Shop and Exhibition on Wellington Street, Gorton; a performance of the anti-war play The Miracle of Verdun by Hans Schlumberg; and Peace Films at the Tatler Theatre, Oxford Road . There were also processions and meetings in many parts of Manchester and Salford, including meetings at the Friends Meeting House where on Monday 5 July Dr Herbert Gray spoke on “What Makes Nations Dangerous” while on 7 July Professor C E M Joad spoke on “The Coming of the World State”. On Wednesday 7 July there was a Women’s Day whose main event was a procession of one hundred women’s organisations from All Saints to Platt Fields where the speakers included Ellen Wilkinson MP.

The week concluded with a mass meeting in the Free Trade Hall , chaired by the Lord Mayor. The speakers were Norman Angell and Phillip Noel Baker MP. Norman Angell was Labour MP for Bradford 1929-1931 and active an international issues, including opposition to fascism. He was the author of many books. Philip Noel Baker (1899-1982) was from a Quaker family and during the First World War led the Friends Ambulance Unit which was staffed by conscientious objectors. He was MP for Derby 1936-1970 and later served in the House of Lords.

During the week there was an office for selling tickets at 53 Barton Arcade.

1938

In January 1938 the Manchester & District Ant-War Council hosted the Cambridge Anti-War Exhibition at the Burlington Café, Oxford Road (11-14 January) and then at the Friends Meeting house (15-19 January). The exhibition was opened by Maurice Dobb, a lecturer on economics at Trinity College Cambridge University. He was a member of the CPGB.

The art and lighting direction was by E G Barlow, who lent six of his own drawings. The design and mounting was by Misha Black who was an architect and designer, joint founder of the Artists’ International Association in 1933, and later professor of industrial design at the Royal College of Art from 1959-1975, and by Barbara Nixon (about whom I have not been able to find more information).

The mystery of Guernica

Guernica is Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting, created in response to the bombing of the Basque town by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces on 26 April 1937. The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.
On completion Guernica was taken on tour around the world in an attempt to bring the situation in Spain to public attention. In January 1939 Guernica and the studies were exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End. Intriguingly there is a persistent rumour that in February 1939 Guernica was exhibited in Manchester for two weeks in a vacant car showroom opposite the Cathedral, before it was returned to France and from there to the USA where it stayed for 42 years, only being sent back to Spain after the death of Franco. Enquiries are ongoing to establish the truth of this.

Article by Michael Herbert

Advertisements

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

Unicorn Grocery – 15 years of Fresh Food, Fairtrade & Organic Farming

In 2011, Unicorn Grocery, based in Chorlton, is celebrating 15 years of trade in organic, fairtrade, low-carbon and ethical produce.

Set up in 1996 by a small group of people interested in sustainable food, Unicorn Grocery has flourished over the years and now has a turnover of almost £4 million. Selling everything from local vegetables to Palestinian olive oil, the grocery has become a sustainable alternative to supermarkets. “I think what we wanted to do was to run a shop that sold the kind of things we wanted to buy,” states Debbie Clarke, an environmental campaigner who has worked at Unicorn for 10 years. “[A shop] that had an ethical outlook, that was sourcing things carefully in terms of provenance and nutrition.”

Inspired by a co-operative wholefood shop called Daily Bread in Cambridge, which is run on an ethical and Christian ethos, one of the founders of Unicorn Grocery, Adam York, decided to establish a similar grocery in Manchester. “Although he wasn’t a Christian, he saw value in the way that they were running things and also that it was replicable,” explains Debbie. “He took it on with a secular perspective and looked around for people who were interested in the project in Manchester. There were two people originally, which grew to six, and it took a couple of years planning for it and finding premises, money as well a doing a bit of market research to see if there was an appetite for it.” Finally, in 1996, the Unicorn Grocery Co-operative opened its doors to the public.

As a co-operative, most of the people that work at Unicorn own and run the business – everyone has a flat pay and makes an equal contribution in the running of the business. “I suppose there are loads of reasons why you would want to run a business as a co-op, some are political reasons such as having control in the hands of the workers to more practical reasons because it’s a really good business model,” states Debbie. “For example, the people that are making the decisions are the people that have to put everything into practice- there isn’t that chain of command where you have a distant head office which is barking orders at you when they have no idea how things work on the ground.”

This means that those stacking the shelves aren’t poorly paid workers but rather well-informed members of the co-op who know and understand the policies and ethics of the grocery. Even so, Debbie explains that they do have casual staff to give them a buffer for the fluctuations in how busy they are during the day, week and also the year. “We did try for a little being fully mutual, which means that everyone that worked there was a member, but it left us vulnerable to fluctuations so we have between 5-10% of our hours from casual staff although it’s not something that we want the business to be based around.”

As with all co-operatives, a certain level of compromise and creative tension is also inevitable. Unicorn embraces lots of principles such as vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, a focus on local food, fairtrade and organic growing but sometimes priorities need to be set and difficult decisions made. For example, Unicorn has decided not to have any boycotts in place and they don’t refuse to stock products from any country. Therefore they sell products from China, they occasionally sell products from Israel and they sell some fairtrade products from Zimbabwe as well as products from Iran.

“The question is that if we start cutting out products from countries would we stop selling things from the US?,” asks Debbie. “We don’t think that whole-scale boycotts of countries are the way to deal with poor human rights records or political activity. What we would try and do is focus on the products from those countries that we know are well sourced. For example, we work with an organisation called Kitchen Garden, which consists of small-scale organic farmers from Zimbabwe which we try to promote as part of our recommended range.” Unicorn also sells Palestinian olive oil from Zaytoun, a UK-based not-for-profit company which imports certified Fairtrade olive oil from Palestinian farmers.

“I think the interesting thing is that although we all have different perspectives, we have these guiding principles which say what – fundamentally – the ethics of the business trades on. Everyone respects those and although there are sometimes discussions about what to prioritize, generally we all come to a compromise and use [the guiding principles] to make a decision without causing too much conflict.”

And it’s these guiding principles that have allowed Unicorn to grow over the years. Debbie states there is no way that the shop would have grown to the size it has or accessed the number of customers that it does if they only sold local produce or only fairtrade. “We do compete with supermarkets on price and that’s part of our business model, but to do that you have to work out where that balance is,” says Debbie. Whilst Unicorn Grocery doesn’t air freight any of its stock, they do buy bananas, pineapples, tomatoes and oranges all year round because they accept that it’s what people want and there’s only so much you can do before people just go to Tesco instead. “We do try to focus on local food and push it where possible and we try to educate our customers about seasonality so we can sell seasonal veg from local growers,” adds Debbie.

In 2008, Unicorn bought 21 acres of land to improve their local supply of veg and cut their food miles. They have tenant growers who work the land with the support from Moss Brook Growers and funding from Making Local Food Work. “We did some crop trials in the first year, last year we did more small-scale crops and this year is the first year that has made it into major production. They were funded for the first couple of years but now they have to make it work financially- I’m sure they’ll manage it!”

Unicorn also works with the Kindling Trust which is working to develop a group of veg buyers called Manchester’s Veg People as well as the Glebelands Trust which is an urban market garden based in Sale. They also contribute to the annual Chorlton Food & Drink Festival which promotes the independent food and drink sector.

Indeed, there is a growing appreciation of local, fairtrade and organic food with lots of supermarkets now stocking such products. When I ask Debbie if this means more competition for Unicorn or more customers, she replies that it’s a bit of both. “The supermarkets may sell organic and fairtrade but their business models are inherently unsustainable. A lot of it is based on unfair trade and intensive and unsustainable agriculture so people are aware that we are still a better option. The landscape has changed a lot but over that fifteen year period, the pattern [for Unicorn] has very much been growth. Our turnover started off as something like a couple of thousands and now it’s approaching four million.”

Looking ahead to the future, Unicorn is hoping to build a commercial kitchen to expand on the current small kitchen they have behind they deli where salads are prepared and baked goods are made. “The great thing about that is that it also cuts food miles,” says Debbie. “Instead of bringing in products we can make them ourselves and we can also use gluts to make value-added goods. So if we have too many courgettes in, we can make use of them to make a couple of things.” The grocery is also planning to double-glaze all the windows and is working with the Carbon Co-op to install solar panels which will then sell electricity back to the grid. Clearly, the radical roots of Unicorn are still alive and will continue in the future. As Debbie states, “I hope that we will continue to be challenged to become more sustainable and that we in turn can encourage our customers to become more radical.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Abundance Manchester

Abundance Manchester was established in the summer of 2008 with the aim of collecting fruit from public trees and people’s gardens and redistributing it to people in need. The volunteer-run organisation now collects fruit from around 60 gardens every harvest and drops off the produce on bike trailers to a homeless shelter, a centre for destitute asylum seekers and the Salvation Army in south Manchester. Inspired by groups such as ‘Grow Sheffield’ which highlights the amount of food waste that occurs in an urban environment, the volunteers at Abundance Manchester also say their work illustrates the ways that environmental groups can help with social issues such as homelessness.

“It’s such a simple idea, you take fruit from people who don’t want or need it and then you give it to people who do. Most people can’t believe it hasn’t been done sooner – everyone benefits,” beams Nicola Scott, a volunteer at Abundance Manchester. Passionate about growing food locally and organically, Nicola says that what drew her to Abundance was a realisation of the amount of food waste that occurs in people’s gardens: “People seem to just inherit these fruit trees or buy houses with existing trees and just don’t know what do with them…There are some people who really care about their trees but then you do get people who still go out and buy apples from their local supermarket even though they have an amazing apple tree growing in their backyard!”

Tackling Food Waste In The City

Once the organisation was set up, the core members set about tackling this issue of waste by advertising their project and asking people who had a glut of produce to contact them so that they could collect the extra fruit. Gradually, they built up a list of available fruit trees and so they started working on developing links with local charities and organisations who could make use of their harvest. “We had one volunteer at the time who worked with an asylum seeker project called The Boaz Trust – they help destitute asylum seekers who have no recourse to any funds at all, either because their asylum application has been rejected and they are going through the appeals process or they have just newly arrived in the UK. It was decided that they would be the key recipient.”

Since then, Abundance Manchester has worked with projects such as the Cornerstone in Hulme which helps homeless people, the Safestop Hostel which assists young homeless women as well as the Salvation Army. They have built up an e-list of 300 volunteers offering to pick fruit during the harvest season – which runs from late July to the end of October – and also to make chutneys and cook fruit pies for those organisations without a kitchen. As they rely on bike trailers to transport their goods, the projects focuses on small area in south Manchester which covers Didsbury, Chorlton, Withington, Whalley Range and Ladybarn. Despite this limitation, they often struggle with the logistics of carrying the abundant fruit they pick, “Sometimes we have so much we have to drop off the first lot at our base and come back for the rest- it’s amazing how much free food is available even in inner-city neighbourhoods,” says Nicola

‘It Doesn’t Look Like That At The Supermarket!’

It seems that hundreds of fruit trees across the city go unpicked because people think it’s not safe to eat fruit from the trees or they are not sure who the trees belong to. “People are so disassociated from where our food comes from that when the fruit has got blemishes – which are completely natural – they think well it mustn’t be safe to eat,” explains Nicola. “It’s a shame really, we’ve become so detached from our food, we expect it to be all shiny like it comes from the supermarket.”

The reluctance of people to pick from public trees is also an issue which Nicola thinks could be easily resolved with a couple of signs encouraging people to take the fruit at the time of harvest. “Last summer we found that there were loads of cherry trees in Moss Side, literally ten metres away from Princess Parkway and so we started picking the cherries in late June. We got loads of people coming out of their houses saying ‘What are you doing? ‘These are public trees, are you allowed to pick them?’ and we were like ‘Yeah, of course’ and eventually there were loads of people coming out to pick the trees.”

Growing With Asylum Seekers

As well as connecting people with the food available on their neighbourhoods, Abundance Manchester has also helped raise awareness of social issues such as homelessness and immigration amongst people who wouldn’t normally engage with such matters. “Working with Abundance meant that I got to find out more about asylum seekers through our workshops and they taught me stuff like how in Zimbabwe they use the young leaves of courgettes as spinach leaves,” says Nicola. “So you get all these cultural exchanges and I learnt about issues I normally wouldn’t be involved in.”

Nicola adds the fruit donors, who open their gardens to Abundance volunteers, also make links with socially marginalised people such as refugees and homeless people. “When we go to the richer areas of Manchester where we collect fruit, it’s very unlikely that these people will be in contact with destitute asylum seekers and I think sharing the food is a way for them to give and help other people.” Indeed, Nicola says that what Abundance Manchester wants to see in the future are more people and organisations with fruit trees taking their own initiative to link up to local groups and charities who could put the food to good use. “For example, the Hulme garden centre asked whether we would take their excess fruit but then we realised that there was a community café round the corner from them, so it made a lot more sense for them to just get together and work out a way to share the produce,” explains Nicola.

Sharing Food and Becoming Sustainable

In January 2009, Abundance Manchester acquired an allotment in West Didsbury which its now uses as a base to store fruit and as a drop-off point for those wanting to donate a glut in fruit or vegetables from their own allotments. The allotment also means that they can now host workshops encouraging locals to grow food in their own homes and gardens with limited resources, space and time. “I think with food price hikes as a result of climate change, we’re going to need to know how to be more self-sufficient and growing your own is a simple way to live more sustainably,” says Nicola. “It may not be for everyone, I understand that completely, but I think there are things that everyone can do like growing salad leaves and herbs in a container on their balcony.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Hulme Community Garden Centre – A Green Regeneration

After decades of social and economic decline, Hulme was regenerated in the 1990s with the demolition of problematic flats such as the Crescents and some improvements to social housing. However, the regeneration failed to create green spaces which were open to all so in 1998, four local residents came up with the idea of establishing a community garden centre. Richard Lockwood, Geraldine Wall, Andrew Stewart and Neil Francis got together to work on securing land for the garden and in April 2000 they opened Hulme Community Garden Centre on Old Birley Street just two miles from Manchester’s city centre. Whilst only one of the four founding members – Richard Lockwood – is still part of the project today, the ethos of sustainability and a belief in the role that green spaces can play in the well-being of the community still leads the organisation.

“What you have now is a very mature and established garden but originally it was a brownfield site – just a patch of wasteland,” explains Jamie Dickinson, the manager of the centre, as we sit in the garden. “The land is still council-owned and we basically pay a peppercorn rent because, in fairness, the council realise that we add value to the area and sees the benefit of what we do.” As well as selling cheap seeds and plants to green-fingered locals, the garden centre is a maze of trees, willow arches, allotments and classrooms where free workshops are held for local residents, school children and a wide range of socially excluded groups such as ex-drug users and those who have abused alcohol.

Jamie explains that the Centre has worked with over 200 organisations ranging from the usual green and environmentally focused groups to allotment societies, mental health agencies, housing associations and refugee support network. “What we’ve found is that access to green space and horticulture covers such a broad cross section of needs. On a basic level, there’s mental and physical well-being of just growing and planting… It can help people in so many ways, whether it’s exercise, being with nature, healthy living or even how it connects to people’s faith,” says Jamie.

A not-for-profit organisation, the Hulme Community Garden Centre employs ten members of staff and welcomes over 5,000 visitors every year, all of whom have access to free expert horticultural advice. “We get the yummy mummies of Chorlton, an 80-year old African Caribbean through to Iraqi refugees walking through our doors. It’s such a broad group of people and that’s the strength of what we do,” adds Jamie. “It’s not a passive space – I mean, yes, you can come here and just read a book or have a sandwich – but we actively work to help people and that’s what’s really important.”

As well its role in the wider community, the centre has become an education hub, promoting the importance of growing food and biodiversity and wildlife habitats. Schools and college groups visit the centre regularly and although Jamie states that they don’t focus on any age group in their community outreach, he admits that it’s important to get people into healthy living and sustainability sooner in their lives. “This centre was founded on principles of sustainability,” says Jamie. “I read the various documents that were submitted to funders before this place opened and what you see all the way through it is the principle of sustainability, maybe not in those terms but you see the three Rs again and again… Recycle, compost, growing organic- all these things are now what we would class as sustainability and they were the ethos at the centre of this place which we still follow.” In fact, on my way in to find Jamie I witness a local resident quiz the staff (who seemed very knowledgeable) on everything from the best organic feeds to the best season to grow your own ginger.

When I ask Jamie if he thinks growing our own food in an urban landscape is important, he replies, “Well, I don’t mean to sound dramatic but it’s a matter of life and death. Growing food and being green is a big part of what we’re about and people are going to have to learn how to do it because otherwise they ain’t going to eat! In terms of sustainability, local food is going to be the only food and so we want to skill as many people to do that as we possible can. It’s not that we bully or hector people about this – we don’t feel that’s our role or how we will educate and improve people’s lives – we’ve just have to show and explain.”

Indeed, the garden centre was recently granted permission to take over a council-owned car park right next door, again on a peppercorn rate on a ten-year lease, to expand the garden. On May 15th 2011, a community discussion and design day was held to gather ideas about what to do with the acre of land they have acquired. “We invited all the community and I mean ALL the community – we leafleted every house and flat, we contacted every organisation we work with, we told everyone – so that the local community could come in and say ‘well, this is what we want’,” says Jamie.

The main requests put forward by the locals includes things like renewable energy generation, wind turbines, community allotments, a performance space and green workshop where they could make things out of wood without using any energy. Many gardeners also pointed out that they would like more space for growing food. “We are a community organisation, and we need people to give us our mandate to go forward,” explains Jamie, “At the end of the community design day we had a clear idea of what people want to see and the nice part was that it was what we thought should be there in the first place, which means that we’re getting something right!”

Looking into the future, the Hulme Community Garden Centre faces the same problem that many voluntary organisations are now struggling with: funding. Or to be more precise, long-term funding which allows an organisation to plan ahead, develop and exist without the threat of financial ruin. “We’ve been lucky because we did get a pot of funding for five years in 2007 which has been a springboard and helped us get from 3 staff to ten and do stuff like put up the green roof, refit the classroom and the staffroom and plan to eco-retrofit the shop,” says Jamie. “We’ve also done what lots of other organisations do, which is build our resilience by selling things…We sell plants and seeds and that, hopefully, means we’ll always have something to fall back on to help keep this community garden open.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Leaf Street: Radical gardening in the city

The Leaf Street Community Garden in Hulme was set up in 2000 when local residents from the Bentley House (‘Redbricks’) estate decided to transform a grassed-over pathway between two rows of three-storey flats into a communal garden. After a 72-hour permaculture course and community consultation, the layout of the community garden was decided and locals got on with making the garden a reality. Although they have faced opposition from the council, which has threatened to turf over the garden on a couple of occasions, as well as leadership issues, the garden remains an example of successful radical gardening in Manchester.

In 1999, residents in Hulme decided to transform a wide pathway on Leaf Street into a community garden which grows food and also provides an open space for neighbours to meet and interact. Based on permaculture principles which take wildlife, food and people into consideration, the locals dug up the pathway and started planting trees and herbs with very little funding. Mick Chesterman, a local volunteer at the garden, states that at the time the local authorities weren’t very helpful and insisted that the project secure written consent from 80% of the residents living in the vicinity.

Even so, locals led by Angus Soutar, ‘Jungle’ Jen, and Rob Squires got on with their plans and planted (what they insist is) the world’s largest herb spiral, made using reclaimed railway sleepers, raised vegetable beds between wood-chipped pathways, fruit trees and shrubs as well as art sculptures. Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton provided a small grant to help pay for the fruit trees but other than that, the garden came together due to the efforts of the locals.

Over the years, however, the garden began to lose direction and in 2002, it was decided to raise funds to employ a project co-ordinator for the garden who would take the lead and help organise volunteers more effectively. This lead to a shift in focus away from growing food to creating an environment where locals can socialise and supporting biodiversity and wildlife. As Mick notes, “We wanted to take a low maintenance approach to gardening. We’re not afraid of it being messy and creating a natural habitat where food is grown, birds and insects are supported and opening up a space for the community to enjoy.”

However, in 2008 the council reportedly showed concern over the appearance of the garden and so volunteers helped to get it back in order. Leaf Street works with volunteers from the local Hulme Community Garden Centre and has also developed an uneasy alliance with the housing association which controls the surrounding estate.

The issue of land and land ownership is a contentious issue at the heart of radical gardening and especially ‘guerrilla gardening’ where activists plant on abandoned land without permission. However, Leaf Street Community Garden is an example of action taken for the community’s benefit that was later positively acknowledged by the landlords themselves. “Leaf Street was built by people just taking it and doing it literally without the will of their landlord,” says Mick. “And actually ten years down the road, it’s become an asset to the landlords and they’re now really happy it’s happened.

“So just because you’re experiencing resistance doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t just go out and do it. In the same way that direct action maybe against the law but morally justified, it’s the same for radical gardening. I mean you may not have direct consent but you’re in the right and once you’ve done it you can’t really argue against it.”

This radical background is reflected in the volunteers’ strong sense of ownership of the garden which has meant they have found it hard to work with established organisations such as housing associations. “I mean we do get a lot out of it but at the same time the garden has a strong sense of identity and we’re reluctant to give that up,” remarked Mick. Radical gardeners have also noted that housing associations, some of which own huge quantities of empty land, could do more to support and encourage community gardens.

Community and radical gardens have recently witnessed a resurgence due to the role that they play in building resilient communities that are able to deal with the impacts of climate change. Moving away from a dependence on supermarkets and food that is flown from all over the world by growing food locally is an aspiration of many climate activists. And despite the move away from growing food, the Leaf Street Community garden still grows pears, apples, plums, berries, squashes and pumpkins.

Taking a wider perspective, Mick states that working with the community garden is a ‘coping mechanism’ that allows him to deal with the enormity of climate change. “It’s very easy to get quite apocalyptic about the changes that are going to happen so being able to grow my own food locally and work with my neighbours is one way of dealing with climate change positively and constructively.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa